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Millennial bashing needs to stop

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Generalization

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wandia Njoya is a scholar, social and political and commentator and blogger based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Reflections

Hatred and Self Loathing: Naipaul’s colonial shame

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Hatred and Self Loathing: Naipaul’s colonial shame
Photo: Faizul Latif Chowdhury

In his memoir, A Writer’s People: Ways of Looking and Feeling, published in 2007, V.S. Naipaul, who died last month at the age of 85, described the suffocation of being born and raised on a small Caribbean island that was racially divided. He writes of living in a place where “the living half-cultures or quarter-cultures of colonial Europe and immigrant Asia knew almost nothing of one another” and where “a transported Africa was the presence all around us, like the sea”. This sense of being trapped on an island with other races with vastly different cultures partly explains what led the young Naipaul to leave Trinidad for good and make a home in another much bigger island nation, England.

But adopting England and Englishness did not obliterate the writer’s inner conflicts about his identity. Being a Trinidadian Indian had left the young writer with a deep sense of inferiority, a kind of “colonial shame” that would define much of his writing in later years. Naipaul, whose Indian grandparents came to the Caribbean as indentured plantation labourers in the late 1800s, was ambivalent both about his birthplace Trinidad and his Indian roots. Both identities were the source of a lot of pain and shame. His grandparents had been slaves; and while they were not chained or beaten or forced to work for free like African slaves, they were made to feel inferior.

Interestingly, unlike many post-colonial writers whose writing is informed by their traumatic colonial experiences, and who actively seek to distance themselves from stereotypical colonial narratives of colonised people, Naipaul reinforced the thoughts and perceptions of the British colonialist. You could say that he was the Charles Njonjo of post-colonial literature – deeply contemptuous of his own people and forever looking towards Britain.

There are two ways in which colonised people who have been transplanted – either forcibly or voluntarily – in foreign lands cope with their new surroundings. They either retreat into themselves by becoming inward-looking or clannish (thereby reasserting an identity that they feel has been damaged or diminished by colonialism) or by underplaying or obliterating their own identity and emulating the identity of the coloniser. Both coping mechanisms are symptoms of a deep inferiority complex that even post-colonial states have to this day been unable to erase. The Western world is only too happy to indulge both types of people – either by exocitising them or co-opting them.

In a post-colonial world, co-option becomes a necessary tool to silence the former colonisers’ most vocal critics. This explains why after rebuking the Western media for infantilising and stereotyping Africans, the Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, who wrote the satirical essay “How to Write About Africa” (which went viral), was courted by the same Western media and for a while became the darling of the English-speaking literary crowd. Many such authors end up living in the very West they so condemn in their writings, our very own Ngugi wa Thiong’o being among them. Writers, especially from Asia and Africa, in trying to be aggressively and consciously post-colonial – or deliberately anti-colonial, as Ngugi was – still yearn to be anointed by the very West they claim to resist. Being nominated for the Caine, Booker or Nobel Prize is considered to be ultimate recognition that one has indeed been accepted into the white literary world.

The novels of the extremely talented Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, whose writing describes a middle class Nigeria where families throw garden parties and borrow books from public libraries, are also in a sense a call to the West to accept Africans as “normal” people with middle class desires and Western tastes. Both Adichie and Wainaina have gained acceptance in the white literary world that was used to reducing Africans to exotic savages or blood-thirsty guerrillas – “natives” who served as colourful backdrops to white “saviours”. But unlike Naipaul, whose contempt for his own people was apparent in much of his writing, these writers have no qualms about both accepting and celebrating their African identity and questioning white privilege.

Sir Vidiadhar Surajprasad Naipaul was, on the other hand, deeply conflicted about his Trinidadian and Indian identities. In An Area of Darkness (1964), he said this of his ancestral land: “India had not worked its magic on me. It remained the land of my childhood, an area of darkness…” Naipaul failed to connect the dots between colonialism and the state of former colonies like India, whose experiences of colonialism had stunted or distorted their development. In this sense, his books are apolitical. In most of his writings, he sought to distance himself from the so-called Third World. He was particularly contemptuous of India, which he described as having “no autonomous intellectual life”. In India: A Wounded Civilization (1977), he described the home of his ancestors as “a very strange land” with bizarre customs and rituals and where people were steeped in ignorance. Many Indians, he stated in his memoir, can’t wait to leave the subcontinent, “to shake India off, shake off what they see as the retarded native element in dhotis and caste-marks, temple-goers…bad at English”.

Needless to say, his books on India were not well received; Indian critics wondered how he could have traversed that huge and diverse country without once tasting or feeling its rich culture and ancient heritage. Naipaul, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, also looked down on Indian writers, who he claimed did not have a global vision and could only write about “their own families and their places of work”. He did not spare Indian readers either, who he called “hard and materialistic”, people who only discuss a writer when he or she has won a literary prize.

His books on the Muslim world were similarly criticised by Muslim authors who accused him of perpetuating stereotypes about their religion. Others accused him of being a racist. The late Chinua Achebe called Naipaul “a new purveyor of old comforting myths”. Which is not to say that Naipaul was not a prolific and talented writer. His huge body of work are a testament to his literary skills and relentless curiosity about the world. In a recent tribute to the author, Ngugi wa Thiong’o referred to Naipaul as a brilliant “writer’s writer”, one “who holds a mirror of imagination unto society to capture a certain view of reality”.

Naipaul was also deeply flawed as a human being. He had misogynistic tendencies. He viewed female writers as inferior. In a 2011 interview, he stated: “I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me because women have a narrow view of the world”. He once beat up a lover so badly that she was unable to appear in public for several days. He was also known to have constantly humiliated his first wife Patricia Hale. (Naipaul married three times; his third wife Nadira, who he stayed with him till his death, was raised in Mombasa.) Naipaul did not spare his friend the writer Paul Theroux either, with whom he fell out, and who ended up writing a diatribe against his mentor called Sir Vidia’s Shadow.

I first read V.S Naipaul when I was in my 20s. I remember being enthralled by A Bend in the River (1979) the story of an Indian trader who ends up in a remote African township in a region that has an eerie resemblance to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Through this book I got a glimpse of what life might have been like for the early dukawallahs who set up shop in Africa’s interior as Europeans set out to colonise the land. How did they cope in such harsh and alien environments?

But I couldn’t help thinking that Naipaul had very little respect for the sad but comical characters he created in many of his books. The opening line in A Bend in the River reflects the contempt he held for his main character: “The world is what it is; men who are nothing, who allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” He condemned many of his characters for being Indian, for continuing to live small lives in Trinidad, for being unworldly or unsophisticated. One rarely found him getting into the skin of his characters to learn more about what made them tick. Many appeared like caricatures of “natives” etched by some bored colonial administrator’s wife in a tea estate in Assam. As Manan Kapoor commented in an article in The Wire on 12 August 2018:

“Naipaul only observed his subjects from a distance and often lacked self-awareness. In reality, he never touched his subjects with his bare hands, only with a stick, as if he was trying to poke them to generate a reaction which he surprisingly did. James A. Michener wrote, ‘If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home,’ and it stands true for Naipaul.”

Perhaps Naipaul will be remembered for having the courage to be politically incorrect at a time when it was politically incorrect to be so. But I am afraid this attitude was not the result of courage or conviction but a deep sense of self-loathing – a kind of “colonial shame” – that was evident in most of his writing.

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Reflections

No Excuses, Women’s Lives Matter

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No Excuses, Women’s Lives Matter

This ‘Brazen: Reflections’ series was born out of a desire to continue the conversations springing out of the ‘Too Early For Birds: Brazen’ theatre performance in Nairobi in July 2018. TEFB-Brazen was a mix of straight-up scripted theatre, narration, poetry, music and dance that featured the little-known stories of six fearless women in Kenya’s history – freedom fighters like Field Marshall Muthoni wa Kirima, Mekatilili wa Menza and Wangu wa Makeri; democracy activists Philomena Chelagat Mutai and Zarina Patel and even one iconoclastic yet nameless woman warrior who brought down Lwanda Magere, the legendary ‘Man of Stone’ in Kenyan folklore. The story of each hero was narrated by a corresponding mirror character on stage. The ‘Brazen: Reflections’ series seeks to explore the idea of brazenness, what it means in our daily lives, whom the idea of brazenness privileges or erases, and the place that brazenness has in imagining freedom. 

 

On September 5th, 2018, Sharon Otieno’s body was found dumped in a thicket near Kodera forest, Homa Bay county a few days after her abduction. Sharon was a student of Rongo University and was seven months pregnant when she was killed. The autopsy report gave a gruesome and horrifying picture of what she went through before her death – eight stab wounds, one directly to her belly that pierced the baby too.

A few weeks later, on September 21st, the body of Monica Kimani was found in her house, tied up and with a slit on her throat. I read this story just before a suspect was arrested for this murder, when not many people were talking about it, until it was emerged that the suspect was the fiancé of local TV presenter Jacque Maribe. The media, upon realizing this murder was connected to a local prominent person, finally gave it attention, changing the focus of the lens and centering it on Jacque and her fiancé, Joseph “Jowie” Irungu. The case has since had many twists and turns, a major one being on Monday 9th October when Jowie Irungu, the initial suspect and Jacque Maribe were arraigned in court for the murder of Monica.

In the days following Sharon Otieno’s death, as the details started to unravel, as it emerged that she had been in a relationship with Okoth Obado, governor of Migori county where she lived and studied, and where her body was found. Sharon was engaged with the governor in what many immediately labeled as a ‘sugar daddy’ or ‘blesser’ relationship. Pictures of Sharon were published, presented as evidence of the flashy lifestyle she was enjoying from her affair with the married governor. From radio stations to social media platforms, Kenyans had varied opinions about these types of relationships. Many statements were started with “Murder is wrong, but…” as people went on to list the evils of having sugar daddies and enjoying their financial support because in the end you will pay for it with your life. For many, including these prominent women, this was a cautionary tale in which women were supposed to learn that it’s their responsibility to avoid murderous men with money. Whether by coincidence or by design, it was at this time that the BBC released their 3 part documentary on sugar baby/blesser culture in Kenya, telling the stories of 3 women who are engaged in various forms of it. The documentary added another layer in the conversation, with even Al Jazeera holding a panel to discuss this.

In Monica’s case, when it was discovered that the main suspect was engaged to Jacque Maribe, a TV presenter, the story which hadn’t received much airplay before suddenly took center stage with Jacque being the leading act, while the murder became secondary, its importance only that it is connected to high profile people.

Whenever any of these high profile murders happen, the conversation, often guided by mainstream media shapes in the most sensationalist way. If a woman was with a man, then their relationship is suspect and her presence is scrutinized, often with the aim of pathologizing her and giving an excuse of her murder.

Just before the General Elections in 2017, IEBC ICT Manager Chris Msando was found murdered. In the footnote of this story, there is mention of a lady companion who was found a few metres from him. Her name was Carol Ngumbu. On the night of 17th June, 2011, university student Mercy Keino’s body was found on a highway in Nairobi after attending a party in which a former Kiambu Governor William Kabogo was present. In an inquest of her death, he and others were cleared of any wrongdoing that led to her death despite CCTV footage showing her struggling against two men and witnesses claiming that Kabogo had been physically violent towards her that night.

Less than a year after this, 26 year old Careen Chepchumba was found strangled at her apartment in Kilimani, Nairobi on February 2012. She is reported to have had an intimate relationship with former TV personality Louis Otieno. In an inquest of her murder, it was ruled that police bungled the investigations leaving gaps that made it hard for the court to convict anyone.

These are just a few of cases of murdered women who are connected to prominent men. When Sharon was murdered the conversation about sugar daddies reached peak volume, prompting even women politicians to caution girls from the perils of “wanting the easy life” by taking money from men. With Monica’s case, as details emerge giving rise to speculations about what really was Jacque’s involvement in the murder, people are now talking about the lengths women go for men often to their own detriment.

It is enraging to see that in Kenya this violence is treated like the next sensational story, with clickbait headlines and dramatic speculations for the sake of giving media houses clicks so that they can continue selling advertising. In addition to continuing misogynistic representation of women, using their connection to men to shame them even after being murdered, it creates the perception that women are murdered because of their behaviour or their lifestyles, when in reality women are murdered everywhere and by every type of man in all manner of situations.

It is clear that this country still refuses to reckon with its violence against women. The prevalence of intimate partner violence against women in Kenya matches the global statistics, about 40% of women have experienced IPV – this includes sexual and non-fatal physical violence. And when women are murdered by men. Women are killed by their husbands, sometimes together with their children; they’re killed by men they meet online; they’re also killed after a night out; And sometimes women are killed “mistakenly” by the state. This and many, many, other cases of different types of violence that women go through, underscore the gravity of the situation, and build an alarming pattern that should be scrutinized and elicit urgent action. Instead, this kind of violence is still seen as isolated incidents every time they happen.

It is encouraging to see that the cases of Sharon Otieno and Monica Kimani were taken seriously, investigations were carried out quickly, and there have been arrests. This could be a sign that something has changed, but the speed with which Sharon and Monica’s murder has been investigated and suspects charged is the exception and not the rule in how seriously and urgently violence against women is taken in Kenya. This is evident in the way that despite the fact that murders of women continue unabated, as a Twitter user has tried to document in the last year, the media still steers the conversations on these murders with a focus on the famous people they’re attached to.

The safety of women has to be taken seriously and the media plays a crucial role in changing the way we trivialize violence against women. Murder is the escalated and final act of the various forms of violence women face in Kenya, around the country and through all socioeconomic classes. Many of the stories never make it to prime time news and end up being silent yet alarming statistics. Our focus should always and unrelentingly be rooted in the seriousness of the issue and in ways in which we can stop this. It is immoral to continue nurturing the environment that continues trivialize women’s lives, as if their existence is not valued or worth protecting.

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Reflections

Homo Nairobi Mobilae: Walking in the city as a young man

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Homo Nairobi Mobilae: Walking in the city as a young man
Photo: Rodgers Otieno on Unsplash

“Jamaa, si hukubali vitu nyingi sana sababu yaani society inatuforce tukubali.” – Nonini

Once, not long ago, I was sitting on a bench in Central Park. It was the end of Ramadan and there was a certain feeling in the air; The weather was crisp, the grass was green, and the ice cream sellers were happy. The Park was full, crowds of Muslims breathing in the celebration of the end of the fast. A group of young Muslim men were sitting on the grass, drinking soda, talking to each other, being. Two men approached them, leaning down to talk to them. Friends of theirs, also revelling in the joy of Eid al-Fitr, I thought. The man seated on the bench next to me corrected me. Kanjo, he offered.

I looked at him.

He continued. “Ona wamekuja wawili. Mmoja wa kuongea, mwingine wa support. Watauilizia ID. Lakini si ID wanataka.”

My face was blank.

The man, my bench buddy, spoke again. “Watu huweka ID wapi? Kwa wallet.”

Shit.

At that point I realized what he was saying. Rule Number One of being a young man in Nairobi: Don’t keep your ID where your money is. Because you don’t want to ever lose both at the same time. Of course, the shadow rule is, Don’t question this colonial mentality of having to walk around with identification documents. Kipande.

Another time, a friend and I are talking about running. This particular friend is an athletic type, obsessed with split times and running regimens and Eliud Kipchoge. He says, “Do you ever, when you are in the CBD, wish that you could run? Just put your bag on the shoulder and pound the pavement up Kimathi Street?” He smiles at the excitement of this thought. I wonder how that would look like, a male six-footer with long shaggy hair, dressed in shorts and sneakers and a hoodie, running up, or down, any street in Nairobi, with a bag on his shoulder. All that needs to happen is for someone, one person, to shout, and that’s the last time one ever runs in the city.

Rule Number Two of being a young man in Nairobi: Never, ever, ever, run in the city. It doesn’t matter how late you are, how much you need to meet Mr or Ms. So-and-So at what time, whether your cardiologist told you running will be good for your heart. To run as a young man on the streets of Nairobi is to confess to a crime, and to be a running criminal on the streets of Nairobi is to run for your life. Caveat: Even brisk walks are suspicious, unless performed while wearing a suit.

Yet another time I am walking in town, heading to meet a friend. It is a Sunday morning, and the streets are void of the usual weekday foot traffic. Walking past Koja Mosque, I walk past a group of police officers and they call me back.

“Kijana, uko na nini kwa bag?”

This is not the first time I have been stopped by police officers on the streets asking about my bag. “Ni vitabu tu.” I open my bag, or they open my bag, and indeed niko na vitabu tu kwa bag. When I was new to the city, I used to walk around with a laptop, or an iPad, or something. This is a rookie mistake of course, because any veteran of the streets of Nairobi will know not to walk with a laptop or an iPad or something in their bag, because doing that leads to another conversation. Kijana uko na nini kwa bag becomes kijana hizi umetoa wapi which becomes tutembee tuongee kidogo.

Another rule of navigating the streets of Nairobi as a young man: Expect that police officers will randomly, or not-so-randomly request for you to open your bag, and you will, despite any inclination to point out that the Constitution does not allow for such impromptu searches of one’s person, open your bag to be searched. Unless you are in a suit. A caveat: Pointing out that such impromptu searches are illegal is a moot point because, “Ati una rights? Me naona una wrongs.”

And so walking the streets of Nairobi becomes an exercise in navigating unspoken rules and nuances that no one ever warned you about. You discover that, suddenly, when you read about two young men, University of Nairobi students on their way to the HELB offices, were shot by the police at Globe roundabout. You realize that on another day, walking down Globe from Ngara that could have been you.

When you hear about young men shot dead by state machinery in Mathare, young men who look like you, and probably dress like you and sound like you, who but for the fate of class could be you, you sit and wonder whether that could have been you. And you decide, because you have the choice, that you will not venture into Mathare. When, some time after the elections, the governor of Nairobi announces a plan to weed out muggers from the city, you realize that, because of how the profiling system of the security machinery of the country works, because of your height and your build and your hair and how you dress, you are seen as a mugger. And so, as long as the security operation to weed out muggers from the city is ongoing, you wear a tie and official shoes and limit the occasions when you walk in the city. You take cabs more than you usually do, because you can. Your friends will comment on the sudden change on your fashion style, and you will say, vaguely, “Ni manguo ndio chafu. So ilibidi.”

Being a young man in Nairobi is the realization that you now have stories you can beat with your young male friends about how people like you were profiled in the city. A friend tells you that, because of his dreadlocks, when he walks down Moi Avenue or Tom Mboya Street or Ronald Ngala or any of the other alleyways and vichochoro that litter the city, cops accuse him of being a Mungiki.

Another friend talks about how he has spent time in the back of Rashid’s Probox. Yule yule Rashid wa vigilante pale Eastleigh. Another friend tells you, how when he was arrested for walking home, a crime also known as loitering, he stayed in the cells for the entire weekend because he didn’t have money on him. You will laugh at this story, at the ridiculousness of it all, because that is the only way to make light of these situations. You laugh, and make memes and share funny tweets and tell yourself, bora uhai. But then what happens when this profiling threatens your uhai?

And so you walk the city. Dusman Gozanga walked the city in Meja Mwangi’s The Cockroach Dance and you wonder how different the city’s moods are from the city you walk in. Down Moi Avenue, up Muindu Mbingu, across Ronald Ngala. You experience Nairobbery in the ways everyone does. You learn not to carry heavy bags. You discover that, when, at midnight you are walking from one of the numerous chips dens that litter the city, a street boy will warn you not to venture down a particular street because kuna makarao huko, you will trust this stranger more than the police officers who are supposed to ensure your safety. Utumishi kwa wote is not utumishi to you.

It is important to note, however, that profiling is an important tool in police work. Whenever a crime is committed, police officers will actively take part in both Be On The Lookout (BOLO) profiling and psychological profiling. BOLO profiling is the act of providing a specific description of the suspect of a crime based on eyewitness accounts. For instance, after a robbery, police officers may review CCTV footage and release the following description:

Suspect, a young man, was last seen running away, with brown bag on his back. He was wearing a green hoodie, a black pair of shorts and white sneakers. He has an afro and walks with a slight limp.

Thus, from this description, the police officers will be on the lookout for people who fit this description and seek to bring them in for questioning. On the other hand, because the police officers lack eyewitness accounts and have no idea how the suspect looks like, they will try to construct an image of the suspect from their behaviour during when committing the crime. For instance, if the robbery took place in a store with female employees, and the female employees were sexually assaulted, the conclusion might be that the primary suspect of the robbery is male.

Still, police work is not merely considered with solving crime; it is also concerned with crime prevention. Ergo, predictive profiling. According to Chameleon Associates, a security firm which trains security personnel in various areas of police work, their course in predictive profiling “provides security and law enforcement officers with the tools and skills to effectively assess threats in their operational environments. Trainees come out with the ability to articulate “gut feeling” into clear definitions of Suspicion Indicators and Adversary’s Methods of Operations allowing the organization to avoid liability issues and increase overall threat mitigation capabilities.” For example, a police officer may be aware that drug peddlers in Nairobi are usually young men who dress in loose-fitting hoodies, jackets and jeans, who walk around with bags, have shaggy hair, and walk down Ronald Ngala Street at three in the afternoon. Thus, the police officer will position himself on one end of Ronald Ngala Street and watch out for a young man who fits this description. In most countries, predictive profiling is not frowned upon. Rather, it is considered excellent police work. At the same time, in most countries, such impromptu stop-searches are only legal if the police officer has a search warrant, or they can prove probable cause. Trying telling this to Nairobi security officers. Kijana unaniongelesha ni ka wewe ni nyanyangu, nitakuingisha kwa Mariamu.

When the British colonial government was in power, one of the things that were criminalized was the act of Africans being poor. Thus, loitering and vagrancy became punishable offences as they indicated that the person in question lacked a fixed abode and was therefore a nuisance to the peace. Successive national and local governments inherited these laws and people were profiled on the basis of their class, where indicators of upper classness (the right clothes, the right English, working in an office, etc etc) became the desired while indicators of poverty (loitering, the shabbiness of one’s dressing, the wrong language, etc etc) became the undesirables. Into this reality of their poverty being a crime, young men from Mathare and Kibera and Kawangware and Dandora enter, unaware that their very being, their youngman-ness is a second, bigger crime. You could be unaware of the rules of existing in Nairobi, and you go about your business, and in the evening we hear reports of a young man, a suspected gangster, shot while fleeing arrest.

Still, I walk the city. Homo Nairobi Mobilae. Route 11. I walk the city because I am aware of the biggest rule of being a young man in Nairobi: Thou shall know your Englishes. I walk because, after the initial search in my bag, my English projects that I am not a danger, that despite my bag and my hair and my age and my complexion and my height, my English communicates that I belong in this world, that while I am guilty of being a young man on the streets on Nairobi, at least I am not a poor young man. And I think of the fresh stories I will have to beat to my friends, all the while asking, when I will ever stand up for myself against endless waves of profiling and kijana, uko na nini kwa bag?, When I will ever kataa hiyo, and what does standing up for myself, kukataa hiyo, looks like.

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