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The Revolution Shall Not Be Instagrammed

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The Revolution Shall Not Be Instagrammed
Photo: Hans Vivek on Unsplash

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

Millennial bashing needs to stop

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Millennial bashing needs to stop
Photo: Shutterstock

For the last few months, students at the university where I teach have been pitted in a standoff against we the faculty and administration. From the drama so far, my greatest impression has been that I do not recognize my generation.

I do not recognize us because we knew there was a problem long before. Our problems began with the marketization of the academy, something that researchers – including Ugandan academic Mahmood Mamdani – have been talking about for at least two decades. But we still followed the idol of marketization, despite the fact that academics are terrible at business.

Academia, by its very nature, is a profession of idealism – we don’t do the reality of business very well. But Kenyan universities persisted in the business logic of turning universities into profit institutions because we thought that we could do business better than business people (academics find it very difficult to admit that there are skills that they are not good at). And the business logic failed.

We refused to acknowledge the glaring symptoms of that failure that we had already been warned about: increase in student cynicism, obsession with exams and increase in cheating, deterioration of support services, and a rise in corruption as the inevitable result of outsourced services. We blindfolded ourselves to the problems with strategic plans and performance management.

Now the students are raising the same issues scholars like Noam Chomsky and Henry Giroux identified as happening to higher education. And true to script, we their elders are exhibiting the behaviour of management that they warned us about.

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First, we treat the students as children who don’t understand. Then we doubt their intellectual competence and maturity. When they are persistent, we offer explanations that suggest that the problem is with them: maybe are drunk, incited by politicians, or anxious about exams. Other times we say they are inconsistent.

We also moralise. We say that the students have lost traditional respect for elders. We criticize them for choosing bad methods for voicing discontent, even though the channels for voicing that discontent fail, or do not exist. We say that we have let them take over control, which we must get back. I didn’t even know that academia was about control.

We essentially forget that we are with dealing adults, who are voters and have ID cards. Adults who happen to be the age of our children. Adults who are saying what some of us, their parents, have said before. And in fact, the greatest disappointment of the students has not been our failure to deal with the issues; it’s been our persistent denial of those issues. The young people can see the elephant in the room, and they know we can see it too because we walk around it. But our response is to deal not with the elephant, but with the students pointing out the elephant. And these same actions appear in Mary Serumaga’s rebuttal to the articles in the millennial series in The Elephant.

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The Elephant has made the ground breaking move of hosting the conversations by millennials and border-millennials. The conversations perform two broad functions. One, they narrate the experiences of living in the contradiction of being an adult who is socially prevented from achieving adult milestones. Two, they use that experience to theorize what is happening in the world. In their view, their elders are blind, by choice, to the contradictions between social expectations and the lack of social structures needed to meet those expectations, and that blindness is generational.

The goal of the conversations is not only to define their experience, but also to add to our global understanding of reality in this neoliberal age, and appeal to our sense of human empathy across generations. If we understand what younger people are dealing with, we would stop making unrealistic social demands of them, or better still, we would fight for the social structures they need for those expectations to be achievable.

The most obvious tactic of undermining the voice of the youth is to question the authority by which the youth speak. Serumaga does this in two main ways. One is the use of colourful adjectives like “verbal deluge,” “musings of the youth” (as if elders don’t muse),“pouting,” being “glib,” and “childish.” In other words, Serumaga is saying that the pieces are not written by whole human beings with legitimate experiences, but by a segment of their being, that is their youthfulness. And since youth is temporary, so are the ideas that they are articulating here, and so we cannot take the ideas seriously.

The irony of this dismissal was that some of the people Serumaga cites as authoritative, such as Steve Biko and Frantz Fanon, were the same age as the “millennial” writers, if not younger. Biko was about 24 years old when he wrote the column “Frank Talk,” which would produce his publication I write what I like. Fanon was around 27 years old when his book Black skin, white masks was published.

But the greater irony is beyond these men’s age. They actually wrote from their experience, their observations about the oppression around them and the failure of academics to actually study that reality. One obscene contradiction between academic study and reality cited by Fanon, is when psychiatrists studying the dreams of those traumatized by colonialism say that the gun is a “phallic symbol,” when in fact, it is a reference to the AK47 carried by colonial soldiers to terrorize and kill the colonized. Fanon even has a section in his book entitled “the lived experience of the black person,” asserting the authority of the lived experience in academic study.

And as Lewis Gordon, the Fanonian expert and existentialist philosopher says in several of his works, asserting the authority of the lived experience is important for black people, because racism denies the complexity of our lives. This denial makes the black biography, the lived black experience, central for black people in theorizing, for how can one express one’s humanity with tools of institutions that deny one’s humanity? One has to then appeal to lived experience, which is what the “millennial writers” have done. The writers literally have nothing to use but their experience, because we, their elders, who should be doing a better job of dissecting the neoliberal age and its impact on the youth, have denied them access to the spaces where they can institutionally articulate what they are dealing with.

And the dismissal of experience becomes more disturbing when one looks at the special attention that Serumaga pays to Kingwa Kamencu. Kingwa’s piece captures how racism and neoliberalism interact with the female African body. Kingwa mentions the millennials as being more comfortable than their forebears with wearing natural hair and modern fashion with African inspiration. Serumaga refers to these unique gestures as making claims to “a new form of decolonization,” and then refers to the afro and cornrows of the 60s as evidence that there is nothing new about the millennials’ fashion sense.

The dissonance here is the skipping of whole decades in this rebuttal. Kingwa is talking about a generation who lived 60 years after the Civil Rights movement. The parents of her generation are not the people of the Civil Rights movement, but their children, who had a totally different experience. If I would cite my own experience, I would confirm that what Kingwa is saying about the shame of the black female body is true.

I grew up being told to either perm or braid my hair. When I converted to dreadlocks in 2000, and later when I started sporting natural hair, I was asked if I’m Rastafari or when I’m going to comb my hair. I am currently a member of a facebook group of African women, with tens of thousands of followers, who are finding solidarity in resisting the pressure to straighten our hair with blowdrying or to cover natural hair with weaves. From Americanah by Chimamanda Adichie, one of the most celebrated writers of this era, we know that the struggles around black hair are far from over.

In fact, the issue here is not that elders were part of the black pride movement of the 60s; rather, the question is: how did the children of the 80s and 90s become ashamed of their hair, so that they now deride their children for going back to the sixties? I think Silas Nyanchwani explains the reason why. My generation, born to parents of independence, grew up during the cold war, and were alienated from the people who raised their voices for an African independence that meant more than a black president, a national flag and anthem, because those people, like Patrice Lumumba, Thomas Sankara, Micere Mugo and Ngugi wa Thiongo, were killed or exiled by dictators.

And there is a gender dimension in the attention to Kingwa’s article – Kingwa’s is one of the two woman contributors and one that mentions the woman’s personal space. But Serumaga considers the article the least authoritative of all, faulting Kingwa for mentioning the broad social phenomena like structural adjustment programs at the end, unlike the articles of Kobuthi and Okolla which are more “factual.” Yet the other writers also do evoke their personal experience. They talk about their parents and their families. Nyanchwani even gives a deeply emotional account of the birth of his daughter. So why does Kingwa get so much flack for personal narratives?

And yet, we see this in the academy all the time. We repeatedly alienate the lived experience from what we study. And that’s what the millennials are calling us out on.

Generalization

The other rebuttal of Serumaga is one that we’ve seen before: that the writers are using generalizations about age and history. Serumaga cites several exceptions to the judgements that the writers make of their parents’ generation, such as Biko and Fanon. This is the familiar and very odd post-modern refutation of arguments solely on the grounds of generalization.

Pointing to the “generalization” in another’s position usually does not refute that position. We see this, for example, in the response to Trump’s shithole comment, when some Africans offered beautiful pictures of Africa to prove that not all of Africa was as bad as Trump said. Pointing to generalization did not counter the deeply racist and immoral premise of Trump’s comment.

The generalization retort also misrepresents generalizations as rigid formulas, which they are not. If I say, for example, that the long rains fall in Kenya in the months of March to May, I am not saying that the rains fall at absolutely the same time every year. I am referring to a pattern observed over a period of time, not an absolute formula. There will always be exceptions, and those exceptions do not necessarily refute the rule. And sometimes exceptions confirm the rule, and that is how we start to ask whether the change in rainfall patterns could be a sign of global warming or environmental degradation.

In other words, the purpose of pointing at exceptions should not be to just do so but to refute the general principle and offer another one. Biko was not, as Serumaga implies, an exception that proves the rule that the writers were wrong about their parents’ freedom struggle credentials. And the point of black consciousness is not that Biko’s predictions about an exploitative black ruling class were proved right. The point is that we must translate the political struggle for independence into concrete social-economic gains, which is precisely what the millennial writers are calling for.

And so citing instances in which Africans fought against colonial rule misses the point. The millennial writers were not assigning personal responsibility to each and every individual member of a whole generation; they were referring to general trends that they have observed about the current decisions made by people who seem united by their age.

We talk about general trends because if we don’t, we can’t find commonality, and we can’t make decisions. Without generalizations, we can’t theorize, because theory, by its very nature, is a generalization. So by condemning generalizations, we are denying the millennials the space to theorize what is happening to them. And that is dangerous because if our youth cannot theorize their condition, the only option we leave them is to change things through irrational violence.

And the writers are not the ones who began theorizing the millennial challenge as a generational problem. It is we, their parents, Gen-X or whatever one wants to call us, who first used the generational framework when we said that their behaviour and attitudes were unique to their age. We chose to explain the contradictions which our youth face, many of which we created or at least know about, as a problem with them. We said that our kids can’t get jobs because they want unrealistically high salaries and do not want to soil their hands with work. That our children are not getting married because they’re selfish and care only for instant gratitude. That our children are not working hard in school because they’re spoiled. The writers are simply responding to the generation framework.

But the millennials are also pointing out that we, their parents, are the proverbial emperor who is naked. The jobs we’re telling the youth to get are not there for us either. My parents’ generation and my colleagues have been retrenched and given golden handshakes over the last 20 years, since the structural adjustment programs began. So we know that good jobs do not exist, and yet we’re telling the youth to get them. Our youth know that we witnessed the undermining of social services like transport, education and healthcare, but we accepted the propaganda of private solutions to public problems, and being told that we cannot complain if we do not offer a solution. Our youth have seen through the lies in this neoliberal reasoning, and they are not willing to use this reasoning any more.

Serumaga’s article essentially refuses to engage the millennial writers as thinkers in their own right. She diminishes the authority of their voice because they have not conformed to her rules, and therefore she doesn’t engage the arguments that the writers are actually making. She invites them to “come together to heal, for each generation to show empathy for the others,” when she has shown little empathy for them.

And in fact, this is the contradiction that my students and the millennial writers are talking about. We, their parents, do not take them seriously. And after indirectly showing them that we have no respect for their opinion, we patronizingly invite them to dialogue. Our children can see through us. We’re contradicting ourselves. We’re preaching water and drinking wine.

It’s time for our generation to actually treat our young adults like the adults that they are. We have to end this gate-keeping where we dictate the rules of engagement with our younger adults and allow them no space to manoeuvre. After all, the younger adults are not speaking an entirely new truth; they are speaking a truth inspired by reality, and by what we, their elders, have taught them.

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Reflections

The Measure of a Man

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The Measure of a Man
Photo: Dominique Jordan on Unsplash

It is 8:30 am on a chilly Saturday morning punctuated with light rain showers. I prompt the driver to reverse the pickup truck into the entry porch. They begin unloading my stuff. A couch, office desk and a chair that I purchased with the proceeds from my first contract. These items remind me of the hurdles I have surmounted in a bid to make a mark in this world.

I am moving back to my parent’s house at the age of 25 when I should be out there conquering the world. I feel like a total loser. A disgrace to my entire lineage but deep down I knew I had met my Waterloo.

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I was born in 1991 in Kwale County. Soon after my birth, my family moved to Nyahururu only to relocate back to Kinango, a little-known town in Kwale when I was five. I left like an outsider, laughed at by other kids since I could only speak in my mother tongue but I soon mastered the national languages.

In 1997, Kenya becomes engulfed in political animosities in the run-up to the general elections. During the campaign period, the former PM Raila Odinga and horde of politicians held a public rally at Kinango Secondary School, which was close to our house. My friends and I attended the rally, squeezing through the crowd until we stood a few feet from the podium. I do not remember what was said. What I remember was the amount of money one of the politicians contributed to the school. Ksh. 200,000 in cash! That was the largest amount of money I had seen at the time.

A few days later, news of a militia group called Kaya Bombo spread throughout Kwale. Something changed in the playground. The local kids started taunting kids whose parents were not natives of the coast region. Before this, we played as children, paying no attention to our origins. Overnight, we had turned into upcountry folk, unwanted in the coast region.

“Nyinyi ni wabara. Mrudi kwenu!”

Some of the locals regarded the Kaya Bombo militia as heroes out to redistribute wealth and land back to its ancestral owners, addressing historical injustices and expelling immigrants believed to have stolen opportunities meant for locals.  Some kids even fought over who would move into our house once we were all slaughtered. It was rumored that the militia members had mystical powers. When they broke into houses at night, they ethnically profiled their hostages by holding out a one bob coin and conducting an accent test. If you said something like silingi or shirigi they would cut off your head.

Petrified by these stories, we, the children of wabara helped each other learn how to pronounce Shilingi in order to pass for locals in event of a gang attack. Back at home, my parents stocked up on foodstuffs. By 6:45 pm, every evening, we would switch off all the lights, barricade ourselves indoors, huddled in one room, on the floor, farthest from the windows to avoid getting hit by stray bullets as gunshots echoed all night long. The District Officer was our immediate neighbour and family friend so we enjoyed the privilege of security of his armed guards.

That year, Likoni police station was ransacked and burned to the ground. Members of the migrant communities along Likoni-Kombani-Tiwi-Ukunda-Msambweni stretch lost property. My folks permanently halted the construction of some property in Ukunda. Once the violence was quelled, we attempted to restore our normal lives, although a few of our family friends moved back upcountry fearing for their lives.

10 years later, in 2007, the political temperatures soared again after the disputed presidential election. This time we were prepared. We all moved into my grandparent’s farm in Shimba Hills. The licensed firearm holders in the extended family kept their guns close by. The rest of us armed ourselves with machetes, clubs, bows, and arrows in a bid to protect our women, children and property. This period rekindled the intense fear, suspense and painful memories of the ‘97 Likoni clashes as news of the wanton destruction of property and ethnic killings in the Rift Valley reached us. Fortunately, most parts of the coast did not experience incidences of election-related violence.

Towards the end of January 2008, a sense of normalcy resumed. I was excited to go back to school at Kenyatta High School, in Taita for my final year. However, in class, I became a target of profiling, tormented by my business studies teacher. Every time he walked into class he would call out.

“Mark Maina Mwangi, where are you?”

 I would meekly stand up.

“Ohh the mungiki is still here! I will personally make sure you are sent home…”

The insults and threats became a regular affair and I realized that I was paying for the sins of those behind the disputed presidential outcome. One evening class, the teacher walked up to my desk, grabbed my exercise book and tore it into pieces. I received a slap on the face and got kicked out of class for a crime I did not commit; writing a love letter.

For weeks I had endured his abuse but he eventually got to me.

What if I was indeed a mungiki and murderer as the teacher claimed?

I was broken. I called my folks that night to let them know I was done with schooling. I could not take it anymore. The next morning my mother came to school to see me. She gave me two options. To gather my stuff and leave for a new school or stay there and fight for myself like other men. I chose to stay. A choice I have had to make throughout my life.

In 2010, I joined Kenyatta University to pursue engineering for my undergraduate studies. Before I began pursuing civil engineering, I thought it would be interesting. That we would be learning and doing things that would revolutionize the world only to end up studying same old concepts without any real-world application. In my sophomore year, we started reading stories of young people in the west, dropping out of campus to start tech companies that turned them into billionaires overnight. We debated the merits of tertiary education with my comrades while contemplating quitting school for entrepreneurship. In the 2nd semester of my 2nd year at university, I quit campus, pulled together my savings and borrowed some cash to set up my first business. I used up all the capital to import a couple of Tablet-PCs. I envisioned building an electronics import business empire, raking in millions and never having to work for anyone or need a degree. Unfortunately, I did not conduct an extensive market research. The same week my shipment landed, a giant Telco rolled out a series of cheaper Tablet-PCs. I ran into huge losses and returned to college humbled, spending the next several months paying off my debts.

But once a hustler always a hustler and in my final year of campus, I was running a construction consultancy company on the side. I landed a project and contracted three of my lecturers to do the job for me. This was a campus life highlight. However, the succeeding contract came with drama. After spending my last coin to undertake the project, the client disappeared without paying a dime. In my naivety, I trusted too much and forgot to sign a contract. Who would want to pull down a young man trying to build an empire, right?

I was completely broke and too embarrassed to ask help. At my wits ends, I started writing for online magazines in order to stay afloat. Everything else I touched had turned into dust. During this low moment in life, I channelled my frustration into creativity and wrote The Kenya’s Middle-Class Nightmare blog post which went viral receiving over 400,000 reads. Suddenly, I was getting job offers and speaking engagements from all over the country. I settled on two, one in media and the other in marketing.

As a man who gives his all in everything he does, in a few months, my projects in both companies were hugely successful. I was working 8am-4pm in one company and 5pm to 11pm in the other from Monday to Friday and most weekends. I did not have a life outside of work. Nonetheless, my quick rise up the ranks did not sit well with a number of older and senior colleagues. To them, I was not only an outsider but also someone who was yet to pay his dues like they did over the years. They began frustrating my projects at every turn

My boss became inordinately toxic. Nothing I ever did was right. Shouting, insults, threats and intimidation were his weapons of choice. At first, I took it to the chin, trying to keep level-headed but the aggression chipped at my soul every single day, leaving me trapped, constantly stressed and walking on eggshells. I would have either to sell my soul to the devil or return to a life of uncertainty. I choose the latter. Something else happened to trigger this decision.

One afternoon, I get a call from a lady I went to college with. In a voice devoid of emotion, she says, “Hi Mark! Do you know your friend is gone? Ebu come to MP Shah Hospital…He just died.”

I dismiss her and get back to work trying to process the news. Minutes later my phone begins to ring incessantly with numbers I do not recognise. I decide to switch it off. This can’t be possible. I talked to him two days ago and he was responding well to treatment. We had even planned for a road trip as soon as he was discharged.

At 5:30 pm, I head out to the hospital in Parklands to find his family and former college mates, huddled at a lounge next to the ICU, grieving.

‘This is an elaborate prank. He is okay. He will walk out in any minute now and laugh at how sad we all are.’

The hospital staff lead the gathering of family and friends to a windowless building where the humming of freezers could be heard from outside. A gentleman and lady in scrubs usher us into an eerily cold room. A faint stench of bleach hangs in the air.

Lying in one of the freezers is my best friend wrapped in a white sheet like an Egyptian mummy. Eyes closed and peaceful. Except for his pale lips and bulging forehead veins, he might as well be sleeping. I call out his name. Try to wake him up without success and the reality finally descends like a ton of bricks. He is gone. Crossed to the land of no return. Unable to contain my emotions anymore I break down. Weep like a toddler without care of who is watching.

The next couple of days are terrible. I have lost people before. Friends. Relatives. But this loss is too personal. For almost a decade he was my best friend, wingman, confidant and more like an elder brother. He taught me pretty much everything I know about being a man. He was the man I went to for advice. Whenever I was in trouble he bailed me out.

To deal with the loss, I start drinking more than usual. I switch from beer to whiskey in an effort to numb the pain. I begin doubting the existence of God. He was such a selfless, loyal, caring and a stand-up guy yet he died young, why was I spared?

I bottle up these feelings while trying to avoid the places we used to frequent together. Despondency sets in. One of my initiatives as a lifestyle blogger involves helping out people. I listen to their problems while trying to find solutions. People of all ages, both online and real-life come to me for help. I am their rock. A shoulder to lean on.  Tens of people reach out to me with their life issues every week, however, none of them ever inquires how I am doing.  My pal was the guy I went to with my problems. Now, I have nobody in my corner.

To deal with the emotional turmoil I begin hooking up with random women for no strings attached sex. The actual human connection I seek proves elusive. In Nairobi, it is way easier to hook up with a random person every night than it is to find someone who is real.

The drinking intensifies, cheered on by my acquaintances. I become that guy, the life of the party on the outside but wounded inside, crying out for help. Those around do not seem to notice it. I rapidly sink into depression and loneliness but I am too ashamed to admit for I care too much for my public brand.

One morning I step out of bed only to lose balance and fall to the floor. The room spins in circles. I feel terribly sick. My stomach churns. I stagger to the toilet, sink onto my knees, pull up the seat, hunch over and try to puke. Nothing comes out. That is when I realize I have not eaten anything for over two days. It was clear I had completely lost control to my addictions.

My denial only exacerbates the situation. I try travelling, sampling the nightlife across the country but there was no escape from this labyrinth. I have to face my demons head-on.

So, I de-clutter my life and give away most of my possessions including gadgets clothes and shoes. Then I hire a pick up to ferry what was left to my parent’s home in Kwale, the only safe haven I could think of.

Just as the crew finishes unloading, my old man walks out of the house. If at all he was surprised to see me, he does not reveal it considering I did not notify him of my impending arrival.

At 26, my old man built his mother a house. He lost his father at a young age, faced adversity forcing him to single-handedly take charge of his family, educate siblings and change his fortunes. Having gone through that tough life he made sure I lacked nothing. Sons are supposed to be better than their fathers in all aspects of life. Sadly, I may never to be half the man my old man is despite all advantages life has given me.

“Come in and have some breakfast.” 

My father fries two eggs, toasts bread and serves me together with some coffee.

My parents never ask me why I came back home. Instead, they seem genuinely happy to see me and welcome me back like the prodigal son. After two weeks, I open up about my struggles and why I needed time off the city to heal.

“Son, there is no shame in a man asking for help. You made the right choice to come back home. Even when you are fifty years old, you always have a place in this home.” 

The next day, my parents give me a house to move into, appoint me as a manager to the family ventures complete with an office and access to a car. I work twice as hard masquerading as an entrepreneur does but deep down I know I am only lucky and not the self-made man I pretend to be.

Time off the city changes my outlook towards life. I take time off social media in an effort to reconnect with my inner-self, hang around people who I have known for years.

I had been harbouring hate, avoiding dealing with grief, trying to seek acceptance, unconditional love and support in all the wrong places because I was too embarrassed to ask for help. I learned that being a man should never be an excuse to bottle up everything. I am human after all and there is no shame in stumbling. It takes courage to continue and failure is such a great teacher.

The true measure of a man is not defined by the invincible cloak we wrap around our public personas but by how we continually respond to the challenges of life.

After almost a year of working for family, I hand over the reins and move back to the city a bit wiser with a single goal. Reclaim my life and work on becoming a better man.

A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it. ~ George Moore

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Reflections

THE UNDOING PROJECT: Writing to awaken

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THE UNDOING PROJECT: Writing to awaken
Photo: Aaron Burden on Unsplash

My dad was born in 1946. His dad, my grandfather, was born in 1918. Both of them were born at the tail end of wars that everyone thought would be the wars to end all wars. Many things happened between those two births. Kenya officially became a colony, the Great Depression ruined the global economy, and a new, bigger, and more destructive war begun and ended.

My grandparents got married, hurriedly, in 1941 (or 1942). Their black and white wedding photo tells nothing of the turmoil that was already taking place. All it shows is a young couple in love, with my grandmother sitting in her white dress, shoeless, and my grandfather standing next to her. Nothing in the photo tells you that it was only months before my grandfather was conscripted to fight in a war he had no stake in.

His war was not in the trenches. At least not the literal ones. His was in the camps, in the medical tents, and wherever men and women trying to hurt each other finally succeeded. There was Burma and Egypt, and every battleground in between. In lieu of bullet or shrapnel wounds, he came back with his face and soul permanently marked. The reminders of chickenpox he contracted trying to make sure other soldiers didn’t. He came back with those scars, a metallic service bowl, and a virile need to survive. So immediately the guns went quiet and he could finally come back to his wife, they set at it. They spent the next decade doing exactly that, through the turmoil of the ‘50s. My grandfather spent his lifetime as a health officer. He sought stability and discipline, and his scars survived not just as physical marks, but as a nickname given to him by his boys.

I was born to my father in his 40s. He’s a man’s man and an introvert who prefers solitary walks to long conversations. On his face he has a scar from one such walk at night. Years before I was born, he was attacked on a walk and slashed on the forehead. He healed, but the scar hasn’t faded with time. On his ebony skin, even as age grows on him, it still defines the right side of his forehead.It made him more careful, but didn’t kill his love for long solitary walks.

But there were other things. Like his dad, who grew up in the early years of the formal colony, my dad also was raised in a land in brutal transition. His was not the kipande or labour system, it was the Mau Mau war. He was arrested, at least twice, while he was a kid in Kiambu. Once, no one knew where he was for three days. He and his cousin had been picked out of a random line-up by snitches covered in sacks-called gakunia-as Mau Mau sympathisers. They were barely 10 years old. Those experiences made them cautious, and the trauma made it easy for them to see enemies where there weren’t.

My dad does not say much about the Roaring 60s, but I think the decade meant a lot to him. He was in his 20s, he had hope, and he lived in a country full of opportunity and promise. Then the 70s had responsibility and commitment. The 80s too. The 90s even worse. Somewhere in between those decades, he became a police clerk, then settled on teaching as his lifelong work. And retired just at the start of the new millennium. In those decades he could count among his students two of my future teachers, and one future Attorney General.

As three generations of firstborn sons, our childhoods couldn’t have been more different. One lived through the early years of colonialism. The next through the Emergency years. I lived through the austerity years of Nyayoism, in the dying embers of the political revolution that begun in the early 80s. Did that define our chosen crafts? From a health officer to a teacher to a writer?

Of these men, I am the only writer and the only atheist. At first it felt unique to be these things, like I had the privilege of not having the trauma of war and conquest in my childhood. But it doesn’t feel like that anymore. Now it feels as if I carry the traumas of their generations as well as mine, and my love for history doesn’t help. As if my quest for knowledge is a quest to understand them, and at least find little ways to help my generation not repeat the same mistakes, and to process its trauma differently.

In 2002, my dad told me he would vote for Uhuru Kenyatta. I did not understand it. The man would lose, we rightly agreed, so why would he still vote for him? I thought he more than most would understand. He had seen bad politics break the society he worked in. He had lined up to swear the 1969 oath as a young adult, not by choice, but it still markedly defined how he views Kenya as a nation state. His trauma from the 1950s was weaponised for political gain, yet he was a curious soul for whom tribe has never meant anything in social and business interactions. He was there, not just as a witness and a student of history, but as a teacher of it for three decades.

I thought he would understand. He should have. But now I get him. I think. His reason at the time was loyalty, or something like that. Loyalty to home. To people. To an idea. It sounded incomplete, but it was a lesson in experiences.

For most of my life, he was an agnostic, the first one I ever knew. He still identified as Christian, but something about denominations bothered him. He was a seeker, an open book as he called himself. Then, as the grey took over and his gait became more deliberate, he made a decision. He became the people he had been sarcastic about, choosing one denomination over all others. One way to worship over everything else.He had only seen his father as a man with the scars of war in timeless patterns on his face and heart; a man for whom death had been real and close. Perhaps his father’s commitment to a single church, the Anglicans, was why he needed to seek first. Decide later.

I have always been an avowed atheist. Still, every few years I wonder if age will make Pascal’s Wager look more enticing. Like it did for him, until it did not. Am I walking the same journey as he and his father, only in a different time with different experiences? Is it cascading through us, three men with alternating surnames, this life experience? Sometimes I think the difference is in what age they had to raise the next generation of men. My grandfather was just two years shy of 30 when he got my dad, while mine was well into his 40s. Their ideas were markedly different; one wanted to raise a strong son who would be his legacy, the other wanted his son to find himself from an early age. The only thing that made my dad tick, other than bad grammar and bad grades, was my experiments with all the girly stuff that littered our home.

I write because my father made writing, even letters to him, an exercise in expression. Letters came back marked with corrections and notes to improve diction. History books littered my childhood, and knowledge, especially questioning history, were one of the few things that made his eyes light up. His father was a distant man with the demons of war tormenting him even before the previous one had abated.

I write because I can’t not write. Even if I had ended up in a lab or at crime scenes, which was my chosen career, I would still write. I wanted to live in a lab to tell stories of sex, money and murder, the three pillars to any great story worth telling. Yet I found myself miles away from a lab, from trace evidence and semen samples, and in a world where they still exist, but seem to make more sense. What if that’s how, when he ended up in the war, my grandfather found himself treating the wounded and the dying. Making sure they didn’t contract more diseases or injuries than they already had? What if it was taking the road less travelled, and finding that there were several little paths that led from it? How my father, in the decade after independence, found himself offered managerial jobs in several companies but chose, instead, to be a police clerk. Then a teacher of women and men. A man who, even after he retired, still found time to teach older men and women. Who loved languages and history and everything in between. Was that his war, ignorance? Does he have scars from it I haven’t understood yet? What is my war? What is it that, by virtue of the person I am in the sands of time, is my lifelong work?

In my culture, there would be a generation transition every 30 or so years. It was a massive affair where aging men accepted they couldn’t fight any more. They couldn’t fend for all. And most importantly, that they had done their part. They needed to let younger men find and do theirs. Each generation understood it had a short window to get its work done. Its life purpose. Whether that was war or peace didn’t really matter, because each is a version of the other. The last one was just a century ago, the same year my grandfather was born, but its tenets are now lost. Its rules should have survived in some way, not just in retirement age, but as a concept. That youth is fleeting. That it’s the time to be energetic, and reckless. With your physical self, with your ideas of the world. A time to fail and succeed. To make stupid mistakes about whatever the new technology is at the time. To rage and fight and protest. To work and cry and try. To experiment. To simply live.

In our family this transition was marked somewhat by the death of my grandfather just months after I came into this world. He had done his part, and once told my mother that at least he had lived to see himself. Did he hope, like I see my father with his grandkids, that life would be better for me than it had been for him? That I wouldn’t carry his scars but I would learn the lessons they left behind?

I often wonder how these lessons have cascaded in ways I don’t understand yet. I am a millennial in a world where my generation is seen as needy, aggressive, liberal, reckless, and distracted. Like my parents were when they walked into the ‘60s with unbridled optimism, youthful exuberance, and a taste for the latest fads. That forced those older than them to ban miniskirts and long hair, because they were ‘spoiling the youth.’ Kenya has been here before, because the experiences of each generation shape how it raises the next. I think of this when I see how my generation, now young parents, are struggling to raise their kids in a world on steroids.

What makes a millennial a bad word? What makes it a thing to be said disparagingly? Is it because we live (according to Western statistics-which are wrong) in the most peaceful time in recorded human history? Is it because not only do we talk to each other remotely, we now live and work there too? Is it because we are more informed about sexual and reproductive health, about gay rights and right of Palestine to exist?Or is it because we didn’t live through some of the most defining moments of the nation-state we call home.Will we find, as we age into our 30s and 40s, the smartphone generation as obnoxious as older generations find us today?

Life is a lived experience. There is only one way to do that, to live it. To seek. To find, sometimes. To accept Trump as the clarion call to the next phase of American aggression, which might just drive us to the next war we historians will describe as the war of our generation. To accept that each generation has a purpose, and ours isn’t defined by colonialism and independence, as much as it is defined by our need for jobs, better Internet, fewer wars, more inclusion, and a more humanist approach to social problems. By rapid political transitions, a debt bomb, the traumas we inherited, and those we are inflicting on ourselves. Those are our wars, so far, and they are real. If the next generation has different wars, then so be it.

My grandfather, my dad and I are three different men, all born in the same century yet defined by different experiences. We are broken in different ways yet we have, if my mother is to be believed (and she’s a mostly solid source), similar in our ways. Our reactions. Our decisions. Our stubbornness. Our messes. Our mistakes. Yet still, our views of the world, our politics and ideas, are a world apart. Even though we mostly have the same genetic tools, we are different because we were born in different times, and we processed them differently. Their generations were broken, but they were also blessed. Mine is too. I am a millennial, and my generation is struggling to define itself. To find its purpose. To do its best and worst.

We are different. And that’s okay. For those of us who don’t believe in an afterlife, this is the only run. And fucking run we shall!

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