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Starin’ At The World Through My Rearview

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Starin' At The World through My Rearview
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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.

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The author is an analyst based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Reflections

In Search of Grandmother’s Osuga Seeds

8 min read. OYUNGA PALA mourns the loss of indigenous crops and farming methods that were buried by capitalist modes of production that focus mainly on high yields and profit.

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They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.

This poignant quote is attributed to the Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos. It formed part of a defiant response to the Greek literary community who criticised Christianopoulos’ poetry as provincial. The poem is part of a collection translated into English by Prof. Nicholas Kostis (1995). The original text read…

What didn’t you do to bury me
But you forgot that I was a seed.

True to text and like a seed, those lines have sprouted many versions of that phrase as mainstream metaphors for resilience and hope in the face of injustice, where individuals or groups of people go up against systems that are designed to bury them.

My own paraphrasing of those famous Christianopoulos’ lines would read:

They tried to bury us, we survived but we lost our way and forgot we are seeds.

The importance of seeds, and indigenous seed cultures, in particular, is a lost consciousness among the contemporary generation of African farmers. The introduction of hybrid seeds in post-colonial Africa progressively altered farming cultures and food systems. Commercial and certified seeds accompanied by a retinue of inputs, fertilisers, pesticides and the promise of high yields but only good for one season, have entrapped rural small-scale farmers in exploitative systems of the dominant agro-industry. Indigenous plant genetic varieties have lost significant ground to hybrid varieties, and consequently, the disappearance of indigenous food cultures and seed knowledge.

Discovering my roots

My own awareness of this crisis evolved over decades. I was brought up in a middle-class family, sojourned in Nairobi, chasing the Kenyan dream. My parents had one foot firmly planted in the ancestral village home, back in Gem, Siaya county.

As second-generation labour migrants to Nairobi, my parents arrived in post-independence Nairobi to secure residence, courtesy of the civil service, in the formerly “white” sections of the city. In these new upper-middle-class spaces, backyards were for recreation and not farming. Nonetheless, my parents never lost touch with their roots, perhaps informed by their acute awareness of the politics of belonging in Nairobi. The capital city was a marketplace where capital was accumulated and transfered from the centre back to the deprived margins. To augment the living costs of large households in the city and establish a security blanket in the event of political dislocation, they maintained a steady link with rural homes.

The importance of seeds, and indigenous seed cultures, in particular, is a lost consciousness among the contemporary generation of African farmers.

My father took us to the village every school holiday without fail. We learned to farm, mainly cash crops (maize and beans) as the staple. It was a labour-intensive crop when planted at scale without the aid of mechanisation.

My father was a civil servant securing measure of comfort after retirement and the loss of government perks. He invested in mono-cropping modern systems focused on high yield and scale for profit. It was during these excursions that I began to understand the clear gendered distinction between how men and women farmed. Men approached farming from a capitalistic frame modeled on the colonial imagery of “I had a farm in Africa” – that famous line by Karen Blixen in the book and movie Out Of Africa – while the women engaged in peasant farming, often associated with allotments around the home dominated by indigenous vegetables.

My grandmother’s permaculture garden

While seasonal farming of maize was a group family activity, my grandmother maintained a garden located outside her kitchen throughout the duration of her life. The kitchen garden was distinguished by plant diversity and the presence of diverse categories of food. Fruit, tubers, bulbs, rhizomes, an assortment of vegetables, fruiting creepers, medicinal herbs, spices and some grain.

Every plant in her garden had a function. To the unaccustomed eye, it appeared to be an unkempt and overgrown allotment, in stark contrast to the neat rows of maize that occupied our family’s three-acre farm. My grandmother practised an alternative style of farming that involved no pesticides, save for firewood ash, minimal tillage, composting and the allotment remained productive throughout the year. My grandmother’s generation employed permaculture principles that Bill Mollison, the Australian educator and co-founder of permaculture, brought to popular consciousness. Her philosophy of food production is captured in Mollison’s articulation of permanent agriculture.

“The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter.”

In hindsight, these gardens, a common background feature in most homesteads, served as the main source of the family’s daily nutritional needs. They acted as alternative food sources in the likely event of crop failure due to vagaries of the weather, the sporadic pest and wildlife damage and fluctuating market prices. Additionally, these granny kitchen gardens held something even more precious: a seed bank and a botanical lab where constant experimentation was taking place and heirlooms were preserved. The gardens epitomised food sovereignty in complete revolutionary terms.

My grandparents, who came of age in the nascent days of the British colony, suffered the disruption of an oppressive colonial order. The introduction of a cash economy and wage labour led to new methods of food production, initially as forced labour, and later as a necessity for economic security. While the men farmed to earn money, the women created alternative gardening spaces, delicately negotiating autonomy. A core part of the success of these allotments was seeds.

The loss of heritage seeds

We lost nearly all of the heritage seeds that my grandmother retained in her little garden. The tall pawpaws and red bananas that I thought grew wild as a child are non-existent. The chillies are gone, as are the medicinal herbs and the diverse indigenous vegetables. The traditional yellow-coloured maize known as nyamula of my grandmother’s time are rare sightings. All that I have left is lemongrass that I only went in search of after reading a feature article on its economic viability as a poor man’s cash crop.

In my ancestral village, the keepers of the seed are a generation of grandmothers whose significance is lost in the new agriculture order. The pockets of agribusiness prosperity in the village are exemplified by lush green maize fields propped by agri-tech groups like One Acre Fund that Christine Mungai writes about. Most of the village farms have been reclaimed by bush. Those outside the support network of agricultural companies or who lacked capital to fund farming activity sought alternatives after years of diminishing returns on depleted plots. The culinary habits, a quest for sophistication as an outcome of the colonial project, elaborated by Joe Kobuthi in an article on the hierarchies of food, are now fixated on processed staple substitutes of chapati, bread, mandazi and rice.

In hindsight, these gardens, a common background feature in most homesteads, served as the main source of the family’s daily nutritional needs. They acted as alternative food sources in the likely event of crop failure due to vagaries of the weather, the sporadic pest and wilidlife damage and flactuating market prices.

In a generation, I have witnessed the disappearance and loss of this oral knowledge on indigneous seed in not only food crops, but in trees as well. The predominant attraction to commercially viable eucalyptus, pines and cypress varieties has created tree farms in small holdings following the same ethic of plantation agriculture. Fast growth, high yield and maximum profit.

The indigenous fruits of Kenya are lost to memory and the fruits I now consider traditional, such as mango, guava, and avocado, have roots in Asia and South America. These fruit tree species dismissed for their poor market potential ultimately could not keep up with the evolving culinary habits. The nutritional value of indigenous fruits, such as tamarind, baobab, plums and berries, which grew in the wild, is well documented but restricted to the corridors of botanical research institutes.

Re-imagining food production

The industrialised food systems, with all their detrimental consequences, play havoc not just on our physical selves, characterised by the explosion of diseases of affluence but also on physical land through environmental devastation of water and air pollution and the depletion of biodiversity.

My foray into commercial farming was motivated by profit in an uncertain economy; it was an alternative source of income. I approached it armed with soil tests, fertiliser, certified seed, pesticides and the service of a freelancing agronomist. I decided to try my hand in scaling indigenous vegetables with a boom in demand for local veggies on supermarket shelves. I sourced my seed, the Giant African Black Nightshade (locally known as osuga) from a reputable company. My strategy was monocropping with a rigorous pesticide regimen. Despite my marginal success, it took two pest attacks on a half-acre plot to seriously consider alternative seed. The Catch-22 of hybrid seeds is the heavy reliance on agrochemicals for guaranteed yield. A Route To Food, an alliance against food insecurity in Kenya, conducted research that showed:

At least 32% of pesticide active ingredients that are currently registered and being sold in products in Kenya, have been withdrawn from the European market, due to their serious potential impact on human and environmental health.

This is what set me off in search of my grandmother’s osuga seeds.

Sowing seeds of hope

The seed stock was not available in my village and in the surrounding villages. Whenever I posed the question, I received a cursory response of “koth nyaluo tinde olal”. Indigenous seeds are no longer available these days. My persistence led me to the vibrant Luanda town market in Vihiga County. To my relief, I found a constituency of women selling regional varieties of indigenous vegetable seed, measured by the bottle top from as far as Ukambani. The seed retailed for a fraction of the cost of the certified seed I sourced from the local agrovet. When I asked the women about the stocks, they replied without hesitation, “Mbegu iko”. We have seed. They had formed communities where they collected, selected, exchanged, and preserved seed.

Seed developers have commercialised indigenous leafy vegetables with the emergence of several seed companies selling indigenous vegetable seed. The huge appeal has followed health concerns of meat and processed food-based diets and a return to healthy revitalising traditional plant-based diets.

In a generation, I have witnessed the disappearance and loss of this oral knowledge on indigneous seed in not only food crops, but in trees as well.

I remain aware that these market women in Luanda are an exception rather than the rule. This deliberate stewardship of resilient self-propagating seed is a response to the commercialisation of indigenous vegetable seeds, and in the face of capitalised seed control, they become the face of the resistance movement.

Their actions embody generations of knowledge and a tradition of survival in the midst of a sophisticated assault on the diversity of food crops. The number of peasant farmers on small-scale holdings that once produced the bulk of Africa’s food supply are dwindling. The place of seeds and their preservation is a conversation that happens in the margins amongst groups of community women creating alternative seed economies.

Seed movements

North America has witnessed a revival of native seed exchange banks as indigenous communities re-imagine management systems to store and protect native heirloom seeds that sustained Native American plant-based foods. Seed Keepers Networks are emerging to revitalise native plant species and the inherent rich cultural knowledge that accompanied traditional food pathways. Alongside that are foodie movements returning to tradition of reclaiming and re-imagining pre-colonial African diets that were largely vegan.

Similar initiatives with global visions, such as the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)’s Smallholder innovation for resilience (SIFOR) project, examine traditional knowledge-based innovation systems to strengthen food security in the face of climate change. Many of these initiatives abide by a funding model that involves foreign experts jetting in with capital to solve local problems that were exacerbated by neo-liberal economic policies. Where the women are acknowledged, they merely serve as mascots for narratives of rural poverty that appeal to saviour mentality complexes.

It is over two decades since my grandmother’s passing and I have only now come to terms with the significance of her garden and the loss we experienced. It is loss of knowledge, memory, culture and food sovereignty that is replicated among communities in the global South enduring the trauma of colonial dislocation.

The future of seed commons is going to be grassroots-based and sustained by networks of conscious actors organising to dismantle the power of the agroindustrial complex. The confluence of challenges arising from modern food pathways has triggered a case for re-imagination, not only of what we eat, but how we produce what we eat. What we need is culture recovery that revitalises the relationship with land and the foods we produce and consume.

And at the heart of this is replanting our grandmothers’ seeds that we ignorantly forgot to bury in fertile ground.

Written and published with the support of the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI) (www.routetofood.org). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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Reflections

Our Grandmother’s Miniskirt: A People’s History Through Photographs and Stories

8 min read. It was the women of that time that intrigued me most and I was watching their lives with the impatient envy of a child. I wanted to grow up and wear those cat-eye glasses and cute kitten heels, burn my hair straight, drink Babycham and laugh like they did, with a hand full of bangles held out at just the right angle.

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Over the past few weeks, I’ve been inviting people to share photos of their mothers, grandmothers and aunties looking stylish in the fashion of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The idea, which we are calling “Our Grandmother’s Miniskirt”, is simple enough, crowdsource photographs from Kenyan homes of women dressed in the style of that era; the photographs will be accompanied by reflections, essays, short stories or poems. The aim is to capture a history of ordinary people and to share this history through physical exhibitions, an online archived exhibition, and a coffee table book. I see the project as a celebration of Kenyan women and gives a snap shot of the emergence of the modern Kenyan woman.

By the time we staged the first mini-exhibition with a selection of 27 photographs submitted by people from around the country, I had come to understand that projects are not easy in that they all require planning and careful execution, even if they excite people. Getting people to send their scanned photographs from precious family albums has been challenging. The project goes into the intimate spaces of families and asks them to override their tendency towards privacy and share their lives with strangers. Of course this was always going to be a trial. It was not surprising that although the daughters or granddaughters were enthusiastic to participate in the project, their mothers and grandmothers — the subjects of the photos — sometimes refused to allow them to share these images. But I’m glad the images are trickling in.

Implementing the project over the last few months has helped me see its possibilities and expanded its scope in so many ways. Most important I am now looking for photographs before the 1960s and of Kenyan women wearing a variety of dress and hairstyles. The secret to the power of the project has furthermore revealed itself in the act of crowdsourcing. This approach has allowed people to connect and own the project, much more than if the photos were purchased from a media source.

My Childhood: 1960s and 1970s

The photographs have unleashed a collage of memories for me. I was a child in the 1960s and the 1970s watching Nairobi slowly emerge from its colonial yoke and my parents seemed to be at the centre of it all. They were amongst that group of Africans who were literally stepping into the shoes left by our colonial powers. My late father’s (William Ndala Wamalwa) career developed quickly and after only two or three years in government service, he stopped driving himself and moved to the senior government ranks.

But it was the women of that time that intrigued me most and I was watching their lives with the impatient envy of a child. I wanted to grow up and wear those cat-eye glasses and cute kitten heels, burn my hair straight, drink Babycham and laugh like they did, with a hand full of bangles held out at just the right angle. But most of all I wanted to wear those glamorous clothes that I saw women wear to parties and dinners – there seemed to be a party or dinner every other weekend! Miniskirts, bell-bottom trouser suits, halter tops, maxi dresses, stilettoes, kitten heels. I wanted to dance to the very dangerous James Brown, the elegant Supremes, the cool Fadhili William, the revolutionary Miriam Makeba, and the handsome Harry Belafonte. I thought all these musicians were my parents’ friends. Imagine my shock when I grew up enough to understand that these were distant celebrities.

Burning Hair

For African women, hair means everything. Women spend large sums of money on our hair and even more woman-hours on styling it. Braiding can take eight hours. Typically a myriad of products are used on African hair, from oils, pomades, sprays, gels, dyes, treatments, conditioners and shampoos. How seriously do African women take their hair? Well in the days when we still had plastic bag around, Kenyan women could be seen risking their reputations by wearing plastic bags on their heads in broad daylight, to stop their hair from getting wet during an unexpected downpour.

But when it comes to hair, there was a simpler time. In the early 1960s, hair straightening was not yet fashionable and chemical relaxers had not yet arrived in the country. Kenyan women still wore their natural hair and fashioned it using African hairstyle traditions that involved elaborate cornrows, braids and plaiting. Saturday was the day when hair was dressed, typically with the help of skilled friends or relatives. Hair salons were still a faraway concept and the hair industry was a rudimentary affair and not the billion shilling industry of today.

In our home, many Saturdays found Aunty Truphena dressing my mother’s hair. Aunty Truphena was not my mother’s sister. But she and my mother were closer than sisters. They came from one of the smallest of the eighteen Luyhia sub-tribes, the Abanyala ba Ndombi, who are located in Navakholo division, north of Kakamega forest, in western Kenya. At that time, not many people seemed to have made it out of my Bunyala and it was rare to meet a Mnyala in Nairobi.

Sometimes Aunty Truphena straightened my mother’s hair using a hot comb heated on a charcoal jiko. She divided the wet hai,r drenched it in liquid coconut oil, and burnt it straight with the hot comb. Next she rolled the hair onto pink rollers and pinned it down. I wondered how she had learnt to dress hair like that. Her own hair was forever hidden under the flowered scarf that she always wore.

Nigerians Come to Town

The late 1960s were marked by an influx of Nigerians who came with their loud laughter, outsized personalities and strange food. They were mostly Igbos who had fled to Kenya as refugees from the Biafran War (1967-1970), but there was nothing “refugee pathetic” about them. In fact they came and took over our live,s adding flavour and passion like I had never experienced. I remember the names of one family in particular: Chief Jerome Oputa Udoji[1], his wife Mrs. Uzoamaka Udoji (Aunty Uzo) and their three children Scholastica, Osita Paul and Peter Ebelechukwu. The photograph of my mother below was taken at that time, and it was Aunty Uzo who made me realise just how beautiful my mother was, when she loudly exclaimed that my mother looked like Miss Kenya.

Mrs Rose Nanjala Wamalwa (Sitawa Namwalie’s mother) as an executive secretary at the Ford Foundation in Nairobi, Kenya (early 1970s). Photo Credit: Studio One.

Aunty Uzo was a force of nature. She and the other Nigerian women introduced me to a different way of being African. They were militant in taking on any vestigial racism that still had the temerity to cling on and even fight back, so soon after Kenya’s Independence. Aunty Uzo often regaled us with stories of the many battles she fought when white people dared to assert their colonial-era privilege. For us Kenyans, would so often acquiesce to everyday racism from the British, but not a Nigerian and definitely not Aunty Uzo. She fought with the priests at St. Mary’s school in Lavington where her sons were enrolled and she fought when white people tried to jump queues in banks or supermarkets and she argued with African waiters who tried to ignore her in restaurants. She was strong and assertive, always encouraging Kenyans not to be cowed by white people.

There were days when Aunty Uzo took over our kitchen and taught my mother how to cook Nigerian food, subjecting us to strange new flavours and aromas. Every so often our kitchen was overwhelmed by the strong smell of a dried fish imported direct from Nigeria which was even more pungent than our sivambala catfish dried in the hot sun of western Kenya. I learnt that Nigerians waste very little, cooking all parts of the goat,:the skin, meat, innards and hooves. The one dish that really tested my rather narrow palate as a child was a soup that combined beef, fish and chicken which Nigerians seemed to particularly love. When the war in Nigeria ended, our Nigerian friends left, leaving us changed for ever. But soon their place was taken by Ugandans fleeing the abuses of Idi Amin who began his rule in 1971, but that is a story for another day.

About the Exhibition

These photographs have triggered so many memories for me and it is my hope that they will do the same for all who see them. They document the social history of ordinary people in Kenya. I’ve learned that the past can be another country, sometimes a more interesting country than the narrow ideas that populate the present. I shared the premise of “Our Grandmother’s Miniskirt” with a young man, Basil Ibrahim who taught me the word hagiographic when he wrote the following in an email about the project;

“…a particularly interesting deviation from the hagiographic custom of The Great Men model of history-making…It is a model for bringing the archive to life, using memory, popular culture…in an experiment to provoke us to think about the implications the past has on the future we want.” (17 August 2019)

What he meant was that we tend to make saints of certain “great men” of the past (hagiography means the making of a saint), while ignoring the stories of ordinary people, who lived through those times. I hope that this project will correct that tendency towards hagiography.

When arranged chronologically, the photographs begin with one from1945 of a woman named Gatoro Ndugi M’Chabari, dressed in the traditional dress of the Tharaka ethnic community. The type of dress she wears was worn by married women. The unmarried ladies had their breasts left uncovered. The photograph was submitted by Mr Simon Mitambo, Gatoro’s nephew and shows her in what can only be described as a brief miniskirt. The photo was taken in Meru town in 1945, after entertaining the then colonial governor of Meru. In discussing her traditional dress, Gatoro Ndugi M’Chabari — who is over 90 years old — had the following to say: “Although we looked almost naked in miniskirts, there were no cases of sexual harassment.”


Gatoro Ndugi M’Chabari,
from the Tharaka ethnic community. 1945, Photograph submitted by Mr Simon Mitambo.

In another story entitled, “The Village Woman and Son, Bound for England” John Sibi-Okumu pays tribute to his mother Maria Ajiambo, wa Agostino Munika nende Sarah Mbaye (the names of her parents.) She was also addressed as Naliali, her clan name from the Samia of Western Kenya. John estimates that she was born in 1936.

Maria Ajiambo wa Agostino Munika nende Sarah Mbaye, mother of John Sibi-Okumu. The photograph was taken in 1958 at Noble Studio in Nairobi when John, her first born son, was four years of age.

John’s story of his mother reveals many intriguing circumstances, first being that his mother was born on a sisal estate in Juja, Kalimoni, where his grandfather worked as a nyapara or ‘overseer.’ John notes that Tom Mboya was born in similar circumstances, showing the country had already started to change with people migrating from their homes and making new homes in different parts of the country.

Rosalie Kere wearing a “Stiff” skirt and her “Beehive” hairstyle (1961). Photograph submitted by Caroline Kere.

Caroline Kere shared the photographs of her mother Rosalie Kere – the first photo above – who had the distinction of being a poster girl for soap called “Nakasero” and “Lux” in the early 1960s. Caroline’s tribute story to her mother has the intriguing title, “The Amazing Story of How my Father Found my Mother”. Her mother and father’s story is such an improbable romance story worthy of a blockbuster Nollywood film, that you can read for yourself at the exhibition, the online archive or in the coffee table book that is to come.

What follows is an exhibition of selected photographs.


Grace Ntini, from Narok County. The photograph was taken in Nairobi in 1969. Grace was 24 years old and worked for Avis Rent-A-Car Company. The photograph was submitted by Grace’s sister-in-law, Rosemary Mesopirr.


Rosemary Mesopirr, who
was 14 years old and a primary school pupil in the rural areas of Narok County. This photograph was taken in Mombasa in 1974. This was the first time she travelled to the Kenyan coast to visit her father who was a civil servant then. It was her first time to board a bus.

 

My Stylish Mother
By Doris Rutere

My mother Cecilia Kanyoe was a copy typist at Marimanti Rural Training Centre back in 1975. She was always detailed and careful in her choice of office wear. In this photograph she is wearing closed toe heels and has broken her suit with a turtleneck that matches her head gear, a chain and a wrist watch. I think they present a level of sophistication making her refined and chic. Next to her is Esther Muthoni, who was my mother’s friend. In the picture, she wears a wide belt on her cute mini-dress to create contrast while matching her head gear partly with her shoes. 

Both women are quite careful in how they let their hands rest on their thighs.

 

Joyce Akoth, pregnant with her fifth born in 1973. This picture was taken in the early 1970s when Joyce worked as a teacher and before joining the Ministry of Public Works. The photograph of Joyce Akoth was submitted by her daughter Esther Adiambo.

***


Nancy Wanjiku Kimani , the photo was taken outside Kijabe Nursing Institute, where she was undergoing training as a nurse in Kijabe Town (1969). The photograph was submitted by her daughter Ruth Kimani.

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Reflections

A Letter to Stella Nyanzi: “You Teach Us to Lay Blame Exactly Where It Belongs”

6 min read. Too often we are willing to believe that if we are calm enough, if we are silent enough, polite enough, eloquent enough, poised enough, then the tyrants will listen. We believe that if we are ‘’well mannered’’ then we will be heard. You remind us that this is deception.

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A Letter to Stella Nyanzi: “You Teach Us to Lay Blame Exactly Where It Belongs”
Photo: Facebook/Stella Nyanzi
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My sister Nyanzi,

I used to think tyranny means one-party rule, one media station and army garrisons everywhere. Now I know tyranny also means that who we love, how we live, how we die and even the speed of our death is chosen for us by people that never have to face us, by people that have learned not to fear our wrath or our collective pain. You have taught me this, because both of us live under tyrannies. As I write this, you are in Luzira Maximum Security Prison contending with the tyrannies of the prison authorities, the judicial system, the police, Makerere University, Museveni and his state and personal machinery. We live under multiple tyrannies at once, some more immediate than others, all of them intent on silencing us.

I am writing this from Kenya. I am writing from a country reeling through an economic recession that the state’s press statements will never admit exists. A manmade recession fueled by the looting that seems to grow more arrogant with each day. As I write this, many Kenyans are dying in public hospitals because there is no medicine or the doctors have not been paid or someone stole the money for the equipment. As I write this, there are young people attending endless seminars on entrepreneurship because they face grim rates of unemployment, this too is manmade disaster. I don’t know how many young men the police have killed today; I don’t know how many women have been sexually abused or killed by a country that just seems to hate its women. There are also the university students who are teargassed and beat up every time they try to march, and the many communities unhumaned by the state. I don’t know how many queer people have been stripped or raped or mocked or told to prove they are human beings today. These are the tyrannies I live under.

We share some of these tyrannies and for this, I call you sister. Allow me to call you Stella.

When you staged your first nude protest at Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), several academics gave media interviews to say that they condemned your protest and found it to be ‘’too much’’, they mockingly asked if negotiations had failed for you to go to such lengths. More insultingly, some said while they agreed you had legitimate grievances, you could have been more civil. They seem to think that you should have spoken more sweetly. I laughed when I heard them. You know how tyranny works Stella, how it works especially well in bureaucracies. You know how good bureaucracies are at silencing and ignoring. You and I know that bureaucracies move at exactly the speed dictated by tyranny, no faster and no slower.

It is a maddening thing to realize that even in the hallowed halls of universities, we are ignored and insulted and treated anyhow, as our people say. It is more maddening to know that our emails, our eloquent letters and our pleas will go unheard when tyranny is present, as it was at MISR. Tyranny often wears a nice suit and can be well spoken and well respected. At Makerere, you used the tools at your disposal in defense of yourself. The tools on that day were red paint, cellotape, your body, your voice and camera. Those were the tools available to you. The other important tool in your arsenal, arguably the most potent, is your refusal of respectability.

So often, women are only celebrated when we protest in service of the men in our lives — our brothers, our fathers, anyone but ourselves. I think of all of us who are scared of speaking in our own defense, scared of organizing for our own wellbeing, our reproductive freedom, our sexual freedom, our safety. I think of how we have been intimidated to believe that this is entitlement, as if being entitled is a bad thing. How many of us have swallowed indignity after indignity because the only person being humiliated is us?

Here, I pause, in the middle of my letter to acknowledge and greet you in the movements you come from, the movements that have shaped you and supported you. We know that often people are isolated from their movements in order to make them messiahs. But messiahs always fail because they don’t really exist. I greet you in the name of the #RotAtMISR , #WomensMarchUG , #ThisTaxMustGo , #PeoplePowerMovement and the many offline political actions you have taken. From standing in solidarity with students of Makerere when they protested arbitrary inclusion of fees, to caring for the Arua 33 that were victims of state violence, to dealing with menstrual injustice through the #Pads4GirlsUG movement.

It is from your movements that you have dealt with the effects of Museveni’s tyranny intimately, by seeing how your comrades are brutalized and seeing how relaxed the dictators can be even in the face of impassioned pleas for even a small measure of justice. You have seen your movements forced to wait on the dictator’s time. We all do so much waiting after all. We wait for enough money to take our relatives to decent hospitals and decent schools, we wait for courts to vindicate us and for the churches to speak for justice and for the police to stop killing. On both sides of the Malaba border, we wait. A feminist sister, Mumbi, has written about how we are forced to wait on the state’s time, wait on tyranny’s time, in order to live as human beings. Mumbi considers that one of the ways we can disrupt the state’s time is through the communities we build and how we care for each other.

You have given us another answer to how we can disrupt the state’s time; by abandoning respectability and politeness. After all, the tyrants know exactly what they are doing when they abuse our humanity. From your political actions, your Facebook posts, and your court appearances, we learn to call the tyrants by name and declare their shame to them. I read somewhere that your father died because of the poor healthcare system in Uganda, and in your writing, you lay the responsibility for this on Museveni’s head. Rightfully so. Another feminist sister, Sunshine, says that this is reminiscent of what Fela Kuti did when his mother (and our feminist ancestor) Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti died from injuries she got after the Nigerian police raided Fela’s home. Fela took his mother’s coffin to the army barracks, to Olusegun Obasanjo, who for all intents and purposes had killed Funmilayo. When you call Museveni a pair of buttocks, that is exactly what you are doing, connecting the tragedy of all the deaths and suffering caused by a sick state to the head of the state. Truth telling can start there, by us clearly naming the tyrants and abusers.

For some reason, tyrants hate this. They are shocked at the idea that we might call them what they are: abusers, misogynists, sexists, thieves, robbers, murderers, homophobes. You teach us to lay blame exactly where it belongs, to practice the radical truth telling that refuses to be distracted by bureaucracy. Stella, you say that politeness has been held captive, and the powerful don’t listen anymore, and sometimes we have to say fuck it and then people will listen.

Too often we are willing to believe that if we are calm enough, if we are silent enough, polite enough, eloquent enough, poised enough, then the tyrants will listen. We believe that if we are ‘’well mannered’’ then we will be heard. We think if we bend ourselves enough, the tyrants will feel some pity for us. You remind us that this is deception. Good manners are decided by the powerful, and after all — isn’t it the worst manners to steal and oppress? Yet no one accuses tyrants of having bad manners. No, bad manners are left to be a cross for us to carry to hasten our own silencing, our own internal and final deaths. Respectability protects the comfort of the tyrants. Your political actions show us that when we shed politeness, we can disturb their peace in potent ways.

You, like Audre Lorde, know that our silence will not save us. Not only that, but politeness and niceness cannot save us either. You know that we only get silent to work out our internal convictions and from there, we use whatever tools we have to shout, be it our bodies, our phones, our voices. We shout. We shout because we are being killed either way. Your poetry, court appearances and nude protest are all political actions, asking us what we are still afraid of. What do we gain by protecting the comfort of these tyrants to enjoy their theft, their tyranny unoffended?

Stella, you are a woman who has reached into herself and taken joy, taken brazenness and categorically refused shame. Your body is your manifesto, as you say, and with it, you declare and live your radical queer feminist politics every day. We are affirmed by you.

Some people think you are fearless, others believe you are unashameable, I don’t believe either of them. Even with the best intentions, they are trying to make you iron, invulnerable, and otherworldly. I know different. You are not otherworldly Stella, you are fully human.

In care and love,

Karwitha

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