Staring at the world through my rearview
Just looking back at the world from another level
Ya know what I mean? Starin’
~ Tupac Shakur
I was born on the fourth of July in 1989; the same day America celebrated its two hundred and thirteenth year of independence from the British and arguably one of the best years in Pax Americana’s global reign. On November 2nd of the same year the Berlin wall came down ending a 44-year protracted ideological war between the Soviet Union and America. The victory hailed the end of communism and the triumphant victory of Western liberal democracy. Francis Fukuyama, a neo-liberal intellectual opined in his magnum opus The End of History that the global war of ideas had now reached its final stage and with it man had reached his zenith of ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy was his final form of human government. It was the end of history and the last man –the neo liberal self-actualising automaton- had reigned supreme. The polarity of global power was now centred on America and its western allies.
For my Kenyan parents who lived in Nairobi, 1989 was also to be an instrumental year in their lives. Their small political unit was now complete and they had a duty of raising three children. Secondly, being the only superpower America could now exert its hegemonic power to the world. The social, political and economic ramifications were to shape the directions of the global architecture and all actors, my parents included.
Economically, the dictatorial application of the infamous Bretton woods Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs,) that pushed for government cuts on spending, reduced borrowing, inflation and liberalisation of the economy had yielded poor returns for the Kenyan economy. Instead, they led to the closedown or privatisation of unprofitable state owned enterprises -the largest pool of employment to Kenyans-which rendered many people without sources of income. The shortcomings of SAPs, which had not factored that the Kenyan economy then couldn’t support an aggressive increase of an indigenous privatisation programme led to a steep increase of unemployment in the country. This led to an outflux of people particularly to the global north in search of greener pastures. And for those who were not able to leave the country for better opportunities, they “limboed” through the system and later on found sources of income through the creation of the informal based “hustler economy” which spread throughout the 90’s.
My parents were still fortunate to have steady sources of income but they instantly became the breadwinners not just for the nuclear family but also the wider extended family. Home became the launch pad for most of their siblings who were in their 20s. Without a proper political and economic programme at the state level, a form of egalitarianism, as was in my family, occupied that vacuum in many households and communities to withstand the failure of political imagination as espoused by the State and the western backed International Financial Institutions (IFIs)
Politically, with the end of the Cold War the most radical changes in world politics were to take place. In Kenya, a bandwagon effect of protests, reform and subsequent multi-party elections escalated. Forced by the international community and growing internal dissent, the Nyayo regime implemented political reforms; key among them was the repeal of section 2A, which restored back multi-party democracy. Kenya had its first multiparty election in decades, in 1992.
For my parents voting meant more than just exercising their political freedoms, which had been curtailed by the heavy hand of the Nyayo regime. It was an act to reinstate their right to breathe. You see, ten years prior, my parents bore their first child in very ominous circumstances. My mother went into early labour on August 2nd 1982, because she got a panic attack after hearing the gunshots, screams, and police sirens the day before, the day of the failed coup attempt of 1982. The state had denied her her right to breathe. Casting a vote could hopefully atone for its sin.
The 90’s also ushered in an expansion of the democratic space in Kenya as observed by the flowering of independent weekly magazines, the emergence of the first privately owned broadcast media outlet, Kenya Television Network in 1990, and the rise of Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) which attempted to execute collective political or economic activities outside the state. Moreover, the opposition was now publicly challenging state dominance.
In spite of all the political reforms and a growing opposition challenging the excesses of the Moi regime, my parents never engaged in any form of political discourse. It was an unwritten taboo. Somehow it was as if the idea of an omnipresent and omniscient regime that could hear and read your private thoughts was engrained in their psyches. Perhaps they had imbibed the ethos behind the statement of former Attorney General Charles Njonjo that it was treasonous to even imagine the president dead. Talking politics meant making life harder than it was already was. Besides, neo-liberal democracy had now schooled them that the market forces would solve everything.
Culturally, the broader availability of mass media, personal computers, the Internet had dramatic changes inside Kenya. For my generation, the aggressive uptake of western culture mores through music and movies would shape our worldviews as teenagers and into adulthood. But also, they provided for a great coping mechanism and escape from the hard political and economic conditions.
The Millennia (Y2K) like all new things was received with much euphoria. The Jubilee 2000 debt relief campaign had managed to push for the cancellation of foreign debt and countries, particularly in the developing world had their debts pardoned. Kenya was a beneficiary. It was also preparing for an election two years away, where Moi would finally leave office. More than two decades in.
The Election of 2002 shifted something albeit momentarily in Kenya. The National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) spearheaded by former President Mwai Kibaki promised to deliver a future for the prosperity of all Kenyans. We believed them. The excitement was palpable. Kenya had finally made it. Moi was gone. We were unbwogable. The competency and liberal stance of the regime struck a chord at home. For the first time my parents talked politics. My dad in his euphoria during the vote count leapt towards the television as they were showing the results for his constituency and said; “This vote is mine” The sense of pride was admirable.
After that, political conversations became a staple at the dinner table, it was acceptable to agree, it was fine to disagree, and it was also alright to be neutral. My intellectual journey commenced here. Henceforth, politics became just that, politics. It didn’t rule our lives. Besides, the economy was doing well. A disappointing 2.9 per cent growth in GDP in 2003 became 7.1 per cent in 2007, the highest in 20 years. It was the strongest period of sustained growth for decades, and reflected improvements in virtually every sector of the economy. The government too delivered on its promise of free primary education, improved road and public works, transport, security and health services in the country. And despite the regimes failure to address the issues of ethnicity, land and corruption, for the most part Kenyans were content with their liberal and competency logic. Hence the reason most people view Kibaki’s regime more favourably than any other of the three regimes despite his big failures that almost cost the country its life after the 2007 post election crisis.
Surprisingly, even after our darkest moment during the Post Election Violence (PEV) of 2007/2008, which caused the death of at least 1,133 people, the rape of 3,000 and the internal displacement of 500,000 people, Kenyans still found the resilience and hope that led to one of our finest moments in our history. Then, on August 27th2010, President Kibaki, promulgated a new constitution in a mass ceremony in Uhuru Park, in front of 10 other heads of state. It was hailed with hyperbole as the start of Kenya’s “Second Republic” and a new era of freedom and opportunity.
It was in this liberal era that civil liberties could be exercised en masse. The arts and music scenes expanded. Freedom of worship and expression also became more widespread and it was in this era that Kenya saw the resurgence of numerous churches, mosques and other places of worship. It was also in this liberal era that I saw my dad weep in a church service for the first time. He could finally not only worship freely but also express his vulnerability as a man, which he had been denied in the last 24 years in an illiberal environment. His soul was free. Besides, his problems weren’t of the “Siasa Mbaya Maisha Mbaya” kind (A phrase popularised by the Daniel Arap Moi, ironically, which translated to Bad politics, Bad Life). Like a good son, these made me want to express myself like my father. I finally did but in a much deeper way. I went into the clergy so that I could be vulnerable, I could worship but more importantly I could be free.
At the beginning it was fulfilling, lives were changed, people were hopeful for the future and importantly, they begun to dream. Then something happened along the way, a new political dispensation came to the fore. A mirror image to the previous one, but only in form. Its substance was different but at the time few saw through the emperors new dress. It was embroidered with a youthful face and a digital hue. Nevertheless, something about it was grim and familiar but like all horrific experiences, the Kenyan psyche had buried it deep within its subconscious.
At that time, still a budding clergyman in my early twenties I was in charge of the prayer team at my local church. I would often receive requests to pray for men and women for various issues. The congregation members were predominantly from the class that Fanon called the native intelligentsia. Their issues were mainly of the kind that gives them bargaining power and stability in their racketeering endeavours: It was a job they wanted, or a promotion, or a business deal, or that relationship which they hoped to take to the next level to earn their place as a married man/woman –the kind of social sanction that bestows honour, prestige and privilege in a colonial state.
With the new regime, their supplications changed as well. In their inner sanctums of their confessions and supplications they confided in me. They were deeply seeking to understand what had happened to the dream that they saw their parents lurch to in 2002 when NARC took power; they also wanted to understand how the silence that they were all too familiar with had cropped back to their social architecture. A wound they had inherited from their parents that they thought their university education, social media and being part of the global community would save them from was reeking pus of a past that reminded them of their present reality.
They were back to the future. And unfortunately for them, the self-censorship of the church “body politic” coupled with a lack of a model or ideal of political engagement—an organizing theory of social action, to address their existential concerns left them only the more helpless and hapless. Disillusioned, angry and unable to help my peers, I left the clergy.
The millennial generation (a term widely credited to authors William Strauss and Neil Howe to categories those people born between 1980 and early 2000’s) is perhaps the most slandered generation in our recent memory and in the same token, greatly misunderstood. Mention “millennial” to anyone over 40 and the words entitled, spoilt, lazy and indisciplined will come back at you within seconds as some of the choice clichés used to describe millennials. We’ve all heard the statistics. We are delaying marriage and home ownership and having children for longer than any previous generation. And, according to The Olds, our problems are our entire fault. This is what it feels like to be a millennial. Not only are we screwed, but also we have to listen to lectures about our folly from the people who screwed us.
But generalizations about millennials, like those about any other arbitrarily defined group, fall apart under the slightest scrutiny. Contrary to the cliché, majority of millennials are not university graduates, can’t lean on their parents for help and they are not lazy or entitled. Every stereotype of our generation applies only to the tiniest, richest, Kenyan elite sliver of young people. And the circumstances we live in are more dreadful than most people realise.
For instance, after the 2007/ 2008 global economic collapse the impact of the financial crisis was transmitted to African economies not through the credit crunches and liquidity freezes that strangled advanced and emerging economies, but rather through the global recession that followed. Low commodity prices, depressed external demand, and declining remittances wreaked havoc. African economies suffered about $578 billion in lost export earnings over the two years after the collapse, representing 18.4 percent of GDP and five times the aid to the region over the period. Oil exporters suffered the largest losses, with a shortfall of $420 billion. Capital inflows, tourism receipts and remittances all declined in parallel, and trade financing plummeted significantly. The effect of that massive external shock on growth and poverty was severe. Kenya recorded its highest unemployment rate in 20 years as observed by the Euromoney institutional investor report.
For millennials who were entering the workforce in a broken economic system, the economic recession had a profound effect on the development of their careers. We have had to contend with competing for the extremely few entry, low paying slots and acquiring jobs outside of our areas of training as observed by a study conducted in 2014. The study titled Universities, Employability and Inclusive Development also revealed that it takes a university graduate an average of five years to secure a job in Kenya. And if this is the case for our Kenyan graduates, the special 1% of our population then we can only attempt to imagine the grotesque realities for the rest 99%. And Like the “hustler economy” of the 1980’s and the 1990’s, today’s unemployed have taken to the “gig economy”- a term that refers to the increased tendency for businesses to hire independent contractors and short-term workers – to help them make ends meet. Its ethical concerns notwithstanding, Academic writing, a new and quickly budding sector in which university assignments and projects by college students, particularly in the West are being outsourced to young Kenyan graduates at a fee, is a fitting example of an occupation within the “gig economy” that has provided for employment to many of the Kenyan unemployed youth.
The Western financial crisis of 2007-8 also challenged the foundation stones of the long-dominant neoliberal ideology. It failed the test of the real world, bequeathing the worst economic disaster in seven decades. Today politically and intellectually, it has become obsolete – and spasms of resurgent nationalism are a sign of its irreversible decline. This is why energetic authoritarian “solutions” are currently so popular: distraction by war, ethno-religious “purification” the magnification of presidential powers and the corresponding abandonment of civil rights and the rule of law.
In Kenya and Africa, the picture is different. Almost all nations were borne out of the Eurasian conquests. And upon the independence of these states the European elite undertook to manufacture a native elite that after their physical departure they could maintain economic control and extraction over the new-formed states. This native elite could never have held such incoherent quasi states together without tremendous reinforcement and legitimacy from outside, which was what sealed the lid on the pressure cooker. Today, with the collapse of the prevailing story of mankind –neo liberal democracy, the west has become weak and global powers like America and Britain have adopted a self-isolationist, real politik foreign policy posture. Without tremendous reinforcements and legitimacy from the mother countries, countries in Africa are now going through rapid convulsions, as their political elites are unable to control their populations. Most African states have taken to palace coups and elite consolidations to enforce a type of control within their quasi states, though without absolute economic and political sovereignty this can only be temporary.
The ramifications of this for the millennial generation in Kenya are grim. Foremost, with the increasing stringent immigration laws by countries in the global north to protect their borders and lock out immigrants, the route taken by the few privileged and educated Kenyans and Africans to migrate to the global North for better opportunities in the late 80’s and 90’s may prove more difficult for the millennial generation of the same cadre today. Most will have to stay in the country and deal with the internal convulsions.
The breakup of the superpower system has led to the implosion of state authority across the Kenyan landscape of economically and politically impoverished people – and the resulting eruptions cannot be contained at all. Destroyed political cultures have given rise to startling “post-national” forces such as Alshabaab, and the retreating west is creating a vacuum which if not managed properly can create fertile ground for entrenchment of such groups and their nefarious activities.
Today, the youth have to contend with dilapidating social services system, a debt driven economy,an illiberal, incompetent and corrupt regime, and a collapsing global order -which has no signs of creating a compelling narrative to fashion a desirable future. Yet, with all this factors stacked against the millennial generation I still feel there is a silver lining in our story.
The Kenyan Millennial generation, like none before it is more tech savvy, digitally connected, politically and socially “woke”, and by far the most educated generation in postcolonial Kenya to say the least. With these tools at our disposal we have the potential to create a better world for ourselves and for future generations. But this will not come through the mundane economic calculations, the endless solving of technical problems and the satisfaction of consumer demands as Fukuyama opined. The neo-liberal man that the Western capitalistic system created has only shown himself parsimonious and niggardly where men are concerned; it is only men that it has killed and devoured. Capitalism has finally collapsed and we must find something different. Africa is waiting in eager expectations from something from us rather than this Frankenstein of a man. We must now abandon his old dreams and beliefs and turn a new leaf; we must bring forth daring courage, imagination, idealism and work out new concepts, and try to set afoot a new man.
AND GOD RESTED ON THE SEVENTH DAY: Faith as a tense truce in an African reality
When I was growing up in rural western Kenya in the mid-80s, my father, a Seventh Day Adventist (SDA), imposed Adventism upon us like a colonial identity card. He was an Adventist because his mother was an Adventist. That part of western Kenya was under intense competition between the Catholic, Anglican and Seventh Day Adventist churches. The Seventh Day set up a stronghold in central and south Nyanza regions with churches in every corner of the community. We were expected to carry this spiritual card around for many reasons. One was to inspire some sort of righteous pride, to show that we were better than others, mostly Catholics and non-believers, though Catholics were the other main Christian denomination in our community. We were being trained in denominational politics, that even though we were worshipping the same God as Catholics, we were different, more sanctified. Unlike them, our bodies were free from impurities like tobacco and alcohol. And that was not all. Coca-Cola and coffee were prohibited; soya was touted as the best alternative (but you could only find soya in shops in Nairobi).
My mother protested the Seventh Day Adventist church and its restrictions. She did not understand how eating cold food on Saturdays made anyone holier; she always prepared hot food. My father protested but grudgingly ate it all the same. Also, my mother had no personal vendetta against Coca-Cola. She drank it and made us drink too. My father frowned but couldn’t do much. He was always a minute too late, just as we were putting down empty bottles. In addition, my mother was ambivalent to religion; she was raised in a big traditional family where religion was a pastime and not a primary way of life. My father should have also protested a long time ago. My uncle too. Both are polygamists. Being polygamists, the church never accepted them the same way they accepted the church. As a teenager, I could partake in Holy Communion, but my grandfather, father and my uncle – grown men with much more social status than I – could not. They joined other men, mostly polygamous, in grudgingly walking out of the church during Holy Communion. In my mind, I didn’t think that polygamy, per se, made you a good or bad man. There were very good polygamous men – loving, caring and responsible. And there were bad monogamous men, who abused their families every day.
Deeply entrenched polygamy in our community was the elephant in the room in our local church. Most men seated in the pews were in polygamous families. Our church relentlessly depicted polygamy as barbaric and backward. I have always asked myself why my dad continued in this church that was seemingly subjecting him and fellow polygamous men to emotional abuse every Saturday. He later even embarked on a project to build a big church sanctuary closer to our home. Why would my father, and African people in general, join and support churches that deeply conflicted with their traditional way of life?
The Seventh Day church did not have formal method, or doctrine, to accommodate traditional practices of Africans they had come to teach about Jesus and salvation. This is was not a democracy where the heathen communities had a vote. The church’s intention was clear- convert as many as possible and to grow into a dominant, influential force. My father and polygamous men in the community accepted that the church was way more powerful than they, and that by joining it they could access some social power in a rapidly changing world. The church also accepted that these polygamous men were difficult and would not easily change their ways. The pastor seeming to have recognized this contentious issue, prayed fervently about everything but skirted around it.
For the first nineteen years of my life when I attended Seventh Day Adventist church, I never heard a pastor mention the word polygamy by name during sermons. They would preach strongly against adultery without mentioning polygamy. It was not lost to any person paying attention that lust and adultery, in the context of this Christian worldview, was the first step towards polygamy. Within this complex social set up, there was some sort of unofficial truce around polygamy- this truce would only be broken during Holy Communion when polygamous men would leave the church. Women must have viewed themselves as winners in this struggle between their men and the church. This was one of the few occasions when they would get a seat at the table and partake in a ceremony that their husbands could not. The men protested silently- most would skip church on days when Holy Communion would be served. My father would also often talk of David and his son Solomon as some of the famous men in the bible who married multiple wives. This contradiction in the bible must have been a source of consolation to my father and many men in my community.
In the 1980s and 1990s, during the early era of HIV/AIDS, there was a visible rise in televangelism and miracle healing, and a corresponding increase in the number and prominence of traditional healers and medicine men in our community. Public prayers were being made for all these throngs of young men and women dying of this incurable disease. Privately, African traditional medicine men and women were sought to appease whichever spirits had brought this curse to the people. Mainstream churches vigorously preached abstinence and riled against contraceptives, while in the dead of the night, when the church was officially asleep, traditional healers were brought into homes to prescribe final rites for the dead. Some of these rites included “corpse cleansing” through sexual intercourse with the dead in some communities.
This perpetual conflict between traditional spiritual practices and Christianity has always been a source of both personal and communal conflict. I remember when my uncle Ben was sick, strangers would visit ostensibly to “pray for him”. I knew these people were not Catholics or Seventh Day Adventists. I could tell they were traditional medicine men and women. Sometimes they would stay for days, and I would hear my grandmother telling her fellow women from the church that these medicine men were distant relations who were visiting. I could tell she appreciated the inadequacy of the Christian God in these difficult situations, but that she still struggled with that reality. I saw in her eyes the guilt of resorting to traditional medicine when she had lost faith in the ability of the Christian God to heal my uncle Ben. This was deep in rural Kenya, yet she did not dare be free in following the traditional practices of her people. I have come to learn that this personal struggle, both mine and hers, were a manifestation of years of calculated and successful emotional blackmail to the individual and community by missionaries.
One of the enduring impacts of Christianity in my life was the image of white savior. This image was thrust on my young mind through the powerful sermons on Saturday by our local pastor. The sermons always ended by him commanding us to “fall at the feet of the cross” and “obey”. Obedience would ensure blessings and prosperity. This image of falling at the image of a white male has always overwhelmed me. It struck me even more later when I was living in the United States, where white superiority is always hanging over black and brown people’s heads like a dark cloud.
I recently came from a trip to South East Asia and had a chance to experience a deity that wasn’t in the image of a white savior. I was struck by the images of massive statues of Buddha that resembled the local people. They were in all shades of brown, dark brown and sometimes black. Having lived in the USA for almost four years now, I was puzzled by this free colour continuum of Buddha statues. I made note of this and asked my hosts and friends who were surprised by my observation. They had never made similar observations. The differences, they said, came down to design and material used to make the statues of Buddha. There were no subliminal racial messages of superiority and inferiority in these statues. I apologized and let them know that I live in environment where race permeates every fabric of the society.
This experience introduced me to a unique reality that most Africans who are Christians have never had – the reality and the power of having a God who resembled the locals, who looked like the local rickshaw driver, beggar, teacher and doctor, hit me very hard. It brought back memories of the many times my father struggled to contort reasons to reassure me and my siblings that as much as the Christian God had very explicit Caucasian features, on the inside, he looked like us, Africans. And that before this God, all races were equal. I was always confused by this halfhearted assertion. I felt like we were always struggling too hard to impress the Christian God and we all fell short.
I have started thinking of how powerful and relatable it would be to have a God whose image members of my community would relate to. This would perhaps empower and inspire many people, including my son, whom I am not sure how to introduce religion to. How can I read him a Bible that has been used to control my people for generations without feeling a repulsive guilt? No, I cannot. I am rebelling against everything peddled with a white supremacist agenda. I have decided against that. That is why I struggled with thoughts of taking him to my grandmother’s church in Kenya. I decided against this church that refused to accept my father.
But then again, I have to ask myself, which is this African deity I am seeking? Moreover, where is this deity? Is it possible to reconstruct and empower all the traditional African deities destroyed by colonizers and missionaries? In addition, can our communities be empowered to find strength in their old ways of thinking?
This is the space and personal conflict that the entry of Christianity suspended me, and my community, into, and we are still grappling with it. Sometimes the presence of the local Seventh Day Adventist church in my community feels like an ever-present symbol of domination. But sometimes it looks like a space that offered my grandmother sanctuary and gave her meaning about life, and also gave women their own social status as Holy Communion-partaking believers. I want it to work for us, but I know I hold no vote, and I doubt my community has the power to reshaping practices and doctrines we feel do not align to the traditional values of my community. This faith has always been – take it or leave it. But I think we need something else.
THE DAYS OF SITUATION: Reflecting on the Reflections Series ‘Beyond The Numbers’
I was ten years old in 1996 when my parents separated. It seems to me that I had never really noticed them before it happened. Until that tumultuous December my parents were like the air around us – crucial to life, and you would notice when they shifted around, but otherwise somewhat unremarkable. I always thought my extended relatives were much more interesting than my parents – my aunt, who lived with us for a while, laughed loudly, spoke excitedly, and let us watch Indian movies late into the night when my mother was away working the housekeeping night shift at the New Stanley. My mother’s (step)father, my Guka, always brought us halua and kaimati every time he visited. We were fascinated bulging veins on his hand, wondering why they popped back up no matter how hard we tried to push them down.
And then, it happened. My father spoke a lot at this time, more than I had ever heard him speak, it seems, and he would say things like – “your mother is using you as a conduit to get to me.” At the end of his long speeches, I would go to my blue and red Oxford English Dictionary and look up the word conduit. And my mother became more quiet, I think, transfigured into glass that was dangerously on the verge of shattering at a moment’s notice. I was terrified at the thought of this. How does one pick up those kinds of shards?
But what none of us siblings could have known at the time – I am one of three – was that our family’s troubles were not ours alone, and that the intensity of our struggle to remain afloat was not entirely the fault of my mother and father. It was, (objectively?), the wrong time to get divorced – they were walking right into an economic blizzard, with the three of us in reluctant tow.
Kenya was in the midst of an economic recession, the fallout of implementation of the infamous Bretton Woods structural adjustment programs (SAPs), which led to a slash in government expenditure, especially on public servants’ salaries, administration, economic and social services. To make matters worse, the architects of the Goldenberg scandal had promptly drained an equivalent of 10 per cent of Kenya’s GDP from the Central Bank, just like that. Neglect and dilapidation were all around us, and in my ten-year-old mind, I connected the dots and concluded that this is actually what happens when your parents split up – the world goes to literal ruin. Garbage starts flowing in the streets. Potholes eat the road in front of your house.
Which is why I was not prepared for how painful this month’s Reflections series at The Elephant would be to read, edit and curate. They remind me, in the words of @tjjullu on Twitter, ‘ndalo situation’, days of situation, when the folks would say, “you know the situation…. We’re in a tight situation…”
Twenty-odd years later, state theft, poor fiscal management and an exorbitant debt appetite has ushered in a new season of austerity measures. Ndalo situation.
This Reflections series was intended to go ‘Beyond The Numbers’ of macro-economic policy and excavate the memories of those tough times, and connect that with what’s going on today. How did families cope? How did it affect social arrangements, like people having to live with relatives, or the stress that it put on marriages? How are millennials being affected by its iteration today – frustrating unemployment, and the unspoken angst of not being able to achieve dreams? How do we connect the brunt of the hustle to the dysfunction in national economics? How does society react to this culturally – chanelling frustration through music, sports, the arts and so on? And what are the untold stories of those traumas that were never discussed?
The series began with Lutivini Majanja’s extensive piece on how tea – its availability, quantity and quality – marked her family’s turbulent economic fortunes and domestic disruptions.
Then came Gloria Mari on the ‘extreme sport’ that is job searching today, where beyond skills, qualifications, work ethic and experience, it seems like you have to have guardian angels, good luck charms and even the occasional visit to the mganga to have hopes of finding a well-paying job.
We published Carey Baraka reflecting on how disconnected younger millennials are even from the memory or understanding of the 1990s ‘ndalo situation,’ and what that lack of memory does to a generation grappling with through similar challenges – but without a historical anchor to ground the struggle.
Filmmaker Amina Bint Mohamed explored the concerns and challenges of the so-called ‘middle class’ in a short documentary film, a demographic whose definition is contested and whose security is precarious.
There was Wanjeri Gakuru’s reflection on “flying out” as a way for families to cope with a depressed economy and diminished opportunities in the 1990s, but that is no longer an option today, with increasing xenophobia in the traditional ‘greener pastures’ – US, UK, Australia, and the like.
Darius Okolla detailed the decline of his hometown Kitale during those years, where the earth and rust seemed to swallow everything, and how the town never really recovered.
And Silas Nyanchwani’s devastating article on how he was making more money as a student a few years ago, than as an adult today with a family to support (and with a Masters degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the world), was almost too much to bear.
But could anything good come from all this distress? At a different time in my life, I would have written something clever about how economic turmoil allows innovation to emerge.
Like the way M-Pesa’s success may be partly because after the pervasive joblessness of the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a whole group of people who were willing to do the dreary work of being M-Pesa agents.
Much of the talk around M-Pesa has been why it worked so well in Kenya, and not so well in other places, and various reasons have been advanced – Kenya had a huge unbanked population, a lenient regulator, and a culture of sending money to relatives and friends.
But on the agent network, Safaricom had envisaged that agents would bolt on to already-existing businesses, like pharmacies, kiosks and convenience stores, which would then just do the M-Pesa transactions in a corner somewhere, the company’s corporate communications head told me in a past interview.
But the rapid rollout of the agent network was possible because of the very high informality in the Kenyan economy. In fact, the company was surprised at how there was a whole cohort of people willing to be M-Pesa agents as a stand-alone job, basically self-employed, sitting in a small stall, with no salary, benefits, or retirement package, earning a small percentage of every transaction.
Today, I can only make that argument intellectually, and even so, not completely sincerely. I am much more sensitive to the suffering that we tend to gloss over when we neatly tuck such losses into grand narratives of progress – that it all ‘worked out’ in the end, look at M-Pesa!
As philosopher Walter Benjamin argued, narratives of progress render history coherent and harmonious by resolving the traumatic dimensions of history, incorporating them into affirmative accounts that underwrite the positions of those in power.
It means that memory is always in danger of becoming a tool of the ruling classes, a situation that “threatens to murder the dead twice, to erase and eliminate the dissonant quality of past suffering, injustice, struggle and loss.”
Mine is a melancholic hope today, a “hope draped in black” in the words of writer Joseph Winters. It is the kind of hope that refuses to peddle in fantasies of a coherent, harmonious world unscathed by painful events, conditions and memories, in the name of the gospel of innovation. Sometimes suffering produces innovation. But it always produces pain, and the cheerful silver linings obscure this.
This series is our attempt, in the words of author Ralph Ellison, “to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain…in the hope that we might transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.”
Like Winters, I see melancholy gesturing towards a better, more promising hope, which must entail contemplation, remembrance, and critical encounter with vulnerability, cruelty, and death, rather than endeavours to resolve or deflect them through reassuring images of progress.
It is a blues sensibility, “unhopeful but not hopeless”, offering no solutions, only a way of responding to, working through, and coping with painful incongruities.
Perhaps the next M-Pesa will come out of all this. Perhaps not. But we at The Elephant will be a witness to ndalo situation.
EARTH AND RUST: The decline of a Kenyan town
Once in late 1996, a neighbour’s clothes were stolen from the hanging line when she went to work, a theft that fascinated the neighborhood to no end. Who would do such a thing? Why – for heaven’s sake? Our version of burglary was the smell of despondency with a tinge of crude survival, pain and hunger pangs. By DARIUS OKOLLA
I grew up in Kitale. The story of the deterioration of my hometown in the 1990s mirrored the tumultuous decline of just about every factory-dependent town in the country; it was subtle, gradual, almost imperceptible, and forever disguised as the typical wear and tear of urban spaces – but it was more than that. It was thievery, corruption, and disenfranchisement, shoving it down the path of visible decline; a depreciative spectacle masked by rural docility and the often-accepted rural poverty.
First came the increasing cases of theft. These were often acts of burglary that surprised us in their desperation as much as they exasperated the victims by their sheer banality. We had an outhouse in our compound measuring about 8 feet by 11 feet, where we stored farm equipment, tree seedlings, charcoal sacks – pretty much everything that was bulky and intended for outdoor use. At first the break-ins at this outhouse were infrequent, then they happened about once every few months.
The stories from neighborhood increased. In nearly all the incidences there were no guns used, often no attacks, not even violent break-ins – just missing farm tools, stolen livestock, and pilfered homes when the owners had briefly travelled out of town. Once in late 1996, a neighbour’s clothes were stolen from the hanging line when she went to work, a theft that fascinated the neighborhood to no end. Who would do such a thing? Why – for heaven’s sake? Then there were the stories of food stolen alongside a burning charcoal jiko as someone cooked outside the house, a story told with awkward hilarity.
John Kirimaiti, Wanugu, Wacucu and the elite cadre of fascinating gun-toting gangsters were the stuff of distant cities told with near-legend flair that we knew we’d never have to worry about. Our version of burglary was the smell of despondency with a tinge of crude survival, pain and hunger pangs, which drove able-bodied humans to steal anything they deemed to be of market value.
When we first moved to Kitale in the early 1990s we lived at Section Five, a row of patterned townhouses with hedged compounds of cypress, flowers, worldliness and tranquility. Nearby was Matano, consisting of dozens of two storied homes with large balconies, cream walls and wooden doors named in alphabetical order. Bondeni, where we would go ride the swings at the children’s playground, was not far either.
My folks were somewhat too extraverted for the austere life of hedged picket fences in that neighborhood, so we moved to Section 21, a well tarmacked, more concrete-y neighborhood lying to the west of the town. The streetlights worked, the town matatus ran the transit service with an efficiency that we, for the longest time, took for granted. We moved again just when private landowners started buying property in Section 21 and setting up unplanned developments.
As Section 21 began to sprawl, it is perhaps not a coincidence that the locals transliterated its name to Tuwani (two-one-i), betraying its deterioration, imbuing it with a villagized name, vibe and life.
Our next neighborhood, Mitume, for the better part of the 1990s was a large piece of land with few houses and lot of grassy fields. Mitume (Kiswahili for apostles) a name likely derived from Christ The King Catholic church parish nearby, was far different from the organized suburb life of Section 21, though it offered a stronger sense of community. Mitume wasn’t spared either as slowly, random developments popped up on what was once sprawling grassy fields.
Chipped paint, dirt, and dilapidation slowly ravaged the children play area at the swings at Bondeni estate that we had left behind. The swings grew rusty, then bare-boned and dangerous for kids to play on. Then they got vandalized and whatever remained of them was run into the ground by neglect, swallowed by the earth and rust. Beside it, where dusty paths met collapsing hedges, garbage strewed onto the road from what were once neat, well-ordered homes.
I attended a public school and so did most of our neighbors, and most of our parents were either in the informal sector or worked as civil servants. It’s still intriguing how the elders seemed so unaware of just how vulnerable they were to downward mobility given their faithfulness in following every single news item on the radio. How come they didn’t see what was coming?
Baba Silas, my friend’s dad worked the Kenya Cooperative Creameries (KCC) and so did most of my friend’s dads who worked in various parastatals, like Baba Wycliffe, Baba Jaredi and on and on. Somehow our parents’ names were hallowed, so they were just ‘Baba nani’ and ‘Mama nani’. Baba Silas – I never got to know his name – carried himself with an air of officiousness, always in a leather jacket, with a slow walk; his neck seemed stiff as he walked, with a slight swagger and a polythene bag at hand. He always carried a polythene bag, I’m not sure why.
He’d lose his job during retrenchment as the parastatals got downsized and then collapsed in the mid-1990s. But I didn’t see him for a while, as we moved from Mitume estate to Lessos, where our parents had bought some land. Lessos estate is named after the Lessos farm in Eldoret, given that the Kalenjin owners who gave the place its name had moved to Kitale from Eldoret.
Set on a ridge overlooking a forest, you could always see the factories in Section 6 and Section 19 on the opposite ridge about four kilometres away, across from Lessos forest in the valley below.
From Lessos, the few remaining factories including a leather tanning factory, Kenya Seed, Western Seed and a dozen other factories let out a low dull hum that on a quiet afternoon reached all the way to our home. Slowly by slowly, the hum grew fainter as the firms collapsed until the sound was no more. But quickly, the silence as it was quickly replaced by the cacophony of human activity, especially a construction boom that hit the estate in the 2000s. The town’s population was rising, properties were becoming smaller and more sub-divided, and unplanned developments were everywhere.
As the hum of factories faded to whimpers, informal businesses in the neighborhoods rose sharply as retrenched workers desperately tried their hands in business, trying to secure an income for their families. Most of them collapsed within months or a few years after inception.
The 1997 elections carried with it a strange sense of camaraderie and hope in the town, partly because multi-party politics had expanded the democratic space and increased a sense of political freedom. Men (and they were mostly men) stood atop old Peugeots and Mazdas, flashing two-finger salutes and yelling in the air, drowning the silent scream of a town choking under the stranglehold of Structural Adjustment Programs.
In 1998 my mum sent me to call over a relative who lived about 40 kilometers away for a job opportunity at a local company – this was before cellphones were a thing. I must have been 10 years old. This relative had already unsuccessfully applied for the job dozens of times. I arrived late in the evening as he worked on his shamba, weeding his sukuma wiki and cassava.
‘‘Hii kazi bwana nimeapply, fare nimetumia mingi na mimi nimechoka, wacha tu nilime.’ (I’ve applied for this job many times and used so much fare; I’m tired, let me just farm). I was taken aback by the vulnerability on display, his frustration breaking through into an involuntary rant to a 10-year-old.
This time though, he got the three-month gig, which still only paid peanuts and barely provided him with meaningful cash. He’d leave for Kisumu afterwards, then Eldoret, then Nairobi and back to Kitale then Eldoret again.
I would run into Baba Silas in the late 1990s, a few years after he’d been fired from KCC. He looked haggard, tired, his trouser torn at the knees. He was working at a brick-making factory, and I ran into him taking a break under a makeshift grass thatched shade, eating the mjengo githeri at lunch time. His sagged chin reflected dignity under assault, he looked shaken to see me, and a bit sad.
Then came the early 2000s and the town broke into a palpable air of difficult-to-justify yet hard-to-dismiss optimism. When Narc luminaries came to Kitale stadium for what would be their only visit to the town before the 2002 elections, I sneaked from home to go watch the revolution happen. I was 13 years old.
“Hii movement bwana! It will last for at least 30 years,” my relative would tell me matter-of-factly after the momentous event. His life certainly changed. He landed a better paying gig, then got married. His wedding, albeit later in life than was expected, reflected his changing fortunes, much more than anything. We often take for granted how the frequency of social functions such as weddings, birthday parties, cookouts, and get-togethers reflect a rising society.
He’d secure better fortunes across the country, marry, settle down, buy a plot of land, build his home and essentially hit all the markers of adulthood that had eluded him for most of his life, all in a span of eight years in the 2000s.
Unfortunately for Kitale, the town never got to deftly negotiate with the colonial state in ways that could secure it enough resources to help it fully recover. It didn’t help that the town’s patriarch, Kijana Wamalwa, would pass away a few months into the Narc wave.
Still Kitale continued to grow, the population growing exponentially in the 2000s. During the 2007 post-election violence, given its cosmopolitan makeup, Kitale provided a somewhat safe harbor for those kicked out of their homes in the outlying regions. The population soared but the infrastructure and the vitality of its urban life didn’t. I see all that every time I go home.
Features2 weeks ago
FOR THE LOVE OF MONEY: The church ‘business’ in Kenya
Features2 weeks ago
THE CHINESE ARE COMING! Empire 2.0 and the New African Agenda
Features2 weeks ago
OLD FACES, NEW MASKS: Zimbabwe one year after the ‘coup’
Features2 weeks ago
AMERICA’S CASTE SYSTEM: Race and belonging in the Age of Trump
Features6 days ago
TERRORISM: Officialdom’s baffling silence in the wake of Sylvia Romano’s abduction
Features6 days ago
DEPOLITICISING DEVELOPMENT: Jubilee and the Politics of Spin
Features6 days ago
THE 21st CENTURY ECONOMY: In God We Trust, Everyone Else Bring Data
Reflections5 days ago
AND GOD RESTED ON THE SEVENTH DAY: Faith as a tense truce in an African reality