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.
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.
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.
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.
AND GOD RESTED ON THE SEVENTH DAY: Faith as a tense truce in an African reality
When I was growing up in rural western Kenya in the mid-80s, my father, a Seventh Day Adventist (SDA), imposed Adventism upon us like a colonial identity card. He was an Adventist because his mother was an Adventist. That part of western Kenya was under intense competition between the Catholic, Anglican and Seventh Day Adventist churches. The Seventh Day set up a stronghold in central and south Nyanza regions with churches in every corner of the community. We were expected to carry this spiritual card around for many reasons. One was to inspire some sort of righteous pride, to show that we were better than others, mostly Catholics and non-believers, though Catholics were the other main Christian denomination in our community. We were being trained in denominational politics, that even though we were worshipping the same God as Catholics, we were different, more sanctified. Unlike them, our bodies were free from impurities like tobacco and alcohol. And that was not all. Coca-Cola and coffee were prohibited; soya was touted as the best alternative (but you could only find soya in shops in Nairobi).
My mother protested the Seventh Day Adventist church and its restrictions. She did not understand how eating cold food on Saturdays made anyone holier; she always prepared hot food. My father protested but grudgingly ate it all the same. Also, my mother had no personal vendetta against Coca-Cola. She drank it and made us drink too. My father frowned but couldn’t do much. He was always a minute too late, just as we were putting down empty bottles. In addition, my mother was ambivalent to religion; she was raised in a big traditional family where religion was a pastime and not a primary way of life. My father should have also protested a long time ago. My uncle too. Both are polygamists. Being polygamists, the church never accepted them the same way they accepted the church. As a teenager, I could partake in Holy Communion, but my grandfather, father and my uncle – grown men with much more social status than I – could not. They joined other men, mostly polygamous, in grudgingly walking out of the church during Holy Communion. In my mind, I didn’t think that polygamy, per se, made you a good or bad man. There were very good polygamous men – loving, caring and responsible. And there were bad monogamous men, who abused their families every day.
Deeply entrenched polygamy in our community was the elephant in the room in our local church. Most men seated in the pews were in polygamous families. Our church relentlessly depicted polygamy as barbaric and backward. I have always asked myself why my dad continued in this church that was seemingly subjecting him and fellow polygamous men to emotional abuse every Saturday. He later even embarked on a project to build a big church sanctuary closer to our home. Why would my father, and African people in general, join and support churches that deeply conflicted with their traditional way of life?
The Seventh Day church did not have formal method, or doctrine, to accommodate traditional practices of Africans they had come to teach about Jesus and salvation. This is was not a democracy where the heathen communities had a vote. The church’s intention was clear- convert as many as possible and to grow into a dominant, influential force. My father and polygamous men in the community accepted that the church was way more powerful than they, and that by joining it they could access some social power in a rapidly changing world. The church also accepted that these polygamous men were difficult and would not easily change their ways. The pastor seeming to have recognized this contentious issue, prayed fervently about everything but skirted around it.
For the first nineteen years of my life when I attended Seventh Day Adventist church, I never heard a pastor mention the word polygamy by name during sermons. They would preach strongly against adultery without mentioning polygamy. It was not lost to any person paying attention that lust and adultery, in the context of this Christian worldview, was the first step towards polygamy. Within this complex social set up, there was some sort of unofficial truce around polygamy- this truce would only be broken during Holy Communion when polygamous men would leave the church. Women must have viewed themselves as winners in this struggle between their men and the church. This was one of the few occasions when they would get a seat at the table and partake in a ceremony that their husbands could not. The men protested silently- most would skip church on days when Holy Communion would be served. My father would also often talk of David and his son Solomon as some of the famous men in the bible who married multiple wives. This contradiction in the bible must have been a source of consolation to my father and many men in my community.
In the 1980s and 1990s, during the early era of HIV/AIDS, there was a visible rise in televangelism and miracle healing, and a corresponding increase in the number and prominence of traditional healers and medicine men in our community. Public prayers were being made for all these throngs of young men and women dying of this incurable disease. Privately, African traditional medicine men and women were sought to appease whichever spirits had brought this curse to the people. Mainstream churches vigorously preached abstinence and riled against contraceptives, while in the dead of the night, when the church was officially asleep, traditional healers were brought into homes to prescribe final rites for the dead. Some of these rites included “corpse cleansing” through sexual intercourse with the dead in some communities.
This perpetual conflict between traditional spiritual practices and Christianity has always been a source of both personal and communal conflict. I remember when my uncle Ben was sick, strangers would visit ostensibly to “pray for him”. I knew these people were not Catholics or Seventh Day Adventists. I could tell they were traditional medicine men and women. Sometimes they would stay for days, and I would hear my grandmother telling her fellow women from the church that these medicine men were distant relations who were visiting. I could tell she appreciated the inadequacy of the Christian God in these difficult situations, but that she still struggled with that reality. I saw in her eyes the guilt of resorting to traditional medicine when she had lost faith in the ability of the Christian God to heal my uncle Ben. This was deep in rural Kenya, yet she did not dare be free in following the traditional practices of her people. I have come to learn that this personal struggle, both mine and hers, were a manifestation of years of calculated and successful emotional blackmail to the individual and community by missionaries.
One of the enduring impacts of Christianity in my life was the image of white savior. This image was thrust on my young mind through the powerful sermons on Saturday by our local pastor. The sermons always ended by him commanding us to “fall at the feet of the cross” and “obey”. Obedience would ensure blessings and prosperity. This image of falling at the image of a white male has always overwhelmed me. It struck me even more later when I was living in the United States, where white superiority is always hanging over black and brown people’s heads like a dark cloud.
I recently came from a trip to South East Asia and had a chance to experience a deity that wasn’t in the image of a white savior. I was struck by the images of massive statues of Buddha that resembled the local people. They were in all shades of brown, dark brown and sometimes black. Having lived in the USA for almost four years now, I was puzzled by this free colour continuum of Buddha statues. I made note of this and asked my hosts and friends who were surprised by my observation. They had never made similar observations. The differences, they said, came down to design and material used to make the statues of Buddha. There were no subliminal racial messages of superiority and inferiority in these statues. I apologized and let them know that I live in environment where race permeates every fabric of the society.
This experience introduced me to a unique reality that most Africans who are Christians have never had – the reality and the power of having a God who resembled the locals, who looked like the local rickshaw driver, beggar, teacher and doctor, hit me very hard. It brought back memories of the many times my father struggled to contort reasons to reassure me and my siblings that as much as the Christian God had very explicit Caucasian features, on the inside, he looked like us, Africans. And that before this God, all races were equal. I was always confused by this halfhearted assertion. I felt like we were always struggling too hard to impress the Christian God and we all fell short.
I have started thinking of how powerful and relatable it would be to have a God whose image members of my community would relate to. This would perhaps empower and inspire many people, including my son, whom I am not sure how to introduce religion to. How can I read him a Bible that has been used to control my people for generations without feeling a repulsive guilt? No, I cannot. I am rebelling against everything peddled with a white supremacist agenda. I have decided against that. That is why I struggled with thoughts of taking him to my grandmother’s church in Kenya. I decided against this church that refused to accept my father.
But then again, I have to ask myself, which is this African deity I am seeking? Moreover, where is this deity? Is it possible to reconstruct and empower all the traditional African deities destroyed by colonizers and missionaries? In addition, can our communities be empowered to find strength in their old ways of thinking?
This is the space and personal conflict that the entry of Christianity suspended me, and my community, into, and we are still grappling with it. Sometimes the presence of the local Seventh Day Adventist church in my community feels like an ever-present symbol of domination. But sometimes it looks like a space that offered my grandmother sanctuary and gave her meaning about life, and also gave women their own social status as Holy Communion-partaking believers. I want it to work for us, but I know I hold no vote, and I doubt my community has the power to reshaping practices and doctrines we feel do not align to the traditional values of my community. This faith has always been – take it or leave it. But I think we need something else.
THE DAYS OF SITUATION: Reflecting on the Reflections Series ‘Beyond The Numbers’
I was ten years old in 1996 when my parents separated. It seems to me that I had never really noticed them before it happened. Until that tumultuous December my parents were like the air around us – crucial to life, and you would notice when they shifted around, but otherwise somewhat unremarkable. I always thought my extended relatives were much more interesting than my parents – my aunt, who lived with us for a while, laughed loudly, spoke excitedly, and let us watch Indian movies late into the night when my mother was away working the housekeeping night shift at the New Stanley. My mother’s (step)father, my Guka, always brought us halua and kaimati every time he visited. We were fascinated bulging veins on his hand, wondering why they popped back up no matter how hard we tried to push them down.
And then, it happened. My father spoke a lot at this time, more than I had ever heard him speak, it seems, and he would say things like – “your mother is using you as a conduit to get to me.” At the end of his long speeches, I would go to my blue and red Oxford English Dictionary and look up the word conduit. And my mother became more quiet, I think, transfigured into glass that was dangerously on the verge of shattering at a moment’s notice. I was terrified at the thought of this. How does one pick up those kinds of shards?
But what none of us siblings could have known at the time – I am one of three – was that our family’s troubles were not ours alone, and that the intensity of our struggle to remain afloat was not entirely the fault of my mother and father. It was, (objectively?), the wrong time to get divorced – they were walking right into an economic blizzard, with the three of us in reluctant tow.
Kenya was in the midst of an economic recession, the fallout of implementation of the infamous Bretton Woods structural adjustment programs (SAPs), which led to a slash in government expenditure, especially on public servants’ salaries, administration, economic and social services. To make matters worse, the architects of the Goldenberg scandal had promptly drained an equivalent of 10 per cent of Kenya’s GDP from the Central Bank, just like that. Neglect and dilapidation were all around us, and in my ten-year-old mind, I connected the dots and concluded that this is actually what happens when your parents split up – the world goes to literal ruin. Garbage starts flowing in the streets. Potholes eat the road in front of your house.
Which is why I was not prepared for how painful this month’s Reflections series at The Elephant would be to read, edit and curate. They remind me, in the words of @tjjullu on Twitter, ‘ndalo situation’, days of situation, when the folks would say, “you know the situation…. We’re in a tight situation…”
Twenty-odd years later, state theft, poor fiscal management and an exorbitant debt appetite has ushered in a new season of austerity measures. Ndalo situation.
This Reflections series was intended to go ‘Beyond The Numbers’ of macro-economic policy and excavate the memories of those tough times, and connect that with what’s going on today. How did families cope? How did it affect social arrangements, like people having to live with relatives, or the stress that it put on marriages? How are millennials being affected by its iteration today – frustrating unemployment, and the unspoken angst of not being able to achieve dreams? How do we connect the brunt of the hustle to the dysfunction in national economics? How does society react to this culturally – chanelling frustration through music, sports, the arts and so on? And what are the untold stories of those traumas that were never discussed?
The series began with Lutivini Majanja’s extensive piece on how tea – its availability, quantity and quality – marked her family’s turbulent economic fortunes and domestic disruptions.
Then came Gloria Mari on the ‘extreme sport’ that is job searching today, where beyond skills, qualifications, work ethic and experience, it seems like you have to have guardian angels, good luck charms and even the occasional visit to the mganga to have hopes of finding a well-paying job.
We published Carey Baraka reflecting on how disconnected younger millennials are even from the memory or understanding of the 1990s ‘ndalo situation,’ and what that lack of memory does to a generation grappling with through similar challenges – but without a historical anchor to ground the struggle.
Filmmaker Amina Bint Mohamed explored the concerns and challenges of the so-called ‘middle class’ in a short documentary film, a demographic whose definition is contested and whose security is precarious.
There was Wanjeri Gakuru’s reflection on “flying out” as a way for families to cope with a depressed economy and diminished opportunities in the 1990s, but that is no longer an option today, with increasing xenophobia in the traditional ‘greener pastures’ – US, UK, Australia, and the like.
Darius Okolla detailed the decline of his hometown Kitale during those years, where the earth and rust seemed to swallow everything, and how the town never really recovered.
And Silas Nyanchwani’s devastating article on how he was making more money as a student a few years ago, than as an adult today with a family to support (and with a Masters degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the world), was almost too much to bear.
But could anything good come from all this distress? At a different time in my life, I would have written something clever about how economic turmoil allows innovation to emerge.
Like the way M-Pesa’s success may be partly because after the pervasive joblessness of the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a whole group of people who were willing to do the dreary work of being M-Pesa agents.
Much of the talk around M-Pesa has been why it worked so well in Kenya, and not so well in other places, and various reasons have been advanced – Kenya had a huge unbanked population, a lenient regulator, and a culture of sending money to relatives and friends.
But on the agent network, Safaricom had envisaged that agents would bolt on to already-existing businesses, like pharmacies, kiosks and convenience stores, which would then just do the M-Pesa transactions in a corner somewhere, the company’s corporate communications head told me in a past interview.
But the rapid rollout of the agent network was possible because of the very high informality in the Kenyan economy. In fact, the company was surprised at how there was a whole cohort of people willing to be M-Pesa agents as a stand-alone job, basically self-employed, sitting in a small stall, with no salary, benefits, or retirement package, earning a small percentage of every transaction.
Today, I can only make that argument intellectually, and even so, not completely sincerely. I am much more sensitive to the suffering that we tend to gloss over when we neatly tuck such losses into grand narratives of progress – that it all ‘worked out’ in the end, look at M-Pesa!
As philosopher Walter Benjamin argued, narratives of progress render history coherent and harmonious by resolving the traumatic dimensions of history, incorporating them into affirmative accounts that underwrite the positions of those in power.
It means that memory is always in danger of becoming a tool of the ruling classes, a situation that “threatens to murder the dead twice, to erase and eliminate the dissonant quality of past suffering, injustice, struggle and loss.”
Mine is a melancholic hope today, a “hope draped in black” in the words of writer Joseph Winters. It is the kind of hope that refuses to peddle in fantasies of a coherent, harmonious world unscathed by painful events, conditions and memories, in the name of the gospel of innovation. Sometimes suffering produces innovation. But it always produces pain, and the cheerful silver linings obscure this.
This series is our attempt, in the words of author Ralph Ellison, “to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain…in the hope that we might transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.”
Like Winters, I see melancholy gesturing towards a better, more promising hope, which must entail contemplation, remembrance, and critical encounter with vulnerability, cruelty, and death, rather than endeavours to resolve or deflect them through reassuring images of progress.
It is a blues sensibility, “unhopeful but not hopeless”, offering no solutions, only a way of responding to, working through, and coping with painful incongruities.
Perhaps the next M-Pesa will come out of all this. Perhaps not. But we at The Elephant will be a witness to ndalo situation.
EARTH AND RUST: The decline of a Kenyan town
Once in late 1996, a neighbour’s clothes were stolen from the hanging line when she went to work, a theft that fascinated the neighborhood to no end. Who would do such a thing? Why – for heaven’s sake? Our version of burglary was the smell of despondency with a tinge of crude survival, pain and hunger pangs. By DARIUS OKOLLA
I grew up in Kitale. The story of the deterioration of my hometown in the 1990s mirrored the tumultuous decline of just about every factory-dependent town in the country; it was subtle, gradual, almost imperceptible, and forever disguised as the typical wear and tear of urban spaces – but it was more than that. It was thievery, corruption, and disenfranchisement, shoving it down the path of visible decline; a depreciative spectacle masked by rural docility and the often-accepted rural poverty.
First came the increasing cases of theft. These were often acts of burglary that surprised us in their desperation as much as they exasperated the victims by their sheer banality. We had an outhouse in our compound measuring about 8 feet by 11 feet, where we stored farm equipment, tree seedlings, charcoal sacks – pretty much everything that was bulky and intended for outdoor use. At first the break-ins at this outhouse were infrequent, then they happened about once every few months.
The stories from neighborhood increased. In nearly all the incidences there were no guns used, often no attacks, not even violent break-ins – just missing farm tools, stolen livestock, and pilfered homes when the owners had briefly travelled out of town. Once in late 1996, a neighbour’s clothes were stolen from the hanging line when she went to work, a theft that fascinated the neighborhood to no end. Who would do such a thing? Why – for heaven’s sake? Then there were the stories of food stolen alongside a burning charcoal jiko as someone cooked outside the house, a story told with awkward hilarity.
John Kirimaiti, Wanugu, Wacucu and the elite cadre of fascinating gun-toting gangsters were the stuff of distant cities told with near-legend flair that we knew we’d never have to worry about. Our version of burglary was the smell of despondency with a tinge of crude survival, pain and hunger pangs, which drove able-bodied humans to steal anything they deemed to be of market value.
When we first moved to Kitale in the early 1990s we lived at Section Five, a row of patterned townhouses with hedged compounds of cypress, flowers, worldliness and tranquility. Nearby was Matano, consisting of dozens of two storied homes with large balconies, cream walls and wooden doors named in alphabetical order. Bondeni, where we would go ride the swings at the children’s playground, was not far either.
My folks were somewhat too extraverted for the austere life of hedged picket fences in that neighborhood, so we moved to Section 21, a well tarmacked, more concrete-y neighborhood lying to the west of the town. The streetlights worked, the town matatus ran the transit service with an efficiency that we, for the longest time, took for granted. We moved again just when private landowners started buying property in Section 21 and setting up unplanned developments.
As Section 21 began to sprawl, it is perhaps not a coincidence that the locals transliterated its name to Tuwani (two-one-i), betraying its deterioration, imbuing it with a villagized name, vibe and life.
Our next neighborhood, Mitume, for the better part of the 1990s was a large piece of land with few houses and lot of grassy fields. Mitume (Kiswahili for apostles) a name likely derived from Christ The King Catholic church parish nearby, was far different from the organized suburb life of Section 21, though it offered a stronger sense of community. Mitume wasn’t spared either as slowly, random developments popped up on what was once sprawling grassy fields.
Chipped paint, dirt, and dilapidation slowly ravaged the children play area at the swings at Bondeni estate that we had left behind. The swings grew rusty, then bare-boned and dangerous for kids to play on. Then they got vandalized and whatever remained of them was run into the ground by neglect, swallowed by the earth and rust. Beside it, where dusty paths met collapsing hedges, garbage strewed onto the road from what were once neat, well-ordered homes.
I attended a public school and so did most of our neighbors, and most of our parents were either in the informal sector or worked as civil servants. It’s still intriguing how the elders seemed so unaware of just how vulnerable they were to downward mobility given their faithfulness in following every single news item on the radio. How come they didn’t see what was coming?
Baba Silas, my friend’s dad worked the Kenya Cooperative Creameries (KCC) and so did most of my friend’s dads who worked in various parastatals, like Baba Wycliffe, Baba Jaredi and on and on. Somehow our parents’ names were hallowed, so they were just ‘Baba nani’ and ‘Mama nani’. Baba Silas – I never got to know his name – carried himself with an air of officiousness, always in a leather jacket, with a slow walk; his neck seemed stiff as he walked, with a slight swagger and a polythene bag at hand. He always carried a polythene bag, I’m not sure why.
He’d lose his job during retrenchment as the parastatals got downsized and then collapsed in the mid-1990s. But I didn’t see him for a while, as we moved from Mitume estate to Lessos, where our parents had bought some land. Lessos estate is named after the Lessos farm in Eldoret, given that the Kalenjin owners who gave the place its name had moved to Kitale from Eldoret.
Set on a ridge overlooking a forest, you could always see the factories in Section 6 and Section 19 on the opposite ridge about four kilometres away, across from Lessos forest in the valley below.
From Lessos, the few remaining factories including a leather tanning factory, Kenya Seed, Western Seed and a dozen other factories let out a low dull hum that on a quiet afternoon reached all the way to our home. Slowly by slowly, the hum grew fainter as the firms collapsed until the sound was no more. But quickly, the silence as it was quickly replaced by the cacophony of human activity, especially a construction boom that hit the estate in the 2000s. The town’s population was rising, properties were becoming smaller and more sub-divided, and unplanned developments were everywhere.
As the hum of factories faded to whimpers, informal businesses in the neighborhoods rose sharply as retrenched workers desperately tried their hands in business, trying to secure an income for their families. Most of them collapsed within months or a few years after inception.
The 1997 elections carried with it a strange sense of camaraderie and hope in the town, partly because multi-party politics had expanded the democratic space and increased a sense of political freedom. Men (and they were mostly men) stood atop old Peugeots and Mazdas, flashing two-finger salutes and yelling in the air, drowning the silent scream of a town choking under the stranglehold of Structural Adjustment Programs.
In 1998 my mum sent me to call over a relative who lived about 40 kilometers away for a job opportunity at a local company – this was before cellphones were a thing. I must have been 10 years old. This relative had already unsuccessfully applied for the job dozens of times. I arrived late in the evening as he worked on his shamba, weeding his sukuma wiki and cassava.
‘‘Hii kazi bwana nimeapply, fare nimetumia mingi na mimi nimechoka, wacha tu nilime.’ (I’ve applied for this job many times and used so much fare; I’m tired, let me just farm). I was taken aback by the vulnerability on display, his frustration breaking through into an involuntary rant to a 10-year-old.
This time though, he got the three-month gig, which still only paid peanuts and barely provided him with meaningful cash. He’d leave for Kisumu afterwards, then Eldoret, then Nairobi and back to Kitale then Eldoret again.
I would run into Baba Silas in the late 1990s, a few years after he’d been fired from KCC. He looked haggard, tired, his trouser torn at the knees. He was working at a brick-making factory, and I ran into him taking a break under a makeshift grass thatched shade, eating the mjengo githeri at lunch time. His sagged chin reflected dignity under assault, he looked shaken to see me, and a bit sad.
Then came the early 2000s and the town broke into a palpable air of difficult-to-justify yet hard-to-dismiss optimism. When Narc luminaries came to Kitale stadium for what would be their only visit to the town before the 2002 elections, I sneaked from home to go watch the revolution happen. I was 13 years old.
“Hii movement bwana! It will last for at least 30 years,” my relative would tell me matter-of-factly after the momentous event. His life certainly changed. He landed a better paying gig, then got married. His wedding, albeit later in life than was expected, reflected his changing fortunes, much more than anything. We often take for granted how the frequency of social functions such as weddings, birthday parties, cookouts, and get-togethers reflect a rising society.
He’d secure better fortunes across the country, marry, settle down, buy a plot of land, build his home and essentially hit all the markers of adulthood that had eluded him for most of his life, all in a span of eight years in the 2000s.
Unfortunately for Kitale, the town never got to deftly negotiate with the colonial state in ways that could secure it enough resources to help it fully recover. It didn’t help that the town’s patriarch, Kijana Wamalwa, would pass away a few months into the Narc wave.
Still Kitale continued to grow, the population growing exponentially in the 2000s. During the 2007 post-election violence, given its cosmopolitan makeup, Kitale provided a somewhat safe harbor for those kicked out of their homes in the outlying regions. The population soared but the infrastructure and the vitality of its urban life didn’t. I see all that every time I go home.
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