Ask any child of the 80s what, “Polisi wa kae kama raia” means or why August is called the “ Black month” and the question evokes a chain of memories buried deep in our psyches. The children of the 80s try to forget but we remember.
I started my remembering again after I took my 26-year-old nephew on a trip down my memory road. Didi is the firstborn of my eldest brother John. He is a true blood millennial, born in 1991, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Falklands War, the failed assassination of Ronald Reagan and the assassination of Indira Gandhi.
He was born after the release of ANC’s Nelson Mandela, the end of apartheid, the victory of Museveni’s NRM in Uganda and Sam Njuoma SWAPO in an independent Namibia.
After Said Barre was overthrown in Somalia, the SPLA civil war in Sudan, Jonas Savimbi’s CIA backed war against the Marxist government in Angola, the rise and fall of Samuel Doe in Liberia,
After the assassination of Walter Rodney, Captain Thomas Sankara and the plane crash that killed Samora Machel in South Africa.
After the murder of Dr. Robert Ouko, the mysterious death of Bishop Alexander Muge, and the hanging of Senior Private Hezekiah Ochuka.
After the Wagalla massacre, the devastating Ethiopian famine that killed half a million people, the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing and the unaccounted extermination of young lives to the AIDS virus.
After the July Saba Saba riots, the repealing of the Section 2A of the constitution that made Kenya a multiparty state that promised a future of dignity, liberty and prosperity in a democratic society.
We stood on Menelik Road facing the house where my innocence was lost. Menelik II was the emperor of Ethiopia who repelled an Italian invasion in the great battle of Adowa, a fact I learned years later in a history lesson in high school. There was a high drab wall surrounding the maisonette compound. We could only see the upper part of the house, the rain gutter that peeled and cracked paint under the mouldy black tiled roof. There was a kiosk and vegetable stand right outside what used to be the main access gate now completely sealed. The road was dotted with potholes and marked by high walls. The neighbourhood had changed like the rest of Nairobi. Closed, neglected and cold.
Nairobi of my childhood was a green city in the sun. In the 80s, one had to go to the military barracks or the prisons to find high walls. I conjured up a picture of Menelik Road in the 80s. Red and purple blooms of Bounganvillea hedges, bamboo fences, gated homes with manicured cypress fences, see-through gates, mbwa kali signs where white foreigners lived, mature Jacaranda trees and children taking turns riding a single BMX bicycle. At the closed end of Menelik Road was Kilimani Primary school run by a Goan man known as Mr. Fonseca, fondly known as Fonyi.
The first time I saw President Moi in the flesh was at this school. The President had stopped outside the school gates on the road named after Kenya’s first African lawyer Argwings Kodhek who died in a suspect road accident in 1969. The entire school assembled by the roadside to greet the President who had built a reputation for making surprise public stops to interact with adoring ‘ordinary wananchi’. I do not remember what Moi said but he distributed boxes of tiny biscuits afterwards, leaving us elated and in awe of Presidential power.
Menelik Road fed into Ngong Road from where the KBS buses run on time and the traffic congregated at Adams Arcade shopping centre. Adams Arcade had a timeless design that has endured the onslaught of Nairobi’s mall culture and a history dating back to the 40s. The open verandahs with large walkways, a post office, butcher shop, a bakery, basement bar are still contemporary. The iconic artistic cement slide we darted up and down as kids remains stuck in stone. The star attraction of the arcade was the Metropole cinema. I only ever watched a film there twice as the movies were adult rated but we still showed up at Adams every opportunity to drool over the movie posters and envy lucky movie goers. Adams Arcade is named after its enterprising founder Abdul Habib Adam who acquired the piece of land as payment on debt owed by the colonial government and then went ahead to design East Africa’s first shopping complex even though he was not a trained architect. On the lower level now occupied by Java coffee house was Tumbo’s bar.
Metropole cinema closed down alongside a host of cinema halls in Nairobi some years after the ’82 coup and little did we know that our privileged middle-class bubble was about to burst. My pre-teen worldview was manufactured by a father who kept up the fiction to save his children from the trauma of real world events happening around us. It was an alternative universe, much like Italian director and actor Roberto Benigni’s critically acclaimed film “La vita e bella” (Life is Beautiful). In the film, Benigni plays the role of a Jewish Italian bookshop owner, Guido who embarks on the imaginative game of positivity to shield his young preteen son from the horrors of the Nazi concentration camp while under captivity. Like Guido, I had a father who coped under duress of disruptive post ’82 years by choosing silence or humour because they were the most powerful ways a father could cry during hard times.
I lost my innocence of a predictable and certain world in 1982 on the first day of August. I was 8 years old. My elder brother returned from a party on the 31st July and had turned on his portable transistor radio to catch the 6 am news. That Sunday morning, the hesitant voice of radio veteran Leonard Mambo Mbotela on VOK’s national service announced that the government of Daniel Arap Moi had been overthrown. On the national broadcaster, an unfamiliar voice pronounced afterwards,
“You are hereby informed that everybody is requested to stay at home. They should be no movement in town. The government has been taken over by the military. There should be no movement of persons and vehicles. The police should now assume their roles as civilians until further notice,”
For the next three days, there was a protracted firefight between the Kenya Airforce soldiers cheered on by University of Nairobi students against the elite General Service Unity and the Kenya army led by General Mahmoud Muhammed. The city of Nairobi shut down, looters broke into shops and the head of state was nowhere to be seen or heard until days later when he appeared on TV looking thoroughly shaken. The poorly organized coup was crushed in 3 days but for the next three weeks, we stayed marooned indoors listening to the radio playing martial music under a dawn to dusk curfew. At the end of the month of August ’82, 100 soldiers and about 200 civilians had died and President Moi was primed to crush any threat to his hold on power.
The men who led the military revolution that never was were in their 20s drawn from low ranking Air force personnel and the public universities. There were sons of the working poor who died for their revolutionary ideals. The leader of the coup was 29-year old Senior Private Hezekiah Ochuka of the Kenya People’s Redemption Council.
Nairobi went through drastic changes after the failed coup attempt and a new kind of silence fell over our house. My parents never discussed politics in our presence. I was never certain what my father, who worked for the Ministry of Health, thought of the president. Media was government controlled and the news for public consumption feted the benevolence of our great leader, Baba Moi. Oblivious of the ongoings, we had no idea how quickly the country was slipping into repression. We watched as the adults stood aside and cheered like frogs placed in a pot of cool water complacently adjusting to the rising temperature until they boiled to death.
Night watchmen started to appear in the Kilimani neighbourhood – typical men from the pastoralist communities, the brave warriors to stand guard at night because house break-ins had reportedly increased. The bamboo fences disappeared replaced by cement block walls. Burglar proofing on windows became a standard house feature. The wooden gates replaced by solid metal ones with small access doors that one had to hunch over to get through. We started to notice ‘chokoras’ roaming through the neighbourhoods scavenging through growing roadside garbage piles that had gone uncollected for months.
The political and economic changes of the 80s and the 90s were disruptive to the lives of hundreds of thousands of government workers and their families who suddenly slipped overnight from the middle classes, no longer able to afford the privilege of security. In just a few years, there was massive flight of former civil servants from Kilimani and Woodley for Eastlands and villages across the country. I became part of the generation defined by what cartoonist Gaddo characterized as the Nyayo error.
The education system changed from 7-4-2-3 to 8-4-4. We became Moi’s guinea pigs, trained in the ethics of loyalty and patriotism. Moi’s hold on the country affairs was iron-fisted and totalitarian. As children, we totally succumbed to the Kool-Aid of the Nyayoism, programmed by the elaborate state propaganda machine, the original Cambridge Analytica. Living under the grip of Moi’s media hegemony had us parroting Nyayoism propaganda slogans.
The free school milk deprogrammed critical thought. Moi benevolence was God inspired and we knew this because TV cameras followed him to church every Sunday. Competing mass choirs emerged in droves singing in chorus in praise of the Great Leader. We memorized the ‘Nyimbo Za Kitamaduni” raising our voices in complete reverence as we sung the words to Mwalimu Thomas Wesonga choral hit song, “Tawala Kenya, Tawala, Rais Moi”, wagging a single finger in the air and unconsciously endorsing the one-party state of affairs indoctrinated with the Nyayo philosophy of Peace, Love and Unity. During the morning assembly, we recited the loyalty pledge with pride.
I pledge my loyalty to the president and the nation of Kenya. My readiness and duty to defend the flag of our republic. My devotion to the words of our national anthem. My life and strength in the task of our nation’s building. In the living spirit embodied in our national motto – Harambee! And perpetuated in the Nyayo philosophy of peace, love and unity.
Moi was the wise leader, the visionary, a man of God and the sole reason Kenya was an island of peace in a sea of conflict. There was civil war in Uganda, Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. Any version of events or literature contrary to the official narrative earned one a subversive and dissident tag and the consequences that came with the label. As we sang and danced to patriotic songs in praise of the great leader and the beautiful life he accorded his subjects, our parents bore the brunt of the dismantling social pillars of society.
“The forces of neo-liberalism are on the march, dismantling the historically guaranteed social provisions provided by the welfare state, defining profit-making and market freedoms as the essence of democracy, while diminishing civil liberties” (Henri Giroux, 2004).
The government under pressure from the IMF adopted the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) designed to create rapid and sustainable economic growth but instead, they ushered in unprecedented loss of jobs and income equalities uprooting thousands of families and their dependants from the security of government social services. The state surrendered the economy to market forces, prioritising paying off foreign debt over social services. The social systems collapsed overnight as funding was choked, passing public institutions and services into private hands in the name of efficiency. Cost sharing became mandatory and the inequality grew overnight. The public education standards plummeted. The intellectuals were hounded, undermined, exiled, detained, subdued and turned into puppets.
Peter Oloo Aringo, the then Minister for Education captured the sentiment of the times when he publicly announced in biblical and Shakespearean rhetoric during a Nairobi university graduation ceremony that Moi was the Prince of Peace.
Unemployment increased as formal employment opportunities shrunk and the jua kali sector mushroomed. Public bus system broke down descending into a matatu culture of urgency and trickery. Potholes started to become familiar, a thing and public facilities sunk into a permanent decrepit state. Freedom of movement and association was curtailed as police officers turned rogue. Beards became profiled as marks of dissidence or Marxist in leaning, as dangerous as a young man in Kenya’s ghettos spotting dreadlocks during in the later day Mungiki crackdown. The politics became a contest of loyalty to the big man and a new cast of uneducated but loyal court jesters filled the ranks of important state positions. After ’82, Moi ran a tight ship silencing protest effectively, with the perpetual dread of the shadowy Special Branch hanging over the population.
The white man is very clever. He came quietly with his religion. We were amused at his foolishness and allowed him to stay. Now he has won our brothers, and our clan can no longer act like one. He has put a knife on the things that held us together and we have fallen apart.
Chinua Achebe, – Things Fall Apart
Fear and loathing of one’s helplessness is what defined the brand of enforced ‘silence’ of the Moi years. I had little idea that I had inherited my parents’ traumas growing up in an autocratic patronage system. Even during my boldest moments of protest as a university student in the fight for second liberation in the late 1990s, I knew my boundaries. I knew when to reserve comment, speak in code, choose my word carefully and keep my political opinions to myself in public. Stronger, braver and important men had disappeared. I had no illusion what the state was capable of.
The only other thing that rivaled the dread of Moi state repression machinery was a mysterious virus that hunted young lives like Tekayo the cannibal character in Grace Ogot’s “ Land Without Thunder”. On January 15 1985, the Standard newspaper carried a headline “Killer sex disease in Kenya”. HIV AIDS virus compounded by a broken public health system devastated my generation and it became the single biggest contributor of orphaned children. The safe sex and abstinence campaigns coincided with the rise of evangelical churches capitalizing on the despondency that defined the times. By 1988, AIDS had taken on a religious dimension as the curse of our generation. Reinhardt Bonnke, a German preacher arrived to great pomp and razzmatazz to save the souls of Africans and packed stadiums preaching the gospel of healing and miracles. Tens of thousands gathered at his mega-crusade including senior government officials, swept away by the frenzy of spiritual warfare against the demonic forces unleashed on the “Dark” continent.
In traditional Anglican, Catholic and Presbyterian churches, a band of bold men spoke softly and firmly, using their pulpits to preach the gospel of redemption from an oppressive status quo. There was Bishop David Gitari, Alexander Muge, Henry Okullu and Reverend Timothy Njoya. Two years later in 1990 Bishop Muge was dead and Timothy Njoya had been severely beaten in public by state agents outside the parliament buildings.
36 years since the coup of ’82, Kenya remains deeply entrenched in the politics of pilferage and division. The wealth and poverty gap is immoral. The country that the late JM Karuiki once decried as one of “10 millionaires and 10 million beggars” is firmly entrenched. The former Chief Justice Willy Mutunga bluntly called Kenya a bandit economy run by mafia-style cartels. Grand theft has become the enduring characteristic of the historical state and the common denominator co-joining successive generations.
On January 20th, 1961, at the Capitol in Washington DC, newly elected President John F. Kennedy inauguration speech ended with a line that would shape a generation in America,
“Ask not what your country can do for you- ask what you can do for your country”.
The leadership of all progressive nations have demanded the same unwavering patriotism of their citizens and bled the rhetoric of national service to death. However the contrary question is never tabled,
“Ask what your country has done to you?”
Are we willing to talk of the past human rights abuses, the forgotten events of historical injustice, the systemic traumas that we continue to stuff in the storehouse of national amnesia? How can a country that is unable to face and deal with its past move forward?
The millennials I meet ask this question in collective wonderment. How did it go so tragically wrong for a generation that ate the bitter fruits of the Nyayo philosophy? Why did the foot soldiers of the second liberation turn into eager oppressors and ethnic bigots driven by an unprecedented level of greed? If we are to make any sense of our presence and our future we have to go look back to where we lost our way in a Sankofa-esque way. The literal translation of the term Sankofa is,
“ It is not taboo to fetch what is at risk of being left behind”.
When I name my defining Kenyan traumas, I start with ’82, the year that I first experienced the existential angst of Kenya’s middle class. I think about the good intentions of my late father, part of the silent generation born between 1924 and 1942. He was defined by the Second World War and the Mau Mau state of emergency. By 1982, he did what any loving father would have done; shield one’s children from the harsh reality and until they were old enough and equipped to deal with it. My own father died in 1989, the year that Berlin Wall came down and it was the same year that I realised that life was not beautiful, aware of my mis-education in a postcolonial reality, I began my own personal journey of consciousness and awareness.
In 2002 after the inauguration of Mwai Kibaki, I made the number of those Kenyans described as the most optimistic population in the world. Moi was gone. My generation was unbwogable. We had survived the repressive years 80s and 90s and gotten rid of our collective problem. The impossible dream achieved and a bright future beckoned.
By 2005, Mwai Kibaki had been in power for three years and already the optimism of the year 2002 had worn thin. The politics of ethnic hegemony that had taken temporary leave returned with fury. It came to a head in disputed 2007 election and I watched my generation fall into line and retreat to the safety of ethnic bastions. Indeed, there are no atheists in the foxholes. The illusion of national unity faded and the same fears that stalked my father to silence had returned.
We had become our parents, silenced, cynical of everything political, distrustful of those who did share our story and uncertain about what the future held for our children. It might be 2018, yet 36 years later Moi’s protégés continue playing by the same rule book of economic mismanagement, rampant corruption, political assassinations, electoral theft and violent suppression of dissent. The uncertainty that defined the 80s is still here but the unbwogable generation that came of age in 2002, is invested in personal cultivated bubbles of security, no longer willing to rattle the status quo.
We have morphed into our parents with children living in bubbles and disinclined to sabotage our beautiful lives.
We Need New Words: A Reflection on the “War on Terror”
The “War on Terror” is a disruption, that makes normal, absurd reality, a privation of humanity, a shape-shifting enemy that yearns for innocent lives and souls; the menacing colonial state with new fangs.
7th August 1998.
Friday, 10am: Parents, students and teachers are all seated in the school hall, and prize-giving day is about to begin. I had obtained the highest grade in GHC (Geography, History and Civics) and I was to receive a prize. I was elated, because it was the last day of the school term. At home, good grades were a pass to indulge in activities forbidden during the school term.
At 10.34am: The headmistress walks to the podium to give her opening remarks when we hear a blast in the distance. Moments later, the crowd starts murmuring, and the few pagers in the room start beeping. Parents anxiously take custody of their children and a state of anxiety descends on the gathering. Vehicles begin to speed off and the prize-giving day comes to an abrupt end.
A terrorist attack targeting the US Embassy in downtown Nairobi has just happened. The neighbouring building, Ufundi Co-operative House was reduced to debris. 213 people die and more than 5,000 get injured. At the age of nine in Standard Four, I felt the fear and anxiety.
Before August 7th 1998, Kenya had never witnessed a terror attack of such magnitude. The Al Qaeda terror group led by Osama bin Laden took responsibility for the attack professing it was retaliation for US presence in Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The national psyche was bruised. President, Daniel Arap Moi regretted that peaceful Kenya had suffered the tragedy of a geopolitical dispute.
My holidays were never the same again. At home, strict curfews were introduced; my mother would call every other day to check on the whereabouts of my siblings and I. My parents introduced holiday tuition as a means, I suspect, of surveillance to protect and curate our movements. “The fear of the public space” had been cemented in my parents’ minds. From then on, I heard my parents add a new phrase in their lingua: “Terrorism” which after the September 9/11 attacks in the United States morphed into the “The War on Terror”. It sounded like they pronounced it in capital letters to imitate the manner the subject of terrorism was broadcast in the news.
Over a decade later, in 2009, my brother and I were walking home from an eatery at the Oil Libya petrol station along Mombasa road on a Thursday at 9:17 pm. We lived in South C, a middle-class suburb in Nairobi that had in the last decade bourgeoned into a cosmopolitan neighbourhood with the influx of nationals from Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. South C transformed into a place of refuge for nationals fleeing conflict in their home countries.
On this fateful day, a police patrol unit accosted, threatened us with arrest and threw us into a police vehicle on the suspicion as terror suspects.
“Mnaranda randa usiku, kwani nyinyi ni Al Shabaab?” barked a policeman. (Why are you loitering about, are you Al Shabaab?)
“Hapana boss, tumetoka kwa duka, tunaelekea nyumbani.” (No sir, we are just headed home from the shops), replied my elder brother,
“Unadhani mimi ni mjinga? Wale wa kutoka kwa duka ndiyo hutembea na bomb. Ingia hapa nyuma haraka sana.” (Do you think I’m a fool? In fact those who are ‘just from the shops’ are the ones who walk around with bombs. Get into the back of the vehicle!)
In the patrol vehicle, I noticed that my brother and I were the only suspects who did not bear the physical resemblance of Somali people. The state-led counter-terrorism operations had led to the profiling of Kenyans Muslims, particularly from the Somali community. Members of the community were subjected to police harassment, arrests and human rights violations while publicly scorned as associates of Al Shabaab terrorists.
In the patrol vehicle, one of the police officers remarks that were effectively Al Shabaab terrorists under arrest and our freedom rested on our ability to ‘speak’. This was a new experience for my brother and I. Our fellow “felons” seemed to get the drift and reached into their pockets. Each one parted with a bribe as they alighted from the vehicle and we followed suit. There was little choice to make. The “War on Terror” had robbed us of our moral agency.
I met Leila through a mutual friend. We struck a rapport immediately, and shared many intellectual interests. We would often meet up after class, and walk down from the University of Nairobi, talking as we meandered through the maze of Nairobi’s central business district. She was tall, beautiful. Muslim and Somali. Despite coming from different worlds, religiously, culturally socially and politically, our friendship grew. We created our own little universe where we could share our feelings, ideas, grief, hopes and dreams.
My mother was impressed when she met Leila. By her poise, respect for elders (important for my mother), her confidence and emotional intelligence. In spite of all these good attributes, my mother harboured some cultural prejudices towards Leila. A few days later, she sat me down and told me: “You are now in fourth year and about to finish university and start life. As your mother, I want you to get a good Christian wife and succeed in life.”
I didn’t have a response. It was one of those things that parents ostensibly say with love but cut you deeply. We never talked about the incident again but I was affected by her words even as I tried to understand my mother’s prejudice. I finished campus a few months later and my friendship with Leila drifted apart. We soon lost touch.
After the 1998 terror attack, the bombings in New York during 911 and the emergence of Al Shabaab, it seemed that my mother, like many, needed an image to embody the angst, fear and anger that “terror” had brought into her life. Perhaps the need to put a face to the enemy influenced her prejudice and denied Leila her individual autonomy and humanity.
I partly understood it. This was her way of defending herself, a coping mechanism. The “War on Terror” had erased her ability to recognise the humanity of Leila and her story. It simplified her view to labels: brown, Somali, Muslim and danger.
4:10 pm: #DusitAttack is trending on my Twitter feed.
4:12 pm: I check my Twitter news feed for a reliable source. I find one, Africa Uncensored’s Twitter handle: “Terrorist attack at DusitD2 hotel, 14 Riverside underway”
4:15 pm: I call my wife. “Babe, are you okay?” “Yes, I am” she responds. “Okay, I’m leaving the office now. Be safe.” I hung up.
4:20 pm: I send out a generic message, “I’m safe,” to my WhatsApp groups to calm my friends and family.
4:28 pm: I packed my bags and I leave the office.
On the afternoon of Tuesday, 15 January 2019, armed gunmen stormed into 14 Riverside, an office complex in Westlands, Nairobi that hosts offices of various organisations, a restaurant and a hotel, DusitD2. The attack began at 2:30pm and was concluded a few minutes before 10:00am the following day. Initial reports were of gunfire and two explosions at the hotel. The attackers, estimated to number between four and six arrived in two vehicles. One of the attackers went in discreetly and blew himself up next to the Secret Garden restaurant. After the blast, the remaining terrorists fired on the guards at the gates of 14 Riverside Drive and lobbed grenades setting some vehicles parked in the parking bay ablaze. The attack left more than 20 people dead.
On my way home, I scribble on my notebook the words. DUSIT ATTACK AND WHAT IT MEANS FOR THE WAR ON TERROR! This is an opening line to an editorial brief I think of writing so that I can commission a few think pieces to shed light on this issue. I would spend the next couple of days thinking about this, until it dawned on me that I had only viewed the Dusit attack as a function of my job: A story to be written, an analysis to be done and a conversation to be had. Not what it really was: pain, death, trauma and dysfunction.
As far as terror goes, I had been alienated from my humanity and myself.
Political vernaculars, writes Keguro Macharia, “are the words and phrases that assemble something experienced as the political and gather different groups around something marked as the political. They create attachments to the political, and they also distance us from something known as the political. They create possibilities for different ways of coming together—from short-lived experiments to long-term institution building—and they also impede how we form ourselves as we from formations, across the past, the present, the future, and all the in-between times marked by slow violence and prolonged dying. Vernaculars are ways of claiming and shaping space.”
Keguro goes on to say that vernaculars are a discipline producing habits, dispositions, behaviour, feeling and thinking. Most of Kenya’s official political vernaculars—corruption, impunity, national security, for instance—are disciplinary. They name real issues, but they also manage how those issues are handled. They shape the possibilities for what is thinkable. They flatten thinking into habits, repetitions, and negations…they create frames on how we see each other, the world and what possibilities we can conceive.
The “War on Terror” is one of Kenya’s political vernaculars. It is the go-to word to arouse fear, anger, racism and religious hatred; to justify bombing, invasion and illegal detentions; to call for major new investments in military capabilities; to justify dependency on the western nations and to muzzle and curtail freedoms.
The implications for African governments governed by despots, warlords or even democrats is an incentive for tyrannical rule. The War on Terror serves the interests of retaining political power and justifies terrorizing of disenfranchised citizens. To the citizens, the word represents disruption, a normalising of an absurd reality, a privation of humanity, a shape-shifting enemy that yearns for innocent lives and souls; the menacing colonial state with new fangs.
We are in need of another lexicon to explain us to ourselves, to frame our sensibilities, our histories and our humanity, in the mists of absurd political vernaculars. We need words that can help us imagine what kind of world we want to build together.
We need new words untethered to the state that can help us imagine how we want to live with each other. Now, more than ever we need the strength to love and dream.
Millennials II: Speaking up in the Silences
We are still trying to understand who we are and how our society got here, and in doing so we reject the mantra of ‘accept and move on’ or ‘don’t rock the boat’ like many of our parents embodied. There will be a culture clash, but maybe it is necessary, so we can redefine ourselves, redefine family, and redefine Kenya.
“Kenya’s official languages are English, Kiswahili, and Silence.” ~ Yvonne Owuor
It is always interesting to see the confusion in our parents and older generations with Millennials. It is a clash of cultural values. They may have raised us, but we occupy a place in a global and information culture that they never imagined possible. I see them struggling to understand.
I was born in the 1980s, when the attempted coup was still fresh in people’s minds, and the screws of repression were increasingly tightening. I was too young to know about the agitation for multi-party elections and only later read about it from my grandfather’s collection of The Weekly Review magazine, one of the few publications at the time that was consistently speaking truth to power.
In the 1990s came the liberalisation of the airwaves, and my generation was exposed to much more music, television programmes and movies than our parents were aware of. I remember for the longest time wanting an FM radio so I could listen to Capital FM and later Kiss FM. My evenings from school were often spent shifting between doing homework, and dancing to the music on Rastrut, Jam-a-delic and other weekly music shows. This was a time when African American culture had a kind of golden age on TV. The shows we watched were everything from Sesame Street to In Living Color, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters, Renegade, Sarafina, The Bold and Beautiful and so many more. Today, if someone my age who grew up in the urban spaces that I did starts a discussion on our childhood, we have many common memories and attachments through these experiences, even though we might have disparate upbringings in other ways. Even from many miles away, we were part of that collective cultural moment, and social media now unites us with our peers across the world, over both the mundane and serious. While we too have many points of differences there is a unique connection to each other from the global and local exposure we have.
It was a time when Kenyan art, and especially music, was starting to find its identity. Hip-hop, comedy and poetry were on the forefront of this shift. A strong emphasis of the art being created at the time was questioning of the status quo, extra judicial killings, and the dysfunction of the political state. It created a healthy skepticism in authority and authority figures. Some of my earliest ideas and understanding of another Kenyan narrative from the streets and the grassroots came from hip hop artists like Ukoo Flani, Kalamashaka, Mashifta and others. The comedy trio Reddykyulas was hugely influential too, allowing us to see ourselves, and critique who we had become as a people, without fear.
On the other hand, our parents grew up in a fractured culture straddling the traditional cultures and the colonial ethnocentrism that despised and looked down on traditional culture. Kenya is 55 years old and still grappling with what colonialists did to us, whether we realise it or not. The colonisers subscribed to notion of Social Darwinism that believed that the closer a culture was to European (and in our case British) culture, the more advanced it was. Given that African culture was completely different, we were seen as uncivilised, despite the fact that we had lived and thrived for centuries before.
Colonialism systematically destroyed our families and destabilised all aspects of society that had functioned until then. Colonial tax obligations pushed people into the cash economy, creating a migrant labour market, and thus separating families. They confiscated land, leading to a large, landless class of laborers who traveled from place to place in search of work. Breaking communities up like this was certainly an easier and more secure way of obtaining money for taxes and for selling goods to them. This economic subjugation still continues in various forms today, with insecure land tenure systems, and families still vulnerable to eviction, land grabbing, and cartels.
The colonisers employed violence against grown men and women if they were not only obedient but also sufficiently deferential. Alyse Simpson recalled whites in1920’s Kenya: “They boxed their own and their neighbours’ servants’ ears if they failed to be servile enough, which in their childlike simplicity they sometimes forgot to be.” That notion of Africans having ‘childlike simplicity’ was not a benign one. It means that we were assumed to be incompetent in our own governance. It upended the structure of society where adults were adults, and were worthy of making decisions. It is highly likely that the violence visited on them resulted in powerless frustration that was then transferred onto the next generation.
Despite being supposedly ‘independent’ since 1963, we never really sat to examine what had happened to our society and technically just exchanged one ruler for another. You see it in the way we casually infantilise grown men and women by assuming the state will make better decisions than they ever could for themselves. We do it too in our families to our poorer relatives or those who dare deviate from the norm.
I sense that our parents were brought up to obey unquestioningly, a result of the kind of violence and censure that defiance would bring upon them. My generation however learned to ask questions, perhaps as a result of the global culture we were exposed to, and so we do. Even though we may not have been as inquisitive in the open as we were in private – we are still our parents’ children, after all, and we were taught to behave in public – the Internet and social media have recreated a quasi-private space that allowed us to continue to question the status quo.
Traditionally Africans had structures for bringing up children and teaching them how to handle themselves as adults. We would learn to cook, herd animals, care for children, find herbs that could cure diseases, prepare for seasons, and so on. This all happened within a certain social context, where an older person would teach a younger one. With colonisation, and especially the disrupted social ties that urbanisation brought, these teaching moments fell away. Those lucky enough to live around aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents learned a lot from the community. Those who didn’t have these structures simply ended up learning from older siblings who may not have always had the right information. More than that we learned from each other, from our neighbours, our classmates and other peers around us.
Teaching requires a voice. But many of our parents had lost their voice and hope, perhaps without knowing. Maybe it was the difficult economic conditions, the secret police and the threat of torture chambers that hung ominously over their heads. Confronting their own situations and the loss of their dreams at the hands of a powerful and corrupt government that killed many who stood up to it must have been an impossible task then. With time I believe the silence grew to encompass even more of their lives and who they were. I wonder if we will ever truly understand what they went through. Facing up to this anguish and loss was avoided by just forging ahead in some ways and at other times acting out in the private family arenas. It has become the ‘norm’ of Kenyan social conditioning for people to turn social media as a space for confessions and on FM station talk shows. Those who could leave Kenya emigrated to Western capitals, those who chose to stay and fight became pariahs, and the rest kept their head down to avoid trouble in a sense of learned helplessness. For those who accepted the status quo it meant a constant adjusting to the changes, a constant policing of their own behaviour and of those they loved to save them from the state sanctions of the day.
Many of our Kenyan notions of respectability can be traced to British colonialism. As long as the orange is waxed, shiny and orange on the outside it does not matter if the inside is rotten and full of worms. In Kenya a person’s importance is often based on what they do, which family they come from or which influential person they are close to, who their spouse is and finally how wealthy or famous they are. It often does not matter what vileness they have been part of, the wealth and fame become like a sanctifying agent. No wonder folks say pesa ni sabuni (Money is like soap).
The breakdown of traditional African society and the public accountability that came with it was replaced with a desire to be respected according to colonial values. For many of our parents a sense of worth was built on how others saw them and spoke of them. Their children were often extensions of this. Many times our own personal choices, even as adults, were not seen in the light of the people we are but as active antagonistic choices against them and the reputations they hold so dearly. Our personhood is not known to them no matter how hard we try to show them.
This is a journey I see many of my peers going through. We are still trying to understand who we are and how our society got here, and in doing so we reject the mantra of ‘accept and move on’ or ‘don’t rock the boat’ like many of our parents embodied. There will be a generational clash, but maybe it is necessary, so we can redefine ourselves, redefine family, and redefine Kenya.
When many of my peers sit and talk to recall our childhood very few of us had good childhoods or teenage years. The truth that our parents did not want to face was that one can only keep up appearances for so long – it always happened that glass of respectability shattered at one point, destroying everything in its vicinity. It would be in the discovery of infidelity in one or both parents, or that there were other entire families who called your father dad. It was in finding out about a secret child your mother had before but kept hidden. It was financial ruin, domestic abuse, rumours of witchcraft in families, evil in-laws, or unexplained absences of parents for years, all hidden under a veneer of respectability.
Discovering any of these for a child or a teenager is traumatic; it’s even worse so if there is no reliable adult to help them talk through these things and make sense of them. But it’s impossible to talk about anything when respectability is the constant demand. What will people think is the first, and the most powerful reprimand. Many times we were told that voicing these concerns is tantamount to publicly humiliating your family. Very often the child/teenager/young adult attempting to talk will be castigated even more than the adult who caused the incident or trauma. Instead of protecting our children from the trauma of past actions, we force them to pretend all is well, never bothering about their emotional and psychological state. All these affect the adult this child grows up to become. Many times the alcoholism, drug and sex addictions are ways of dealing with internal pain, not to mention depression, anxiety and panic attacks and other mental health illnesses.
Growing up without my primary parent for 20 years nearly destroyed me. I went through depression, abandonment, homelessness and a myriad of other situations before I finally was able to find my way out. My larger extended family still does not understand why I am this way because I went to “good schools”. But a boarding school does not make child or create a home for them. Neither is it a place to show you that you are loved and worthy, that’s what a family is for. There are those who definitely did try, but the truth is, parenting is a constant effort and not a peek-a-boo performance where one appears and disappears at will. The unfortunate bit is as a society we have been unable to diagnose, discuss and fix the political and economic issues that create these conditionings. We often don’t see the larger governance issues causing them. Why did so many of our fathers have secret families? Why were we constantly battling financial ruin? Why the silence, why the abuse, why the trauma? What was going on in Kenya to make our lives so painful?
The person I credit most for helping me find my way out and holding my hand and parenting is an aunt who I only got to know well after high school. She truly listened to me and asked me questions, offered advice and even when I didn’t heed it she would still be there for me. Her acceptance was total. That was what made the difference and helped set me off on a long journey of self-searching, healing and forging a new path for myself. It has not been easy but it has led me to a path of peace and a better life than I could have imagined for myself.
I see my peers talking about their trauma, depression and discontent both anonymously and publicly, on Facebook groups and Twitter, finding in each other kindred souls to encourage and advice. I see an increased acceptance of therapy and pychological counseling. The ability to be vulnerable or see someone you admire be vulnerable is what gives us the courage to keep going. The culture of silence is slowly being dealt with in many spaces. Still, there are many who are unable to process things, and drown in various addictions like alcoholism and drugs. They need to understand that what we are facing is not a result of individual failure but as a result of a collective failing to deal with our problems in a holistic way, which will continue to claim our people in different ways. Others who haven’t faced the same trauma and pressure do not easily understand the weight of the burden Millennials carry. The only way we move forward is if we start being honest about what is going on with us.
My peers are incredibly resilient in difficult situations. They are also incredibly creative, hardworking and daring. Not a week goes by when I don’t see someone trying to do something amazing. We are our own people. We dare to dream and we dare to live our dreams and over ‘respectable’ professions such as law, engineering and others. We forge ahead, fuelled by a heady mix of invincibility, fear, daring, anxiety and hope. We own our decisions the good, the bad and the sometimes stupid. We realise you can live an entire life trying to please people and still fail spectacularly.
What has failed us are the systems, society, and the continual bashing because we refuse to fall in line. Our parents’ formula of silence and moving on doesn’t work in our world at all. Just being educated doesn’t guarantee you a job. Having a job doesn’t mean you can afford to be sick. Being an entrepreneur isn’t always the path to a comfortable life. Being on a salary doesn’t always mean you can afford a mortgage. Being wealthy doesn’t mean you are protected.
We will continue asking questions, we will continue pushing the dial, we will continue creating, we will continue until we find our personal and collective freedom.
Unseen and Unremarkable: The Invisibility of Women’s Labour
Erasure confines the work women do into a box which has nothing more than ‘women’s work’. Erasure makes us forget women who explicitly used their nakedness to shame the government into releasing their sons held as political prisoners in 1992. It makes us oblivious of Field Marshall Muthoni, a woman ranking equal to our most famous freedom fighter, Dedan Kimathi.
Lwanda Magere is a famed folk tale that many Kenyan children know. He was the man of stone, a great warrior of the Luo, whose skin could not be pierced, and who could not be defeated even by the fiercest enemy. The Nandi people, who neighboured the Luo and fought with them over territory, pasture, livestock and water, were tired of being defeated by the Luo. So they sent the most beautiful girl in their village over to the Luo to extract information. Her only task was to find out how to pierce the skin of the man of stone. Against the advice of his first wife and the community elders, Lwanda married this beautiful Nandi girl as a second wife. One day, when his first wife was away, he fell ill and the Nandi girl had to take care of him. After much soothing and coaxing, she found out that his shadow was the vulnerable spot, and sent word back to her people. In the next great battle between the Nandi and the Luo, Lwanda was sure to win the battle for his people, but one man remembered the story of the shadow. He threw a spear into the shadow and blood started to spurt out of the ground. Lwanda was killed, and the Luo were overcome.
In Lwanda Magere’s story, we don’t know the name of the Nandi girl.
Women are erased. Constantly.
It doesn’t matter how great you are.
You could be Fatima al-Fihri, an Arab Muslim woman, founder of the oldest existing university in the world. Or Emmy Noether (officially Amalie Emmy), the mathematician behind Noether’s Theorem, and whose work was so consequential that Einstein himself wrote an obituary for her. You could be a distinguished scientist or a renowned artist, you can map the ocean, uncover the secrets of the stars or the secret behind life itself, but, if you are a woman, you have to fight to be remembered.
It happens even in daily interactions. It happens every time a man repeats exactly what a woman said in a meeting, to great applause. Every time a man echoes sentiments and language women have been articulating for years, he is celebrated for being “so progressive”, “so woke”.
When we – my fellow writers Laura Ekumbo and Aleya Kassam and I – wrote our theatrical production ‘Too Early For Birds – The Brazen Edition’, we wanted to name the women. Our task from the beginning of the writing processes was to ‘uninvisible invisible women’. Kenyan playwright and author Micere Mugo once asked, ‘Where are those songs/ my mother and yours / always sang / fitting rhythms to the whole vast span of life?’ Virginia Woolf said, “Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” The anonymous is often a woman and, now, we refuse to be anonymised. Women have been calling out to each other, remembering that in the silence there is a forgotten woman’s song, that in ‘Anon’ there is a forgotten woman’s name, that in the invisible there is a woman made invisible. Remembering women, is in many ways remembering yourself.
In the famed fable of Lwanda Magere, what struck us was the existence of a girl, in one of our country’s most famous folktales, who was reduced to nothing but a plot point. This girl went into enemy territory as a spy, leaving her life and home behind. This girl won the war for the Nandi. This girl betrayed the Luo. This girl was as dangerous and powerful as Delilah. This girl was a badass.
No one knows her name. In our research, we did not find her name recorded by either community. At least we could not find any proof of her name, not in the way Lwanda is Lwanda, or Mumbi is Mumbi. The name we could find, “Nyalang’o” literally means ‘Nandi girl’ in Dholuo. As far as we could tell, she was just the most beautiful girl in the village.
This girl remains unnamed.
The truth of a story is always determined by the teller. We knew we wanted to speak to her, with her, bring her perspective to light. Of course, you can tell the story from the perspective of the men (Lwanda, the elders from both communities, the warrior who threw the spear) but we were writing about women.
We could have told the story of his first wife. In her, we saw an intelligent, loyal woman who saw a spy come into her home, and did everything she could to protect not just her husband, but her community. She made sure that this strange woman was never alone with her husband, especially when he was ill. By some twist of fate, she had to travel and while she was away, her husband fell sick and let his secret out. The first wife returns home to find the truth is out and dreads someone would destroy him one day.
So why Nandi?
The truth and fact is I didn’t know much about the women we wrote about before we did. Yes I had heard of a few – Chelagat Mutai, Mekatilili wa Menza, Wangu wa Makeri – but vaguely, imprecisely. I didn’t know about Field Marshall Muthoni wa Kirima or Zarina Patel at all, and they are both alive and well. The latter two are not just in the annals of history: they are here, and I didn’t know about them.
The Nandi Girl captured exactly why we didn’t know about them. It doesn’t matter how pivotal you are, if the stories are about men and their battles, as a woman, you will be relegated to a footnote. Her name was lost and instead she became an archetype: A Delilah figure. A seductive woman who takes down a man using her feminine wiles. And not even that, she just got the information and disappeared, seemingly never to be heard from again.
But make no mistake: this erasure is deliberate.
Erasure confines the work women do into a box which has nothing more than ‘women’s work’. Women freedom fighters become unthinkable in a country where parliamentary debates to meet the constitutionally required two-thirds gender rule are presented as a periodic annoyance, rather than a necessity.
Erasure makes us forget the Kenyan women who explicitly used their nakedness to shame the government into releasing their sons held as political prisoners in 1992. It makes us oblivious of Field Marshall Muthoni, a woman ranking equal to our most famous freedom fighter, Dedan Kimathi, a woman revered by him not just as a fighter but as a strategist and thinker. It erases that Field Marshall Muthoni fought her whole life, starting by supplying food and information to fighters in the forest as a young girl, and when she went to the forest herself, she rose up the ranks and was known as “The Weaver Bird” for her ability to navigate the forest. It erases that she continues to be in resistance, refusing to cut her hair until we find true freedom as a nation. It erases the fact that we have not found true freedom.
Erasure reduces women to ‘political flower girls’ – the media actually uses this phrase – and we cannot fathom women as a fundamental part of revolutions. Mekatilili wa Menza is often depicted as young girl because we erase the fact that she was in her 70’s when she led the Giriama uprising. Erasure knows that a feisty young girl fighting a common enemy is tolerable – one can always blame the folly of youth – an enraged, mature woman pushing back against an unjust system is not.
We forget Chelagat Mutai was part of a core group of parliamentarians that stood up to the government during one-party rule, when most of the other men in the House were very silent. We forget that Zarina Patel continues to fight for our freedoms, our right to public spaces and did so against not just the government, but her own family. We don’t even know, or want to know, that sex workers were among the first African property owners in colonial Nairobi. We erase how women, these women, were revolutionary in spirit because they stepped outside of the bounds restraining them. It does not do to have women who use their rage, name their abusers, name the problem, name themselves.
It does not do to have examples of women of power, because then maybe every woman will feel like she has power too.
If they must be named, if there is no way to erase them entirely, Erasure sanitises them. It makes them fit the mould of the patriarchy, and reconfigures them into a good and comfortable woman who fought just hard enough, but not too hard. Wangari Mathaai is today remembered as the woman of peace and trees, not the divorcee who was described as a ‘mad woman’ with ‘insects in her head’; who was under constant threat, whose kindness was iron-hearted. From Winnie Madikizela-Mandela to Rosa Parks, women’s work is reduced to a form that can be footnoted in men’s; the great man’s wife, the woman who just sat down.
This, by the way, only happens if you are ‘important’ enough to be reduced. Erasure is built into our every day reality.
One of the most insidious ways women are kept out of the history books is because so much of the work women do, or relegated to do, is considered ‘insignificant’ or ‘inevitable’. Of course the most beautiful girl in the village became the seductress. What’s special about that?
This bracketing of ‘women’s’ roles minimises the labour women do. The labour you do turns out to be your responsibility as a mother, sister, wife. Women’s labour does not make it into the record. The emotional labour you put in caring for others, the domestic labour that keeps men running the world, the innovations of womanhood like weaving, cooking, sewing, are all unremarkable because they were supposed to happen.
In 2013, during the terror attack on Westgate mall, I remember the then-unnamed woman who made tea, and served the police, soldiers and volunteers who were working to end the siege. I saw her do what every Kenyan mother is expected to do as if born doing it; make pots of tea. She was praised, rightfully, for going out of her way to support the men and women working to end the terrorist attack.
Yet, when I saw that image in the newspapers and on television I was filled with rage and sadness. I couldn’t stop seeing how early she must have gotten up in the morning, how long it had taken to brew that much tea, how much money it had cost, how much help she would need. I was filled with rage at a country where we know that tea, sustenance for people fighting in that situation, wasn’t guaranteed. I was angry that in such a moment, we couldn’t be sure that everyone was being well fed and taken care of. I was sad that only a woman, Grace Wambui Odongo, who must do such labour everyday, would even think to do this basic act of care. I was sad at how many women labour, make lots and lots of tea, because they do not have time for mourning.
Women need to be remembered, not just for big, but for the small. For the cups of tea.
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