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The Revolution Shall Not Be Instagrammed

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The Revolution Shall Not Be Instagrammed
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I was born in March of 1989, just two years before the term millennial was coined by William Strauss and Neil Howe in 1991, three years before Bill Clinton, the neoliberal icon, took over the most powerful presidency on earth and right on the throes of agitation for a multiparty democracy in Kenya.

I was shipped off to boarding school at 11 years which meant I became a young, distant observer to the events and transitions of life both at the family, and national level including the rise of rural modernity in the early 2000s, inspired by the power of the motorbike, the money transfer platform MPESA, and the changing political dynamics.

One midmorning in late August 1996, then a lower primary school kid at Kitale Union Primary School, I had my premature induction into the murky world of Kenyan politics via the hordes of retrenched industrial workers huddled in small groups, whispering, biting their lower lips, most of them looking over their shoulders.

Kitale town, then, was simply a one-main-street, end-of-the-rail town taped together by two dozen (mostly Indian owned) shops, several colonial era schools, the selfless public housing and the imposing structures of the traditional mainline churches like AIC, Roman Catholic, and PCEA. In the subsequent years, after the massive retrenchment, the once promising town sunk into a decaying ghost as the basic economic sustenance of the town; the parastatals like KCC ( Kenya Co-operative Creameries), NCPB (National Cereals and Produce Board), Kenya Seed and the large scale ADC (Agricultural Development Complexes) were downsized, collapsed or privatized thanks to the infamous Structural Adjustment program(SAP).

In one major swoop, the corporations that held the town together had been massively shaken, irrevocably altering the socioeconomic soul of the town. World Bank, IMF and other catchphrases that either I cannot recall or could not comprehend then, peppered their conversations. But what set the narrative on a new lane was a conversation one evening between my mom and my uncle, Barnabas. On and on, they would list the names of friends and family who had lost their sustenance due to the economic and political mess. Then, my uncle offhandedly said, ‘huyu jamaa ameharibu maneno’  in reference to a certain powerful politician. My then young, blissful, unthinking mind parroted back.’ Huyo ni mbaya.’ Their reaction was swift and unnerving. Even as a kid, the angst in their adult eyes was something they could not for a moment hide from me.

My then young mind could not wrap itself around the complex issues and the layers of emotions that defined the perils of the time. It must have been flinching for them to hear the spirit of the time parroted by a young soul and stripped of the euphemisms, artificiality and colloquiallity of adult conversation. What was however clear, was that I had mentioned something that for reasons I could not understand then I was not supposed to have uttered.

The 2003 euphoria found me, then a spry young 14 years old high school student, in the throes of what would have this country ranked as having one of the most optimistic citizenry in the world. The Kibaki regime, coming in at the tail end of the Moi regime to upstage Moi’s choice of a young-barely known-son of the first president, was a political earthquake unlikely to be recreated ever again.

Unfortunately, this high noon of political bliss would fizzle out fast, as the coalition would soon run into organizational trouble just after the demise of the then Vice President, Kijana Wamalwa who till then remained the most powerful politician from my hometown, Kitale. Kibaki would dishonour the NARC MoU as he increasingly retreated to his ethnic corner and darkened his legacy by resuscitating the Mt. Kenya Mafia. These MKM who had been torpedoed by Njonjo in 1978 when he gave Moi the presidency found a new lease of life in Kibaki post-2003 presidency.

Their primitive accumulation of wealth, ethnic superiority complex and contempt for anyone not from the slopes of Mt. Kenya is a terrible legacy that should have never been allowed to return into our national discourse. Unfortunately, ideological privilege combined with a siege mentality of their supporters had allowed them to establish a mal-adaptive ethno-supremacist regime. By the time the 2005 referendum came around, they had established an us-vs-them narrative and Uthamakism made its way back into our lexicon and corridors of power.

I have always been clear that Uthamakism is a monarchical structure that operates as gangland style territorialism primarily through state capture, ethnic bigotry, as well as tentacle and skewed economic interests. At this point, their self-interest is so intertwined with the state’s interests that it is virtually impossible to oust them. This Uthamakism is the Kenyan version of deep state that will always be more than willing to subvert democracy when it goes against their interests, biases, and preferences.

Even the next major political event in Kenya-the 2010 Constitution inauguration-could not pack enough patriotic punch to inspire a deeply frayed nation whose conscience had further been burdened by the 2007 skirmishes that intensely tore apart the illusion of the island of peace long peddled through the 90s.

I left campus in 2012 and joined the job market right at the tail end of the Kibakinomics economic upswing. The boom-a combination of higher education boom, real estate, banking, telecoms, money transfer and the revolutionary motorbikes- had for a moment set this nation on a path to seeming prosperity. In retrospect it did not occur to me just how bad the labor market was, given that I would land my first job 4 months after leaving campus. My fellow millennials have fared-and continue to fare-worse than I could imagine. Like everyone else in my generation, thanks to a confluence of forces-some decades in the making, we (millennials) are now facing the scariest financial future of any generation and just like my peers, I am finding it increasingly difficult not to be scared about the future, anxious about the present, and angry at the failings of the older generations.

I am 29 years old, a middle millennial if you will-and for the last five years since I left campus- a period in which I have been a staffer in a modern, centre-right church, ran a couple of creative gigs, written two books, and reinvented myself as a public scholar and a commercial writer-the labour market has continued to worsen to a full blown crisis.

In those six years, I’ve been waiting to start adulting, just like my father did, yet unlike him as I stare at the proverbial third floor I am increasingly aware of the power of societal outcomes to shape personal fortune especially as regards the five markers of adulting. As a millennial I have well-founded respect for context even as I weigh myself against him, who at my current age, 29 years, bore me as his 3rd child, besides having just bought a plot of land and had already risen to the rank of an acting head teacher.

Millennials, unless otherwise stated, is a term that refers to anyone born between 1982 and 2004 and if editorials are anything to go by, then we are considered a disappointment.  We have all heard the narrative, millennials are entitled, tech savvy, easily bored, flighty and have failed in the five common markers of adulting – finishing school, getting a job, marrying, raising a family and saving for the future. Honestly in these five benchmarks I have got a mixed score and occasionally I’ve marinated in private shame thanks to the pervasive myth of personal effort alone in shaping life outcomes as peddled by the prosperity gospel on the religious side and the secularist positive thinking movement on the other hand.

The millennial bashing script often reads like capitalism’s disappointment that we did not turn into the reckless consumer cluster that they anticipated we will be when they branded us in 1991. The millennial narrative-for the most part-ignores the existential pain of being young in a flailing society, and the attendant youthful anxiety, grief, struggle and fears while amplifying the trivial and dehumanizing aspects of generational clustering such as tastes, habits and preferences.

Unfortunately these generalizations, just like those of any other generational group fails to account for wide variations in individual and group-wide dynamics. Being a millennial also means having to constantly remind Gen X and Boomers that contrary to clichés about us, a vast majority of our peers have not gone to university, do not get paying gigs regularly, and cannot depend on our folks. Only a tiny minority fit these peddled stereotypes.

What defines us is not Java Cafe, Instagram, or any sense of entitlement. It’s UNCERTAINTY.

What is a Generation?

The assumption inherent in my reflections here is that a generation is mostly defined by biological comradeship built on small age variations. However in ‘the problem of generations’ sociologist Karl Mannheim, in 1927, pointed out that a generation is something like a social class: an objective, structuring social fact. If the objective aspects of class were economic, those of generations were biological. However mere biological coincidences are not enough to form a generation. A certain age cluster born around the same time only becomes a generation when they develop an actual peer bond thanks to a specific political, moral, spiritual, economic, geographical or social event that knits them together into largely observable mind-sets and worldviews.

Within such contextualization, I would then say that the Kenyan Gen X (45-60) only acted as a generation between 1990-2002 when the SAPS united them in sedative leisure of booze, longing for emigration abroad, sex and despondency. However such a short span of generation formation (whose effects were mitigated by the helicopter nation-state parenting of Kenya by the United States through Bretton Woods institutions) wasn’t enough to forment a generational bond. By the year 2000 as the economic boom kicked in, the 90s kids went separate ways and their process of generation formation got torpedoed. That is why many of them, drunken with hyper-individualism and failure to think generationally, are busy screwing the economy through privatization and the neoliberal onslaught.

For we millennials, our ‘generation formation’, is taking place in the crucible of a flailing global finance at the end of capitalism as we’ve known it, a period that has us trapped in eternal adultescence in which we are no longer kids and neither do we fully possess the social markers of adulthood. And the circumstances we live in are direr than most people realize. All around us the social safety nets-education, housing, and health care-have now become financially unattainable even as the paths to respectable financial existence are becoming expensive, illegal or hoarded.

For we millennials, there are many living in poverty and struggle even as more are at risk of falling into despair. This is why nations invent welfare plans and firm-up their social safety nets. In healthy, functional societies, quality, affordable public social services such as water, sanitation, security, healthcare, and education are considered human rights not mere market products. They are supposed to be the paths that can help kids, irrespective of their circumstance of birth to transcend family status and become upwardly mobile.

The first inkling that we are living in the ‘new 90s’ defined by stagnating economy, stunted growth and rampant corruption would come a few months after I quit my first job as a church staffer, at the tail end of 2014. Most of the vacancy applications that I sent out would go unresponded to even without a mere ‘well received’ feedback. And the statistics were there to back me up-albeit 3 years later. According to a December 2017 job report, 53% of those polled were unemployed, with 86% of the unemployed being between 18-34 years. The job market is depressing and despite all this talk about the internet revolution and gigs, if nothing changes, my generation will walk into our 40 and 50s with a career consisting of a long list of unrelated low-skilled, low-wage, short-term, temp jobs, living financially insecure lives and not qualified for any job particular. It is no longer strange to hear of those who have not landed a job, three even five years, after leaving campus.

Around the same period, that the report was released I ran a viral Twitter thread dubbed #UnemploymetDisasterKe that garnered 736k impressions within 9 days. Employers would write to me in private about how they no longer advertise the vacancies because of the massive deluge of CVs that would come in. One employer mentioned how he got 2045 CVs for 15 positions while another mentioned receiving 711 CVs for 7 clerical positions. It’s a numbers game and there just aren’t enough quality jobs for millennials out here.

When it comes to schooling, currently, barely 10% of those who finish high school are able to join tertiary institutions. This means roughly half a million Kenyans wind up in the job market, young, inexperienced and not properly schooled. Meanwhile, an estimated 900 000 Kenyans turn 18 years every year. Tragically, the current fascist regime is well invested in destroying the already bust education economy, a mess reflected in the fact that university enrolment has dropped by a third in 2018.

Meanwhile, at the workplaces around the country, the scourge of managerialism that treats supervisory and management skills as superior and thus better remunerated than technical skills has dis-incentivized millennials from joining -Technical, Vocational and Education and Training (TVET) institutions in favour of the funneled University education.

Quality education, one of the most viable social safety nets for the poor, has been yanked and compromised, privatized and priced out of reach of many in the society. This generation not only has to deal with a failing labour market, they are in turn walking into the future as largely uneducated-in a society in which education is a strong predictor of good incomes.

To be a millennial in this country is to be acquainted with lack, plagued by economic insecurity, and to be eternally haunted by the prospects of poverty and as Michael Hobbes, a millennial writer opines, becoming poor is not an event. It is a process. Like a plane crash, poverty is rarely caused by one thing going wrong. Usually, it is a series of misfortunes—a job loss, then a car accident, then an eviction—that interact and compound.

One aspect of millennial life that we rarely look into is just how much it matters what accidental advantages one accumulates at birth i.e. postcode lottery. The underlying force is the ever ignored role of inherited (dis)advantages in which, being born into a stable, well-to-do family avails certain nutritional, economic, financial, and academic advantages that gives you a leg up in the race of life. It is the nature of life dynamics that in a tough economy with dwindling opportunities, children born into abundance or as Warren Buffet calls them ‘the lucky sperm club’ have a surer head start than ever.

Add the current rigged economy, unbelievable corruption and the floundering nation-state, and there’s no doubt that we are walking into a period where, while there still exists accelerating advantages for the upper class millennials, the middle class millennials have a tricky dance with fate and risk downward mobility, while the poor millennials have to face the reality of compounding disadvantages.

To have an undergraduate degree in this country, at this point, means to be among the 700, 000 degreed Kenyans while a Master’s degree puts you further up in the apex of society given that as of 2014 only 40,173 students enrolled in master’s programmes and 4,394 in PhD courses. Even then a degree does not protect you from the context of entry into adult life, given that it matters in what kind of a public environment you turn into adulthood. Turning into a young adult in the middle of a boom like the 99-2010 upswing avails massive job and investment opportunities, which comes with the potential for saving and accumulation of economic and professional advantages in yours 20s and 30s that often compounds over a lifetime. Conversely, turning into adulthood in post-2012 Kenya-like I did-has meant that the advantages I gained as the son of rural, professional parents in a nominally catholic family at birth were neutralized by the downward swing in the labour market at the throes of adulthood.

The reason, we millennials seem stuck in some sort of extended adolescence is because we are trying to succeed within a system that no longer has all the pipelines that ushered youths into adulthood. The rungs needed to finance an education, get a respectable job with a decent salary, then raise a family have been yanked away, the rules have changed, and now we are left playing a game that is virtually designed to make us lose.

Not only are most of my peers jobless or underemployed, we are getting jobs later, we start earning less money, we are not able to save thanks to sky-high bills, we accumulate more loans from shylocks to stay afloat, buying a home is only possible for a tiny, negligible minority of millennials and unless the current system gives way, few of us millennials will survive the onslaught. Meanwhile, the current regime has added over $20 billion debt burden on our society within 5 years, in the absence of a major crisis like civil war or natural disaster – and with little to show for it, turning us into a multi-decade Creditopolis.

What are our options then? We millennials have legitimate and genuine grievance and methods of expressing displeasure but we have not conjoined the two with an ideology like our peers who run the revolutionary sang culture among Chinese millennials, the Corbyn populism among the UK millennials, Geracao a Rasca among the Portuguese millennials, Juvetud Sin Futuro in Spain and a whole host of other millennial ideological movements around the world who are framing their struggle as class-based and generational.

There are three illusions that prevent many Kenyan millennials from organizing: one, is, this is temporary, we’ll ride it out: two, I’ll prosper and leave all other millennial strugglers behind: three, I’m the only one caught in this mess, so it’s my private shame.  Truth is, study after study show you are wrong on the first count, have minimal chances of achieving the second, and you would be surprised how many of us are out here stuck in the third.

Given the skewed, nepotistic, violent, and predatory nature of the current system, the only option left for us Kenyan millennials is to imitate our peers around the world and set in motion a MILLENIAL REVOLUTION otherwise we are toast. And it’s the least we are ENTITLED to.

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Darius Okolla is a writer and a social commentator based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Reflections

When We Lose Our Fear: A Saba Saba Day Reflection

On the 30th anniversary of the Saba Saba day, grassroots human rights defenders and allies held a protest and appeared in way that was not sanctioned by the authorities to confront state power and exercise their right to be seen and heard.

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When We Lose Our Fear: A Saba Saba Day Reflection
Photo: Anthony Tei Mutua
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On the thirtieth anniversary of the massive pro-democracy Saba Saba day ( 7th July) demonstrations in Kenya, Tuesday’s People’s March began in the very places where state violence is still laid bare: Mathare, Kayole, Dandora, Kibera, and other informal settlements in Nairobi. From as early as 7AM that grey cold-season morning, human rights defenders at the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) and allies from the community began preparing for their march. They lined posters and banners along the front of the centre. They raised up large flags, one in each hand, and spun, watching the fabric billow. They tested loudspeakers. They sang and danced to protest music together.

Thirty years ago, hundreds of demonstrators flooded the city centre, led by a coalition of pro-democracy political leaders, to demand multi-party democracy and the end of authoritarian rule under President Daniel arap Moi. On Tuesday, grassroots human rights defenders organised a People’s March—a leaderless event that was, on principle, neither branded and sponsored by any organisation, nor “approved” beforehand by authorities—to demand a set of basic human rights necessary to live a dignified life.

Ironically, in 1990, the first Saba Saba demonstration under Moi’s dictatorship was able to at least get within the vicinity of the Kamukunji grounds, though it was eventually met with lethal police force. This time in 2020, before demonstrators were able to even leave Mathare, Dandora, Kibera, Kayole, and other meeting places, clots of police officers had already begun blocking their passage and arresting leading organisers. Only minutes after demonstrators at the Mathare Social Justice Centre began singing, police shot tear gas at them.

After the inaugural plumes of tear gas cleared from the front of MSJC, Mama Victor walked up to me, gave me a long embrace, looked to where the police were gathered, and abruptly said, “I’m going there to take tea.”

Mama Victor has a face like calm waters, smooth and serene like one of Picasso’s monumental women. Like the other members of the Network of Mothers and Widows of Victims and Survivors who had gathered at MSJC to participate in the march, she wore a white gown over her clothes, like those for baptisms. Written on the front of all of the gowns were the names of loved ones killed by police. She clenched in her hand the poster she had intended to march with: a large photograph of a young man, with the words “Victor Okoth Obondo. 1994-2017.”

Three years ago, Mama Victor lost both of her sons on the same day. It was August 9, 2017, when post-election unrest led to violent police crackdowns in informal settlements across the country. Victor, 22, and Bernard, 25—the son of her deceased sister, whom she raised as her own—were on their way home to Mathare when they were caught up in protests contesting election results. Police shot live bullets. Bernard was shot in the head and died instantly; Victor was shot in the stomach and died before he reached the hospital.

At the time, Mama Victor’s shock and grief was forced into the confines of a politically charged election. Victor and Bernard’s burials had to be rushed, but, in her account to journalist Isaac Otidi Amuke, she says she was “fortunate” to even have that. Other mothers, grandmothers, widows, and relatives, are often denied the “privilege to mourn,” as people can be arrested for even holding vigil for those killed by police.

“In the beginning, I would just wake up, see the photo of my sons, and cry,” she says. But as the once-searing pain subsided with time, she realized that it was only people like her who could sit with other mothers of victims and “share the pain we feel.” So she and a few other core members formed the Network of Mothers and Widows of Victims and Survivors.

When We Lose Our Fear: A Saba Saba Day Reflection

Photo. Anthony Tei Mutua

The word “activist,” and the cynicism around it, often obscures the fact that some like Mama Victor never chose to be activists. Rather, it was the decision of some police officers sent to control “riots” on August 9, 2017 to pull the trigger—and Mama Victor’s refusal to accept impunity as an answer—that has landed her here. Taking tea in front of police officers on Saba Saba day.

Right off of the main road where over a dozen police officers were gathered, behind a kiosk selling medicinal herbs, was a breakfast kibanda. Mama Victor sat down on the mbao-bench to take chai and chapati. On the bench next to her, she set down the poster of Victor and another poster of Yassin Moyo, the 13-year-old boy who was shot in Kiamaiko on March 30 by police enforcing curfew, while he stood on the balcony of his family’s house.

Almost immediately, two policeman approach Mama Victor. They ask her what she is doing, and she says drily that she is taking tea. One orders her to get up and leave. “I can’t,” she says, “because I am taking tea.” They say no “gatherings” are allowed here—referring to the protest songs that had just been silenced by tear gas—and once again she says she is not gathering anything, she is just taking tea.

The humiliating interrogation continues. One officer asks her why she is wearing white, to which she responds that those are her clothes. He sees her facemask, draped loose on her neck, and with his wooden baton, prods at the human rights logo printed on it: “What is this?” Even with his stick pointed at her neck, Mama Victor didn’t let her chin drop. She raises her voice and reaffirms that she is not doing anything wrong by wearing her own clothes and drinking tea. She takes two cups and pours the hot, milky tea from one cup into the other, in a long, white cascade, to cool it.

Mama Victor is not naive about dealing with the police. As a human rights defender at MSJC, she collects evidence to document police brutality in Mathare, which means that, like other grassroots organizers unprotected by international institutions, in the past, she has received threats from anonymous callers and been followed for days by strange men. If she talks back to police, it is not because she believes she is untouchable.

One police officer orders Mama Victor to remove the white robe and throw away the posters of Victor and Yassin. A crowd gathers around this image of a thousand words: a policeman with his stick, standing above a woman seated on a wooden bench, trying to take her breakfast. Mama Victor refuses to throw away the posters and, her shouts reaching a fever pitch, she points to the poster of Victor on the bench next to her and asks the wrenching, simple question: “Can I not even take tea here with my child?”

Despite the fact that the state has already heaped layers of violence on this woman—murdering her sons, denying her justice, leaving her to solve her own children’s murders, plus the baseline systemic neglect that Mathare and other informal settlements suffer—the state has denied Mama Victor the dignity of even appearing before the Kenyan public by choking the Saba Saba day demonstration before it started.

They cannot, however, strip away the eternal truth that she is—and always will be—Mama Victor. Victor Okoth Obondo, frozen forever in that crouch, his arm resting on his knee, with a cool, easy smile. Her baby.

Mama Victor grabs the poster and, breaking into a flow of Dholuo, speaks straight to Victor. “Victor, you were so handsome, everyone said. You were kind, hard-working. We shouldn’t have come to Nairobi. Perhaps if we were home….” Another woman in the back begins to wail, and the police slink away.

In The Appearance of Black Lives Matter, visual activist Nicholas Mirzoeff writes that for Black people in 2014’s BLM protests to show up in the way they did was for them to “appear as Black in a way that is not codified by white supremacy.” To “appear,” he writes, is to confront state power that says, “Move along, nothing to see here,” and to demand to be seen. To “appear” is to be grievable, worth grieving, and to force others to look.

All of the grassroots human rights defenders and allies who weren’t already arrested by 10AM and furtively hopped onto matatus into town, knowing that scores of police would be waiting for them there too, understood this. They rejected the idea that a demonstration could possibly be first approved by the government, and they claimed—as victims of structural violence themselves—their right to “appear.”

Human rights defenders on Tuesday’s Saba Saba day, knew that Kenya’s comfortable class is not ignorant of plight of the poor but, rather, chooses to ignore it. Like Black civil rights activists of the U.S. in the 1960s, they knew that the most powerful message would have to be communicated through the medium of their own bodies: kneeling together, unfazed and fists up, within a storm of tear gas, or proclaiming “Whatever happens, I am not afraid” while being dragged by officers into the boot of a car.

It worked. Photographs and videos from Tuesday show the full, militarized force of the state concentrated onto the unarmed, vulnerable bodies of the city’s poorest, bodies which already bear the violence of living in districts with no water, going to bed hungry, loving people who were murdered by serial killer cops.

Mama Victor says that, when she reached the city centre, she was followed closely by several police officers—so closely that other organizers arranged for a cab to take her directly home. That is how much the state fears a middle-aged woman wearing white and holding a poster of her son, whose smile can never fade anymore. Even though the state had stripped Mama Victor of every other opportunity to express her grief and demand justice, the one they could not take away—her own self, the mother of two men they killed—is indeed the most powerful.

At first, this particular kind of protest seems like a paradox: how can leaning into one’s vulnerability possibly be an expression of power? But if you think about it a bit more, it makes intuitive sense. In a widely shared video from Tuesday afternoon, MSJC co-founder Juliet Wanjiru Wanjira is cornered between two parked cars, surrounded by several armed police officers attempting to arrest her. Without flinching, she says she will not cooperate and asks them, “Why are you arresting me?”

One officer asks back, “Why are you protesting?”

“Because you’re killing us!”

“Who is killing you?”

“You! Police!” The officer begins to walk away, and she continues: “You are killing us in our communities! Poor communities!” Both Wanjira and Mama Victor display no fear, and they lean into her identity as the victims of police violence in the face of police themselves.

When We Lose Our Fear: A Saba Saba Day Reflection

Photo. Anthony Tei Mutua

The police leave Wanjira alone. She turns to those around her, throws her fist in the air, and shouts, “When we lose our fear, they lose their power!” Her courage doesn’t come from the security of privilege, but rather defiance even in the face of her own vulnerability, as someone who faces the real risk of being disappeared or executed, a tragic fate that has met many other Kenyan human rights defenders.

Those with a lived experience of state violence have the most powerful things to say to the government. Indeed, even if they marched silently in town, their bodies would speak volumes. Perhaps that is what the state fears most—people who see not only their own scars but also see clearly who inflicted them. Perhaps that is why police coordinated so thoroughly to block demonstrators from even stepping foot on the road to the city centre.

This completely counters how certain newspapers reported the day’s events: that the Saba Saba demonstrations were shut down, somehow failed, or didn’t happen at all. Ultimately, the entire country witnessed the physical violence that police officers inflicted on peaceful protestors. But, more than that, they witnessed how this violence was doled out on people who already bore state violence within their own bodies.

People like Mama Victor, a living testament to the bloodied hands of the state. Her survival is resistance. Her dogged commitment to documenting extrajudicial killings is resistance. Her sitting down to take tea with her son in front of those who killed him—that, above all, is resistance.

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Reflections

Confronting Racism in the Shackles of a Miseducation

I cannot claim to have been a victim of the odious, brutal racism of the kind daily suffered by – predominantly – African American men in the United States. The racism I encountered during my time abroad was of the insidious kind, the kind that lets you in through the door and feigns to accept you as an equal while reminding you that “the hand that receives is always beneath the hand that gives.”

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Confronting Racism in the Shackles of a Miseducation
Photo: Unsplash/Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona
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Paysage avec homme nu dans la neige.

That was the title of the book and the subject of the exam.

Landscape with a naked man in the snow.

I cannot now remember the title of the course but I have kept the book and clearly remember the lecturer who taught it; a small, pasty-faced man with a balding pate and shifty black eyes. There we were, in his office on the second floor of the Faculty of Letters, Monsieur le Professeur behind his desk and me on the opposite side facing him, nervously ready to sit this oral exam. It started off well enough, my confidence growing as I responded to the lecturer’s questions.

Then out of nowhere, like a violent slap across the face, his beady eyes boring into mine, came this: “Tell me Mademoiselle, naked white men fascinate you, don’t they? Do you like the title of the book? What does it make you think of? You black people are really fascinated by us whites, aren’t you?” I sat there utterly gobsmacked, unable to conjure up any sort of response, in outrage or even in pretense at a smart literary comeback. Then Monsieur le Professeur seemed to snap out of it, dismissing me with a peremptory Vous pouvez disposer!

I left his office and stopped to stare out through the large bay windows that overlooked the square below, too stunned to immediately leave the building and join the throngs of students lazing about in the summer sunshine. I felt sad, mad, sullied, impotent. I knew I could lodge a complaint but how would I frame it? With what words? There had only been the two of us in that office so it would be his word against mine. Also, I was the only black female student in my faculty that year so I had no one to compare notes with. And besides, I knew I had passed the exam; otherwise, as was the custom, Monsieur le Professeur would have informed me that I would be taking a re-sit come September. Why then would I start a fight I wasn’t sure I could win?

Yet now I believe that this acquiescence, this doubting of self, this not fighting back, had been inculcated in me, and that I had internalised it well. I remember being in secondary school and the Mother Superior informing us that Africans were required to attend national celebrations at Uhuru Park. Africans. Not the Asians or the Europeans that were in class with me, many of whom were, at least from a citizenship point of view, as Kenyan as I am. Africans. Black. Everyone else stayed behind as we Black Africans made our way to Uhuru Park that day. We did not complain. I did not complain.

An Irish nun given to long digressions into her distant childhood in County Cork taught us African history. Apartheid and Bantustans came up, a map showing the various desolate locations to which black South Africans had been relegated pinned to the classroom wall. Yet I do not remember any sense of outrage on the part of the teacher. Or on the part of us students. Kenya’s colonial history, with its native reserves, its racism and its violence, was certainly not taught. It was a time to forgive but never forget, we were constantly reminded, the not forgetting bit invoked as an after-thought, sotto voce.

And nor was Kenya’s painful history invoked at home; we were not a political family by any measure. The parents worked and the children went to school and did what was expected of them. Only much later did it occur to me to wonder what it might mean for my family that my grandfather had been a chief in colonial times.

We learned to recite Shakespeare, and became intimate with the Mayor of Casterbridge; the English classics held no secrets for us. I fell in love with the language of love, taught to me by one Mrs Kiprono (why on earth would anyone study Swahili?) and flew off to take a degree in Romance Languages the minute I could. And thus did I come face to face with my miseducation.

I had been on campus a year, struggling to dominate the language of Molière, when the time came to renew my student residency permit, having done well enough to progress to second year. Of I went to the immigration desk of our local authority one October morning, joining a line of foreigners there for the same reason when, suddenly, up at the top of the queue, a young black man lost it. “What?! I am exploiting the Belgian taxpayer?! Do you know how long we Congolese suffered under your rule? Do you know that we built this country? Do you know what King Leopold did to us? Do you? Well, if you think I’m profiting from you I haven’t even started yet Madame! I have come to repatriate what you took from me!”. Apparently, the prim madam attending to the queue had questioned his motivation to remain in Belgium since he had failed his year but the young Congolese man was having none of it; he threw a monumental, show-stopping fit and got his residency renewed there and then. I had never witnessed anything of the sort before. I realised there was another whole history out there I knew nothing about.

That young man made me feel emboldened and when, some time later, a couple of cops jumped dramatically out of their patrol car in that neighbourhood of Brussels known as Matongé—on account of its numerous Congolese businesses—and barked, “papiers!”, at Jean and I, clearly hoping that we were undocumented illegals, we laughed in their faces as we handed over our student IDs. A young female lecturer of African descent recently arrived at the department of history had me transfixed when she took on a white professor at an international students event. In his cravat, floppy hat and carefully cultivated air of the worldly dandy, the prof had been waxing lyrical about his time at the Université Lovanium in Congo-Kinshasa, practically working himself into a state of ecstasy at the recall of the beauty of Congolese women dancers during faculty parties. Her “je danse, donc je suis?”, I dance, therefore I am?, abruptly put paid to that self-indulgent, paternalistic, walk down memory lane.

The scales had fallen from my eyes and I had come to the painful realisation that I had been lied to and that things were not as they seemed. I started reading properly, discovering the works of Cheikh Anta Diop and promoting them with the zeal of a recent convert, once eliciting the comment of a white friend that he would henceforth have to regard me in a totally different light, now that he was having to contemplate the notion that Africans had entire civilisations behind them. I was astounded.

A first full-time job after graduation brought me into the world of trade unions, a world where I expected that the rallying call—“Workers of the world, unite!”—excluded racists from the ranks of its diverse membership. That is until I found myself sitting between two Italian delegates to whom I was providing consecutive interpretation when a white speaker, referring to Namibians, ejaculated: “But these people are animals! You can’t do anything with them!”. (The man had a contract to undertake trade union education among the said “animals”.) I could not translate that statement, did not know what to do with it even as the two Italians kept asking me, “What did he say? What did he say?”. The meeting broke up in pandemonium.

I moved jobs a while later and found myself working under a Belgian director who liked to advance his reputation as a friend of Africa and Africans, holding court in his office through the doors of which hopeful African immigrés would flow, many met in the African nightclubs Monsieur le Directeur liked to frequent. Which did not dissuade him from treating very ill a young man to whom he had offered a job as his PR man, holding him by the contractual balls and giving them a squeeze every so often, just because he could. That young man eventually lost his job. And his mind. He was Congolese.

I cannot claim to have been a victim of the odious, brutal racism of the kind daily suffered by – predominantly – African American men in the United States. The racism I encountered during my time abroad was of the insidious kind, the kind that lets you in through the door and feigns to accept you as an equal while reminding you that “the hand that receives is always beneath the hand that gives”, as one senior manager, a Frenchman, put it to staff to justify why African beneficiaries of international development cooperation largesse needn’t expect to have their views taken into serious consideration in the execution of a project.

In the meantime, other books were published. Like King Leopold’s Ghost, a quick primer on the brutality of the agents of King Leopold II in the Congo Free State. My heart went out to the Congolese after that one. Or the horrifyingly detailed Britain’s Gulag, which at first I was unable to read to the end; the torture casually perpetrated in the Kenyan concentration camps by the colonists and their local collaborators was beyond anything I could bear to know. It took ten years for me to go back to that book, and to start asking questions about that time. I was shocked to learn from an aunt now in her early 70s that she knew of women who never did get married, could find no one to marry them, because they were daughters of known Ngati, the Kikuyu Home Guards that did the colonial government’s dirty work.

There was still the question of my grandfather who had been a chief in those times. I loved and revered that man, and did not want to have to contemplate that he might have been a party to the suffering visited upon Kenyans by the colonial government and its craven collaborators. And so I did not probe. Then, quite by chance, I fell upon The Swords of Kĩrĩnyaga: the fight for land and freedom, a book written by H.K. Wachanga, a former freedom fighter and, in those pages, I learnt something about my grandfather that freed me from the fear that my family had been on the wrong side of Kenya’s history.

[W]e met the Muhĩto Location Chief, Jeremiah Kĩnyua s/o Kĩru. He was a most unusual chief, because he had taken the second Mau Mau oath. He warned us that the government was searching for Kĩmathi, Mathenge and myself. He said Kimathĩ and Mathenge were to be tried for murder and that I was to be detained. He implored me to escape to Nairobi and hide there.

I learnt very recently from a contemporary of my grandfather’s that his chieftaincy was short-lived. Jeremiah Kĩnyua son of Kiru would not commit exactions against his people, and eschewed violence and corruption. And so he was quietly removed, never again to hold public office, living a dignified life and dying an honourable death four years shy of his 100th birthday.

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Reflections

Covid Organics: Towards an African Renaissance

Following the outbreak of a pandemic in the city of Wuhan during a Chinese winter that will forever remain etched in the annals of history, Madagascar has been dramatically thrust to the fore on the international stage with its announcement of the development of a herbal remedy for COVID-19.

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Covid Organics: Towards an African Renaissance
Photo: Gov. of Madagascar
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Unlike other former French colonies in Africa such as Benin, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Senegal and Mali that have been acclaimed for placing the continent on the world map musically, Madagascar is not known for its musical prowess. The country pales in comparison to Cape Verde, that tiny island in the Atlantic Ocean that produced the gifted voice of Cesária Évora, and gave birth to Amilcar Cabral, the anti-colonial revolutionary and theoretician. But with the outbreak of a pandemic in the city of Wuhan during a Chinese winter that will forever remain etched in the annals of history, Madagascar has been dramatically thrust to the fore on the international stage.

Madagascar caught the world’s attention in April 2020 after announcing that it had made an extraordinary breakthrough in the field of (indigenous African) medicine. The Madagascar Institute of Applied Research (IMRA), which describes itself as “dedicated to biodiversity conservation and the discovery of drugs from natural products”, announced the development of Covid Organics (CVO) from the artemisia plant. Promoted as an herbal remedy that prevents and cures those who have tested positive for COVID-19, the drug has caused a sensation in a continent that has been marginalised by an international scientific community that views Africa as a spectator rather than as a player. But let me put a few things into perspective.

Long before CVO, the island nation’s flourishing plant life had been used for medicinal purposes, a tradition dating back to its pre-colonial days. The colonial epoch, however, disrupted this practice in order to introduce conventional medicine just like in other colonised African countries. In Madagascar, the practice was revived through the establishment of IMRA and deliberate emphasis was placed on the “value of plants in healing”, confirmed by the scientific tradition of investigating their chemical compounds to improve their efficacy. Remarkably, this revival began in the late 1950s when most African countries were on the cusp of independence and self-rule, with Ghana taking the lead (in 1957), and Madagascar and others following from 1960 onwards.

Political independence and self-rule coincided with the need to reclaim old practices and traditions that had been suppressed in the colonial era. The COVID-19 herbal remedy which continues to elicit excitement is, therefore, part of a long and rich African tradition that has resisted erasure.

Covid Organics comes against the backdrop of other encouraging and bold African interventions to combat various diseases that have plagued the world in recent decades. Before COVID-19, another viral disease stalked parts of West and Central Africa, resulting in more than 10,000 deaths. First reported in the DRC and in present-day South Sudan in 1976, the fight against Ebola has over the decades underscored the importance of the active involvement of local populations in deploying indigenous knowledge and remedies. Not many Africans are aware of the indescribable bravery of Sheik Umar Khan, a Sierra Leonean virologist who helped scores of Ebola patients before succumbing to the virus. Very few have heard of Dr Matthew Lukwiya, a Ugandan doctor who generated a substantial body of knowledge in the fight against Ebola before falling victim to the disease.

These few examples arguably contest the pervasive idea that conventional medicine and, to a large extent, western intervention are the only antidotes to African problems. The paradox in all this is the economic impoverishment of Madagascar, Sierra Leone and Uganda where a majority of citizens still live below the poverty line as compared to, say, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Egypt. There are, of course, other factors that explain the economic differences, but the most important point here is that innovation tends to occur where the need is greatest.

No one epitomises this innovative spirit more than IMRA founder, Prof Albert Rakoto, whose earlier studies on the artemisia plant have contributed immensely to the development of Covid Organics. (The research on Covid Organics has been falsely credited to Jérôme Munyangi, a Congolese researcher.) Rakoto’s insistence on blending indigenous and conventional medicine is vital because it is likely to solve two problems with a single solution, retaining traditional medicine practices that are readily available within most African communities while adapting modern scientific trends to improve the effectiveness of plants such as artemisia in order to complement the strained healthcare infrastructure.

It is safe to say that so far Madagascar is reaping the benefits of its discovery if the coronavirus figures in the island nation are anything to go by. At the time of writing this article, the country had recorded 1,724 confirmed positive cases with only 15 deaths, and 732 recovered and discharged. The figures nearly mirror those of other former French colonies like Guinea Bissau and Equatorial Guinea which have reported under 20 deaths each so far, and are also the beneficiaries of the Covid Organics. Therefore, as the global pandemic continues to evolve, it will become increasingly foolhardy for the international scientific community to ignore this very interesting trend.

Recently, there have been thinly veiled attempts—mainly by western mainstream media outlets—to cast aspersions on the drug. Reuters described the herbal remedy as a “cure” , the quotation marks serving to cast doubts on the claims made by Madagascar about Covid Organics, while FRANCE24 brazenly and without batting an eyelid went ahead to call it “The president’s controversial ‘miracle cure’” in one of their news stories. Some of these problematic media framings go beyond the often false premise that nothing good can come out of Africa. Instead, they are part of a deliberate, but subtle ideological battle that persistently discredits anything African that might be of benefit to the world.

The use of the word “miracle” by FRANCE24 captures this vividly because it implies superstition – some irrational belief in the healing powers of the drug – instead of the deployment of homegrown science and logic in responding to a virus that has ravaged western countries more than any other part of the world. Some Africans have joined the fray in ridiculing the wonder drug, provoking a déjà vu moment reminiscent of Ocol’s infamous lamentations to Lawino:

We will round up
All these priests
[…] And herbalists,
[…] Dealers in poisons
Extracted from plants

The leading proponent of the drug is Andry Rajoelina, the wiry-looking Malagasy president with his signature toothy smile. Before he ascended to power, the 46-year old was an event organiser. He has progressively become the poster boy for the drug, and more importantly, for the shaping and reimagining the course of the African Renaissance. Through various interviews granted to media platforms, Rajoelina continues to insist that nothing will stop the continent from devising homegrown solutions to respond to local and even global problems. His memorable rallying cry was expressed during a television session with FRANCE24 when he asked: “What if this remedy had been discovered by a European country, instead of Madagascar? Would people doubt it so much?”

Rajoelina is not the first African to challenge the institutionalised racism that has plagued people of colour the world over since the advent of European imperialism. Pioneer pan-African thinkers and philosophers like Marcus Garvey, W.E.B Dubois, Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon dedicated their lives to fighting racism in a world that had been designed to minimise the contributions of non-white peoples. Accordingly, how did one reconcile with the nightmare that Dubois called “double consciousness”? The “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” that currently informs the discourse on Covid Organics? Lately, Julius Malema, who leads South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, has been at the forefront in challenging and questioning inherited ideas of self-doubt and inferiority complex that Rajoelina also now contends with. Malema, like Rajoelina today, has been a fierce proponent of Africa and has even called for the dismantling of colonial borders that prevent ease of movement and trade among Africans.

Despite not being geographically located on the African continent, Madagascar identifies as African, not just because of its significant Bantu population, but because of a growing continental pride, especially among the younger generation. In the last few years, the rise and rise of African music like afrobeats (West Africa), kizomba music (in lusophone countries), rumba (in Central Africa), bongo (in Tanzania) and gqom and amapiano (in South Africa) has galvanized young Africans to new forms of negotiating and asserting their racial and geographical identities within a globalised world.

Madagascar’s development of a herbal remedy for COVID-19 has become an extension of this ongoing negotiation with identity that constantly invokes the slogans Africa Unite and I am proud to be African. Therefore, its location several kilometres further into the Indian Ocean has not dissuaded the Malagasy people from identifying with the pan-African goal of a strong, unified continent ready to determine her own destiny.

There are, of course, those who may voice criticism that Rajoelina’s COVID-19 remedy is not enough to catalyse the important conversation of the African Renaissance, and that it is a passing fad that will soon be forgotten as long as COVID-19 continues to mutate. While this argument is valid, the critics fail to acknowledge that indigenous strategies of confronting diseases, particularly those that are viral, including HIV/AIDS, remain instrumental in instilling optimism and hope in a continent that has been battered by persistent narratives of despair and Afro-pessimism. Madagascar essentially provides the continent with a new incentive to sustain, for example, the debate around patents and intellectual property rights that have received scant attention from African governments. The island nation further acts as a symbolic incubation centre for creative, radical and innovative ideas that are not afraid to confront mainstream thinking (on matters medicine) in the 21st century.

Madagascar’s story has just begun and it will continue to follow the same trajectory as long as the beneficiaries of the herbal remedy recover from COVID-19. Western media stations will have to rethink their reporting on African issues because the old ways will no longer work. African sounds, not just music in the sonic sense, but the capacity to speak and be heard will increasingly become the norm rather than the exception. A deepening African consciousness, that in the past was considered an anathema, will progressively influence new ways of engagement between fellow Africans within and outside the continent and between Africans and non-Africans. It is highly probable that the engagement—time is on Africa’s side (considering the youthful population)—will always be of equals and not that of a master and subordinate. With Rajoelina and Malema and Bobi Wine and many countless others accelerating these pan-African conversations through music, art, speeches, and most importantly, home-grown science, Africa’s voice is set to soar.

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