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Reflections

Legally Grown But I’m Still told to Pay My Dues

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Legally Grown But I'm Still told to Pay My Dues
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Millennials have been blamed for pretty much everything that is going on wrong in the world today. Marriage is failing, thanks to hook-up culture and Tinder’s “I’ll get with anything I swiped right on.” The real estate market is falling because millennials would rather spend all their money on avocado toast than take up mortgages and buy homes. The meat industry is failing because millennials care more about animals’ pain and after all, vegan is the new wave.

Millennials are entitled snowflakes with a fundamentally skewed sense of how the world really works. They complain on the Internet on how the baby boomers and Gen Xers have ruined the world with neoliberalism and polluted the planet with carbon emissions – if they are woke enough to simultaneously share a picture of their decaf soy latte next to a pristine Macbook on Instagram (#Workflow). They eschew responsibility and have a questionable attitude towards stable middle-management corporate jobs. They would rather “find themselves” by Air-B-n-bing and backpacking across continents, “do work that excites them” by building an app that delivers food via drones and “follow their passion” of selling torn clothes and labelling it avant-garde fashion – after all, if Kanye West did it, why can’t we?

“Why can’t they just listen? Why do they feel so damn entitled? Didn’t they know how hard we had it?”

***

The attitude the older generations have towards millennials, specifically, their perceived inability to “listen” to the words of the elder statesmen (and women) and the sheer gumption of making their future without being beholden to the past reminds me of an excerpt I recently read from The Secret Footballer: Access All Areas (Guardian Faber, 2015) on the author’s experiences coming through as a young professional footballer:

“Then a curious thing happened once I was signed by my first professional club: my fellow footballers, my teammates, laughed at me. I wasn’t a kid…they talked about me as if I was a teacher’s pet who had no idea how to play ‘proper’ football. I wouldn’t last five minutes. Some of them tried to bully me, until they realised that I bit back…

“I realised that the ritual was about keeping me in my place, but I wasn’t interested in playing along. They’d call it ‘paying your dues’, I hadn’t paid my dues in professional football. Fine. I’d call what went on a short-sighted, half-arsed form of bullying, really.

“Let me tell you the run of the before, the during and the after of that early football education. At first they laughed. The thought of a new nobody coming into their dressing room and into their dressing room was so strange to them that their only response could be to laugh. Then when the ‘nobody’ did well on the pitch it wasn’t so funny. They became jealous. This was counter to everything they had been taught to everything they had been taught when they started out in the academy, not long after they were potty-trained. His dues! His dues! He hasn’t paid his dues!”

It was all too relatable. Not because it was profound, but rather, because it was such an accurate description of my experiences in the legal profession for the past year and a half.

***

In the legal profession, “paying your dues” means ticking all the right boxes: an unforgiving four year slog in university (preferably a public one like THE University of Nairobi– never mind they have been on strike/closed for over a year– and counting); a backbreaking year at the Kenya School of Law, pass the bar exams administered by the Council of Legal Education – if you are lucky (an exam with a pass rate of only 10% or less, check the statistics); a six-month pupillage and a coveted spot “holding over” in a law firm. When you are done, Canaan beckons- admission to the Bar as an advocate of the High Court of Kenya, and all the rewards that follow.

While paying your dues, you should keep your head down. Be like a child in Victorian England – seen and not heard; preferably with a blend of stoicism and blandness of expression – think Mark Zuckerburg and his ill-fitting navy-blue suit before Congress. Offer no opinion on the irony as your boss points out that the Employment Act requires that employment contracts of more than three months to be in writing; yet you have never seen such a written contract for the ten months you have been employed there for a stipend that is way below the statutory minimum wage. Keep a stiff upper lip as you watch the former Chairman of the Commission on Administrative Justice, in open court, stating that being represented in court by a young lawyer is an act of “great contempt”. Smile and wave like the Penguins in Madagascar as your boss makes remarks, within earshot, that schools nowadays “produce nothing but half-baked lawyers.”

***

“Holding over” is a particularly loathed stage in an advocate’s career, falling just between the six-month statutory term of pupillage and admission to the Bar. It is a stage of professional purgatory – you are not a pupil but you are not an advocate either. It gets worse if you are in a firm where the carrot of being retained as an associate turns pupillage from what is meant to be a learning experience to a bare-knuckled Hobbesian fight to the death; a nasty, brutish and short period.

Immediately after my six-month pupillage, I was physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. I politely declined a very generous offer to stay on at the firm and instead took the time off to recuperate. I lived my best life for the next three months: no more waking up at 5 a.m. to battle with the insane Nairobi traffic. A normal day would start at 11 a.m. with a healthy brunch and a dose of Netflix. I was on twitter for most of the day – sharing memes. I experimented with some projects – I started a legal blog that crashed and burned, miserably so on account of low readership. To earn a few coins, I took on research projects for law firms, “consulting” – I called it, to give a sheen of respectability to the work.

My decision brought immeasurable strain in my relationships. My parents were supportive, of course, they were, but I could always see the shake of the head and the silent sigh over the dinner table. The person I was “talking to” at the time could not handle my “lack of ambition.” My friends thought I had genuinely lost it. To them, I had committed the cardinal sin of looking a gift horse in the mouth and labelling it a sneaky gift from the Greeks “So much potential and you are here, throwing it all away.”

How could I turn down such a marvellous opportunity to make a reputation? How was I to get my name out there? Did I want to make it in this profession without paying my dues?

***

As recently as 2012, it was actually an offence for an advocate to start their own firm straight after being admitted to the Bar. One had to serve for at least two years under someone who had been in practice for five years, before entertaining the thought of going solo. It was a very invidious piece of gatekeeping backed by legislation – more specifically section 32 of the Advocates’ Act; naturally in true Kenyan fashion after the promulgation of the 2010 Constitution, someone went to court to challenge this.

The petitioners in Okenyo Omwansa George & another v Attorney General & 2 others [2012] eKLR argued that this particular provision of the law was unconstitutional, as it subjected young advocates to forced labour and servitude. The law compelled a young advocate to work for someone against their will so as to attain an expected level of learning and experience in the legal profession to branch out on their own.

The respondents had a different view, of course. The rules were there for a reason: for the young lawyers’ own good. Supervised practice enables young advocates to gain experience under the tutelage of senior advocates, which prepares young advocates to discharge their most noble calling. It is a good idea to protect the public from the impetuousness of youth and their propensity to make mistakes.

The Honourable Mr Justice Majanja agreed with the respondent. He reasoned that the pursuit of a legal career is a voluntary act. Nobody forced anyone to become an advocate, the petitioners fully knew what the statutory requirements were. Furthermore, slaves do not have the luxury of leaving. The best the petitioners could do was to quit whining and suck it up for the two years.

This decision was short-lived. Section 50(2) of the Legal Education Act, 2012 repealed the dreaded section 32 of the Advocates’ Act. Free at last, free at last, young advocates were free at last, to practise on their own.

***

After my admission to the Bar in December 2016, the charade was up. I was 26, squatting at my parents’ house. The pressure was on to do something more meaningful with my life other than “writing things on the Internet.” I was tired of being broke. My rebellious nature ensured that I had burnt most of my bridges. This, coupled with the slight taste of freedom I had recently begun to enjoy, meant I was, for all intents and purposes, unemployable in conventional legal practice. Thankfully, the law allowed me to start practising law in the way I thought fit and in the words of the modern-day philosopher, Russell Westbrook III, I asked myself, “Why not?”

I realised that this was an undertaking I could not possibly accomplish by myself. I partnered with a friend (also 26) from university and law school, who was equally “directionless” according to his grandparents. We cobbled together a few resources and started drafting plans. In our youthful naiveté, we picked the worst possible time to start a new business. It was July 2017, a month before the General Elections. The way this country is set up, any semblance of economic activity is informally suspended for months before (and especially after) the elections.

“Let us see how this thing will turn out, then we’ll talk,” was the default Kenyan stock answer we got. In the very rare event we were fortunate to get some work, we did not get paid, because “Let us see how this thing will turn out, then we’ll talk.”

When the skirmishes broke out after the result of the August 8th election, I was mightily relieved that I would not have to go to our threadbare office – it was literally four walls and a room. I live near Kawangware and I was marooned in the house, in fear (but relieved) as the police brutally cracked down on non-existent protests. Even if I ventured out, there was absolutely no work to be done. When the Supreme Court nullified the results of the August 8th election and ordered a fresh election, my partner and I took it on our glass chins, because the cycle of “Let us see how this thing will turn out, then we’ll talk” had just begun. Again.

***

An outcome of the August 8th election was the deluge of election petitions that were filed. My partner was politically savvy and had made friends with clients at the firm where he had undertaken his pupillage. One of them was a losing aspirant who wanted us to file his election petition. We could smell the big time.

The politician was none too pleased with our quotation. In a heated exchange with my partner, he made a huge meal of the fact that he did not go with “experience” but rather with young hungry advocates. “You charge way too much for people just starting out. Give me a rate that reflects your ‘experience’. Otherwise, you’re just being too greedy, asking for too much, too soon.”

We refused his offer. He never filed his petition and poof! The big time vanished.

We learnt an important lesson along the way, reinforced by many futile attempts at bidding for work, identifying the dog whistles.

Experience”. “Solidity.”

“People who have done this for years.”

“People who know what they are doing, not those who will learn on the job.”

Another experience my partner had was with one of his grandfather’s friends from the village. People generally do not take advice, especially legal advice, from people younger than their last-born children.

“Young man, I saw when your mother was changing your diapers. We held a harambee for you to study law, and YOU are here telling ME that I have to subdivide my land to MY DAUGHTER! YOUNG PEOPLE OF NOWADAYS, NO RESPECT FOR CULTURE! I WILL TAKE THIS UP WITH YOUR GRANDFATHER!”

That is not as funny as clients who openly question your age or your looks.

“I would prefer if you tried to at least grow a beard. It would give the impression that you are not 17.”

***

I recently sat down to lunch with a friend making the transition back into legal practice after a stint in academia. I had met her on one of these Law Society of Kenya things where people just love listening to the sound of their own voices, struck a good conversation and a respectful professional friendship. It is not every day I can call a PhD holder and ask her to have lunch. Over a very meh glass of red wine (her words) that was not a Merlot (I learned what a Merlot was not on that day), we shot the breeze and talked shop, from the Miguna saga to what the Lands Ministry was doing with e-conveyancing.

“I mean, be honest, you older lawyers, don’t respect young lawyers, and that’s a fact.” I suggested.

She gave me that long withering stare Stringer Bell reserved for his dumb hoodlums in The Wire. It did not help that she is bespectacled.

“First of all…”

I knew I was going to get it, and by it, I do not mean a Head of State Commendation.

“I have a legal assistant, who for all intents and purposes, is clueless. Zero initiative. He thinks he knows it all already so he doesn’t listen. You young people are too entitled yet you don’t want to put in the work. I understand you don’t have to go through our experiences, or live a life as hard as we did. I don’t expect you to read 100 law reports when kenyalaw.org have it for free, but come on. Basic stuff like punctuality, politeness, work ethic. Some of you make it so incredibly hard to take you seriously.”

“But…but…the pay,” I countered.

“The pay, we could do better with the pay, but the way this Kenyan economy is set up…we all got paid peanuts. Suck it up and get on with it.”

***

On the way back from lunch, I was still frothing indignantly about being owned, so I turned to my Instagram. An acquaintance from law school had posted his first draft of an agreement they were working on. On Instagram Stories, with the hashtag #LawyerLife #RespectTheHustle. It is really hard to defend millennials when someone pulls this kind of stunt and claims to take their work, their ethical obligations and themselves, seriously.

But the older generation has to understand that this is a new world and the worst thing they can possibly say to us is, “Well, in my day, we did it like this.” We do not have to walk to school for ten kilometres barefoot just because you did it “back in our day”, and we do not have to use a tin-and-wick lamps to study when there are solar-powered lights. We do not have to suffer the indignities you did on the come up; to insist on such and calling it “toughening up” is nothing more than institutionalised hazing.

As a young professional, I am sick and tired of being patronized by my seniors and made to feel as if I am not working hard enough, or that I do not belong, despite the Churchillian blood, sweat and tears I have spent getting here. There is no need for me to work twice as hard to be considered half as good, in the face of insurmountable obstacles placed by older people who have wreaked havoc on this economy through decades of mismanagement and poor governance. I will certainly not be called “half-baked” by someone who is in charge of teaching and churning out the “half-baked” student, after ruining the education system through underfunding, poor teaching methods and the rapacious pursuit of profit. I will not “respect my elders” when they have done very little to show me why they deserve that respect, other than being old.

And, no, I will not be paying my dues anytime soon, because I am coming out to claim them.

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Martin K. Maitha loves getting funky haircuts and tweets about football banter. When he is not too distracted by the latest Spongebob meme, he creates the time to practice law as an advocate of the High Court of Kenya and occasionally write pieces like this one.

Reflections

AND GOD RESTED ON THE SEVENTH DAY: Faith as a tense truce in an African reality

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AND GOD RESTED ON THE SEVENTH DAY: Faith as a tense truce in an African reality
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When I was growing up in rural western Kenya in the mid-80s, my father, a Seventh Day Adventist (SDA), imposed Adventism upon us like a colonial identity card. He was an Adventist because his mother was an Adventist. That part of western Kenya was under intense competition between the Catholic, Anglican and Seventh Day Adventist churches. The Seventh Day set up a stronghold in central and south Nyanza regions with churches in every corner of the community. We were expected to carry this spiritual card around for many reasons. One was to inspire some sort of righteous pride, to show that we were better than others, mostly Catholics and non-believers, though Catholics were the other main Christian denomination in our community. We were being trained in denominational politics, that even though we were worshipping the same God as Catholics, we were different, more sanctified. Unlike them, our bodies were free from impurities like tobacco and alcohol. And that was not all. Coca-Cola and coffee were prohibited; soya was touted as the best alternative (but you could only find soya in shops in Nairobi).

My mother protested the Seventh Day Adventist church and its restrictions. She did not understand how eating cold food on Saturdays made anyone holier; she always prepared hot food. My father protested but grudgingly ate it all the same. Also, my mother had no personal vendetta against Coca-Cola. She drank it and made us drink too. My father frowned but couldn’t do much. He was always a minute too late, just as we were putting down empty bottles. In addition, my mother was ambivalent to religion; she was raised in a big traditional family where religion was a pastime and not a primary way of life. My father should have also protested a long time ago. My uncle too. Both are polygamists. Being polygamists, the church never accepted them the same way they accepted the church. As a teenager, I could partake in Holy Communion, but my grandfather, father and my uncle – grown men with much more social status than I – could not. They joined other men, mostly polygamous, in grudgingly walking out of the church during Holy Communion. In my mind, I didn’t think that polygamy, per se, made you a good or bad man. There were very good polygamous men – loving, caring and responsible. And there were bad monogamous men, who abused their families every day.

Deeply entrenched polygamy in our community was the elephant in the room in our local church. Most men seated in the pews were in polygamous families. Our church relentlessly depicted polygamy as barbaric and backward. I have always asked myself why my dad continued in this church that was seemingly subjecting him and fellow polygamous men to emotional abuse every Saturday. He later even embarked on a project to build a big church sanctuary closer to our home. Why would my father, and African people in general, join and support churches that deeply conflicted with their traditional way of life?

The Seventh Day church did not have formal method, or doctrine, to accommodate traditional practices of Africans they had come to teach about Jesus and salvation. This is was not a democracy where the heathen communities had a vote. The church’s intention was clear- convert as many as possible and to grow into a dominant, influential force. My father and polygamous men in the community accepted that the church was way more powerful than they, and that by joining it they could access some social power in a rapidly changing world. The church also accepted that these polygamous men were difficult and would not easily change their ways. The pastor seeming to have recognized this contentious issue, prayed fervently about everything but skirted around it.

For the first nineteen years of my life when I attended Seventh Day Adventist church, I never heard a pastor mention the word polygamy by name during sermons. They would preach strongly against adultery without mentioning polygamy. It was not lost to any person paying attention that lust and adultery, in the context of this Christian worldview, was the first step towards polygamy. Within this complex social set up, there was some sort of unofficial truce around polygamy- this truce would only be broken during Holy Communion when polygamous men would leave the church. Women must have viewed themselves as winners in this struggle between their men and the church. This was one of the few occasions when they would get a seat at the table and partake in a ceremony that their husbands could not. The men protested silently- most would skip church on days when Holy Communion would be served. My father would also often talk of David and his son Solomon as some of the famous men in the bible who married multiple wives. This contradiction in the bible must have been a source of consolation to my father and many men in my community.

In the 1980s and 1990s, during the early era of HIV/AIDS, there was a visible rise in televangelism and miracle healing, and a corresponding increase in the number and prominence of traditional healers and medicine men in our community. Public prayers were being made for all these throngs of young men and women dying of this incurable disease. Privately, African traditional medicine men and women were sought to appease whichever spirits had brought this curse to the people. Mainstream churches vigorously preached abstinence and riled against contraceptives, while in the dead of the night, when the church was officially asleep, traditional healers were brought into homes to prescribe final rites for the dead. Some of these rites included “corpse cleansing” through sexual intercourse with the dead in some communities.

This perpetual conflict between traditional spiritual practices and Christianity has always been a source of both personal and communal conflict. I remember when my uncle Ben was sick, strangers would visit ostensibly to “pray for him”. I knew these people were not Catholics or Seventh Day Adventists. I could tell they were traditional medicine men and women. Sometimes they would stay for days, and I would hear my grandmother telling her fellow women from the church that these medicine men were distant relations who were visiting. I could tell she appreciated the inadequacy of the Christian God in these difficult situations, but that she still struggled with that reality. I saw in her eyes the guilt of resorting to traditional medicine when she had lost faith in the ability of the Christian God to heal my uncle Ben. This was deep in rural Kenya, yet she did not dare be free in following the traditional practices of her people. I have come to learn that this personal struggle, both mine and hers, were a manifestation of years of calculated and successful emotional blackmail to the individual and community by missionaries.

One of the enduring impacts of Christianity in my life was the image of white savior. This image was thrust on my young mind through the powerful sermons on Saturday by our local pastor. The sermons always ended by him commanding us to “fall at the feet of the cross” and “obey”. Obedience would ensure blessings and prosperity. This image of falling at the image of a white male has always overwhelmed me. It struck me even more later when I was living in the United States, where white superiority is always hanging over black and brown people’s heads like a dark cloud.

I recently came from a trip to South East Asia and had a chance to experience a deity that wasn’t in the image of a white savior. I was struck by the images of massive statues of Buddha that resembled the local people. They were in all shades of brown, dark brown and sometimes black. Having lived in the USA for almost four years now, I was puzzled by this free colour continuum of Buddha statues. I made note of this and asked my hosts and friends who were surprised by my observation. They had never made similar observations. The differences, they said, came down to design and material used to make the statues of Buddha. There were no subliminal racial messages of superiority and inferiority in these statues. I apologized and let them know that I live in environment where race permeates every fabric of the society.

This experience introduced me to a unique reality that most Africans who are Christians have never had – the reality and the power of having a God who resembled the locals, who looked like the local rickshaw driver, beggar, teacher and doctor, hit me very hard. It brought back memories of the many times my father struggled to contort reasons to reassure me and my siblings that as much as the Christian God had very explicit Caucasian features, on the inside, he looked like us, Africans. And that before this God, all races were equal. I was always confused by this halfhearted assertion. I felt like we were always struggling too hard to impress the Christian God and we all fell short.

I have started thinking of how powerful and relatable it would be to have a God whose image members of my community would relate to. This would perhaps empower and inspire many people, including my son, whom I am not sure how to introduce religion to. How can I read him a Bible that has been used to control my people for generations without feeling a repulsive guilt? No, I cannot. I am rebelling against everything peddled with a white supremacist agenda. I have decided against that. That is why I struggled with thoughts of taking him to my grandmother’s church in Kenya. I decided against this church that refused to accept my father.

But then again, I have to ask myself, which is this African deity I am seeking? Moreover, where is this deity? Is it possible to reconstruct and empower all the traditional African deities destroyed by colonizers and missionaries? In addition, can our communities be empowered to find strength in their old ways of thinking?

This is the space and personal conflict that the entry of Christianity suspended me, and my community, into, and we are still grappling with it. Sometimes the presence of the local Seventh Day Adventist church in my community feels like an ever-present symbol of domination. But sometimes it looks like a space that offered my grandmother sanctuary and gave her meaning about life, and also gave women their own social status as Holy Communion-partaking believers. I want it to work for us, but I know I hold no vote, and I doubt my community has the power to reshaping practices and doctrines we feel do not align to the traditional values of my community. This faith has always been – take it or leave it. But I think we need something else.

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Reflections

THE DAYS OF SITUATION: Reflecting on the Reflections Series ‘Beyond The Numbers’

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THE DAYS OF SITUATION: Reflecting on the Reflections Series ‘Beyond The Numbers’

I was ten years old in 1996 when my parents separated. It seems to me that I had never really noticed them before it happened. Until that tumultuous December my parents were like the air around us – crucial to life, and you would notice when they shifted around, but otherwise somewhat unremarkable. I always thought my extended relatives were much more interesting than my parents – my aunt, who lived with us for a while, laughed loudly, spoke excitedly, and let us watch Indian movies late into the night when my mother was away working the housekeeping night shift at the New Stanley. My mother’s (step)father, my Guka, always brought us halua and kaimati every time he visited. We were fascinated bulging veins on his hand, wondering why they popped back up no matter how hard we tried to push them down.

And then, it happened. My father spoke a lot at this time, more than I had ever heard him speak, it seems, and he would say things like – “your mother is using you as a conduit to get to me.” At the end of his long speeches, I would go to my blue and red Oxford English Dictionary and look up the word conduit. And my mother became more quiet, I think, transfigured into glass that was dangerously on the verge of shattering at a moment’s notice. I was terrified at the thought of this. How does one pick up those kinds of shards?

But what none of us siblings could have known at the time – I am one of three – was that our family’s troubles were not ours alone, and that the intensity of our struggle to remain afloat was not entirely the fault of my mother and father. It was, (objectively?), the wrong time to get divorced – they were walking right into an economic blizzard, with the three of us in reluctant tow.

Kenya was in the midst of an economic recession, the fallout of implementation of the infamous Bretton Woods structural adjustment programs (SAPs), which led to a slash in government expenditure, especially on public servants’ salaries, administration, economic and social services. To make matters worse, the architects of the Goldenberg scandal had promptly drained an equivalent of 10 per cent of Kenya’s GDP from the Central Bank, just like that. Neglect and dilapidation were all around us, and in my ten-year-old mind, I connected the dots and concluded that this is actually what happens when your parents split up – the world goes to literal ruin. Garbage starts flowing in the streets. Potholes eat the road in front of your house.

Which is why I was not prepared for how painful this month’s Reflections series at The Elephant would be to read, edit and curate. They remind me, in the words of @tjjullu on Twitter, ‘ndalo situation’, days of situation, when the folks would say, “you know the situation…. We’re in a tight situation…”

Twenty-odd years later, state theft, poor fiscal management and an exorbitant debt appetite has ushered in a new season of austerity measures. Ndalo situation.

Beyond the Numbers

Read: Beyond the Numbers series

This Reflections series was intended to go ‘Beyond The Numbers’ of macro-economic policy and excavate the memories of those tough times, and connect that with what’s going on today. How did families cope? How did it affect social arrangements, like people having to live with relatives, or the stress that it put on marriages? How are millennials being affected by its iteration today – frustrating unemployment, and the unspoken angst of not being able to achieve dreams? How do we connect the brunt of the hustle to the dysfunction in national economics? How does society react to this culturally – chanelling frustration through music, sports, the arts and so on? And what are the untold stories of those traumas that were never discussed?

The series began with Lutivini Majanja’s extensive piece on how tea – its availability, quantity and quality – marked her family’s turbulent economic fortunes and domestic disruptions.

Then came Gloria Mari on the ‘extreme sport’ that is job searching today, where beyond skills, qualifications, work ethic and experience, it seems like you have to have guardian angels, good luck charms and even the occasional visit to the mganga to have hopes of finding a well-paying job.

We published Carey Baraka reflecting on how disconnected younger millennials are even from the memory or understanding of the 1990s ‘ndalo situation,’ and what that lack of memory does to a generation grappling with through similar challenges – but without a historical anchor to ground the struggle.

Filmmaker Amina Bint Mohamed explored the concerns and challenges of the so-called ‘middle class’ in a short documentary film, a demographic whose definition is contested and whose security is precarious.

There was Wanjeri Gakuru’s reflection on “flying out” as a way for families to cope with a depressed economy and diminished opportunities in the 1990s, but that is no longer an option today, with increasing xenophobia in the traditional ‘greener pastures’ – US, UK, Australia, and the like.

Darius Okolla detailed the decline of his hometown Kitale during those years, where the earth and rust seemed to swallow everything, and how the town never really recovered.

And Silas Nyanchwani’s devastating article on how he was making more money as a student a few years ago, than as an adult today with a family to support (and with a Masters degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the world), was almost too much to bear.

But could anything good come from all this distress? At a different time in my life, I would have written something clever about how economic turmoil allows innovation to emerge.

Like the way M-Pesa’s success may be partly because after the pervasive joblessness of the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a whole group of people who were willing to do the dreary work of being M-Pesa agents.

Much of the talk around M-Pesa has been why it worked so well in Kenya, and not so well in other places, and various reasons have been advanced – Kenya had a huge unbanked population, a lenient regulator, and a culture of sending money to relatives and friends.

But on the agent network, Safaricom had envisaged that agents would bolt on to already-existing businesses, like pharmacies, kiosks and convenience stores, which would then just do the M-Pesa transactions in a corner somewhere, the company’s corporate communications head told me in a past interview.

But the rapid rollout of the agent network was possible because of the very high informality in the Kenyan economy. In fact, the company was surprised at how there was a whole cohort of people willing to be M-Pesa agents as a stand-alone job, basically self-employed, sitting in a small stall, with no salary, benefits, or retirement package, earning a small percentage of every transaction.

Today, I can only make that argument intellectually, and even so, not completely sincerely. I am much more sensitive to the suffering that we tend to gloss over when we neatly tuck such losses into grand narratives of progress – that it all ‘worked out’ in the end, look at M-Pesa!

As philosopher Walter Benjamin argued, narratives of progress render history coherent and harmonious by resolving the traumatic dimensions of history, incorporating them into affirmative accounts that underwrite the positions of those in power.

It means that memory is always in danger of becoming a tool of the ruling classes, a situation that “threatens to murder the dead twice, to erase and eliminate the dissonant quality of past suffering, injustice, struggle and loss.”

Mine is a melancholic hope today, a “hope draped in black” in the words of writer Joseph Winters. It is the kind of hope that refuses to peddle in fantasies of a coherent, harmonious world unscathed by painful events, conditions and memories, in the name of the gospel of innovation. Sometimes suffering produces innovation. But it always produces pain, and the cheerful silver linings obscure this.

This series is our attempt, in the words of author Ralph Ellison, “to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain…in the hope that we might transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.”

Like Winters, I see melancholy gesturing towards a better, more promising hope, which must entail contemplation, remembrance, and critical encounter with vulnerability, cruelty, and death, rather than endeavours to resolve or deflect them through reassuring images of progress.

It is a blues sensibility, “unhopeful but not hopeless”, offering no solutions, only a way of responding to, working through, and coping with painful incongruities.

Perhaps the next M-Pesa will come out of all this. Perhaps not. But we at The Elephant will be a witness to ndalo situation.

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Reflections

EARTH AND RUST: The decline of a Kenyan town

Once in late 1996, a neighbour’s clothes were stolen from the hanging line when she went to work, a theft that fascinated the neighborhood to no end. Who would do such a thing? Why – for heaven’s sake? Our version of burglary was the smell of despondency with a tinge of crude survival, pain and hunger pangs.  By DARIUS OKOLLA

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EARTH AND RUST: The decline of a Kenyan town
Photo: Laini-Moja, Kitale

I grew up in Kitale. The story of the deterioration of my hometown in the 1990s mirrored the tumultuous decline of just about every factory-dependent town in the country; it was subtle, gradual, almost imperceptible, and forever disguised as the typical wear and tear of urban spaces – but it was more than that. It was thievery, corruption, and disenfranchisement, shoving it down the path of visible decline; a depreciative spectacle masked by rural docility and the often-accepted rural poverty.

First came the increasing cases of theft. These were often acts of burglary that surprised us in their desperation as much as they exasperated the victims by their sheer banality. We had an outhouse in our compound measuring about 8 feet by 11 feet, where we stored farm equipment, tree seedlings, charcoal sacks – pretty much everything that was bulky and intended for outdoor use. At first the break-ins at this outhouse were infrequent, then they happened about once every few months.

The stories from neighborhood increased. In nearly all the incidences there were no guns used, often no attacks, not even violent break-ins – just missing farm tools, stolen livestock, and pilfered homes when the owners had briefly travelled out of town. Once in late 1996, a neighbour’s clothes were stolen from the hanging line when she went to work, a theft that fascinated the neighborhood to no end. Who would do such a thing? Why – for heaven’s sake? Then there were the stories of food stolen alongside a burning charcoal jiko as someone cooked outside the house, a story told with awkward hilarity.

John Kirimaiti, Wanugu, Wacucu and the elite cadre of fascinating gun-toting gangsters were the stuff of distant cities told with near-legend flair that we knew we’d never have to worry about. Our version of burglary was the smell of despondency with a tinge of crude survival, pain and hunger pangs, which drove able-bodied humans to steal anything they deemed to be of market value.

When we first moved to Kitale in the early 1990s we lived at Section Five, a row of patterned townhouses with hedged compounds of cypress, flowers, worldliness and tranquility. Nearby was Matano, consisting of dozens of two storied homes with large balconies, cream walls and wooden doors named in alphabetical order. Bondeni, where we would go ride the swings at the children’s playground, was not far either.

My folks were somewhat too extraverted for the austere life of hedged picket fences in that neighborhood, so we moved to Section 21, a well tarmacked, more concrete-y neighborhood lying to the west of the town. The streetlights worked, the town matatus ran the transit service with an efficiency that we, for the longest time, took for granted. We moved again just when private landowners started buying property in Section 21 and setting up unplanned developments.

As Section 21 began to sprawl, it is perhaps not a coincidence that the locals transliterated its name to Tuwani (two-one-i), betraying its deterioration, imbuing it with a villagized name, vibe and life.

Our next neighborhood, Mitume, for the better part of the 1990s was a large piece of land with few houses and lot of grassy fields. Mitume (Kiswahili for apostles) a name likely derived from Christ The King Catholic church parish nearby, was far different from the organized suburb life of Section 21, though it offered a stronger sense of community. Mitume wasn’t spared either as slowly, random developments popped up on what was once sprawling grassy fields.

Chipped paint, dirt, and dilapidation slowly ravaged the children play area at the swings at Bondeni estate that we had left behind. The swings grew rusty, then bare-boned and dangerous for kids to play on. Then they got vandalized and whatever remained of them was run into the ground by neglect, swallowed by the earth and rust. Beside it, where dusty paths met collapsing hedges, garbage strewed onto the road from what were once neat, well-ordered homes.

I attended a public school and so did most of our neighbors, and most of our parents were either in the informal sector or worked as civil servants. It’s still intriguing how the elders seemed so unaware of just how vulnerable they were to downward mobility given their faithfulness in following every single news item on the radio. How come they didn’t see what was coming?

Baba Silas, my friend’s dad worked the Kenya Cooperative Creameries (KCC) and so did most of my friend’s dads who worked in various parastatals, like Baba Wycliffe, Baba Jaredi and on and on. Somehow our parents’ names were hallowed, so they were just ‘Baba nani’ and ‘Mama nani’. Baba Silas – I never got to know his name – carried himself with an air of officiousness, always in a leather jacket, with a slow walk; his neck seemed stiff as he walked, with a slight swagger and a polythene bag at hand. He always carried a polythene bag, I’m not sure why.

He’d lose his job during retrenchment as the parastatals got downsized and then collapsed in the mid-1990s. But I didn’t see him for a while, as we moved from Mitume estate to Lessos, where our parents had bought some land. Lessos estate is named after the Lessos farm in Eldoret, given that the Kalenjin owners who gave the place its name had moved to Kitale from Eldoret.

Set on a ridge overlooking a forest, you could always see the factories in Section 6 and Section 19 on the opposite ridge about four kilometres away, across from Lessos forest in the valley below.

From Lessos, the few remaining factories including a leather tanning factory, Kenya Seed, Western Seed and a dozen other factories let out a low dull hum that on a quiet afternoon reached all the way to our home. Slowly by slowly, the hum grew fainter as the firms collapsed until the sound was no more. But quickly, the silence as it was quickly replaced by the cacophony of human activity, especially a construction boom that hit the estate in the 2000s. The town’s population was rising, properties were becoming smaller and more sub-divided, and unplanned developments were everywhere.

As the hum of factories faded to whimpers, informal businesses in the neighborhoods rose sharply as retrenched workers desperately tried their hands in business, trying to secure an income for their families. Most of them collapsed within months or a few years after inception.

The 1997 elections carried with it a strange sense of camaraderie and hope in the town, partly because multi-party politics had expanded the democratic space and increased a sense of political freedom. Men (and they were mostly men) stood atop old Peugeots and Mazdas, flashing two-finger salutes and yelling in the air, drowning the silent scream of a town choking under the stranglehold of Structural Adjustment Programs.

In 1998 my mum sent me to call over a relative who lived about 40 kilometers away for a job opportunity at a local company – this was before cellphones were a thing. I must have been 10 years old. This relative had already unsuccessfully applied for the job dozens of times. I arrived late in the evening as he worked on his shamba, weeding his sukuma wiki and cassava.

‘‘Hii kazi bwana nimeapply, fare nimetumia mingi na mimi nimechoka, wacha tu nilime.’ (I’ve applied for this job many times and used so much fare; I’m tired, let me just farm). I was taken aback by the vulnerability on display, his frustration breaking through into an involuntary rant to a 10-year-old.

This time though, he got the three-month gig, which still only paid peanuts and barely provided him with meaningful cash. He’d leave for Kisumu afterwards, then Eldoret, then Nairobi and back to Kitale then Eldoret again.

I would run into Baba Silas in the late 1990s, a few years after he’d been fired from KCC. He looked haggard, tired, his trouser torn at the knees. He was working at a brick-making factory, and I ran into him taking a break under a makeshift grass thatched shade, eating the mjengo githeri at lunch time. His sagged chin reflected dignity under assault, he looked shaken to see me, and a bit sad.

Then came the early 2000s and the town broke into a palpable air of difficult-to-justify yet hard-to-dismiss optimism. When Narc luminaries came to Kitale stadium for what would be their only visit to the town before the 2002 elections, I sneaked from home to go watch the revolution happen. I was 13 years old.

Hii movement bwana! It will last for at least 30 years,” my relative would tell me matter-of-factly after the momentous event. His life certainly changed. He landed a better paying gig, then got married. His wedding, albeit later in life than was expected, reflected his changing fortunes, much more than anything. We often take for granted how the frequency of social functions such as weddings, birthday parties, cookouts, and get-togethers reflect a rising society.

He’d secure better fortunes across the country, marry, settle down, buy a plot of land, build his home and essentially hit all the markers of adulthood that had eluded him for most of his life, all in a span of eight years in the 2000s.

Unfortunately for Kitale, the town never got to deftly negotiate with the colonial state in ways that could secure it enough resources to help it fully recover. It didn’t help that the town’s patriarch, Kijana Wamalwa, would pass away a few months into the Narc wave.

Still Kitale continued to grow, the population growing exponentially in the 2000s. During the 2007 post-election violence, given its cosmopolitan makeup, Kitale provided a somewhat safe harbor for those kicked out of their homes in the outlying regions. The population soared but the infrastructure and the vitality of its urban life didn’t. I see all that every time I go home.

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