Won’t You Help To Sing?
The young man grabbed the microphone with relish and held onto it so hard, I thought he would break it. Then he said,
“Ukikatia dem na umefanya every effort ka gentleman, alafu akatae, and you are in a senior position let’s say at work or even you are stronger than her, lazima ujue vile utafungua iyo server.”
His friends cheered, some of the women in the room laughed. Other young men looked down as though in shame but said nothing. I saw the tears well up in one woman’s eyes, before she quickly threw her head back and blinked rapidly, violently trying to push them back.
I was moderating a Gender Forum at the University of Nairobi, Lower Kabete campus. The year was 2018. This year. The month. May. We had just celebrated Mother’s Day – a day that brings so much pain to so many women in a country where rapists can walk away from their children, but women must pay for life, with life, the physical evidence of their violation. The young man who was speaking comes from a long line of rape apologists. But he is not even aware of this. His history class did not teach him that rape has been a form of subjugation used to break nations, men and horses since colonization, slavery and before. He is only following his master’s footsteps blindly, playing a record that has been played repeatedly in time and space and that was used against his own people. The young man punched the air triumphantly as he sat down. “Comrades, TIBIM!” “Boychild POWER!!”
Old Pirate Ship They Rob I…
This is the country I live in. A country where might is right and if you are the victim, it is because you did not “jipanga, mtu wangu.” I am a child of conflicting definitions. My mother spent three harrowing years in British concentration camps and gulags in Kenya between the ages of 10-13. She does not talk about that time but whenever we put on a movie about the Second World War, she tenses and her body becomes rigid. She was a victim of colonial crimes because she came from the Rift Valley and her parents were registered as Kikuyu.
My father was raised in the Central Kenyan county of Nyeri. His father was a teacher. A harsh cold forbidding man by every description that I have ever heard. His food was never cooked in the same pot or served with that of his wife and children.
My father died when I was too young to know him, a light skinned silhouette of a shadow, never quite there, never quite not. Those who knew him or his family of origin would often comment on how I took his shade, in the right light and with the right make up, I could pass for mixed race. That, apparently makes me beautiful. As a child, I always worried. My mother had often told me how, when she was growing up, if you were a clever, studious or beautiful girl, you were in constant danger of being raped. She and her sisters never walked alone. Until I met my paternal grandmother, I always wondered if my father was the offspring of “British style civilization”.
My mother is the beautiful one. Even in her seventies, you can see why she and her sisters received a special pass from the colonial District Commissioner exempting them from cutting their hair like other natives. The District Commissioner, no less! They also got a pass to allow them to wear shoes on Sundays! Somehow, this was a privilege only given to natives on merit. I love shoes and I long to own many many shoes. I grow then cut my hair every 8 years, shaving locks that usually grow down to my waist. Perhaps, it is my residual, subconscious defiance, to a long gone violation that we believe ceased to exist. But has it?
From The Bottomless Pit…
I was born after Flower Power and Love had given way to bell bottoms and brief skirts. When I showed up, Black Panther was a movement, not a movie and the country I was born to was so powerful, so endowed, so focused that countries such as Singapore and Malaysia benchmarked themselves against mine. Their presidents and politicians took long trips to come find out how they could trade with us and how we could assist them to develop. What they, and we, had not contemplated was that what we had on paper, we did not believe in our hearts. That we are worthy of our own resources.
The crisis in our country is not a crisis of action, it is a crisis of the mind. Having been born to colonized minds that never quite undid their own colonization, it was inevitable that the values of the colonizer would become the values of the colonized in a twisted form of generational Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. After all, their most dominant reference of power and leadership is looting, stealing, extrajudicial killings, and amassing by whatever means necessary as witnessed in the killings, displacements, lootings and rape in 1993, 1997, 2008, 2017. Atrocities are followed each time by an apology and a handshake. As though a hug can resurrect the dead, or heal the wounded, or restore the property and dignity of once self-reliant IDPs told to lie low like an envelope.
The bizarre thing is that we seem to make the same mistake over and over, not understanding what Carter G. Woodson unwittingly wrote of the mindset that operates as the Kenyan voter’s does, when he penned, in the Miseducation of the Negro,
“When you control a man’s thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his ‘proper place’ and will stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.”
― Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro
Maybe that book should be on the compulsory reading list for primary schools.
Have No Fear Of Atomic Energy…
My mother was Christian by choice, her parents’ “choice”. The choice had been very simple. The Bible or the Bullet. One of her aunts, my great aunt Wanjiru, had chosen the bullet version. Everyone knew the consequences of the wrong choice.
My mother grew up in Kijabe, a little mission town nestled in the folds of the East African Rift Valley escarpment. Until the 1990s, the sale or consumption of cigarettes and alcohol were strictly prohibited and you could be expelled from your home in the village if you beat your wife. Mum worked for a series of church organizations. I saw her bum pinched by men in collars, I heard her prepositioned for sexual favors and casually informed that her “thing” would rot if she did not give it up. To this day, I have a healthy distrust of any man of the cloth. Mum is a constant seeker. She introduced my brother and I to the Qu’ran when I was 12. We read all the books by Eric von Daniken we could get our hands on and we regularly discussed the color of God’s skin. In all the bible story books, Sunday school sketches and bible study books, he was always white. Jesus was always blond or a light brunette even though he came from the Middle East, and the holy spirit was a white dove. Suspiciously, the devil was black and red.
I constantly questioned the Bible. Why would God discriminate against some of the people when he created all of them? Why would the apostle Paul tell Timothy never to take care of young widows as they would soon get married. Obviously I had both a vested interest in the treatment of widows by the church. Why would God allow one people to enslave another on the basis of colour? Mum, having grown in the Bible Belt, warned me not to ask these questions outside of our home.
“People will judge you and they can be vicious if you question the Bible. They will say you are questioning God.”
In my naïve youth, I would retort, “Mum, how can questioning the Bible question God?” But I was obedient in this one way. One day though, in frustration, my 13 year old self turned to my grandfather, my hero and an evangelist during the colonial times. I said,”Guka, why did you agree to sell out when you knew their god was meaner and crueler than your god?” He looked at me with those big black soft pools of sadness that looked out to the world from behind curtain length lashes and said softly, “Because, Mami, there is a level of beating you can be beaten and it will break you like a horse. And you will do your master’s bidding.”
Years later I read Frederick Douglas and a discourse dubbed the 1712 Willie Lynch letter to the Virginia slave owner. I cried like a baby. My grandfather had been strung up and whipped in front of my grandmother and my mother, aunties and uncles. As the story goes, the young white soldier ordered the black “gatti” home guards, who were beating him to get a bigger bullwhip. My grandmother in distress, broke free of the gatti who was holding her, ran up to the white soldier and grabbed him by the throat and screamed in her broken English,
“Beat him!! I kill you!! They kill me!! We die!!”
Startled by the wild look in her eye and the clearly suicidal act by this diminutive woman who dared to touch him, he choked and spluttered an order to cut my grandfather down from the tree he was strung up.
While We Stand Aside And Look…
I must have been in my early teens when I had the very first experience of celebrating thieves in the church. We were at our local church in the village where we had gone for a special service in celebration of the Passover. In the middle of the service, a well-known public figure walked in, loudly, noisily, with a small entourage of young men in sunglasses. The congregants murmured, “Thief”, “Grabber”, “Overlord of thieves”, as our local “Master Thief” walked into church. The main pastor, not to be confused with the more lower ranked preacher, hastened to the lectern at the front of the church, grabbed the microphone from the preacher and announced,
“Could all our regular attendees who are seated in the front of the church please move to the back of the church to allow for our important guest to sit at the front.”
There was a little shuffling but no one moved. The pastor repeated, “Could all those seated at the front of the church, move towards the back of the church now, so our honorable guest can sit at the front.” The congregants began to arise and move.
One old lady obstinately refusing to move, said loudly, “I am not moving for a thief. Tell him to go to the altar and confess where my cow went.” The congregants burst into laughter. The pastor hastily whispered to the preacher who was standing next to him. The preacher and one of the altar boys walked quickly towards the old woman, our newly discovered Rosa Parks and stood over her, one holding each of her forearms, ostensibly to assist her to stand up. She acquiesced and raised herself, grumbling. As she walked past him on the aisle, she said loudly, “Bring back my cow.” He smiled condescendingly and wafted past her, his arrogance apparent in his gait.
When the “guest” sat down, the preacher announced that we would not be reading the passage from the Gospel of John 2:13-17 as earlier planned. Instead, we would be reading from John 3:16. Jesus whipping merchants at the temple did not please the “guest”. God’s redemptive Son was safer. I was not sure for whom it was safer – the pastor or the thief. After the sermon, the “guest” was asked to address the congregation. He immediately launched into a monologue on his greatness, followed by the removal of a large wad of money which he handed to the pastor – towards a project of the pastor’s choice. Pre-Lutheran indulgences for sin at work in post-colonial Kenya. Praise god!
None But Ourselves Can Free Our Mind…
In the late 1980s, the government of Kenya announced that it was moving from the 7-4-2 system of education, to the 8-4-4 system of education. I was in that pioneering class. One day we were studying Kenya’s colonial history, as interpreted by Malkiat Singh, a prolific writer and publisher of school books. The next day, the books were replaced by the study of early man. While the earliest human remains were found in Africa, all indications of early man in Europe included fire, wheels, hunting tools, fur coats, things their African contemporaries did not seem to have mastered. Even amongst our monkey-like ancestors, there was a marked difference in development and “civilization” levels.
The history lessons continued in that vein into high school. Cromwell was examinable. Kismayo was not. Auschwitz was an exact figure. Hola was an “indeterminable number of rebellious natives”. I knew more about World War II coming out of high school than I knew about the war for independence [I call it a war, but you will note that even that is downgraded to an “uprising” or a “rebellion” as though a people fighting for over 10 years for their country’s liberation at the official cost to the colonial government, of a whopping UK Pounds 55 million in 1950s money, can be equated to a school riot].
Is it a wonder then, that I would empathize with the Jews held in Sobibór and not with the Kenyans massacred in Manyani, whipped and beaten for hours and hours until, screaming and cowering, with flesh torn open by bullwhips and hanging off their bones, they died for a country that does not remember their names?
I saw the pictures of the Jews, read their stories, crammed dates and numbers and figures. I know more about Hitler and Goebbels than of Tom Askwith and the euphemistically named Swynnerton Plan, or how many Kenyan lives the Embakasi airport cost. I can speak with greater authority of the experiences of Ann Frank, a little Jewish girl who died in a German concentration camp, than of Wanjiku Mirye, a little Kikuyu girl who survived Molo and Gilgil concentration camps – and who is my own mother. Is it a wonder that I and millions of post-independence children including the millennials we birth, identify with a people other than our own or those like us? We don’t know ourselves. We are not the authors of our own stories. Yet.
We’ve Got To Fulfill The Book…
It matters that we know our history. It is important to know that Kenyans lived in close proximity and intermingled villages, tribe being of no consequence. It is important to know that colonial administration used sequestration and segregation as a form of subjugation. It is vital to know that rape and tribalism and segregation were part of a Final Plan To Quell The Mau Mau and people were rewarded to turn in on their fellow Kenyans. It is important because that knowledge informs the pernicious aftermath of the vexatious tribal narrative perpetrated by politicians, the press and the pulpit in an unholy triumvirate.
Maybe, if that young man at the University of Nairobi had read this history, had met my mother, had heard of the concentration camps and the enforced villages and the gatti…maybe if he had met my grandfather and listened to him tell his story of the day my grandmother choked a white man, maybe he would not be so hasty to advocate for the “justifiable” rape he so gleefully spoke of. Maybe he could be part of the writing of a new book. Our book. The Book Of Us By Us To Us.
Maybe we could change our destiny as Kenyans and not just play to a narrative that is not ours by right. Maybe Redemption would cease to be a disjointed broken song that begins with “mkoloni” and “tulipigania uhuru” as a refrain to drown cries of “Thief”, when we discover Goldenberg and Chickengate and NYS scandals.
Maybe Redemption would not only be a red covered hymnbook of English 1950s hymns.
Redemption would be our song. In our words. Lugha yetu. Sauti yetu. Rangi yetu. Sisi wote.
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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