“Not until you have discovered what is worth dying for is life really worth living.”
Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela-Mandela
Reminiscent of Freire’s analogy of liberation as a painful childbirth and while the evocation of ‘Mother’ can be suspect as witnessed in disempowering narratives of women who must carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, it interests me that people in South Africa as well as continental Africa and the Diaspora referred to departed Elder, Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela-Mandela as Mother of the Nation, Mam’Winnie, uMam’Winnie, Mama Winnie or Mama Africa.
I hold‘Mama’ in esteem and context as an embodiment of the ‘Source’ and ‘Force’ that brings forth life. The life of a person, a people or a nation.The life in the ‘Fruit’ of the struggle for freedom and human dignity – liberation.
I first heard of Winnie Mandela during my teenage years. I simply knew of her then as the late South African Freedom Fighter, Nelson Mandela’s wife. It wasn’t until my young adult years that I started developing a deeper understanding of her role as a Freedom Fighter and Liberation Leader in her own right.
Everything I knew about Madikizela-Mandela was based on numerous stories told by local, regional and international media over the years, often portraying her as a highly contentious leader on a personal and professional level.
Deeply polarizing perceptions of Madikizela-Mandela continue to emerge following the news of her death on Monday, April 02, 2018 at age 81. People in South Africa and across the globe have eulogized this revolutionary leader in a variety of ways creating what feels like an emotionally charged, ‘love-you-hate-you-shut-up’ mosaic of ‘raw-ripe’, ‘bitter-sweet-sour’and in-between, powerful depictions – as if in competition for voice, space, light and life.
The concept of the cycle or continuity of life unfolds as the world mourns this revolutionary. She continues to inspire global narratives that are forcing many to ‘look’ at her life’s trajectory as a liberation leader – in life and death! A dynamic reflecting a duo-extreme and of shades in-between depending on what we ‘see’ when we ‘look’. A symbolic,’narratives tag-of-war’strives to cement what Sisonke Msimang and others have called Madikizela-Mandela’s legacy.
Based on what I have read, watched and conversations with people on and off social media, I have been struck by the varying descriptions of Madikizela-Mandela. Some of the words and phrases I have come across describe her as defiant, resilient, fierce, fearless, spirited, strong, brave, unbreakable, courageous, out-spoken, bold, passionate, resilient fortitude, flawed, militant, charismatic, radical, firebrand, despicable, complex, violent, murderous, corrupt, terrorist, tarnished, bully, kidnapper, Mandela’s ex-wife, among others.
In some cases, these words hinge on a one-sided view of a wonderful, loving and beloved liberation leader or a cold-blooded, corrupt politician and adulterous murderer. Some have drawn their perceptions of Madikizela-Mandela from both ends of the spectrum while others remain conspicuously silent. Silence is a form of communication.
Zukiswa Wanner called out what she termed, “pseudo-intellectual attacks” some people are “writing about this complex woman” noting in a one of her Facebook posts, “On Mam’Winnie: If the black man is always suspect, the black woman is always guilty. And I ain’t got time for those who push the latter narrative, thank you”.
Rasna Warah called out “white-media vilification” of Madikizela-Mandela and the hypocrisy of a global patriarchal double-standard which ignores prominent male political leaders’ real or perceived transgressions yet takes “all gloves off when it comes to Winnie”. Warah also noted, “Winnie Mandela was no doubt a deeply flawed human being. But which South African can claim to have remained completely untouched or undamaged by the extreme violence and blatant racism of the apartheid era? If anything, we should admire Winnie Mandela for refusing to allow the apartheid regime to crush her fearless spirit – a spirit that could be bent but which could not be broken.”
Zukiswa Wanner reminded her fellow citizens in South Africa, “There is no historical record of men in the ANC or Pan Africanist Congress who raped their comrades, who stole resources donated by our anti-apartheid allies for those in camps in Angola, Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique, and suffering the consequences for doing so”.
Wanner continued, “Instead, our collective vilification has been towards the one person who suffered more than most in the last 30 years of apartheid because she was a woman who did not behave as we expected. What we have is a record of Madikizela- Mandela being asked at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to apologise for her involvement in Stompie Seipei’s murder. Jerry Richardson, the “coach” of the Mandela United Football Club, was sentenced to life for the teenager’s murder. Madikizela-Mandela was convicted of kidnapping and being an accessory in the assault of Stompie. Her sentence was reduced to a fine and a suspended two-year sentence on appeal”.
An excerpt from one of Stella Nyanzi’s Facebook posts on Madikizela-Mandela, “Her beauty, strength, courage, resilience, out-spokenness, defiance, militant charisma and radical fire often inspired me to stand tall in difficult times” … and… “yet her reported human failings also shook me to the core because they were outright vile”. Nyanzi resolved her multiple and conflicting perceptions of Madikizela-Mandela noting, “the greatest attribute was her beautiful complexity as a human being” who was “full of contradictions that make her life a grand enigma for inquiring minds. She was neither perfect nor pure evil. She was a huge paradox comprising several smaller paradoxical puzzles. Her tenacity and resilience astound me.”
Some people have praised and acknowledged Madikizela-Mandela’s contributions and position as a frontline leader in the liberation struggle in South Africa. Swift rebuttals and ‘clap-backs’ to local, regional and global media outlets emerged citing deliberate attempts to erase and minimize her role and stature as a liberation leader by referring to her as “anti-apartheid campaigner”, “anti-apartheid crusader”,“anti-apartheid stalwart”, Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife and anti-apartheid activist”, “flawed heroine”, among others.
One cannot help but wonder why Madikizela-Mandela was loved by many but also detested,by some, perhaps in equal measure. As I reflect upon the myriad ways Madikizela-Mandela has been portrayed by different people, the Social Psychology concept of ‘person perception’ that explores how we form impressions of one another comes to mind.
Social Psychologists believe that ‘person perception’ attributes various “mental processes” to how we form impressions of one another and how these, influence subsequent conclusions, judgements we make about people, and the way we interact with them. iresearchnet.com indicates that forming impressions of other people can “occur indirectly and requires inferring information about a person based on observations of behaviors or based on second-hand information.” It also explains that we can form impressions of other people “more directly and require little more than seeing another person.” The website concludes that direct and indirect types of person perception “provide a foundation from which subsequent judgments are formed and subsequent interactions are shaped”.
When we form our impressions of others through “indirect person perception” our “general perception of a person is the product of inference”. This means that “many of the personal attributes” that “we may want to know about another person (e.g., whether the person is loyal, honest, or contemptible) are not directly observable”.
These “attributes or traits must be discerned—either from observing the person’s actions (actually watching the person behave in a loyal or honest manner) or from interpreting information provided by a third party (what a roommate conveys about a person or what the experimenter reveals)”.
According to iresearchnet.com, “personal attributes that observers notice about another person need not be inferred because they are directly observable and are therefore noted immediately”. These personal attributes include categorical judgments about other people such as their sex, race, and age. This process prompts the questions; “What sex? What race? and How old?” are “likely to be among the first impressions that observers form of others”.
Perceptions: A Journey
Reflection on what informs my personal impressions, perceptions and conclusions about Mandikizela-Mandela find root in a journey that started during my teenage years where my initial knowledge of her was simply, Nelson Mandela’s wife, based on what I read in the media.
As I matured into young adulthood and developed interests in social justice, my evolving consciousness enabled me to grow my understanding beyond my teenage view of her as Nelson Mandela’s wife. Since I did not know Madikizela-Mandela, personally, to form personal impressions of her through observation, to for instance infer whether she was loyal or honest, I therefore utilized “indirect person perception” to form impressions of her based on “information proved by a third party” – the media.
It is therefore important that I continue reflecting upon the validity of the third-party information that has influenced some of my perceptions of her therefore broadening the scope of sources that corroborate or challenge the ones I have relied on in the past. As an outsider to South Africa it is also important that I listen to voices from within on this matter, but I cannot make assumptions that every voice that I hear from South Africa will be accurate.
Most importantly, I must also seek to learn what Mandikizela-Mandela says about her life and contributions to the liberation struggle, in her own words. Her book 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69, a diary of her days in solitary confinement for 18 months, the documentary film Winnie as well as Alf Kumalo and Sukiswa Sukiswa Wanner’s book 8115: A Prisoner’s Home are great sources to add to your reading/viewing list.
My reflections have helped me pay attention to how stereotypes and cultural assumptions we hold related to the “direct person perception” dimensions of race, sex and gender can influence our impressions of one another. These intertwine within an interplay of culture and the dynamics of power.
The way power is expressed and experienced from a race, culture and gender perspective can influence our perceptions of one another. Afua Hirsch explored some aspects of how racial bias and sexism have shown up in some obituaries, “The death of Madikizela-Mandela is another opportunity to choose between a narrative of white supremacy and the one that overthrew it. If the media coverage of her death is anything to go by, this is, apparently, a deeply controversial choice”.
Patricia Hill Collins’ “domains-of-power heuristic” offers a compelling framework for analyzing power that considers the complexity of intersectionality. Collins posited, “power relations can be analyzed both via their mutual construction, for example, of racism and sexism as intersecting oppressions, as well as across domains of power, namely structural, disciplinary, cultural and interpersonal”.
According to Collins, the structural domain of power consists of “public policies that organize and regulate the social institutions such as “banks, insurance companies, police departments, the real estate industry, schools, stores, restaurants, hospitals and governmental agencies”. Madikizela-Mandela’s struggle for justice touched on all these areas of power that discriminated against Black and Brown South Africans.The questions become; do I believe that all people regardless of race or gender have a right to equal access and opportunity to these critical resources, social services and facilities that help foster basic human dignity, nourishment, wellbeing and development? How do my beliefs and assumptions on this matter influence my perception of Madikizela-Mandela as a Black woman and leader who defended these rights?
Collins argued that “when people use the rules and regulations of everyday life and public policy to uphold social hierarchy or challenge it, their agency and actions shape the disciplinary domain of power”. Madikizela-Mandela resisted the apartheid system’s rules, regulations and public policies that discriminated against Black and Brown South Africans. The questions become; do I believe in or challenge the idea that all people, regardless of race or gender have a right to be protected from rules, regulations and public policies that uphold social hierarchy? How do my beliefs and assumptions on this matter influence my perception of Madikizela-Mandela as a Black woman and leader who championed this cause?
Collins further explained, “the cultural domain of power refers to social institutions and practices that produce the hegemonic ideas that justify social inequalities as well as counter-hegemonic ideas criticize unjust social relations. Through traditional and social media, journalism, and school curriculums, the cultural domain constructs representations, ideas and ideologies about social inequality”.
“Liberation is thus a childbirth, and a painful one.
The man or woman who emerges is a new person,
viable only as the oppressor-oppressed contradiction
is superseded by the humanization of all people.
…the solution of this contradiction
is born in the labor which brings into the world this new being:
no longer oppressor nor longer oppressed,
but human in the process of achieving freedom”.
Madikizela-Mandela challenged systems of domination that propagated social inequalities through an apartheid-inspired educational system, media, ideas and ideologies that include patriarchy which positioned women as less than, less deserving of opportunities, resources, being treated with dignity and respect and judged on a different and higher set of standards than men. Zukiswa Wanner reminded us, “Our patriarchal and puritanical brains, as men and women, relegated her to an ex-wife who cheated on our revered Saint Nelson while he was in prison.”
South African women have come out in large numbers to defend Madikizela-Mandela’s legacy in what they perceive as attempts to erase her contributions to the liberation struggle. As a Black woman and liberation leader who opposed the apartheid system and all it stood for, relentlessly, she suffered at the hands a sophisticated and vicious Security Branch smear campaign that as Shannon Ehbrahim reported,was designed to “discredit and isolate her”.
The questions become; do I believe in or challenge the social institutions and practices that produce ideas and ideologies of domination “that justify social inequalities”? How do my beliefs and assumptions on this matter influence my perceptions of Madikizela-Mandela as a Black woman and leader who criticized “social institutions and practices which produced hegemonic ideas that justified social inequalities?
Collins argued that the “interpersonal domain of power encompasses the myriad experiences that individuals have within intersecting oppressions”. Madikizela-Mandela and others in South African suffered the indignities of apartheid. Many of them lost their lives in the struggle for freedom and justice. While my goal isn’t to portray Madikizela-Mandela as a helpless victim of apartheid power transgressions because she was a powerful force to contend with, along with others, she was jailed, banned, harassed, detained, held incommunicado in solitary confinement, often denied food, basic feminine sanitary items and at times denied access to the medical attention and legal counsel she needed.
The questions become; do I believe in or challenge the dehumanizing acts of brutality that were unleashed upon Madikizela-Mandela and others by the apartheid regime’s power excesses? How do my beliefs and assumptions on this matter influence my perceptions of Madikizela-Mandela as a Black woman and leader who along with others, suffered the apartheid regime’s power excesses?
“A new world will be born not by those who
stand at a distance with their arms folded, but by those who are in the arena,
whose garments are torn by storms and whose bodies are maimed in the course of contest. Honour belongs to those who never forsake the truth even when things seem dark and grim, who try over and over again, who are never discouraged by insults, humiliation and even defeat”.
Nelson Mandela in a letter to Winnie Mandela, June 23, 1969
We know that Madikizela-Mandela endured the yoke and brunt of the dehumanizing whip of apartheid, stoutly, and in all her humanness as an act of unapologetic resistance, a site of undying hope bringing forth a new world from the abyss of a protracted and odious struggle to uphold human dignity.
Leading social change requires leaders who show up. Showing up is a critical first task and test for leaders of change. A leader who shows up can recruit and inspire others to also show up in support of the desired change. The social change process requires people who show up and are not afraid to stand up to be counted. The social change process is messy and unpredictable. While it requires planning, strategies, structure, resources and action, the leader and the people must understand that it is emergent. Madikizela-Mandela’s commitment to the cause of social justice was undeniable because she showed up and did so, authentically.
I use the term authenticity here to mean she was committed to showing up as herself. She was not afraid to be herself even in the face and risk of physical and emotional injury to her person. She led change through action and unwavering courage while acknowledging her full humanness as she suffered the pain of the struggle. Her passion to serve her people while showing up, authentically and unapologetically, defined her leadership.
We were uncomfortable with a person who lived by her own rules
and refused to reconcile and join the mythical rainbow nation that we wanted to believe in.
She continued to live in her Orlando West home. She continued to attend functions,
when she wanted to at a time it suited her, and she continued being unapologetic
about who she was because she knew — though we chose to ignore it — she suffered to get South Africa to its present state.
Leading social change through action means navigating outside the comforts and context of ‘armchair revolution’ but within largely invisible peripheries, trenches and valleys that know the pain and suffering of the oppressed. Madikizela-Mandela did this and for the long haul, despite the heavy hand of a dehumanizing apartheid machinery.
We were all caught up in that war of liberation
Self no longer mattered, country came first.
When they were incarcerated, on hindsight, they looked after our
leaders because from then on, the violence in the country was untold.
We were the cannon fodder.
We were the foot soldiers
We were vulnerable
We were exposed to the viciousness of apartheid.
One may wonder, what inspired Madikizela-Mandela, a young mother in her twenties to join the liberation struggle?
“To surmount the situation of oppression, people must first critically recognize its causes, so that through transforming action they can create a new situation, one which makes possible the pursuit of a fuller humanity”.
Through her leadership, Madikizela-Mandela drew the world’s attention to the situation in South Africa and this could not have been achieved through lip service. The passion and courage she embodied were grounded in the values that she held dear. Her personal conviction and commitment to the values of racial, socioeconomic, political justice and equality, fairness and democracy were the path that illuminated possibilities and action for liberation, dignity and a “fuller humanity” (Freire) for all people in South Africa.
“My flesh is nothing more than sea shells washed up to the coast
by heavy waves of stormy political seas, my soul like the sea will always be there.
I would have been filled with shame if I was unable to get up and defend those ideals (that) my heroes and our patriots have sacrificed their lives for”.
Winnie Mandela in a Letter to Nelson Mandela, March 08, 1970
I end my reflections noting that paying tribute to Madikizela-Mandela by acknowledging her great contributions to humanity through her leadership for social justice does not mean that we chose to ignore her humanness and humanity. She was as human as each one of us. She did what she did, when she did and with what she had. We are grateful.
Only she, walked in the shoes she wore and those of us who have no idea what it was like to live and stay alive in what Madikizela-Mandela called a “war of liberation”, can only imagine.
I choose to pay more attention and listen to the voices of my South African sisters who have a deeper grasp of who Madikizela-Mandela was. I hold them in care. Deeply grateful to ‘Dada’ Zukiswa Wanner who has been kind and generous by sharing her insights on Mama #Winnie.
In attacking Madikizela-Mandela, MondliMakhanya in an article
this past Sunday attacks all of us who love our people and our country unstintingly. He attacks all of us who are human and fallible because humanity is about the possibility of fallibility.
He attacks all those of us who hold other black people with respect,
whatever our disagreements with them.
Makhanya attacks us all because #WeAreAllWinnieMandela.
And to uMam’Winnie, as the children would say, we did you dirty.
May we be kinder to you in death and may we learn to protect each other and
our country to ensure that all South Africans are treated with the dignity that they deserve.
With the dignity we did not afford you.
Hamba kahle, mkhonto.
‘No love lost: What Winnie hate says about us’
Rest in Power Departed Elder
Nomzamo Winifred ZanyiweMadikizela-Mandela
Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Academic; 30th Anniversary Edition
THE DAYS OF SITUATION: Reflecting on the Reflections Series ‘Beyond The Numbers’
I was ten years old in 1996 when my parents separated. It seems to me that I had never really noticed them before it happened. Until that tumultuous December my parents were like the air around us – crucial to life, and you would notice when they shifted around, but otherwise somewhat unremarkable. I always thought my extended relatives were much more interesting than my parents – my aunt, who lived with us for a while, laughed loudly, spoke excitedly, and let us watch Indian movies late into the night when my mother was away working the housekeeping night shift at the New Stanley. My mother’s (step)father, my Guka, always brought us halua and kaimati every time he visited. We were fascinated bulging veins on his hand, wondering why they popped back up no matter how hard we tried to push them down.
And then, it happened. My father spoke a lot at this time, more than I had ever heard him speak, it seems, and he would say things like – “your mother is using you as a conduit to get to me.” At the end of his long speeches, I would go to my blue and red Oxford English Dictionary and look up the word conduit. And my mother became more quiet, I think, transfigured into glass that was dangerously on the verge of shattering at a moment’s notice. I was terrified at the thought of this. How does one pick up those kinds of shards?
But what none of us siblings could have known at the time – I am one of three – was that our family’s troubles were not ours alone, and that the intensity of our struggle to remain afloat was not entirely the fault of my mother and father. It was, (objectively?), the wrong time to get divorced – they were walking right into an economic blizzard, with the three of us in reluctant tow.
Kenya was in the midst of an economic recession, the fallout of implementation of the infamous Bretton Woods structural adjustment programs (SAPs), which led to a slash in government expenditure, especially on public servants’ salaries, administration, economic and social services. To make matters worse, the architects of the Goldenberg scandal had promptly drained an equivalent of 10 per cent of Kenya’s GDP from the Central Bank, just like that. Neglect and dilapidation were all around us, and in my ten-year-old mind, I connected the dots and concluded that this is actually what happens when your parents split up – the world goes to literal ruin. Garbage starts flowing in the streets. Potholes eat the road in front of your house.
Which is why I was not prepared for how painful this month’s Reflections series at The Elephant would be to read, edit and curate. They remind me, in the words of @tjjullu on Twitter, ‘ndalo situation’, days of situation, when the folks would say, “you know the situation…. We’re in a tight situation…”
Twenty-odd years later, state theft, poor fiscal management and an exorbitant debt appetite has ushered in a new season of austerity measures. Ndalo situation.
This Reflections series was intended to go ‘Beyond The Numbers’ of macro-economic policy and excavate the memories of those tough times, and connect that with what’s going on today. How did families cope? How did it affect social arrangements, like people having to live with relatives, or the stress that it put on marriages? How are millennials being affected by its iteration today – frustrating unemployment, and the unspoken angst of not being able to achieve dreams? How do we connect the brunt of the hustle to the dysfunction in national economics? How does society react to this culturally – chanelling frustration through music, sports, the arts and so on? And what are the untold stories of those traumas that were never discussed?
The series began with Lutivini Majanja’s extensive piece on how tea – its availability, quantity and quality – marked her family’s turbulent economic fortunes and domestic disruptions.
Then came Gloria Mari on the ‘extreme sport’ that is job searching today, where beyond skills, qualifications, work ethic and experience, it seems like you have to have guardian angels, good luck charms and even the occasional visit to the mganga to have hopes of finding a well-paying job.
We published Carey Baraka reflecting on how disconnected younger millennials are even from the memory or understanding of the 1990s ‘ndalo situation,’ and what that lack of memory does to a generation grappling with through similar challenges – but without a historical anchor to ground the struggle.
Filmmaker Amina Bint Mohamed explored the concerns and challenges of the so-called ‘middle class’ in a short documentary film, a demographic whose definition is contested and whose security is precarious.
There was Wanjeri Gakuru’s reflection on “flying out” as a way for families to cope with a depressed economy and diminished opportunities in the 1990s, but that is no longer an option today, with increasing xenophobia in the traditional ‘greener pastures’ – US, UK, Australia, and the like.
Darius Okolla detailed the decline of his hometown Kitale during those years, where the earth and rust seemed to swallow everything, and how the town never really recovered.
And Silas Nyanchwani’s devastating article on how he was making more money as a student a few years ago, than as an adult today with a family to support (and with a Masters degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the world), was almost too much to bear.
But could anything good come from all this distress? At a different time in my life, I would have written something clever about how economic turmoil allows innovation to emerge.
Like the way M-Pesa’s success may be partly because after the pervasive joblessness of the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a whole group of people who were willing to do the dreary work of being M-Pesa agents.
Much of the talk around M-Pesa has been why it worked so well in Kenya, and not so well in other places, and various reasons have been advanced – Kenya had a huge unbanked population, a lenient regulator, and a culture of sending money to relatives and friends.
But on the agent network, Safaricom had envisaged that agents would bolt on to already-existing businesses, like pharmacies, kiosks and convenience stores, which would then just do the M-Pesa transactions in a corner somewhere, the company’s corporate communications head told me in a past interview.
But the rapid rollout of the agent network was possible because of the very high informality in the Kenyan economy. In fact, the company was surprised at how there was a whole cohort of people willing to be M-Pesa agents as a stand-alone job, basically self-employed, sitting in a small stall, with no salary, benefits, or retirement package, earning a small percentage of every transaction.
Today, I can only make that argument intellectually, and even so, not completely sincerely. I am much more sensitive to the suffering that we tend to gloss over when we neatly tuck such losses into grand narratives of progress – that it all ‘worked out’ in the end, look at M-Pesa!
As philosopher Walter Benjamin argued, narratives of progress render history coherent and harmonious by resolving the traumatic dimensions of history, incorporating them into affirmative accounts that underwrite the positions of those in power.
It means that memory is always in danger of becoming a tool of the ruling classes, a situation that “threatens to murder the dead twice, to erase and eliminate the dissonant quality of past suffering, injustice, struggle and loss.”
Mine is a melancholic hope today, a “hope draped in black” in the words of writer Joseph Winters. It is the kind of hope that refuses to peddle in fantasies of a coherent, harmonious world unscathed by painful events, conditions and memories, in the name of the gospel of innovation. Sometimes suffering produces innovation. But it always produces pain, and the cheerful silver linings obscure this.
This series is our attempt, in the words of author Ralph Ellison, “to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain…in the hope that we might transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.”
Like Winters, I see melancholy gesturing towards a better, more promising hope, which must entail contemplation, remembrance, and critical encounter with vulnerability, cruelty, and death, rather than endeavours to resolve or deflect them through reassuring images of progress.
It is a blues sensibility, “unhopeful but not hopeless”, offering no solutions, only a way of responding to, working through, and coping with painful incongruities.
Perhaps the next M-Pesa will come out of all this. Perhaps not. But we at The Elephant will be a witness to ndalo situation.
EARTH AND RUST: The decline of a Kenyan town
Once in late 1996, a neighbour’s clothes were stolen from the hanging line when she went to work, a theft that fascinated the neighborhood to no end. Who would do such a thing? Why – for heaven’s sake? Our version of burglary was the smell of despondency with a tinge of crude survival, pain and hunger pangs. By DARIUS OKOLLA
I grew up in Kitale. The story of the deterioration of my hometown in the 1990s mirrored the tumultuous decline of just about every factory-dependent town in the country; it was subtle, gradual, almost imperceptible, and forever disguised as the typical wear and tear of urban spaces – but it was more than that. It was thievery, corruption, and disenfranchisement, shoving it down the path of visible decline; a depreciative spectacle masked by rural docility and the often-accepted rural poverty.
First came the increasing cases of theft. These were often acts of burglary that surprised us in their desperation as much as they exasperated the victims by their sheer banality. We had an outhouse in our compound measuring about 8 feet by 11 feet, where we stored farm equipment, tree seedlings, charcoal sacks – pretty much everything that was bulky and intended for outdoor use. At first the break-ins at this outhouse were infrequent, then they happened about once every few months.
The stories from neighborhood increased. In nearly all the incidences there were no guns used, often no attacks, not even violent break-ins – just missing farm tools, stolen livestock, and pilfered homes when the owners had briefly travelled out of town. Once in late 1996, a neighbour’s clothes were stolen from the hanging line when she went to work, a theft that fascinated the neighborhood to no end. Who would do such a thing? Why – for heaven’s sake? Then there were the stories of food stolen alongside a burning charcoal jiko as someone cooked outside the house, a story told with awkward hilarity.
John Kirimaiti, Wanugu, Wacucu and the elite cadre of fascinating gun-toting gangsters were the stuff of distant cities told with near-legend flair that we knew we’d never have to worry about. Our version of burglary was the smell of despondency with a tinge of crude survival, pain and hunger pangs, which drove able-bodied humans to steal anything they deemed to be of market value.
When we first moved to Kitale in the early 1990s we lived at Section Five, a row of patterned townhouses with hedged compounds of cypress, flowers, worldliness and tranquility. Nearby was Matano, consisting of dozens of two storied homes with large balconies, cream walls and wooden doors named in alphabetical order. Bondeni, where we would go ride the swings at the children’s playground, was not far either.
My folks were somewhat too extraverted for the austere life of hedged picket fences in that neighborhood, so we moved to Section 21, a well tarmacked, more concrete-y neighborhood lying to the west of the town. The streetlights worked, the town matatus ran the transit service with an efficiency that we, for the longest time, took for granted. We moved again just when private landowners started buying property in Section 21 and setting up unplanned developments.
As Section 21 began to sprawl, it is perhaps not a coincidence that the locals transliterated its name to Tuwani (two-one-i), betraying its deterioration, imbuing it with a villagized name, vibe and life.
Our next neighborhood, Mitume, for the better part of the 1990s was a large piece of land with few houses and lot of grassy fields. Mitume (Kiswahili for apostles) a name likely derived from Christ The King Catholic church parish nearby, was far different from the organized suburb life of Section 21, though it offered a stronger sense of community. Mitume wasn’t spared either as slowly, random developments popped up on what was once sprawling grassy fields.
Chipped paint, dirt, and dilapidation slowly ravaged the children play area at the swings at Bondeni estate that we had left behind. The swings grew rusty, then bare-boned and dangerous for kids to play on. Then they got vandalized and whatever remained of them was run into the ground by neglect, swallowed by the earth and rust. Beside it, where dusty paths met collapsing hedges, garbage strewed onto the road from what were once neat, well-ordered homes.
I attended a public school and so did most of our neighbors, and most of our parents were either in the informal sector or worked as civil servants. It’s still intriguing how the elders seemed so unaware of just how vulnerable they were to downward mobility given their faithfulness in following every single news item on the radio. How come they didn’t see what was coming?
Baba Silas, my friend’s dad worked the Kenya Cooperative Creameries (KCC) and so did most of my friend’s dads who worked in various parastatals, like Baba Wycliffe, Baba Jaredi and on and on. Somehow our parents’ names were hallowed, so they were just ‘Baba nani’ and ‘Mama nani’. Baba Silas – I never got to know his name – carried himself with an air of officiousness, always in a leather jacket, with a slow walk; his neck seemed stiff as he walked, with a slight swagger and a polythene bag at hand. He always carried a polythene bag, I’m not sure why.
He’d lose his job during retrenchment as the parastatals got downsized and then collapsed in the mid-1990s. But I didn’t see him for a while, as we moved from Mitume estate to Lessos, where our parents had bought some land. Lessos estate is named after the Lessos farm in Eldoret, given that the Kalenjin owners who gave the place its name had moved to Kitale from Eldoret.
Set on a ridge overlooking a forest, you could always see the factories in Section 6 and Section 19 on the opposite ridge about four kilometres away, across from Lessos forest in the valley below.
From Lessos, the few remaining factories including a leather tanning factory, Kenya Seed, Western Seed and a dozen other factories let out a low dull hum that on a quiet afternoon reached all the way to our home. Slowly by slowly, the hum grew fainter as the firms collapsed until the sound was no more. But quickly, the silence as it was quickly replaced by the cacophony of human activity, especially a construction boom that hit the estate in the 2000s. The town’s population was rising, properties were becoming smaller and more sub-divided, and unplanned developments were everywhere.
As the hum of factories faded to whimpers, informal businesses in the neighborhoods rose sharply as retrenched workers desperately tried their hands in business, trying to secure an income for their families. Most of them collapsed within months or a few years after inception.
The 1997 elections carried with it a strange sense of camaraderie and hope in the town, partly because multi-party politics had expanded the democratic space and increased a sense of political freedom. Men (and they were mostly men) stood atop old Peugeots and Mazdas, flashing two-finger salutes and yelling in the air, drowning the silent scream of a town choking under the stranglehold of Structural Adjustment Programs.
In 1998 my mum sent me to call over a relative who lived about 40 kilometers away for a job opportunity at a local company – this was before cellphones were a thing. I must have been 10 years old. This relative had already unsuccessfully applied for the job dozens of times. I arrived late in the evening as he worked on his shamba, weeding his sukuma wiki and cassava.
‘‘Hii kazi bwana nimeapply, fare nimetumia mingi na mimi nimechoka, wacha tu nilime.’ (I’ve applied for this job many times and used so much fare; I’m tired, let me just farm). I was taken aback by the vulnerability on display, his frustration breaking through into an involuntary rant to a 10-year-old.
This time though, he got the three-month gig, which still only paid peanuts and barely provided him with meaningful cash. He’d leave for Kisumu afterwards, then Eldoret, then Nairobi and back to Kitale then Eldoret again.
I would run into Baba Silas in the late 1990s, a few years after he’d been fired from KCC. He looked haggard, tired, his trouser torn at the knees. He was working at a brick-making factory, and I ran into him taking a break under a makeshift grass thatched shade, eating the mjengo githeri at lunch time. His sagged chin reflected dignity under assault, he looked shaken to see me, and a bit sad.
Then came the early 2000s and the town broke into a palpable air of difficult-to-justify yet hard-to-dismiss optimism. When Narc luminaries came to Kitale stadium for what would be their only visit to the town before the 2002 elections, I sneaked from home to go watch the revolution happen. I was 13 years old.
“Hii movement bwana! It will last for at least 30 years,” my relative would tell me matter-of-factly after the momentous event. His life certainly changed. He landed a better paying gig, then got married. His wedding, albeit later in life than was expected, reflected his changing fortunes, much more than anything. We often take for granted how the frequency of social functions such as weddings, birthday parties, cookouts, and get-togethers reflect a rising society.
He’d secure better fortunes across the country, marry, settle down, buy a plot of land, build his home and essentially hit all the markers of adulthood that had eluded him for most of his life, all in a span of eight years in the 2000s.
Unfortunately for Kitale, the town never got to deftly negotiate with the colonial state in ways that could secure it enough resources to help it fully recover. It didn’t help that the town’s patriarch, Kijana Wamalwa, would pass away a few months into the Narc wave.
Still Kitale continued to grow, the population growing exponentially in the 2000s. During the 2007 post-election violence, given its cosmopolitan makeup, Kitale provided a somewhat safe harbor for those kicked out of their homes in the outlying regions. The population soared but the infrastructure and the vitality of its urban life didn’t. I see all that every time I go home.
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
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.
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.
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.
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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