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Reflections

Starin’ At The World Through My Rearview

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Starin' At The World through My Rearview

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

Search and (Maybe) Protect: Stop and Frisk, Nairobi-Style

I find it humorous that the guards at some buildings never search my pockets when I have a bag. On the other hand, they are very quick to find out what is in the bag. They mostly find either a rugby kit or a book and packed lunch.

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Search and (Maybe) Protect: Stop and Frisk, Nairobi-Style
Photo: Bigstock

The other day, a friend of mine told me about something he witnessed in a matatu. Two post-secondary school students boarded the matatu and sat down. As they waited for it to fill up, all the other passengers uneasily stood up and walked out one by one. The reason? The other passengers felt under threat by possible terrorists.”

The same students had moved into a hostel that week and some residents of the area had called the local OCPD to alert him of the presence of some strange and suspicious people. The OCPD deployed a police unit near the hostel immediately. Traumatised, the students eventually opted to move to a neighbourhood that had more residents of a similar ethnic origin to theirs. They would feel more comfortable there. What was their crime? They were of Cushitic origin and people from other communities had branded them as “suspect terrorists”.

Kenya has experienced several terror incidents over the last five years. There have been major attacks at Westgate Shopping Mall, Mpeketoni Town, Garissa University College and Dusit Hotel, which have left numerous fatalities and many others injured. Other attacks have also occurred at a Nairobi’s police station, in Mandera Town, and parts of Lamu County. The attacks have heightened the sense of insecurity in urban areas, the coast and the north-eastern part of Kenya. In addition, the country is also grappling with internal security concerns. We occasionally read or hear in the news of armed robberies, roadside muggings and spiked drinks in pubs leading to robberies.

Many have put the blame on the porous borders with neighbouring countries. It is understood that these enable the easy movement of arms into the country. Added to this is the high level of corruption within the immigration system and some security organs. Youth unemployment and hopelessness have also enabled easy radicalisation.

As a resident of Nairobi for over 36 years, I have witnessed a gradual shift from a very open society to one that now habitually interacts with suspicion and a deep sense of insecurity. In the 1980s and 90s it was the norm in many residential areas to have cypress or bougainvillea fences. School gates remained open throughout the day and shopping areas had entrances wide open. Serious robberies were the preserve of famous armed bank robbers though occasional muggings were reported. The newspapers even had a “Lost and Found” column.

Things began to change in the 1990s, perhaps due to the impact of the austerity measures of the structural adjustment programmes (SAPs). Growing cases of burglaries forced us to start installing burglar proofing to fortify our doors and windows. Many of us went ahead to replace natural fences with walls. Around the same time the country experienced political riots, often accompanied by looting. These forced shop owners to start completely sealing off their displays during non-working hours. Window shopping in the Central Business District became a thing of the past. The streets increasingly came to host large numbers of street children who would threaten to smear you with human excrement if you didn’t give them a few coins.

At the start of the new century, the government made an effort to improve the situation by re-installing street lighting. One of the individuals in the private sector who was instrumental in this initiative was the current women’s legislative representative for Nairobi, Esther Passaris. Through her company’s “Adopt a Light” campaign, Ms Passaris promoted the commercial value of street lights through advertising. Informal areas, parks and public spaces also received the benefit of high mast lighting. The city felt safer.

But the past few years have witnessed a change in major security threats. Although petty theft and armed robberies remain a concern, the threat of global terror has taken the limelight. Kenya had experienced prior terror attacks, notably, the August 7th 1998 US embassy attack and the Norfolk Hotel attack in 1980. As serious as they were, however, such attacks were infrequent and not viewed as a common trend. Terror attacks have been on the rise since 2008, and particularly since 2011 when the Kenyan military crossed over into Somalia to fight Al Shabaab militants.

The effect of this new trend in urban areas is visible in shopping malls, churches, buildings and public transport. Twenty years ago it was unheard of that one would be stopped and searched as one entered buildings; today it is the norm. Entry and exit points are highly controlled in these buildings. One is at times left to wonder how occupants would escape in case of a genuine emergency. Government buildings have also sealed off pedestrian pavements in the city centre under the pretext of “security”. Standing and waiting somewhere or appearing to be idle has become a crime.

The security infrastructure is formidable. CCTV cameras are now common in many buildings, as are properties guarded by electric fences. Guards sitting in control rooms, with access to alarm response units and several barriers for vehicle access to parking lots and basements have become a feature of most buildings in the city.

Unfortunately, many security features/responses are on a high alert only immediately after a terror threat or attack. After a few weeks, laxity sets in. I have worked in buildings where nobody is in the security room over lunch hour. Security guards are also less rigorous with individuals they are used to seeing, and turn the searches into mere formalities. I find it humorous that the guards at some buildings never search my pockets when I have a bag. On the other hand, they are very quick to find out what is in the bag. They mostly find either a rugby kit or a book and packed lunch.

For bloggers and photo enthusiasts, photography is generally not permitted in most public places. While carrying out some transport and urban planning research recently with some colleagues from the United Kingdom, we were stopped by security officers and had to explain why we were taking pictures. To the visitors it appeared strange that one can be questioned for photography of infrastructure. But in any case, I was recently able to reconstruct the entire site in 3D using images from Google Maps!

Two years ago, one of Kenya’s top photographers and bloggers who runs the blog nairobinoir.com was arrested on suspicion of terrorism while taking photographs near a shopping mall. He was eventually released after a campaign by activists and bloggers who used social media and other channels, but the ordeal left him traumatised and had a negative effect on his business. It is regrettable that it has become the norm for many citizens to be treated as suspects on flimsy grounds.

I also remember a few years ago when a parent of Asian origin at a local school dropped his son off and decided to take pictures of some birds. Another parent who was dropping off her child saw him. Alarmed, she took a photograph of him and shared it on social media, warning people of a “possible imposter”. The image trended for the better part of the day. When it got to the man’s attention, he had to take to social media and explain who he was and what he was doing.

As a person of mixed racial heritage, I have become accustomed to being forced to identify myself to the police in various parts of the city. The reason they give is normally that “you don’t look like a Kenyan” (as if there is a textbook definition of how a Kenyan should look). It happens so frequently that these days I even make a joke of it when I am stopped. When this happened recently in December 2018, I joked to the young policeman that I could predict the order of the questions he would ask. He looked at me in surprise.

Not too long ago I asked a group of biracial friends to share their experiences with the security organs. There were several amusing responses. It was clear that all had experienced some “confrontation” with the police. A common theme was that they were used to it and did not hold any hard feelings. This included taking the cops in circles by answering questions in their African mother tongues! One who happens to be a linguist once chose to respond to a policeman in deep Dholuo. He left the officer baffled, as he could not follow half of the conversation. Many say they simply opt to identify themselves and move on with their lives.

The two students’ experience in the matatu, however, is one of those occasions where citizens are treated as suspects because of mere assumptions related to their external appearance and ethnic origin. Such people are searched more thoroughly at buildings like shopping malls and are treated with suspicion when walking in groups. The arbitrary arrests and detention of several people of Somali origin in 2014 left many of them scarred. It is believed to have widened the divide between Cushites and people from other language groups in the country. As detailed by Owaahh in From ‘Shifta’ War to Al Shabaab: Why Kenya is her own worst enemy, it is clear that there has always been some sense of friction between the inhabitants of Northern Kenya and the rest of the country since independence.

But we are all caught up in this security dragnet one way or another – some more than others – and I wonder what it does to our sense of who belongs here, what a city is for, and how one can feel at home in a place like this.

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Reflections

Trapped: My Twelve-Hour Ordeal in DusitD2

The sound of the gun was so loud that we thought he had shot at us from inside the building, perhaps from the ground floor through the staircase. And because of the terror, I remember freezing on my way up for a few seconds before I regained my senses.

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Trapped: My Twelve-Hour Ordeal in DusitD2
Photo: Africa Uncensored footage of 14 Riverside attack

On Tuesday, January 15, my editor sent me on what I thought would be a routine, if unnecessary, assignment. I was to do an interview with George Ooko, the chief executive officer of the Commission for Revenue Allocation (CRA), which was to run in NTV’s 9pm bulletin. As the reporter, I thought my story on county revenue was strong enough with the video clips we already had, and that it could run without it. But I was overruled, and along with my cameraman Dickson Onyango, I grudgingly set off for the DusitD2 complex on 14 Riverside Drive where CRA’s offices are located.

The afternoon was sunny, hotter than usual, and dry. Our interview had been scheduled for 2:30 pm, but because of logistical challenges, we arrived at the venue some minutes past 2:40 pm. I was already anxious and irritable.

We were ushered into the boardroom of CRA’s offices, located somewhere on the third floor of Grosvenor building, which is adjacent to the Dusit hotel.

Our interviewee Ooko arrived, and Dickson and I spent a few minutes setting up before settling down for the interview. But just before I asked my first question, we heard a loud explosion that must have lasted a few seconds and shook the entire building.

At first, we thought that the explosion was from a different building, perhaps from another office compound. But then, it was followed by gunshots. I remained unmoved in my seat, because I had not wrapped my mind around the fact that our building was under attack.

Ooko suggested that we hold the interview until we figured out what was happening. But just then, we heard a second explosion, again closely followed by gunshots. It is at this point that the CEO dashed to his office, leaving Dickson and I in the conference room.

From the windows, we could see people on the ground floor running for safety using the back exits with the help of the security guards. By this time, staff members who were on our floor started running up and down the corridors. We got up and followed them, not really knowing where we were going.

I was running for the stairs holding the camera bag, which had other equipment inside; it weighed about 10kg. Dickson was holding the tripod and the camera.

On reaching the stairs, we found a crowd of people scampering for safety. Nobody at this point had figured out what was going on; the flight down the staircase was confused and disorganised. In my hands, I was still gripping the bag.

Dickson, thinking like a journalist, asked me to carry the tripod with the camera bag. He wanted to capture some video. But just before he could frame his shot, one of the assailants shot at us, forcing everyone to scamper for safety. The sound of the gun was so loud that we thought he had shot at us from inside the building, perhaps from the ground floor through the staircase.

And because of the terror, I remember freezing on my way up for a few seconds before I regained my senses. Dickson was running for the lifts, which I thought was not a good idea, but driven by panic I followed him. But the lifts did not open.

I ran into the nearest open door, which turned out to be the door that led to the washrooms on the first floor. Inside, I found some people, whose number I could not figure out at that moment. It is in this washroom that I remember mumbling some prayers to God for safety.

But once we entered one of the cubicles, our fears grew. Someone whose identity we could not figure out was trying to gain access to the washroom from the ceiling, which was cracking under his heavy weight. I didn’t have time to think of how bizarre this was, or how on earth that person got there. We were just looking for somewhere to hide.

We ended up in an open space just outside the washroom, which was a room under renovation. Again, a shot was fired towards the window, I guess after one of the attackers saw us from outside. We ran back to the washroom without thinking twice, just that this time around we ran into the first cubicle, the second one’s ceiling having proven unsafe. It later turned out that the “intruder” was one of the staff members of the CRA, who was stuck on the second floor. By this time I had abandoned the camera bag and the tripod in the empty room.

As it Happened: Attack on 14 Riverside, Nairobi

WATCH: As it Happened: Attack on 14 Riverside, Nairobi

We were seven people in the first cubicle, its small size notwithstanding. The second one now had other people. Our first thought was to lock the main door of the washroom from the inside before we locked the door of the small cubicle. I do not remember the person who offered to lock the main door leading to the washroom. All I can remember is that the last man who entered the cubicle, a tall clean-shaven man, was the one who locked the door of the cubicle.

I remember one of the people I was hiding with in the cubicle was breathing heavily, loud gasping breaths which scared most of us. In our thinking, any slight sound would alert the attackers to where we were. Our attempts to ask the good old man, who I later learnt was Prof. Edward Akong’o Oyugi, to manage his breathing, fell on deaf ears, adding to our turmoil.

I was sitting on the toilet seat, which I believed was the safest position and was away from the door, just in case one of the attackers gained access and tried shooting through the door of the cubicle.

But my comfort did not last. Since Prof. Oyugi, who by this time was leaning on the door of the cubicle, could not control his breathing, someone asked me to give up my seat for him. It meant that I would take up his position, which I thought was riskier since I would be standing directly opposite the door. But I got up, and gave the old man the seat.

The other people had taken up all the safe spots away from the door. I decided to squeeze myself to the side of the toilet seat. The other two men squeezed themselves on the opposite side, while another two stood on the opposite direction, but away from the door.

The heat inside out cubicle was beginning to get thicker and hotter. My standing position was also getting uncomfortable. Because of the squeezed space between the toilet seat and the wall, I had to stand on one leg, and switch to the other often.

Any slight noise sent us all into a panic. I remember at one point someone in the opposite cubicle had tried flushing the toilet, I do not know for what reason, throwing the whole washroom into further panic mode.

By this time, the shooting was rampant, punctuated by tense silence.

I remember one man who had taken refuge in the wash area where the sinks were mumbling a prayer. In the adjacent cubicle, I could hear some people whispering what I believed were their last prayers. One was on the phone, telling the person on the other end that we were under attack.

The time now was heading towards 4pm. At this point, I decided to alert my colleagues in the newsroom on what was happening.

I checked my phone and news was already spreading that DusitD2 complex was under attack. I was scared for my life. I remember making a prayer to God asking him not to send me to hell if I died.

The ensuing hours would be some of my longest. We would swap sitting positions, but carefully so as not to make noise. My legs grew sore at some point, but the thought of getting killed in case I went outside the washroom kept me stuck in my position.

Lucky for us, the washrooms were air-conditioned, which helped cool the damp air that was increasingly filling up the space. My fear, however, was the gap underneath the cubicle door, which easily exposed our legs. We all tried as much as we could to push ourselves as far from the door as possible.

As time went by, the air in the washroom become thicker and heavier. I took off my tie and waistcoat, and so did the others. Seconds turned to minutes, and minutes into hours. We didn’t speak much to each other. How could we? What can you tell six other strangers in that moment?

To keep myself distracted, I stayed in communication by text message with friends and colleagues, who were encouraging me to keep strong.

There were occasional gunshots, which made us jump every single time. At some point, we heard someone try to gain access of the main door that led to the washrooms where we were in. We could not tell who it was, because they never gained entry.

We kept silent, and the good old professor tried to control his breathing, even though he occasionally went back to his “default setting”.

I remember telling the people I was hiding with that help had come after my colleagues in the newsroom informed me that the police had arrived at the scene. This was sometime after 4pm. Little did I know that I would spend the next 12 hours holed up in the same place.

I had by then not informed my parents about the situation since I knew they would get too anxious and panicky. But I kept contact with my colleagues. My bosses had also reached out to me, asking me not to lose hope as they were trying all they could to get me help. I remember speaking to Dickson just a few minutes after we separated, telling him that I was hiding inside one of the washrooms on the first floor. I later learnt that he was hiding on the same floor, but in a different room.

I remember one dear friend from work asking me to keep communicating with her through text messages. I know she was trying to keep me calm. This, however, did not last long, as my phone battery died. I do not remember what time it was, but before my phone went off, I gave her a number of one of the people I was with so that she could reach me.

I informed my parents of what was happening some minutes past 10 pm with the help of a friend. And since I knew how agitated my father would become, I told my friend to notify my mother first. I can’t imagine what she felt at that moment.

News had by this time spread that two NTV journalists were part of the hostages trapped inside the complex. That in part got me worried, because I could not imagine what would happen if the terrorists got wind of this and stormed our hiding place.

At some point, I lost hope, thinking that we would only be rescued in the morning. But we resolved that we would fight the attackers, and at least die fighting in case they got to us.

Sometimes towards midnight, we heard loud noises and the lights suddenly went off. We agreed not to open the doors until we were sure that those knocking were the police.

We stayed in darkness for another two to three hours before we finally heard footsteps inside the building. When the police got to us, we were ordered to walk out one by one, with our hands raised up. They frisked us before asking us to sit down at a central place as they combed other rooms looking for hostages. The time was about 3:45 am.

Those 12 hours taught me the value of family and friends, and that life is a gift. Live every day as if it was your last day alive, because one of these days, you might just be right.

I occasionally get paranoid. I am still afraid of being in the dark. Noises and bangs on the door scare me a lot. I am afraid of staying in crowded places. I get anxious being by myself. I still live scared. But I hope it will end soon.

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Reflections

Decolonising My Soul: My Journey to Reclaim African Spirituality

After seven years of being on the journey, I can say that I have arrived at several shores of knowing and understanding. Even more, however, I have begun to wonder about the silence around African spirituality, and its persistent labelling as sorcery or devil worship.

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Photo: Ocean rahan on Unsplash

At 11 pm on Thursday, 20th October 2011, I turn the last page of Coconut by Kopano Matlwa, and I know that I’m not going back to church again. I don’t know what that means at that moment, having been a staunch Catholic, but I know that I’m not going back.

That night was the beginning of my now seven-year quest to discover, recover and live African spirituality. The quest has involved many locations and people – many of them not in Africa – and has helped me to re-evaluate and reconstruct a world that had come crashing down that night. It was not a direct or easy journey. People had many questions, especially those who had known me as the person who would constantly invite others to Mass, or who would confess the mortal sin of having skipped Mass. I didn’t have the answers, and I was making this journey far from home and without much (worldly) guidance. The crash that happened that night hadn’t left a map of where to go, much less where to begin, so I had to make the way as I went.

After seven years of being on the journey, I can say that I have arrived at several shores of knowing and understanding. Even more, however, I have begun to wonder about the silence around African spirituality, and its persistent labelling as sorcery or devil worship. And as a researcher of the environment, I see the connection of these silences and the colonial enterprise, which forced a forgetting of an all-alive Earth, the ancestors and other un-embodied beings like nature spirits, and rendered the Earth as a space for domination. We’re all living with the ecological fall-out from this kind of worldview. I started asking myself: can we recover these ways of being, knowing and doing, and re-engage with the living Earth from a place beyond coloniality?

But back to the night of the crash. In the book I had just read, Fikile, a waitress living in a township, aspires to make it big and be white. She visits her grandmother, Gogo, and participates in her prayers that go on for several hours, a dramatic performance accompanied by wailing and sobs. Gogo moans the lot of black South Africans, the violence, the unemployment, the pain, the assault…The prayer was moving to read until I got to the end where Gogo inexplicably made peace with the God she was praying to, convinced that this God would resolve the issues and make a way. That jarred. This same God that she was praying to was brought by the same people whose coming caused the troubles she was praying about. And that was the end for me.

Walking into the uncertainty was not easy. For weeks and months after, I would scour the Internet trying to find apologies from the church for their hand in colonialism. There were none. Not even in that most progressive Vatican II Council where they finally decided that Africans singing in church and praying in their languages was okay. So I kept walking.

The questions propelling me were in the silences. Whereas Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and even Buddhism, had some form and reality for me, I wondered what African religion was; I had never been told about it or come across it. I had grown up in Nairobi, or more rightly, in Ongata Rongai (yes there are people who’ve lived here all their lives), and without grandparents – they had died before I was born or soon after. I did not have much contact with any “rural home”. On both sides, family members had long been swirled into urban Nairobi pursuits. My brothers and I were third generation “uprooted” in a way. But I was sure that my people had had religious or spiritual practices of some sort. The question was how to find those out while I was studying in the United States. So I started with the one thing I knew I had: my grandmother. My grandmother died a year and seven days before I was born, and I feel she went to call me, the last of the granddaughters named after her. I began my quest by calling to her.

Soul Searching
I am…
Soul searching, seeking to find
Pieces of clay, mud and morning’s breath,
Evening light, sounds and fire stones,
The human warmth that makes me, me.
The touch of my cũcũ – and the others that I didn’t know-
Her stories by firelight, the food we might have made together.
I wish she had taught me to weave,
To warp and weft and tie the knots of this life’s kiondo.
My gogo’s spittle in blessing…
I call on it on this journey I’m taking,
To sound the depths of my heart
And avoid treacherous waters.

One of the ways I was calling her was through poetry. I had written poetry in high school but stopped when I got to university, so I began writing again. This time I was writing a different kind of poetry, one that was calling out to my ancestors, seeking a path, seeking clarity on where to go. I also began to do libations as a way of praying, without necessarily knowing the formula (there isn’t really; ritual is more about spirit than form, though form can carry spirit). I would call on my grandmother, and as I poured libations I repeated the one line of Kikuyu prayer I knew: “Thai thathaiya Ngai, thai”, a call for peace, in between my imploring: help me on this journey, I’m trying to figure my way back, I’m trying to learn these things, open the way for me, show me, teach me.

On the path of sounding out the silences, I started reading more writing by African authors. Up to that point I had been an ardent consumer of the so-called classics – William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and the like. I had not encountered much African literature besides the mandatory high school set-books and I was thirsty for anyone who could tell me anything about African traditions. So I began a self-guided course on reading African authors, going to the library to look for fiction by Africans, asking for recommendations from friends and devouring all that I could find in between my classes: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Chimamanda Adichie, Ngwatilo Mawiyoo, Okot p’Bitek, anthologies of short stories… As I kept reading, ways of thinking and worldviews (on women’s clothing, on prisons as justice, on men’s beauty) that I had never questioned began to fall away. Histories of Kenya’s colonial period, and of colonialism in the Americas, also helped me understand the world as it exists now was created and was not a matter of fact, unchangeable. Reading was a way of beginning to see with new eyes.

I also learnt how to cook, researching on indigenous African crops and trying out new things with traditional ingredients – a way of reimagining the old. Cooking was significant for me because I had always resisted learning at home; I was sure that I would then be expected to cook for my elder brothers. But away from my mother’s kitchen, I made my own world by experimenting, baking with nduma and millet, learning to make pilau, mahamri and mukimo and so on. That was also the semester I enrolled in voice lessons and began to sing in an a cappella group. In high school I had been labelled tone-deaf and asked to stand in the back and mouth the words during the inter-house singing competitions. In subtle internal ways, singing rearranged me, opened me up, and helped me to regain a sense of self and voice in the new becoming.

The following year, I travelled on a programme studying cities in Brazil, South Africa and Vietnam, and I took the opportunity to learn from other traditions. I figured ancestrality and indigenous spirituality are not only African, and I could learn from different systems of connecting to and venerating one’s ancestors. In every place, I would ask people to tell me and show me how spirituality was done. In Brazil, my host-mum took us to an Umbanda temple, Umbanda is one of the major Afro-Brazilian religions syncretised from practices and beliefs of enslaved Africans taken to Brazil. I wasn’t there as a tourist spectator; I was there to learn and practise alongside others. At the temple, one of the practitioners broke out of the circle of the initiated worshippers and approached me to pray with me, something that my host-mum later said never happens. I took this as a confirmation that I was on the right path even though I didn’t have absolute clarity.

In South Africa I met an academic professor at the University of Cape Town who researched African traditional religions. Something he said helped me understand one of my difficulties with accessing indigenous spirituality in East Africa. He said that traditional religions in West Africa tend to be more public. There are shrines and priests and priestesses devoted to different gods and goddesses and you can go to them and learn. In East and Southern Africa, religions are more private and family-oriented. Even though sacred sites may exist, large community rituals are less common. So if you want to learn outside of family, there’s no place you can say, “Let me go there”.

Vietnam was fascinating because ancestral veneration is absolutely integrated in the culture. Houses have an ancestral shrine where family members place food and other items, food that we later consumed. Walking down the streets you are bound to see, and perhaps be shocked by, people burning money. Upon asking we found out that they were burning dollar bills (fake ones) to send to their ancestors in other realms. Seeing the seamlessness of these practices in daily life was useful and inspiring. In later years I have wondered what difference this holding on to indigenous philosophies and practices in East and South Asia makes compared to Africa’s seeming rush to black out her own.

When I went back to campus for my last semester, a bit less uncertain, I joined a dance group whose main repertoire was dances from Haiti connected to vodu, another syncretised African religion created from the mix of traditions carried by enslaved Africans to the Caribbean. I began to learn the history of the Haitian revolution, and to dance for the gods and goddesses (Lwas) of a tradition that sparked and sustained the revolution that birthed what was the first black republic in 1804.

Later that year, I continued exploring spirituality through dance when I travelled back to Brazil and began dancing the Orixás of Candomblé, yet another syncretised African religion. My host-brother, Dimas, was an activist and practitioner of Candomblé. Observing his practice in song, drum, dance and prayer, having conversations despite my struggling Portuguese, was special. The Orixás, or Oriṣas, are a deity pantheon in Yoruba Ifa tradition that embody particular traits and are often connected to certain nature elements. To this day I feel a great affinity to and respect for these African-based religions as they exist in and have been preserved and added to over time in South America and the Caribbean, and I continue to dance and teach these dances.

Travelling to Mexico afterward, I joined weekly Aztec/Mexica dances at the invitation of my friend Lupita (not Nyong’o; the name is common in Mexico, here short for Guadalupe) that happened in a public square under moonlight. In this dance that would last two hours or more, we saluted all six sides (North, East, West, South, up and down), danced the stories of different animal gods, and ended by claiming the continued glory and fame of Mexico-Tenochtitlan whose roots had not and would not be decimated.

The scroll reads: “Destruyeron mis hojas, cortaron mis ramas, cortaron mi tronco…pero mis raices jamás podrán arrancarlas. Netzahualcoyotl” – They destroyed my leaves, cut my branches, cut my trunk (some versions say burnt my trunk), but never will they be able to uproot my roots.

This declaration at the end of each dance never failed to bring tears to my eyes, as it explicitly recognised the violence of colonialism, and declared the continued resilience of a people’s spiritualities and ways of being. The sense of community and welcoming amongst these dancers was also beautiful. After each dance we would gather and share food, gratitude and updates from the week. In participating in all of these dances I recognised that these were not my traditions, but were traditions that had similar tenets and elements as the tradition I was trying to get closer to. Dancing became a vehicle to reach my people. Vodu, Candomblé and danza Mexica-Chichimeca connected me to my body and my spirit, and then through that reconnection, to my ancestors, because my ancestors are in me and I am in them.

I went back to South Africa and this time had the opportunity to meet with a sangoma for a bone reading. He was recommended to me by a colleague who had struggled for years with debilitating depression that no doctor or medicine seemed to be helping with. She went to the sangoma as a last resort, figuring, “well nothing else has worked”. I had just one question for my ancestors: am I on the right path? My ancestors said yes. They said keep going, keep asking and finding out.

Considering I was due to move back to Kenya, I had one question for the sangoma: who in Kenya can I speak to about this, where can I go to continue to deepen this journey? He gave me a four-part prescription to formally introduce myself to my ancestors and pilgrimage to their lands. He also gave me the name of a woman also on her indigenous spirituality path and who works with communities to revive their ecocultural practices for freedom and well-being. When I met Wanjiku she introduced me to a tens-of-thousands-year-old African cultural and spiritual tradition in the form of African rock art, a heritage that had been unknown to me up to that point. Meeting Wanjiku was also a relief because I now had living proof that it was possible to live one’s African spirituality in East Africa.

San* rock painting in the Dâures Mountains, in what is today Namibia. Image source: Trust for African Rock Art/David Coulson

At home, I was met with the same barrage of questions that my friends had thrown at me when I first left the church. I came back without a job or money (a no-no if you’re coming from abroad), having left the church, and having dropped the three English names my parents had given me at birth. None of this went down easy for them, and the pushback I experienced was so intense that at one point I wasn’t speaking with one of my parents. My parents have never really come round to this new self that I am. They think I am lost, and they still try and get me to go back to church. But I am known for my stubbornness.

It’s been seven years and I’m at the point now where I introduce myself as a practitioner of African indigenous spirituality, no longer afraid to show up in my fullness. Africa, ancestrality and the Earth are a core part of who I am. When the crash happened, I thought I would have to go through the rubble picking piece by piece, and evaluating what is useful to keep and what is not. Along the way I have done a lot of reconstruction and reimagination, picking up and discarding. Much has been embodied, and has happened in doing: libations, writing, singing, dressing, dancing and cooking. My journey has also had lots of gifts along the way – of knowledge, instruments, conversations, practices, movements, songs, rituals, food, and connections. All of these elements were researched, reconnected to, reimagined, reconstructed, and welcomed into, and form a part of my practice today.

I’ve also learned to engage with nature spirits and recover the ontology and practice of a living Earth that is integral to African cultures. Like sitting in a garden. Like speaking to whoever is around me – animal spirits, plant spirits, water, rocks, all allies in the journey to reconnect to self, to ancestors and to Earth. Paying attention to animal messengers. Giving thanks to and paying full attention to my food, to water, to air. I have learnt to salute new lands that I travel to and acknowledge the land as sovereign and alive. I have learnt to listen and sing songs and dance dances that are gifted through such interactions. And the journey continues.

For my Master’s dissertation in African Studies last year, I researched what African ways of being, knowing and doing have to offer for healing and thriving past colonial wounds and today’s continued coloniality. I wanted to think about ideas and practices that are beyond a governance centred on the colonial state, beyond justice practices that are restricted to a Western model retributive justice, and beyond a view of the Earth that only sees her as dead resources to be exploited.

Still, in reading and engaging with post-colonial academic African works, I kept having the feeling that we have not yet gone far enough. We have not yet taken the jump to imagine complete freedom, and the absence or transformation (not reform) of some of our shackles. We have been hard at work decolonising our minds for several decades, but I see less work to decolonise our bodies and even less to decolonise our spirits and restore a relational philosophy and practice in relation to our ecologies, societies and unembodied relations.

It takes some courage to step forward and declare certain things when all around you there is reluctance to hear that or see that, but that is the medicine required for these deeply troubled times and spaces we’re in. My ancestors tell me that this is medicine necessary for Africa today, and that the Earth and all who make home with her require it.

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