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Reflections

THE NOVELTY OF WINNIE MADIKIZELA MANDELA: A Male, Feminist Reflection

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THE NOVELTY OF WINNIE MADIKIZELA MANDELA: A Male, Feminist Reflection
Photo: Flickr/GovernmentZA

It is not unusual that when a liberation struggle hero dies, many voices come to the fore, to bear witness, to lament, to remind, to narrate. It is unusual that there is a particularly gendered vitriolic account the kind of which has accompanied the passing of Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela Mandela.

In the cacophony of patriarchy-anchored, misogynistic utterances upon her death; in the outright dismissal of her positive significance to her community, country, continent and the world; in the mal-narration and disinformation meant to occlude, while excusing blatant wrongs done to her primarily by a very male culture, prior to and after the 1994 ‘independence’ of South Africa, it can too easily be with scorn, justified anger, lashing out, and dignified silence that we choose to respond. What I suggest, rather, is that we are at this moment, in honour of her indefatigable spirit, called upon to get to work: to continue her life-long work; to reflect on the gendered aspects to struggle and its representation – any struggle for liberation – and to draw what lessons we can for the future of the work of liberation movements, as continuation or reconstruction, from a gendered perspective.

In such moment, it can also become easy to forget the male feminist voice that could offer more balance and nuance, in part because being male, it can get immersed under the rest of the shrill, insulting salvos; and in part because it has always been so faint within the cacophonous, discordant, Winnie Mandela – and later Winnie Madikizela Mandela – narrative song.

This is not what Winnie Madikizela Mandela would want, I aver. A woman who lived inclusivity, rejected injustice, and fought for those at the margins – male and female – would not rejoice in the silencing of any voice. In particular, Winnie Mandela so believed in the critical role that liberation movements could play that, she would no doubt welcome a balanced reconfiguration of the feminist liberation movement, shaped not by patriarchy’s valorization or vilification, necessarily, but by such clear re-examination towards charting necessary new frontiers, and contributed to by such diversity as is near representative of reality as is possible.

The recognition then, of the sheer importance of such voices as the male feminist requires that we amplify it to better examine it for the lessons it might elicit – and this is what I propose to do in these few pages. I focus specifically on the literary text by Njabulo Ndebele, entitled The Cry of Winnie Mandela. The focus on the literary text is necessary because, ‘underlying literary texts are ideological structures that ‘mediate the transformation of social structures into the thematic preoccupations as well as into the aesthetic structures and styles of the texts.’ To follow this argument, novels and biographies/autobiographies are ideological discourses, better understood if situated within the context out of which they derive. Novels in Africa, publication of the bulk of which coincided with the dissolution of the British Empire in Africa, perhaps much more so.[1]   The literary text in South Africa, and Njabulo Ndebele’s novel in particular then, is not innocent. While it shares the ‘African’ experience, South Africa, the last bastion of white colonial rule in Africa, is often singled out for the particularity of the history out of which it is fashioned, for the lessons it might have drawn from the rest of Africa, and for its relevance in the continuing process of re-fashioning ‘Africa’ (or not).

South Africa attained ‘independence’ with the establishment of democratic rule in 1994. As the last ‘colony’ in Africa, South Africa is often seen as a mirror in which the people of Africa can see themselves: ‘a uniquely bare and ugly vision of the mix of social, economic, political, religious and racial forces which have affected everybody in thepost-colonial dispensation.’ It is also a mirror of possibilities. Rosemary Jolly posits that ‘as critics, teachers, and students, we need to forge a language that goes beyond apartheid; that refuses to hypostasize South Africa as the model in which the colonized black and the settler white eternally confront each other in the ‘ultimate racism’. Authors of The Empire Writes Back, Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin, observe that the frequent re-designations of races under apartheid ‘demonstrated the sheer fictionality of suggesting that these racial divisions were either fixed or absolute, as did the necessity of passing a law against miscegenation between the races’ (the ‘Immorality Act’ aimed at ‘racial purity’). In the post-independence era, calls shifted from ‘a narrow cultural homogeneity’ to more heterogeneity and plurality. For South Africa, a country founded on the back of migration, and for long, characterised by racial division and gender separation, notions of identity, diversity, and interaction become paramount in envisioning the forging of a new nation. How are these configured in the symbolism of Winnie Madikizela Mandela in Ndebele’s post-apartheid narrative?   First, a few, often touted, framing historical facts on South Africa:

1652: The first Dutch settlers arrive in the Cape of Good Hope

1806: The English come to South Africa. They are to later become the economically dominant group

1830’s: The Great Trek (arguably began in 1836) and resultant displacement of the African groups already present; which coincided with the Mfecane wars or Difaqane (as it is often presented in historical texts)

1902: Up to 1910, a period of enforced anglicization

1910: Declaration of the Union of South Africa. South Africa is partitioned between the main white groups, Afrikaner and English

1948: South Africa declared an apartheid state. Racial Segregation institutionalised and subsequently pillared on a series of laws enacted in quick succession

1950: Population Registration Act passed. People classified according to race. ‘White’ was a single category; people of mixed blood were subdivided into ‘Cape Coloured’, ‘Malay’, ‘Griqua’; also ‘Chinese’, ‘Indian’ and ‘other Asian’. White thus became single biggest category under a policy of ‘divide and rule’

Followed by: Prohibition of Mixed Marriages act, The Native Labour act and the Reservation of Separate Amenities act as well as the Extension of University Education act, barring non-whites from universities

1953: Bantu Education act: Dr. Hendrik Verwoerd declares

‘There is no place for the Bantu in the European community above the level of certain forms of labour. Racial relations cannot improve if the result of Native education is the creation of frustrated people who, as a result of the education they receive, have expectations in life which circumstances in South Africa do not allow to be fulfilled immediately.’

1958: 14 June, Nelson and Winnie Mandela marry. Winnie is 22

1959: Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act: 8 ethnic homelands called Bantustans set up. Effectively, 13 percent of the land in SA set aside for more than 70 percent of its people

1960: Declared ‘Africa Year’ by the UN in support of the principle of independence after a long era of colonisation. Chief Albert Luthuli, leader of the ANC, calls for an international boycott of South African products to protest apartheid

1962: November 6, UN votes to impose sanctions against SA

1962: November 7, Nelson Mandela is sentenced to 5yrs with hard labour: for incitement to strike and for leaving the country without travel documents

1962: December, Winnie Mandela receives her first banning order, restricting her to the magisterial area of Johannesburg, prohibiting her from entering any educational premises, and barring her from addressing any meetings or gatherings where more than two people were present. The media no longer allowed to quote anything she said. Effectively, she would need permission to visit Nelson in prison

1963: Minister of Justice, BJ Vorster, introduces the 90 day law: security police given the right to detain people in solitary confinement for successive periods of 90 days without being charged or brought to court.

Albertina Sisulu is the first woman to be detained under this law. The first death of a detainee under this law recorded the same year, 5 September 1963 (4 months since its inception): Looksmart Solwandle Ngudle

1963: 11 July, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, and Arthur Goldreich arrested

1963:  9 October, The Rivonia Trial commences. 10 accused. Sabotage and Conspiracy. Acquitted on a technicality as Nelson could not have committed sabotage while in prison. Jubilation is short-lived as the accused got promptly imprisoned again under the 90day rule

1964: 12 June (2 days before Nelson and Winnie’s sixth wedding anniversary), Nelson Mandela and his co-accused sentenced to life imprisonment

1982: Ruth First, wife of Joe Slovo, academic and author of several books and editor of several radical newspapers, killed by letter bomb in Mozambique

1986: Winnie Mandela’s banning order finally relaxed. After 8 yrs in ‘exile’ in Brandfort, she finally goes back home to Soweto

1990: February, Nelson Mandela released after more than 27yrs in prison

1992: April, Mandela announces his separation from Winnie Mandela, referring to her throughout as ‘Comrade Nomzamo’ ( Can we have some context to Comrade Nomzamo)

1992: 6 September, Winnie’s letter to Dali Mpofu is published, unedited, in the Sunday Times

1994: First Democratic elections in South Africa. Nelson Mandela is sworn in as president

1996: March, after 38 yrs of marriage, 27 yrs of separation, and 4 yrs of living apart, Nelson and Winnie Mandela’s divorce is finalised at the Rand Supreme Court. ‘The end of one of the world’s great love stories’.

The (re)making of Winnie Madikizela Mandela: Narrating woman in post-apartheid South Africa

The preamble of the constitution of the ‘new’ South Africa drawn up in 1996 states: ‘We, the people of South Africa, /Recognise the injustices of our past; /Honour those who suffered for justice and freedom in our land; /Respect those who have worked to build and develop our country; and Believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, united in our diversity.’[2]   In the new South Africa, inclusion was to be the baton for measuring true independence. While most of the literature coming out of South Africa had hitherto focused on the struggle for liberation, beyond 1994, post-apartheid, post-independence South Africa was to be reflected in modes of writing that have often echoed those of post-independence Africa in general.

In the novel The Cry of Winnie Mandela, Ndebele offers us ‘post-nationalist’ black writing ‘that breaks with the stance of “protest”, … advocating a conscious ‘rediscovery of the ordinary’.[3]  Here we are presented with four women during the liberation struggle, who await the return of their men. They are dubbed Greek mythological Penelope’s descendants. Through the women, Ndebele offers comment on the historically inscribed position of the woman across cultures and geographic demarcations? In making the link between the women featured in The Cry of Winnie Mandela, Ndebele points to the commonality of women’s place across class and the racial barrier.

The first of the women, Mannete Mofolo, is left in Lesotho while her husband migrates to the mines of South Africa and eventually does not return.

The second woman is initially unnamed, and we later find out she is Delisiwe Dulcie S’Khosana. To delay naming Delisiwe is to allow for introspection and the possibility of finding her within each one of us. It is to point to the possibility of her universalism; of the possibility of any name suiting her, for she is any woman, unspoken and unspoken of. She represents that many. She is a teacher whose husband goes away to study medicine. Together they cherish the ideal that one day he will be the first black medical doctor in the East Rand township. She ´keeps’ him, making financial sacrifices to ensure that he attains his goal. In the tenth year, she falls pregnant and in the twelfth, the husband returns, accuses her of infidelity and leaves her for another woman. The new woman is a nurse.

The third woman is Mamello ‘Patience’ Molete. After five years of marriage, her husband flees into exile. She had had no knowledge that he was involved in politics. Twenty-five years later, he is a free man who chooses not to return to Mamello. She loses both her husband and herself to the schizophrenic world of post-apartheid South Africa where the ‘enemy’ has instantly become the lover, friend, and partner. He marries a white woman, and they later have children, ‘products of freedom’

A wounded (also initially unnamed) woman, is the fourth, Marara Joyce Baloyi, whose husband is ‘there but not there. I mean, I saw his body around the house, but my husband had left.’ He drinks and sleeps around while his wife keeps house and ‘stand(s) upright and declare(s) her love and loyalty’ to him. Upon his death, she spends a lot of money on his funeral as per the demands of custom.

Ndebele finally presents to us the last and connecting point to all the women: Nomzamo Winnie Mandela. She is the embodiment of the historically constructed waiting woman of South Africa. A symbol of defiance and contradiction. A woman who is presented as journeying, not frozen in her waiting. She shatters barriers and in the conversations that ensue amongst all the women, homo-sociality is born; the women gain a voice and mode of speaking hitherto unavailable to them – even the ‘unspeakable’. Above all, they each seek to find themselves before embarking on a metaphorical journey of the discovery of their racial other and predecessor, Penelope.

Gender is central to the conceptualisation and expression of the nation, and of the future.

In evoking the voice of the silent and silenced, Ndebele re-opens the debate on gender representations in post-independence African literature and the debate on male feminism within the African literary context. Ndebele offers us a glimpse too into the making of post-apartheid South African masculinities in his quest to ‘rediscover the ordinary.’ In doing so, he offers possible opportunity, through the figure of Winnie Mandela, at once diverse, at once singular, always symbolically omnipotent.   He leaves us too with many questions, not least of which is, after such a long-sustained gender gulf, can men and women reconcile – from a point of real knowledge and empathy – and together produce a society free of gender bias?

In the wake of the death of this symbol of hope and in the face of misrepresentations, renewed efforts at educating men and women become urgent, as Spivak argues, not only to be free of gender bias, but to also not consider the consequences of gender-freedom to be demeaning to themselves as men and women, and necessarily destructive of the social fabric.

[2] The Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996. p.1.

[3] Graham Pechey, ‘Post-apartheid narratives’ in F. Barker et al, eds. Colonial Discourse/Postcolonial Theory, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994) p.167.

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Pinkie Mekgwe is International IDEA’s Senior Regional Adviser for Africa and West Asia and her work focuses on strengthening programmatic and Administrative coherence and performance

Reflections

THE DAYS OF SITUATION: Reflecting on the Reflections Series ‘Beyond The Numbers’

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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.

Beyond the Numbers

Read: Beyond the Numbers series

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.

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Reflections

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

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EARTH AND RUST: The decline of a Kenyan town
Photo: Laini-Moja, Kitale

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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Reflections

Your Dreams Are Not Valid Here

I came back to Kenya immediately after my studies, armed with a master’s degree from one of the world’s most prestigious universities – and two years later, I am worse off than I have ever been in my short adult life. I used to earn more as a student than I do as a grown-up adult, with a family and a daughter about to join school. By SILAS NYANCHWANI

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Your Dreams Are Not Valid Here
Photo: whoislimos on Unsplash

This time of year, October/ November, is the season when the United States runs their Electronic Diversity Visa Lottery, commonly known as the green card.

Globally, 20 million people fill it, with the hope of becoming part of the tight short list of the 50,000 people who eventually receive the American Permanent Resident Card, and a ticket to pursue the fabled American Dream (sometimes a nightmare).

In my early 20s, I used to nurse dreams of living in America. Most of my friends who never qualified for university used various means, dubious and straight, to enter America. And soon they were building mansions and buying plots around Nairobi as I chased my bachelor’s degree. I remember one friend in particular who had been jobless in Nairobi and when the opportunity came, he left in such a huff, leaving with his small worldly possessions; a bag with three or four clothes, old shoes and nothing else. He has never stepped back 14 years down the line.

***

I joined University in the mid-2000s, when the Kibaki economy was booming. Sectors like higher education had expanded massively, opening doors to hundreds of thousands to access university education and creating employment and business opportunities such as never witnessed before. Local banks, hitherto operating as cooperative societies or community chamas, had become serious players in the industry. M-PESA had just been launched and Nairobi was being noticed in Africa and indeed in the world finance markets. Real estate was booming. The media was flourishing, both mainstream platforms and lifestyle magazines were making stupendous profits. There was money to be made if you had the right skills.

For my first ever newspaper column (aged 21, no less), I was given a cheque of KSh7,500, inspiring me to pursue journalism. In my four years in campus, I supplemented the Higher Education Loans Board (HELB) money with the wages from writing for local newspapers.

There was an air of optimism everywhere.

Then came the 2007 elections, followed by the post-election violence, coinciding with the 2008 global financial crisis, from which the world has never really recovered. In Kenya, we had barely started picking up the pieces from the post-election violence when a youthful duo came into office, who promised heaven and but have delivered hell, to the point where our economy is now in the doldrums.

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But I remember that through college and the ensuing years, we were proud of our country. The roads became better, Internet connectivity improved immensely, mobile technology grew, and Nairobi could afford anyone the best things in the world, barring traffic and pollution. Those of us in university hoped after graduation, we would get the six-figure salaries that our predecessors (classes of 2004-2008) were getting.

At the time, few of my friends had any ambition of leaving Kenya, save for those who were headed to graduate school. There were many reasons to stay. Many among those who traveled for further studies, or for whatever reason, did come back. And my Kenyan-American friends, advised me, “If you make at least KSh80,000 as net income, then you don’t need to come and struggle in America.”

It was a piece of advice we heeded, and after college, we were all looking for jobs that will guarantee KSh100,000. That was during the post-college euphoria, and by this time my obsession with “flying out” had diminished significantly. I started to believe I could ‘make it’ here in Kenya.

As a single young man, I enjoyed good income from my newspaper columns, and ultimately I got a permanent job with a local media organisation and decent pay nearly two and half years after graduation. People around me had more mixed fortunes. My spouse got a job after waiting for nearly three years after graduation. Most of my college friends waited longer, some in between jobs, more underemployed, others dropped through the cracks. The devolved government did rescue a few with jobs in the counties, but in my estimation only about half of the graduates in my year have been in steady employment or business.

Two years into my employment, the company I was working for laid off 300 workers, nearly a quarter of the workforce, in a purge that spared no one, from the young, to the middle-aged to the older folks. It was devastating. I only escaped the axe because I won a scholarship to graduate school that saw me spend a year in New York.

When I left for America, my entire clan accompanied me to the airport, knowing that the path to prosperity had just been opened. Their palpable excitement was understandable.

“Don’t ever come back, fetch your family and stay there,” they insisted. There were many more people who asked me to stay in America than those who advised me to come back – unlike just a few years before.

While in America, even with the telltale signs of a diseased and decaying economy, my acquaintances in US were all of the idea that I should play the system (basically marry my way into citizenship), or use whatever trick to stay there. But I was determined to come back, armed with youthful chutzpah and the idealism that my master’s degree from one of the world’s most premium universities will guarantee me a better life.

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I came back immediately after my studies – and two years later, I am worse off than I have ever been in my short adult life.

There are no jobs in the media, and or in my Plan B, academia – that has been ruined too.

The other day, for the first time since 2010, I went to a cybercafé. I hadn’t gone to browse – who does that anymore? I had gone to take the quality photo necessary filing in the DV-lottery, and I sat down and applied for the green card. And in the last few months, along with other friends, I have been visiting placement agencies that advise skilled adults on how to settle in countries like Canada or Australia.

***

When was the last time you passed near Nyayo House? You have probably seen the impossible crowds. One can safely assume that those looking for passports want out of the country for various reasons.

I happen to have worked with a few agencies that send Kenyans abroad, from low-skilled workers (to Dubai, Doha and other places in the Middle East), to high skilled labour (to Western countries mostly). So many of my folks, given the limited farming opportunities in the village, have moved to the Middle East and America, where most of them work on low-end, but better paying jobs that anything the country can offer.

It is not just the manual labourers who want out of the country. Increasingly, people with university education are moving out of the country, reminiscent of the exodus witnessed in the 1980s and 1990s during the repressive regime of Moi, compounded by the Structural Adjustment Programs that saw the economy shrink so badly in the 1990s.

It is a quiet exodus.

***

One of the best things that come with age is the shattering of youthful idealism. You learn sooner than later that not all dreams are valid. You discover the ideal house you visualized, your dream car, and the neighbourhood you wanted to live in can be decidedly elusive. And as you grow older, you constantly adjust your expectations, adopting a cold-hearted selfishness, and pragmatism, for yourself and for your family.

I know at least six other friends who left the US and the UK, and at least four of them have had it so tough, the last I checked, they are at advanced stages of going back abroad to pursue a Ph.D. or looking for work as skilled immigrants. Never before I have ever been inundated with links for job applications and advice on how to emigrate to some of the better countries in the West; UK, Netherlands, Belgium, USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the Scandinavian countries.

Yet the timing couldn’t be worse. In the West, the rise of right-wing governments spurred by collapsing or stagnating economies has inspired a wave of xenophobia targeting foreigners, and dark-skinned immigrants are especially not welcome.

But even so, we want to leave. Because the economic prospects for men and women of my generation look dim. According to a Pew Research Center study in March this year, 54 per cent of Kenyans wanted to relocate. They cited corruption, the high cost of living, poor living standards, and search for better housing, healthcare and education opportunities. Life has become unbearable.

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And SAPs 2.0 are about to hit harder, as thousands of employees are set to lose jobs when the government sells 26 parastatals. With inflation, and the slow death of affordable public health care and education, the timing could not be worse.

I used to earn more as a student than I do as a grown-up adult, with a family and a daughter about to join school. Public schooling is in ruins, higher education in an irrecoverable mess, so much that middle-class and upper-class parents have totally lost all the hope in public schools and send their children to expensive private schools, the better if they run a different “international system”. But private education is so expensive that kindergarten annual tuition fees in some of the average schools is more than what a university student pays for their tuition. And many millennial parents are not going to afford it.

For healthcare, half of the WhatsApp groups we are in are for fundraising for sick or deceased folks since families cannot afford to pay for their relatives’ healthcare in decent hospitals.

***

We know the Kenyans in the diaspora are often homesick. Given a chance, many would return. Indeed, their remittances tell a story of unshakeable faith in their motherland – in 2017, Kenyans remitted over $1.9 billion from the diaspora – but the government hardly accords them any significance.

“Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spares time when he goes abroad to meet Indians living in that country. President Uhuru Kenyatta rarely does it. But this helps build a connection between migrants and the motherland,” says Mukurima Muriuki, a Kenyan conflict resolution expert based in California, USA.

The same can be said of countries like Lebanon that keeps a database of professionals abroad. Or Ireland that taps into the potential of its expansive diaspora network. Israel too.

Similarly, the growth in industrialization as well as the information and technology rapid growth of the Asian tigers has been credited to returning immigrants, and the sustained ties ensure that both the host country and the motherland benefits.

In Kenya’s case, it feels like contempt towards those in the diaspora is always on constant display. Like the recent launch of direct flights to America that hardly involved members of the diaspora who ordinarily would make the bulk of the users of the flight.

But because we mostly send low-skilled workers who end up in menial jobs, there is little exchange of skills that can transform the country. More individuals end up in middling jobs, with no way to really contribute back home, beyond building an ancestral home (essentially, dead capital) and buying more meaningless pieces of land for lack of alternatives.

High skilled individuals often gain citizenship to the host country, and their brains end up benefitting the host country more than the mother country. Think of the late Professor Calestous Juma, a celebrated international authority in the application of science and technology for sustainable development worldwide, who was at Harvard University at the time of his death last year. If he stayed in Kenya, he probably would never have risen through the ranks – and would never have ascended to the status that Harvard afforded him. One can think of the top Kenyan academics, thinkers and writers who spend their lives in the Western institutions because their country has spurned them.

This country loses so much in terms of skills and ideas. And worse because we are not creative enough to utilize the diaspora beyond just remittances. We could use more transfer of skills and ideas.

Still, I am starting to think that when your country does not love you, you have no obligation to love it back.

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