I grew up with barely any assurances and almost no sense of security, whatsoever. Do not, misconstrue what I mean by security or assurances. There is hardly a trace of either one when one is raised in an environment that offers absolutely no guarantees of safety in your home, of your home and your life. I have to admit this from the outset or else the story I am going to tell will make no sense.
The very first time I ever encountered a community fire outbreak, I was only four years old. It is crazy how clearly I recollect the chain of events from that fateful night. I had been sound asleep when all of a sudden mama stormed into the house with two men. Each one of them was restless and troubled. They quickly grabbed me, tossing me out of the house, and then hurriedly began emptying the single room. Outside, I realized people were in the midst of battling an incredible conflagration but to no avail. Calls to the fire brigade service bore no fruit. It was catastrophic in its trail of devastation. Options for water sources were very limited as well. The inferno raged on and on. It grew huge, orange and angry that resolutions were quickly made to empty and demolish the houses in the line of fire, in an attempt to stop it from spreading its wrath any further.
That day, it was the people who answered the plight of the people; and they did not lose heart in the face of dire challenges such as lack of response from the authorities, nor did they sit around helplessly. As a matter of fact, the fire brigades were greeted with overwhelming hostility upon late arrival to the scene, hours after the fire was put out.
Yet, this is sadly the normalised narrative and recurring story of these socially marginalised neighborhoods twenty years on. There is no counting just how many families have ended up displaced by home fires across the years. It is a harsh and unfortunate reality, that people have been forced to live with. The implication of being a simple Kenyan slum resident is to embrace the uncertainty of one’s life. Nothing is ever guaranteed. In the heat of a roaring fire, the community responds with speed and the subconscious division of roles is efficiently remarkable. For young men, all roads lead to rooftops as the first line of defense against fiery flames. It is the young men, the bravest and the strongest, who must face the heat. Others are kept busy cutting electric connections while some help evacuate houses, demolishing them if need be. Most of the women engage in finding water for the men to fight fire with. They form elaborately long queues at every water point within vicinity, jerricans, buckets and basins in hand. The buckets are passed from one person to another upon filling, up to the fire, and back. However, finding these water points is not without difficulty. It entails bursting lots of pipes, scooping water from the filthy tiny rivulets, “mitaro” or going all the way down to the shallow turbid and sewage infested Mathare River.
This is the struggle that goes on for hours on end while calls to the fire brigades never bear any fruit. The frustration of helplessness in the face of a fire can be overwhelming. The role of children is mostly to watch family belongings – kids are regarded useful if they keep a safe distance from the scene of the fire. Loss of focus is not a luxury anyone can afford. Even as a child, you are expected to pay attention to the job at hand. Staring in one direction dazed or even looking unfocused is an insult to the ‘men at work’. In case you get tired, the most reasonable thing to do is leave room for someone else to join the battle. The struggle carries on until the fire subsides. Then the tumult of shouting and mourning from the crowd follows. It gets quite tense and the air chokes you with not only the billowing black smoke but also the silent curses of residents, recounting losses. Where there has been a fire, it is only the ashes that remain.
On 24th December 2017, I visited my mother and siblings at our home in Kosovo, Mathare in the evening to share in the spirit and cheer, symbolic of a blessed Merry Christmas to follow the next morning. From a distance, Kosovo slopes down an elongated view of shanty houses made from rusted corrugated iron sheets that hide its wooden skeleton. The community is vibrant and you find happy kids playing everywhere. There is a cacophony of noises and smells. You will also lose count of the small businesses along the main path mostly selling street food. Solid cement structures are rare here. One particular thing that stands out is how closely packed these houses are. Some even threaten to topple over others! The pathways between houses allow minimal, if any, space to walk. Then there are electric wires interconnected through houses without much care, mostly illegal connections. They dangle precariously but hey, I mean – people need access to affordable electricity down here too, right?
My two little sisters, Njeri and Wanjira, were overjoyed to see me. I could tell they were eager to share their latest stories. It was written all over their bright eyes, sheepish smiles and glowing bright faces. Wanjira made elaborate attempts at trying to make me jealous over of her newly bought Christmas outfit. She was emphatic about how the following day mum was going to take them to meet cousins at my aunt’s place in Ruai. This, according to her innocent boasting, was going to make for a perfect fashion duel where we would compete for the prize of the best–dressed-family-member. Listening to her, I could only marvel at her newly acquired ‘expertise’ in the fashion industry. She is quite something, this little sister of mine and I love her to bits! Besides, this is the main reason why we all usually find time to go back home to savor the immense gratification that comes with seeing those you care for exuberant and full of life.
At around 6 am the next morning, I received a call from my mother. She was crying. There and then, I figured this call was not about to be a Christmas greeting or anything along that line. Nobody ever calmly adjusts to a mother in a state of distress. It is a tough pill to swallow. She started on how that night, not so long after I left home, Kosovo went up in flames. I could taste the bitterness in her voice as she recounted how she became one of the victims of a fire that robbed over 200 families of their homes. I was greatly troubled listening to my mother over the phone.
So, I took the road and rushed back home. Home! See, that’s funny now because when I got there it was a vast darkened field filled with smoke, dust, burnt iron sheets and confused devastated people. There was no one who had managed to rescue anything. It took strength to come to terms with the bare facts. Imagine! All those years of hard work, savings and sacrifice to buy household items went down in the inferno. Just like that. My mother was gutted and I totally unable to console her. When Njeri and Wanjira ran to my embrace crying, my stomach churned. I swallowed hard. Of course, they kept lamenting the bad fortune that befell them on Christmas and how awful it felt to learn that their special Christmas dresses all burned down to ashes.
My family was hosted by another family for as long as was required to regain stability. This is the usual order of business for the victims of Mathare fires. It is through this communal sharing of problems that most people even find the strength to keep going. This virtue of compassion and resilience never makes it to the breaking news bulletin. In the aftermath of a fire, the following week involves a lot of reconstruction and an attempt at new beginnings. To most, it means starting life from scratch. From bare bones and ash. Even so, you are still never assured of safety or survival, for the threat of an inferno is never too far from becoming reality. This is a kind of recurring dilemma you have to constantly grapple with. For instance, since the Kosovo fire in December 2017 that my family was caught up in, two more fires have gone down in Mathare’s Mlango Kubwa ward and Mabatini ward in January and February 2018, displacing a sum of about 600 households altogether and claiming lives of 6 young children. So, people are forced to live with the constant fear of losing their belongings and the lives of their children. No one dares buy any valuable household commodities, in an environment this volatile.
I am a sad young fellow, with reason. Not because my family lost everything to the fire (Although that is a plausible reason by all means) or because my two siblings missed their much anticipated Christmas treat; but because this fire, all Mathare fires are symbols of normalized social injustices that have become part and parcel of communities living in informal settlements. Very little is ever done, other than pity, to address them because it is normal for shanties to be razed in slum fires. This same script is applied to all other forms of social injustice afflicting slum dwellers. It is already a miracle attaining the age of thirty as a young man living in Mathare. It is either by grace, bribe or constant running for your life from the police. Criminal or not, to survive, you have to learn how to accurately discern a killer police ‘Probox’ car and avoid heading into harm’s way. An encounter with the ‘Boys In Probox’ can end up badly, as a young man on the ground, bullet in skull.
Having been born and raised in Mlango Kubwa, Mathare, I have had to make choices in how I live my life. Some choices are obviously tougher than others to make, but they are choices I must make regardless. And there are consequences for each decision. Concurrently, I have learnt so many lessons first hand. To survive the scorching flames of injustice, the most powerful weapon we have is each other, and our collective voice. The same way these recurring fires devastate our lives, smothering our hopes and dreams, is the same way recurring social problems burn our spirits down to the ground. The same way we put out infernos and muster the strength to reconstruct our dwellings, so shall we face and tackle any social injustices inflicted on us, consequently rebuilding an ethical community for our lives today and the lives of our children tomorrow. That way, we will not only be fighting for our human rights, but also for our humanity. Meanwhile, someone tell Santa that my two little sisters did not enjoy the Christmas fireworks.
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Stealth Game: The Proverbial Has Hit the Fan
The report of the Oakland Institute is simply saying what I have been saying since 2016. That “Community” Conservancies Devastate Land and Lives in Northern Kenya.
Many of my friends, particularly those from outside the conservation sector have been puzzled by the silence that has followed the release of the Stealth Game report by the Oakland institute.
This, my friends, is because you people mistakenly imagine that conservationists in Kenya are normal, functional human beings. They are NOT, and the rational ones are fewer than five per cent, the scientific threshold for statistical significance. For those of us who know them well, we can read and interpret this silence to a high level of accuracy.
First of all, rest assured that everyone who needs to see the report has seen it, including government officials at both county and national level. I personally forwarded it to an official at the highest levels of government, and the response I received was “thank you”—at least an admission of having seen the report. Interestingly, two senior county government officers also forwarded the report to me, leaving me wondering what exactly they see as their role in the whole scandal, as opposed to mine as an individual. The silence is only in the public sphere. I have direct contacts in a lot of private spaces where the Oakland report is causing a lot of wailing, gnashing of teeth and breaking of wind.
The key point we all need to understand here is that people are in trouble—bringing to mind that uniquely American expression about faecal matter hitting the fan and splattering everyone in its vicinity. Here’s why: A couple of years ago, a few colleagues and I visited the US House of Representatives in Washington DC to present a memorandum on human rights abuses in central Africa committed by the WWF under the guise of conservation, an issue we also brought to the attention of various European legislatures. It has taken time, but the cosh has come down on the WWF, culminating in a Senate hearing earlier this year, which has severely tightened the screws on them. Therefore, the consternation that has greeted the report is disingenuous, because none of this information is new—it is simply saying the same things that a few colleagues and I have been saying since 2016.
The conservation sector in Kenya routinely dismisses any questions from black Africans and the consternation is because the report is coming from an American institution, and cannot be dismissed on racial grounds. An amusing anecdote I’ve heard from one of the conservation groups is, “This is just the usual noise from Mordecai Ogada. . .” But when another member says, “No, it’s from the Oakland institute in the US,” all hell breaks loose with people crying “Oh my God! What are we going to do?” In another forum, a senior participant (who obviously hadn’t read the report) dismissed it as lacking credibility, “Since the only source of such information is Mordecai Ogada (again!!??). When another participant pointed out the report was the result of over two years’ research she changed tack, attacking the author Anuradha Mittal based on her racial and family background. The strange thing is that this woman is also of the same racial background as Mittal! Many people will find this bizarre, but I don’t. Our conservation sector is so steeped in racial and ethnic prejudice that it is shameful. Apart from dealing with people who don’t want to hear me because I am black, I’ve had to deal with indigenous Kenyans who routinely tell me to keep off wildlife issues in northern Kenya because I am a Luo from western Kenya!
The key issue of rights violations is studiously avoided by conservationists to a ridiculous degree. I’ve seen conversations where The Nature Conservancy’s communications director is asking a whole group of conservation professionals how they can “counter Mordecai Ogada’s narrative”. A couple of years ago, the Northern Rangelands Trust hired Dr Elizabeth Leitoro as “Director of Programmes” and one of the key expectations was that she would somehow “control” Mordecai Ogada (yes, again) since over 20 years earlier I had been her intern when she was the warden at the Nairobi National Park. Dr Leitoro asked to meet me, and my son was patient enough to sit with us as we talked. She later launched a racial attack against me and my family on social media in defence of the NRT (she deleted the tweet and blocked me, but I still have a screenshot; the NRT got rid of her). This shows the neurosis bedevilling conservation in Kenya.
These conservationists will scream, shout and make personal attacks and noise about everything EXCEPT the problem at hand. Secondly, they are obsessed with appearances, so you will never hear a word said by any of the foreigners who run the show. It is always the ill-advised, ill-prepared but well paid locals who come out in robust (if somewhat foolish) defence of their captors. Right now the national government, the county governments, and conservation organizations are all tongue-tied because they don’t know how to dismiss criticism from the US, where their lifeblood funding comes from. USAID is the biggest conservation funder in Kenya, and the biggest grantee is the NRT, which confers on them God-like status here. All the other conservation voices like the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association (KWCA) or the Conservation Alliance of Kenya (CAK) that receive small-change grants cannot say a word against their “leader”, the NRT. That is why five days later, the CAK claims to be “still reading the report”. They are waiting to see which way the wind is blowing before they make any noise or break any wind in defence of their fellow Kenyans.
Mark my words, these people have colossal reach; that’s why even the government has said nothing. There was a major press conference in Nairobi on 17th November 2021 about the Oakland report, and all the major media houses in Kenya were present, but the story has been “killed”. They have a huge PR machine, and if anything in the report were untrue, they would have torn it to shreds. Their bogeyman, Mordecai Ogada (frankly I’m a bit flattered!), is not in the picture, so they cannot point fingers at me anymore, and must now address the ISSUES. I am informed that some heads have already rolled. They are big, but not big enough to kill the story in the US public policy space. The WWF learned that the hard way. There shall be wailing, there will be hypertension, some hyperacidity, diarrhoea and other stress-related illnesses, but it looks (and smells) like change is coming.
This silence isn’t of the golden kind, it’s the silence of sick, trembling cowards caught in a big lie. I have nothing to add to the Stealth Game report, but wherever and whenever I will be asked to say something about it, I will not let anyone get away with trying to look shocked. I will always state just how I told them about this injustice five years ago, but it never mattered then. Because I am black, if truth be told.
I Know Why God Created Makeup
I am an economic migrant without the luxury of choice. I am not ready for Kenya yet so I must wake up, put my makeup on and take up my station by the dialysis machines.
It is half past five in the morning and your eyes are heavy with sleep. It is fascinating that they should be this lethargic, yet they would not close for a wink or two in the past eleven or so hours of the night. Lately your body seems to be operating on a paradoxical circadian rhythm– sleep when you shouldn’t and stay awake when you ought to be sleeping. You are a nurse and constantly tired. Translated, it means that you are one patient away from a mortal accident. You slap the alarm clock into silence, eyes half open set another alarm for half past six on your mobile phone, which has permanent residency under your three pillows.
You have been using three pillows for a while now. There does not seem to be one single shop in the world that sells decent pillows. The pillows in this city are as thin as a tongue. The lowlife of pillows. They smell of dying hope and unhappy thoughts. They are the sopranos in the pillow choir. Irritating but necessary. We therefore use three of them to allow them to accord each other some moral support. You miss fluffy pillows. Pillows like the ones you lay on at that posh hotel in Naivasha during your disastrous honeymoon a few years ago. Nostalgically, you go back to Naivasha in your sleepy mind.
There is a hazy recollection of that honeymoon. It was not meant to be because the wedding was not to be either. But they both happened. You know they did because you can hear yourself screaming in agony as another harsh word lands on your soul. But despite the honeymoon’s calamitous ending, you miss the pillows. They took to your torrential tears like a babe to its mother’s breast. They soaked the tears up perfectly and left no traces. He never once stirred. He was so drunk he could have been half dead. You had wished for the latter before you met Jesus. We do not think such thoughts nowadays and if we ever do, we will blame it on these scandalously uncomfortable pillows.
The summer morning’s sun tears precisely through your curtains like a surgeon’s blade. You love summer but you don’t like the glare of the morning sun. It is too bright. Accusatorily bright. Like it came to remind you what a slob you are for snoozing your alarm. It stands there, hovering over you like your mum when you wouldn’t complete your homework but wanted to read a Harry Potter novel instead. Mum would not go away, nor will the sun. Begrudgingly you wake up. Legs dangling onto the side of the bed, you will the rest of the body to join them on the peach-coloured bedroom rug on the floor. You miss the days when peach was just some fruit.
Eyes still closed, you head to the bathroom. You are startled into alertness by the girl staring at you in the mirror. She is as hopelessly worn out as a politician’s promise after campaigns. She looks like a thousand trucks ran over her and a group of snow-white owls perched on her hair. The wild hair tendrils falling on your face are a pasta disaster. My God, the lint from those pillows! You whisper. It is however more than just lint. Your eyes are red and puffed up. Like you hid two baby donuts under the eyelids and now the world can see your secret eating habits.
You are expected to be at work by half past seven, nursing patients. The COVID-19 pandemic rages on and you are not sure how much longer you can keep it together. Take that lovely patient yesterday, for example. She stood out from the first time you met her. She allowed you to needle her dialysis fistula as a new nurse. She was welcoming. Showed you pictures of May, her cat. Always had a joke for everyone. She entertained the unit with great panache. She had perfectly manicured nails which put your grooming routine to shame.
For fifteen years, kidney failure never took her life. But she died yesterday. She contracted COVID-19 and passed away. This is not an isolated case. The story keeps repeating itself. Like a repetitive bad dream, the carrousel of mortality keeps coursing through the hospital. Too many dialysis patients have been lost to the coronavirus.
Nobody acknowledges it but your colleagues are gutted by her death. Their demeanour is typically British though, they are long suffering. They wear resilience on their faces and spot plastic smiles to hide the pain. British nurses are averse to complaining. They take it all in their stride. Either that or quit. What would you not give to be able to quit nursing right now!
On the other hand, you are an economic migrant in the United Kingdom. Your life in the UK is governed by the terms and conditions of your visa. The terms say you are to be a nurse for the remaining period on your visa. You cannot leave. You risk being deported to Kenya if you exit nursing at the moment. You are not ready for Kenya yet. You envy Amy and Moraine. Two highly skilled kidney nurses from Scotland. They recently quit nursing altogether. Amy went back to university to study accounting while Moraine has started a coffee shop. The luxury of choice.
You take a quick shower, scrub your hair so hard as if you were shaking your brain from a lingering nightmare that it half hurts. Six and a half minutes later, you are staring at yourself in the dressing mirror. You have been in this flat for a year now and have never once used the dressing mirror like you want to use it today. To glam up the top half of your face.
Following a YouTube tutorial, you start applying acres of ridiculously expensive products on your exhausted face. Your patients are expecting a buoyed-up nurse; that is what they must get. This is why God created makeup. You pay close attention to your eyes. The windows to the soul. These windows needs some maintenance. The eyebrows are up first.
Your eyebrows are a strange phenomenon. The hairs are few and far between. You can never shape them perfectly to save your life. You scribble and doodle with some eye pencil YouTube influencers swore by and finally manage to draw two diagrams of West African evil spirits chasing after one another. Your signature mismatched eyebrow look. Feeling accomplished, you open your eyes wide and, stroke after stroke, you apply mascara on your eyelashes. The damage is then covered in some dark eye shadow. Only the top half of the face matters. The face masks and visors worn at work have rendered the lower half of the face irrelevant. Who wants lipstick smears on their face mask? Not you, you conclude.
At twenty minutes past seven, you are at work already. You are helping prepare the dialysis machines. Jean, your nurse colleague streams in. She has had her eyes done too. She is wearing some glittering eyeshadow. Her eyebrows look like what yours would be like when they grow up. You can see a hint of foundation on her forehead. You let out a sigh of relief. God created makeup for tired nurses, you surmise.
The Charles Mugane Njonjo I Knew
Much will be said and written about Charles Njonjo. The Charles Njonjo I knew was a steadfast friend and a man of his word without hesitation.
A lot has been written and a lot more will be written about the late Charles Mugane Njonjo who has passed away. I would like to tell my own personal story. I never knew him as a bureaucrat or politician. Indeed, our paths crossed immediately I left high school in 1983. Together with colleagues, we had written a play and planned to perform it for the public. We searched our minds for a public figure who would agree to come as guest of honour on opening night. We sought someone who would attract public attention to what we were doing, but more importantly for us 17-year-olds, someone who would agree to show up. Charles Njonjo’s name was all over the news at the time. His political career had just been truncated amid the prolonged political drama of the “traitor affair”. He was a figure of great public fascination for a variety of colourful reasons. We also had the names of other public figures on our list and I was tasked with reaching out to them.
Frankly, I wrote to Charles Njonjo not expecting to hear from him. He replied immediately, though, and accepted the invitation to be guest of honour at the opening night of our play, The Human Encounter, at Saint Mary’s School in Nairobi. Once he accepted the invitation, we excitedly proceeded with preparations for the opening night. A few days later, however, we were informed that, unfortunately, the authorities had deemed Mr Njonjo’s presence at our event unacceptable and the decision was not negotiable. I informed my colleagues and we decided that since we had worked hard on the production we would obey the orders from above and proceed with our play without Mr Njonjo. There was no need for a fuss. I then had the embarrassing duty of disinviting Mr Njonjo when he had already accepted to be our guest of honour.
I spent a whole night drafting the letter and in the end, my late father told me not to agonise excessively, “Njonjo likes to be told the truth directly.” So I wrote the disinvitation letter as clearly and as respectfully as I could. I asked a friend of his to pass it on to him and did not expect to ever hear from him again. The message I received promptly back surprised me. Njonjo expressed his deepest appreciation for the invitation and explained that he fully understood why it had been withdrawn. He asked that we remain in touch. I was deeply relieved. Over the years, he would reach out to me through family and friends and we would interact jovially, remembering the letter I had written retracting his invitation as guest of honour. “No one has ever done that to me,” he would joke over tea.
In the early 1990s, as political pluralism was returning to Kenya, violence broke out in Nyanza, Western and Rift Valley provinces. At one point, hundreds of thousands of Kenyans were displaced as our elites arm-wrestled for power. I travelled to Laikipia and then to Burnt Forest and was aghast at the state of the internally displaced that had been forced from their homes by the violence. Together with Dr David Ndii and Mutahi Ngunyi we launched the “Kenyans in Need” appeal. The then chief editor of the Daily Nation, Wangethi Mwangi, gave us free advertising space to mobilise resources for the displaced – especially those in Ol Kalou who had been evicted from Ng’arua in Laikipia. The late Archbishop Nicodemus Kirima of the Archdiocese of Nyeri agreed to use the relief infrastructure of Catholic Church to distribute any donations that came our way. Laikipia fell under Kirima’s remit.
The response to the appeal was surprising in its scale. People donated second-hand clothes, books, shoes and cash to the appeal. We received around KSh1 million worth of donations over the following months. We delivered the first batch directly to the philosophical Archbishop Kirima at his official residence in Nyeri, unique because of its specially built library full of the books he clearly loved. Our biggest and most consistent donor throughout the entire enterprise was Charles Njonjo. He was not keen to have his name mentioned but we would sit at his home drinking tea and reflecting on the political situation in the country.
When I joined government in 2003, Njonjo remained one of my steadfast providers of moral support. When news broke that I had been moved from the Office of the President to the Ministry of Justice, the first call I received was from Charles Njonjo. “You’re going to resign immediately, aren’t you?” he asked in his typically direct way. In the end, I didn’t. I sometimes wistfully recall his advice at the time. We kept in close touch.
When my situation in the Kibaki government went belly up in 2005 – as he had predicted to me many times – and I found myself in exile, Charles Njonjo became an even more steadfast friend. He stayed in touch and whenever he called, he would always enquire about my personal circumstances. He was a most interesting person in that way, loyal to his friends to a fault. Once you were his friend, he stood by you no matter how atrocious the circumstances. He would call to tell me he was coming to London and we would spend the day together simply walking the city, chatting and drinking tea. Back home I found out he was in constant touch with my family, offering moral and any other kind of support that might be needed.
When I returned from exile, one of the very first people to invite me for tea and a catch-up was Charles Njonjo and we took up from where we had left off in 2005. His observations on politics and about certain politicians were often wryly hilarious. His capacity to read people accurately was something I learnt. We would sit in his Westlands office and I would seek his opinion on this or that political interlocutor and in typical fashion he was always direct – “solid fellow”; “believe only half so-and-so says”; “take that one seriously”, etc. He was particularly dismissive of ethnic chauvinists and insisted that they held Kenya back in fundamental ways.
Charles Njonjo and I kept our friendship quiet. In part, this was because some of his diehard enemies were also my very good friends – the late legal giant Achhroo Ram Kapila SC among others. So, we didn’t discuss his enemies; he advised me on mine. Much will be written about Charles Njonjo and even though there was much we totally disagreed on politically, the Njonjo I knew since I was a teenager was a man of his word. He was a dear friend in ways I have never been able to share. There is not a personal problem that I raised with Charles Njonjo that he didn’t immediately seek to solve in his no-nonsense style. Njonjo could be a very funny man, full of jokes and insightful observations without a taint of bitterness. To me he was funniest when he joked in Gikuyu, which some people thought he couldn’t speak.
As I have said, much will be said and a lot will be written about Charles Njonjo. The Charles Njonjo I knew was a steadfast friend and a man of his word. I have lost a dear friend and wish his family succour as they mourn him at this time.
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