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ME AGAINST THE SYSTEM: The frustration of Wasted Potential

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ME AGAINST THE SYSTEM: The frustration of Wasted Potential

At almost 35, I’m yet to find balance in life. I was born into a family of five, two parents, two boys and a girl. I am the first born. My two siblings are doing just fine. Set in the family way, raising children, pursuing and living life by their own personal terms, happily, no less. Given all the trouble they put me through growing up, I can honestly say their success is my success, and wouldn’t have it any other way.

My personal life however, is a conundrum of sorts. No family. No (real) job, No prospects! Growing up in Kayole, Eastlands in ‘94, life was harmonious and easy for a child who saw the world through innocent eyes. Kayole estate was a World Bank housing project designated for the middle class. In the original plan, facilities such as schools, dispensaries and markets were strategically placed to serve the residents with paved roads and functioning streetlights. The houses came with large parking lots and a fully functional drainage system that stands to date. Crime was rare. In early 90s, there were a few white folks living in Kayole before they all moved out and relocated as the neighbourhood lost its gentrified status.

Apart from the few model houses that were built to World Bank standards, the rest of the dwellings were squatting houses that mushroomed into a hostile takeover after residents began flaunting the building regulations with no consequences. Those who were connected, began constructing 8 to 12 rooms on 50×100 plots and the Eastlands suburban vision that was part of the original plan fell apart. Toilets, bathrooms and cloth lines were communal in these new dwellings and with it came congestion tension between tenants.

In the early 90s, Kayole was characterised by wide open spaces everywhere, a gigantic play ground. Our days were marked by childish pursuits that included, football matches played using improvised polythene plastic paper bags rolled into a tight ball then fastened with sisal strands to give it a firm texture. My love for the sport was, as my mother put it, more than that of life itself. She had a point. I had a dream of becoming a professional footballer and joining the ranks of Roberto Baggio, the Italian midfielder, Luis Figo, the Portuguese Forward, and the Brazilian striker sensation, Romario, my football godfathers of the 90s. All of whom I followed on KBC, thanks to a portable radio that my dad had bought to keep himself updated on the politics of the day.

I must have been 12 years old when I first started noticing the three white men visiting our neighborhood and spending a lot of time watching us play. Two tall men, both lean in frame and the third, a bald man with the beginnings of a paunch. They drove an old Nissan Sunny. After the matches they would sit us down and offer us soft drinks and cookies engaging us in polite conversations about our families, our education, dreams for the future and whether we wanted to play footie in Britain! I particularly intrigued them a great deal.

Their talk of playing in Britain, cast a spell on me and I became obsessed with the idea. They kept on showing up every few months each time bearing gifts of new balls and sport shoes. Eventually, they insisted on meeting my parents to “introduce” themselves. My mother was super elated and quickly gave in to the request after I broke the news at home. My father however, a hardware store employee off River Road, downtown, warned me about fraternizing with strangers. His authoritarian style of parenting stifled any designs I had about my own life choices. So when he said no, it was final. Attempts by mother to bring him on board bore no fruit. His refusal adversely affecting me and I was diagnosed with clinical depression that required psychiatric evaluation.

The final blow came in 1997 when the indiscriminate land grabbing linked to David Mwenje, then Member of Parliament for Embakasi and other politicians in the Moi era arrived in my neighbourhood. The political class and their cohorts embarked on a privatisation spree, leaving no open public space untouched including our playground. Marooned and helpless, the sport died a natural death and the football scouts stopped coming. Consequently, my hopes died shortly thereafter, my dreams, valid as they were, with me as well. It would only come to emerge later that they were UK agents scouting for new talent in Africa and I was on their watch list. Twenty two years down the line, I wonder how my life would have turned out had I gotten my professional football break!

To stave off the pain of loss, I began drawing and sketching and my scribbling morphed into a budding career in calligraphy and poetry. My passion for creative writing was inspired and fueled by Tupac Shakur’s 1996 Album, Me against the World. I felt like a social pariah and Tupac’s music and US hip hop on inner city experiences became relatable. In the mid 90s, the transport sector experienced the emergence of a new breed of vehicle in Nairobi as the privatisation and free market bug hit with the collapse of the two major state funded public transport bus services, the Nyayo and Kenya Bus. The privately owned matatus ushered in a new-fangled culture that revolutionized the whole matatu industry and gave it its present day mojo. This was the age of the Manyanga, a name drawn from the original street Sheng term used to depict a young voluptuous woman. The pimped matatu was a far cry from its weathered predecessors, with graffiti cutting across its body, both inside and out. They spotted large sport tyres with flashy rims and loud music systems that played a lot of hip-hop and reggae music to lure customers. Influenced by both American hip-hop and Jamaican ragga cultures, both weed smoking and baggy jeans hip-hop fashion became vogue as the flashy touts paraded their brand of swag that quickly caught on as a trend that started in Eastlands and spread on to all parts of the city.

My two skill sets found a place in the industry where I spent my days in garages designing creative works and getting paid for it. I became a matatu graffiti artist and settled in my new ‘career’ until a directive from the Ministry of Transport under the famous “Michuki Rules” instituted by John Michuki in the Kibaki era banned matatu art. Flashy matatu art was term as a conduit for “hooliganism” and undesirable social elements and in an effort to streamline the industry, monochromes and yellow strip became the new civilised matatu look. Most garages closed shop ostensibly forcing many youths to look for alternative means to survive. All I was left with was my poetry and prose.

While moonlighting as a matatu art creative, I completed a certificate course at Utalii College specialized in food and beverage and joined the multitudes in the job market hunting for opportunities. My first stop was at The Norfolk, Nairobi, where a college buddy worked courtesy of his father, an industrial kahuna. He tried pushing my case with the head chef who agreed to an internship but personnel blocked my entry sighting my “nobodiness!” Undeterred, I kept pushing my luck for about a year until the management had enough of my persistence and finally physically threw me out of the premises.

Disillusioned, I decided to send over a hundred applications all over the country hoping for the best only to receive one reply, a regret letter, no less. In my desperation, I stormed through hotel doors demanding to see human resource managers to explain the problem! Was it me or them! Most would ask in surprise rather than shock at my audacity, “Who sent you?”

“Myself,” I would reply, “I sent myself” but that was not the response, they wanted to hear! I had no godfather in this skewed system, essentially, a nobody. As the post election conflict of 2007-2008 and the ensuing unrest blew over the country, I despaired, weeping and wiping my tears silently as my country burned with my hopes and dreams.

After a year of listlessness, a job vacancy landed on my lap in March of 2009, when I received a message stating, “a tour company is looking to hire new drivers, for more details, call the number below,” The number and company was unfamiliar but I went ahead and called the number immediately. A lady shared directions to their offices, in industrial area where I reported for an interview and despite my absolute lack knowledge of the tour operator space, I got hired on the spot and training started promptly. I began travelling to the country’s game parks, Nairobi, Nakuru, Meru, Mara, Tsavo guiding visitors and learning about wildlife. I experienced the novelty of museums, hotels and resorts as a tour driver, met new people and got wide exposure to Kenya’s rich natural and cultural heritage. There was one challenge though, the company was not paying us salaries even after seven months of hard labor. Frustrated and fed up, the bunch of disgruntled workers decided to exercise to two options left at hand, paralyze the operations and sink the ship or jump overboard and swim to shore. We settled for the former then bailed. Needless to say, I was once again on the streets scratching my chin, staring into space, my college certificates in hand. There were no breaks for another year and a half. Thankfully, the seven month stint had equipped me with enough skills and contacts to maneuver.

Shelving my academic credentials, I began hustling every top dog I had come to know in the industry, head-on. Luckily, my number came up and I got absorbed by one of the many I reached out to. Wilfred was a good man who wanted good for everyone. The management sadly misconstrued his kindness for nepotism and fired him. Without a safety net, my godfather dispatched, I knew it was only a matter of time before things went south which happened a week later. From then on, the job tap ran dry. At my wits end, living an insipid existence, I started entertaining suicidal thoughts.

My turning point was triggered by an old, torn bible handed down by my mother which sat gathering dust on my table. I was never a religious person and my church attendance was incidental but something caught my eye between the pages. I opened the book and stumbled on Acts 17:26-27

“And He has made from one origin and blood all nations of men to settle on the face of the earth, having determined their periods and boundaries. So that they should seek God in the hope that they might feel after him and find him, although he is not far from each of us.”

This verse provoked my contemplation on my spiritual purpose and the place of God in my life.

About to close the book, I happened upon this,

Romans 10:13 “Whosoever calls on the name of Jesus shall be saved.”

I stared at the verse, blankly, then vividly remembered a quote someone had once shared of a drowning man clutching on to a serpent. I closed my eyes and uttered a very simple prayer, crying, then shut the book and put it aside. Nothing happened and life went on as usual. Three months later when I started having psychic revelations, that correlated with live situations during the day. I started noticing very “mundane” things like a person’s energy, when one is in distress. I could discern impending illnesses, investment outcomes, accidents, robberies, even death, surprisingly. I attributed all this to a divine revelation and embarked on a new spiritual journey in the Christian faith my mind renewed. Jesus saved me!

Meanwhile, old buddies I had met along the dusty streets of struggle kept enquiring about my welfare. Some had joined the taxi business to earn a living. With nothing to lose, I found myself reunited with them chatting the days away, occasionally covering for any absentee drivers and developed an interest in the taxi business as a new career path. My first car was a Nissan B14, silver in colour that belonged to a senior police officer in Nairobi who always threated to shoot me if I ever played him. He had a serious demeanor. The threat was not taken lightly.

I entered in the taxi world feeling like a fish out of water. By day, Nairobi is the city in the sun. At night it is a hell hole that requires intelligence and a thick skin to get by. A puzzle to be solved before one can advance to the next level. By any measure, a pain in the butt. Police want a piece of you. City Council use any opportunity to shake you down. Thugs lurk at every bend and fellow operators want you dead.

The experiences I have faced are surreal. I remember my first case, her name was Dorothy. Heavy with child, we had just left Uchumi supermarket, at Adams Arcade and were discussing baby names headed to Nairobi hospital where she was to be admitted waiting to deliver. The two way Ngong Road was legendary with traffic jams that turned full blown chaotic during the rainy season. Everything was fine until she started feeling some kind of “wetness” and sharp pains from her lower abdomen that saw a previously calm woman turn breathless and scream in agony. I was clueless in matters of childbirth. The screaming sent me into a panic seizure and my thinking brain was suspended. It would take the intervention of two good Samaritans to deliver a newborn baby in my backseat. Between them sat Dorothy, looking half dead with blood all over. A few meters stood a cop directing traffic away from us, shooing curious onlookers that had gathered. It would take me months to recover from the ordeal.

Another bizarre episode happened at The Junction months later when a thug put a gun on my skull intending to steal my car as I walked towards it. His mission however, proved impossible when two police officers arrived and stood by obliviously waiting for a matatu. I took off singing Amazing Grace. I have ferried a corpse, had distressed a woman ditch her 2 year old daughter in my cab, had to deal with horny couples copulating in the back seats and met a long list of unsavoury characters in line of duty. The taxi business is Nairobi peppered with drama but the best was yet to come. In February 2015, more disruption came knocking when Uber, the app-based modern day taxi hit Nairobi streets running.

With its remote management capabilities, cheap rates and new cars, industrial dynamics changed drastically giving it an unfair edge over us old school traditional taxi types. Mass protests by local operators to have it deregistered met with tear gas courtesy of the government as we fought for the measly crumbs off the taxi table. This would mark the third time the government and free market forces had kicked me in the nuts and arrested my development! Days turned into weeks and weeks into months and years but nothing gave. My story was now akin to that of a wounded dog of war relegated to the back alleys to leak its wounds, waiting for death. To cope, most of my peers found solace in alcohol, gambling and prostitutes.

I have been caught between the proverbial rock and a crazy place, for almost a decade now and my youth is spent with nothing to show for it. I kill time by writing. It is my alcohol, my mistress, my prostitute. I love her and together we stare at the horizon hoping for better days ahead in this, my country.

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The author is a taxi driver based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Reflections

I Know It Was The Blood

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I Know It Was the Blood

“…in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has… broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.” Ephesians 2:13-14

I was a graduate student at Yale when increasingly graphic and disturbing images of unjust deaths of young black men and women began to filter through the news feeds and our social media timelines, and soon the outrage I felt left me with no choice but to take to the streets in protest. I participated in marches and press conferences decrying these unjust deaths at the hands of police who had sworn to serve and protect.

But these deaths also struck a deeper chord for me as a pastor, as I wrestled with the theological consequences of blood spilled on the streets while I stood robed in white in front of a congregation with a cup and cracker on the first Sunday of each month. There, we would joyfully sing words from the spiritual “I know it was the blood for…one day when I was lost, Jesus died on the cross…”

Those songs always took me back to my formative years at Acklin Chapel, our quaint church in rural Berkley, Alabama, where corn or cotton surrounded three sides of the church. It was here where crucial moments in my spiritual formation as a child had taken place, and there was no greater Sunday liturgically than High Day or the first Sunday, where we monthly celebrated the sacrament of Holy Communion. Though our ritual was informed by our C.M.E. liturgy, it was brought to life by our singing of hymns and spirituals that brought together the seasoned saints and anxious adolescents, and bridged the gap between the learned and the illiterate. (The Christian Methodist Episcopal (C.M.E.) Church is a historically African-American denomination within the broader context of Methodism).

I can hear the voice of my great-grandmother who I eulogized at that church sing out with chords that the angels themselves could not reproduce, singing songs like “Down At The Cross Where My Savior Died” and “There Is A Fountain Filled With Blood, Drawn From Immanuel’s Veins”. I hear her words declare with a rhythm that captured the cadence of freedom which could only be learned in the throes of oppression – I know it was the blood, I know it was the blood, one day when I was lost, Jesus died on the cross, and I know it was the blood for me. The church would rock as we reasserted our knowledge of the atoning power of Jesus’ blood.

I took this confidence and declaration with me to college, and even after four years of a faith-shaking experience in religious studies at Vanderbilt University, I may not have been able to say I know it was the blood, but I could still say – I’m pretty sure it was the blood.

However, after a couple of years of theological training at Yale, the best I could say was – I think it was the blood.

My doubts were informed by thinkers like Delores Williams and Walter Rauschenbusch, who had exposed the unfortunate link between violence and notions of salvation. I could only say I think it was the blood because the idea of substitutionary atonement logically centers the most vulnerable to carry crosses for the sins of others. The idea of substitutionary atonement portrays Jesus as an innocent person murdered for the sins and vices of others. It glorifies the death of a blameless victim in the service of guilty offenders. Unfortunately, this logic does not remain on a cross but very often trickles into other relationships, where the powerful guilty can scapegoat their sins on the guiltless vulnerable. This idea, popularized by 11th century thinker Anselm, became exceedingly unconscionable.

Thinking on such things would ordinarily not be a problem, for if we do nothing else in divinity school, we think. However, this was to confront me even more glaringly on my first Sunday at the church I was pastoring, when I heard those same songs that we would sing, but my ears were freshly open to how bloody and violent those songs were. Then as I handed the shot glass of grape juice into withered fingers of senior saints and placed the cup into the hands of smiling children, I heard myself adding to the bloody chorus, declaring, “ The blood of Christ, shed for you.”

The violence of bloodshed seemed unavoidable, but I wondered: must we valorize the cross and bloodshed in this way? The cross represents the state-sponsored execution of a peace-seeking, love-sharing, justice-imagining, revolutionary Jewish preacher from Nazareth named Jesus. How is state-terror against an innocent man turned into something worth singing about joyfully? I grappled with this – and I simply could not find an answer.

But perhaps we can implement a strategy that the author of Ephesians does in our passage, which does not focus on the violence that shed Christ’s blood, but rather views the blood as the aggressor that acts violently against the systems that separate us. Christ through his blood destroyed the wall of separation, abolished the decrees that divide, and at the very cross, killed hostility itself.

My theological training led me to believe that we focus too much on Jesus’ death at the hands of sinful humanity than on his life and ministerial vision. Often we emphasize the blood that Jesus shed in isolation, and forget the work he did to bring people together.

This was no trivial matter for the communities that read the letter to the Ephesians, which circulated among many churches in Asia Minor. This letter was written when there was a demographic shift in the early Christian church, when the movement that had begun primarily among Jewish people had now become a mixed and largely Gentile church.

What threatened that church is what threatens our church today. It is a failure to preserve unity in diversity. For that challenge, the author of Ephesians offers a solution in the blood of Jesus, because it levels the playing field and tears down the walls between us. In the same way that it unites Jews and Gentiles who had differences according to traditions and customs, it can unite us in spite of our differences. If the blood could overcome what separates circumcised Jews from uncircumcised gentiles, certainly it can unite that which separates Baby Boomers from Millennials. Surely, it can overcome underpaid women and employers who see no need to change. It can overcome the barrier between migrant refugees seeking safety and nations of the world that callously shut the door, and certainly I believe it can overcome fanatical followers of Donald Trump and the rest of us sane people!

The passage explains how the blood serves as a call to work to create a new humanity, where we are all one in Christ. And it calls us all to emulate Jesus and do the hard work of growing together into a spiritual dwelling place for God.

What makes this blood so powerful? We can see in v-13 and 14 that the author views the blood and the flesh of Christ interchangeably. Thus the reason why the blood is powerful is because of the flesh – the sarkos – it resided in. The Old Testament in Leviticus declares, “the life of the body is in the blood”. Therefore the blood is filled with power because the life of Jesus was filled with power. To that end, Jesus’ life-blood, his power, was demonstrated more in living, than it was in dying. And therefore Jesus’ blood is capable of bringing together those who are separated because Jesus lived that type of life in the flesh.

I now see that his life-blood flowed when he was born in Bethlehem. It flowed when he stood in solidarity with sinners. It flowed when he embraced the marginalised. It flowed when he preached peace to the prisoners. It flowed when he healed the hands of the hopeless. It flowed when he fearlessly indicted Empire. It is the life he lived that forced him to suffer an improper trial by a jacked-up judicial system. It is this injustice that pressed the precious life-blood out of those veins on Calvary’s hill. But God does not allow separation to have the last word. And so God raised him on the third day, and it flowed again when he delivered the deathblow to death itself, as the Scriptures say.

When we reassess how we view the blood of Jesus, the ritual of communion or the Eucharist becomes a moment for us to recommit ourselves to living the type of peace-seeking, love-sharing, and justice-orienting life that Jesus lived through his life-blood. And as we drink the cup, we can be reminded to pour out ourselves, not so that we can function as somebody else’s doormat, but so that we can militate against the imminent forces of destruction that suggest that the lives of the vulnerable don’t matter. This sacred meal was Jesus’ last one on the earth before his final stand of courageous resistance, and as we emulate Jesus’ struggle to bring God’s reign into the world, it might be our last meal on earth too. But that is no reason to despair, because after the last meal, God has the last word.

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Reflections

The Making of a Fatherless Nation

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Photo: Shutterstock

The Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) office is located off Juja road in Nairobi’s Eastlands. It is situated in a single-storeyed building planted right at the edge of Mathare Valley. The building stands out in contrast to the sea of tightly packed shanty dwellings with rusty brown tin roofs dissected into two parts by the congested Mau Mau road running through the bottom of the valley. Dark grey smoke rises from the valley depths and one catches a glimpse of the murky waters of the Mathare river flowing parallel to the busy throughway. Visitors are primed to see ruins and depravation, but residents speak of its beauty. A Rastafarian man named Jah Driver told me to think of Mathare as a chocolate city, and in a phrase, that captured the essence of Mathare’s complex sensory qualities.

On this Saturday morning, I had joined a group of resident ecological justice activists behind the Mathare Green Movement for a reflection session at the MSJC office. The group comprised of young men in their 20s. The discussion revolved around the colonial roots of Kenya’s environmental segregation policy that rendered low income neighbourhoods like Mathare deprived of tree cover.

In an attempt to share context using my personal experience living in rural Kenya, I started talking about the role of my father in grounding my environmental consciousness. I then picked on one member of the group to share his experience of the same. “ I don’t have a father,” he retorted. His delivery was deadpan. “Never knew him, never met him”. His tone forced me to quickly check my assumptions and I asked around room, “How many of you have fathers living at home? We are in a safe space, just put up your hands.” Hesitantly, starting with a single hand, a third of the room of about 30 people raised their hands, as if ashamed of the privilege of knowing a father. It was a sobering moment.

Wangui Kimari, the participatory action research coordinator for MJSC, described Mathare to me as a “ghetto of women”. The centrality of the mother in Mathare is undisputable, in fact single mothers have sustained Mathare for over eight decades of its existence. It is the mothers who run Mathare, and their sons sing praises to the resilience of their mothers. In the quest for social justice and dignity, Mathare’s mothers continue to lead from the front, determined to keep their boys alive in a social system that normalizes extrajudicial executions of young men in the poorer sections of Nairobi.

There is no shortage of men in Mathare, but rarely do we ever hear any reference to the fathers of Mathare, or any collective of men that is organized around the principle aim of fathering in the manner that distinguishes the mothers of Mathare.

Having a father present through most of my early years was a privilege I took for granted. Not only that – my biological father was a father to many others. Even though he passed on when I was a teenager, he had done enough to shape my outlook. He was a committed to his family, career and life journey, living with absolute purpose in his role as a caregiver and provider. I do not remember a single conversation about what it meant to be a man, or what I had to do to prove I was a man. He just led, kept his word and lived up to his obligations the best he could. During my father’s funeral in 1989, fathering stood out as the true measure of his success – towering above his career accomplishments and material possessions. It is the greatest inheritance he left behind for his six children.

Nearly three decades since his passing, I still have a mental picture of the functions of fatherhood – and it is everything my father embodied. I had assumed this was the norm until I started meeting adults who had never known what it was to have a father who was present; this was by no means limited to neighbourhoods like Mathare. Many, from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, only had the one mama called the baby’s daddy, the sperm donor, or at best their mother’s husband. In 1999, I embarked on a career as a newspaper columnist for the Saturday magazine of the Daily Nation, penning a column titled “Mantalk”, that focused on the subject of evolving African masculinities. I maintained the column for a decade and the topic of responsible fatherhood kept recurring, juxtaposed against the rising prominence of single mother households. I was fixated on the nuclear family as an ideal and it informed many of my biases. The men who did not show up for their children, I dismissed as spineless for failing to grasp the importance of fatherhood. The mothers who insisted on living without a father in their children’s lives were misguided, I concluded.

Even after getting acquainted with scores of people who only knew of absent, emotionally removed, or abusive fathers, I still blamed the victim for allowing themselves to be defined by their past. This was the late 1990s, as powerful external agencies pushed neoliberalism and corporatisation of the local economy across Kenya. During this period, we also witnessed a frontal assault on patriarchy by the third wave of feminism that celebrated individualism and sought to dismantle gender role stereotypes. Men felt under attack, caricatured as beneficiaries of a power structure in society that granted them control over women. The debates on shifting gender roles became a fixture of popular culture and trickled down to the individual level.

My generation, the Xers born between the mid-60s and early 80s had morphed into the first generation of men to be confused about their roles in society. We had been socialised into pre-colonial African culture and religiously assigned gender roles, but many of us found ourselves at odds with the emerging feminist consciousness. Women’s autonomy and participation in the workplace had upset the gender status quo, challenging the patriarchial logics of control and separation by men. The main misunderstanding stemmed from the inability see the patriarchy system as distinct from individuals living within it, and so the issues collapsed into conversations about individual choices and solutions.

The cultural marital obligations gradually succumbed to modern Western ideals of romanticism. Short-lived marriage unions characterised by displays of opulence followed by divorce became common. But the structural issues at play – obscure to many – was that the tough economic conditions post-Structural Adjustment Programmes, meant a significant portion of working-class and even professional men could no longer secure positions of authority based purely on their ability to meet the financial obligations of the family. The perceived crisis of masculinity was blamed on radical feminism driven by the proliferation of women empowerment programmes. In hindsight, it was also the failure of neo-liberalism to deliver jobs for a growing population, mismanagement of the political economy locally and the global financial crisis that all converged to have adverse effects on the family unit, and this exaggerated social constraints.

A culture of checking out and abandoning responsibility became normalised, showing up in the rise of deadbeat fathers. They were no societal consequences for absent fathers in urban individualised spaces. This phenomenon graduated into a full-blown lad culture that continues to arrest grown men into extended adolescence, refusing to live up to the obligations of fatherhood.

Today, we often hear about the frustrations of ‘the boy child’ as a reaction to the empowerment of ‘the girl child’, but little about the crisis of fatherlessness. Worldwide statistics state that the absence of fathers has a profound effect on the psychological development of boys. The question of fatherhood has received extensive attention in North America and Western Europe. Three American presidents – Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama – recognised fatherhood as a serious social problem and addressed it as a matter of policy.

The memoir Dreams of My Father by former US President Barack Obama tackles the search for acceptance and identity that many men seek today. The young Obama traveled from Chicago to his biological father’s village in Nyangoma, Kogelo in search of answers. He would find resolution standing over his father’s grave in tears, overwhelmed by the intensity of the moment. He writes about finally realising who he was at that moment, and how his entire life trajectory, his struggles and birthright, were connected a small plot of earth where his father hailed from. In finding closure, he found emotional release, and vowed to break the cycle of his own past to become a better man.

Obama’s legacy of a post-racial society as America’s first black president failed. Nonetheless, Obama’s most underrated legacy as president has been as father-in-chief. His own experience informed his choices and his exceptionalism is measured in the public devotion and commitment to raising his two daughters in the White House. Obama was not afraid to speak about the issues driving Black America’s alarming fatherhood crisis and became a model father figure embraced by the world.

According to the US Census Bureau, children who grow up without fathers are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime, nine times more likely to drop out of school and 20 times more likely to be jailed. They are likely to run away from home, become teenage parents, suffer abuse, drop out of school, use drugs or get divorced. This correlation of absent fathers and youth delinquency does not necessarily imply causation – indeed, racism and structural inequality could explain both family breakdown and the glaring social problems of crime, drug abuse and the like.

Even though these are statistics from the US, that reality lives with us in Kenya. The Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS) report in 2014 stated that nearly half (45 per cent) of all children in Kenya do not live with both biological parents. The death of father accounts for only 5.3 per cent of households; 22 per cent of children in Kenya live with their mothers while their fathers are alive and live elsewhere.

A widely quoted pan-African study in 2012 by Canadian sociologists Prof Shelly Clark of McGill University and Dana Hamplova from Prague’s Charles University and Institute of Sociology reported a 60 per cent probability of a single motherhood for a Kenyan woman by the age of 45. The factors attributed to birth outside marriage and the break up of the marriage union. Kenya has one of the highest levels of children living without their fathers in the home in Africa. The evidence of this on the incidence of crime, poverty drug abuse, teenage pregnancy and school drop-outs is less clearcut than in the US – a recent World Bank working paper actually showed that poverty was falling fastest in Africa in female-headed households. But this perception certainly provoked conversation on the same – I chronicled all this in the Mantalk column and the discussions it stirred up, both in the newspaper pages and in the wider society.

The trend in the public discourse is to blame the victims, the abandoned children and shame the single mothers who struggle to raise them by weighing them on a morality scale. Fatherhood is still not a social policy issue in Kenya. President Uhuru Kenyatta has taken no public positions on responsible fatherhood . We hear talk about teenage pregnancy and the crisis of single parent homes without putting the spotlight on a father who absconded his responsibility, and how this contributes to recurring social problems. No taskforce has been created to advocate responsible fatherhood and non- profit-organisations disproportionately dwell on women empowerment programmes. The advocacy vacuum has been filled by a growing number church-based men’s programs. The Man Enough programme founded by Nairobi pastor Simon Mbevi is one such programme tackling the contemporary masculinity crisis of identity through mentorship programmes grounded in Christian values. The Kenyan Anglican Men’s Association ( KAMA) is another attempt to spur male leadership in community life in keeping with a biblical mandate.

But the the spread of such programs is often undermined by the credibility of the church leadership, and on a particular view of divine fatherhood that complicates, rather than empowers, responsible earthly fatherhood – and that abets political dysfunction. Kenyan politics has traditionally enjoyed a marriage of convenience with religion. Hiding behind church mandate, savvy politicians exploit the reverence of the father figure in Kenya’s socio-religious psyche for political expendiency. Father is a title used to refer to God in Christian theology, hence God the Father.

In several Kenyan churches, the politician usurps the father figure characterization as the material provider. The colonial missionary fathers arrived as god-ordained and usurped the role of societal fathers. Christian missionaries exercised power over a community of converts and effectively curtailed the influence of existing traditional leadership structure in the Kenyan colony. Monotheists modelled god as the male parent, and therefore the father of the family becomes the divine representative on earth – and the right extends to the paternal ruler of the modern state.

The principle of the Father of the Nation thus exploits Christian metaphors of the All Mighty, All Knowing, God The Father, who rules over his underlings. The political positioning of heads of state as Fathers of a Nation is a tool of statecraft. Nations are founded by a confederation of leaders, but the state can only allow the glorification of the singular, visionary great leader.

Using this same religio-political maneuvering, the Kenyan presidency has made a case for the head of state to be revered as the exalted father of a nation. If Kenya’s first President Jomo Kenyatta was the Father, then Uhuru Kenyatta becomes his begotten son Kamwana. President Moi was Baba wa Taifa ( Father of the Nation) and an entire generation grew up consuming his well-crafted veneer of holiness, and living in complete denial of the contradictions and excesses of his 24 year reign. Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga’s designation as “Baba” reverberates divine destiny with the biblical reference of Joshua’s conquest of Canaan during the 2017 presidential campaigns.

We are socialized to obey our fathers without question, and by the same token, we must obey our leaders who by the order of societal hierarchy become the father of fathers. The citizens must submit to God the father and his earthly representatives – our political fathers – and remain beholden to the sovereign leader in his human form.

In a majority Christian nation of Kenya, the Bible enjoys more social legitmacy than the constitution, and the political godfather who wields Scripture becomes part of the extended narrative of the heavenly revelation. After all, leaders are “chosen by God”. The function of faith, in this context, is not to question the deific authority, and this thinking reinforces the myth of the father (divine, political, and domestic).

In reality, the Fathers of our Nation are more often than not tragic hero figures consumed by hubris, drunk on power, and entrapped by personality flaws. The result is the persistent violence and brutalization of a nation of children who might dare to challenge their legitimacy. The State as the Father in Kenya has effectively been absent and abusive. The figure of fatherhood in our society has been defined by fragility of the masculine head, determined to retain symbolic political power and status at the expense of the family unit.

These tensions at the individual level play out on a national stage in form of leadership at a complete loss with the functions of fatherhood. They demand rights but shun the responsibilities that come with that right. The greed for power without accountability is behind the social, political and economic despondency that marks Kenyan life. Fatherhood is not respected but rather feared as a personifaction of oppression of innocents under their jurisdiction.

The children of this nation have therefore had to come to terms with the father as a fantasy figure surrounded by myth, and are fated to bear the generational burden of the sins committed by their fathers.

The late Myles Munroe, Bahamian evangelist and author, preached that fatherhood is the ultimate work of men. This is a truth that cuts across all spiritual traditions. Our nation can no longer ignore the social dynamite of fatherlessness, and the reconstruction of a broken society rests on the value men place on fathering.

It is time for a national discourse on the value of fatherhood.

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Reflections

Joy to the World, the Pain of Christmas

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Photo: Evelyn on Unsplash

Growing up, Christmas was the day we children looked forward to all year! Maybe it had something to do with the fact that it was the only time we would get new clothes and not the second-hand mitumba clothing that our parents usually picked for us on their way home. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that after Jamhuri day on December 12, my father would endlessly play Boney M and Christmas carols every single morning before he went to work, and so we knew that the big day was almost here! Maybe it had something to do with the pre-Christmas excursions to Eastleigh to get Christmas goodies.

So on Christmas morning (the only day we were excused from house chores) we would wake up to the aroma of chapatti and chicken. I would always try to be the last one to wear my outfit, ensuring that I would get the final “wow!” and then we would head over to Sunday school.

At church we got biscuits, juice, sang Christmas carols, checked out who had new clothes and who didn’t, and recollected what had just happened at the Christmas concert, always the weekend before Christmas day. I remember one year, one of the verses that my neighbour had memorised for the Christmas concert was Isaiah 9:6 –

For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.

And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

At the age of nine, the statement that stood out for me was, “And the government will be on his shoulders.” I loved the idea of baby Jesus carrying a government on his shoulders like big bales of unga albeit more gracefully, and maybe painlessly, him being Jesus and all!   The Christmas season and narrative as has been passed down to us is about new clothes and shoes and holidays to exclusive destinations for those that can afford it. Christmas, to many of us, is joyous and painless.

But in our celebration, many of us tend to gloss over the implication of Christ’s birth to the politics of his day. We dislocate Christ from his social, historical and political location, and thus lose the present socio-political tensions that we must grapple with as we celebrate his birth.

The Pain of Christmas – Death

Matthew 2:16-18

When Herod realized that the Magi had outwitted him, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

“A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,

Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

Right there, in the story of the birth of the Messiah, is the murder of toddlers. Herod is threatened that a newborn infant will one day overthrow his kingdom, and so innocent children are killed. This is protection of political power at its ugliest. The knowledge that the Messiah was born was not good news to King Herod. This Messiah was still an enigma, how would he deliver Israel? Would he put the kings, like Herod, out of jobs? Would he demand freedom from the Roman Empire that King Herod benefitted from? In response to his own questions, Herod did what power and empire does best, he protected his interests by executing that which stood in his way. The birth of the Messiah, for the parents of the executed children brought death, emptiness, grief and lament. Young innocent children that died at the hands of authorities that were meant to protect them. It was not good news.

This year, through conversations with justice activists, pastors and victims of extrajudicial violence in Nairobi’s informal settlements, I have come to understand the extent of the deaths of young boys at the hands of authorities that are meant to protect them. This Christmas will bring pain, emptiness and lament for many families in our city. It is the kind that comes from losing sons unjustly. In Mathare, executions of young, poor, and male crime suspects by police has led to at least one young man being killed per week between January 2013 and December 2016, “…over the past three years at least 156 poor young men in this settlement have been killed by a bullet.”

Looking through statistics provided by organizations like Mathare Social Justice Center, and from the stories of lived realities on the ground, I can confidently say that if Jesus had been in our informal settlements, he probably would have been killed before he reached the age of 20. Any Christmas narration in our Kenyan context that is devoid of this truth will be one that is not wholly representative of the plight of the youth in this country. As one of the mothers of those that have been killed told me, “They kill our youth who are suspected of being thieves yet the leaders who have stolen money from the government that is meant to be for the youth are free. Is this justice?”

To what benefit was the death of the infants to Herod? To what benefit is the death of the young men to our government? Why are they so quick to ‘kill on sight’ than to have those suspected of crimes follow due process? Is our government so afraid of young men that they have to order their indiscriminate deaths? This Christmas, there will be empty beds, sofas and chairs in homes that should be occupied. This Christmas, Rachel weeps for her Kenyan children, refusing to be comforted because her children are no more, and the world’s ears are deaf to her pain. The light of Christmas should illuminate this pain, the songs that we sing this Christmas should make us see the empty plates, empty stools, empty beds and empty seats in these homes and it should make us wail, protest and refuse these deaths.

The Pain of Christmas- Displacement

According to the Christmas story, Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus are forced to flee to Egypt for their safety during Herod’s killing spree. Baby Jesus did not grow up in a safe manger surrounded by soft lights and an obedient sheep for a pet. Baby Jesus was an asylum seeker. Baby Jesus was a refugee.

This year, with the so-called ‘migrant caravan’ from Honduras to America, this movement sounds familiar. The United States and Honduras have had a long relationship that dates as far back as 1914. As I look into the faces of the young children on the backs of their parents, I see Jesus, and I see him hungry, thirsty, naked and a stranger in the land. Yet the US administration’s reaction to those seeking help is chasing away those whom Christ specifically called us to pay preferential attention to (Matthew 25:35-40).

Those on the caravan are people on a search for refuge and better living conditions precisely because of instability that was caused by a century of injustice and imperial occupation and trade by the US. “U.S. military presence in Honduras and the roots of Honduran migration to the United States are closely linked. It began in the late 1890s, when U.S.-based banana companies first became active there. As historian Walter LaFeber writes in “Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America,” American companies “built railroads, established their own banking systems, and bribed government officials at a dizzying pace.” As a result, the Caribbean coast “became a foreign-controlled enclave that systematically swung the whole of Honduras into a one-crop economy whose wealth was carried off to New Orleans, New York, and later Boston.”

By 1914, U.S. banana interests owned almost one million acres of Honduras’ best land. These holdings grew through the 1920s to such an extent that, as LaFeber asserts, Honduran peasants “had no hope of access to their nation’s good soil.” Central America is still reeling from the fall-out of this imperial occupation, supported by Washington’s longstanding willingness to overlook official corruption in Honduras as long as the country’s ruling elites serve what are defined as U.S. economic and geopolitical interests.

For America to overlook the cause and effect of their action in this crisis and to present themselves as the victims of illegal immigration is quite rich. For American Christians to be oblivious to the historical injustices that have brought Hondurans to their doorstep is to participate in the oppression of those whom their faith calls to free.

Let there be light

Kenya claims to be a Christian nation, but so many of us are comfortable with injustice as long as it does not personally touch us. We fail to see how our complacency makes us complicit in oppressive systems and entrenching inequality. We have to do better. We have to be present in those spaces where there is suffering, and at the very least, witness the pain and tell the oppressed that their lives matter.

Let there be light, let there be relief. Let us be the ones to comfort and carry the burdens of those in pain. Let us hold the widows, widowers and orphans in their time of lament.

So, as we sing ‘Joy To The World’ this Christmas, I invite us to also ask ourselves; who is crying this Christmas? Who is fleeing this Christmas? Who is serving one less meal because their child is no more? Why are these things happening? How do they continue to happen? What does my faith call me to do in answering these questions? How then shall we live?

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