“Each generation must out of relative obscurity discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it. In underdeveloped countries the preceding generations… fought as well as they could… we must realize that the reason for this silence lies less in their lack of heroism than in the fundamentally different international situation of our time.”
Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
Nairobi, 2003: Following the indefinite closure of Moi University due to a students’ strike against the system that privileged self-sponsored parallel students over the regular ones, I teamed up with a friend who had graduated from Catholic University and set out to mentor and inspire primary and high school students in the name of Preparing Leaders Of Tomorrow (PLOT). However, we had limited access to the students owing to Michuki era matatu strikes and watchmen who, lumping us together with religious missionaries, turned us away or directed us to officers least interested in our proposals. While we contested the misrecognition and missed opportunities, the fact that we spoke to more watchmen than students and the contradictions of our own lives was also a cause for laughter at the time. However, with the insight of hindsight (mediated by significant ideological shifts), I came to learn that this was not a laughing matter.
Here I was, a public university student whose comrades were now serving long suspensions due to resisting the privatization of higher education walking side-by-side with an unemployed private university graduate (then postgraduate) trying to prepare leaders of tomorrow while being ill-prepared to make sense, or inhabit the present effectively. Also significant for me was our inattention to the political lives of the readily accessible watchmen who, knowingly or unknowingly, had prevented our short-lived, and ill-conceived initiative from reproducing the same maladies that we were desperately seeking to break away from.
Reflecting on our inattentiveness to the watchmen’s lives often returned me to childhood memories of an episode of the KBC TV drama/ situation comedy Plot 10 where the plot watchman Munai (Ronald Kazungu) reminds the caretaker Kajogoo (Joseph Njogu) of the cold nights he endures while the tenants sleep in their houses and the end-of-month hunger experienced due to salary delays while the tenants go for their monthly feasts. However, Munai’s own suffering does not translate into empathy for tenants such as Adam (Thomas Onsongo) who requests for an extension on his rent payment due to his wife’s medical bill.
Munai’s lamentation and impatience with Adam was crucial in helping me to see differently, and in more politically perspicuous ways, the tragic inattentiveness that makes it difficult, if not impossible for urban inhabitants to compose lives in common even with those with whom we share a time/space — our contemporaries. From the intimate space of the plot, we learn of the multiple webs of assistance and resistance that tenants create in order to survive. We are also reminded of adaptation, self-help mechanisms, and resilience developed in response to the privatization of key services and amenities that make urban life more precarious.
Like actual multi-occupancy, low-rent, tenement spaces, the fictional Plot 10 is hospitable and hostile in equal measure. But this understanding of the word plot does not exhaust its meanings. Plot also has connotations of the designs/plans for a ravenous night out (plot/ plan/mpango) and an undeveloped piece of land. More recently, the desire to have a plot of land of one’s own has turned associational life into a means of individual gain, credibility/creditworthiness, entitlement, self-actualization, and ultimately, pleasure. It is a guarantor of intergenerational hope for those who possess it and a cause for hopelessness and rage for the dispossessed.
With the moralization of plot ownership, being plotless or homeless is considered an individual rather than structural and systemic pathology related to the institutionalization of private property and disposal of unalienated land in ways that benefit those closest to the sites of power. Similarly, the plot, the dark underside of the colonial ideal of the green garden city that kept the black native quarters separate, unhygienic, overcrowded and male-dominated is normalized. In a postcolonial city characterized by fragmented rhythms and fortified enclaves the simultaneity of concrete plots and green gated communities make it difficult to imagine common times and a generational politics that is not predicated on class.
When inequalities such as those alluded to above create an existential rift between age-mates, the idea of generational mission becomes frivolous and unattainable. Accordingly, Fanon’s call for each generation to find its mission and a politics attuned to the weight of international structures from the standpoint of time raises fundamental ethical/political questions regarding how to live (well) with those with whom one is in synchrony with. Better still, we are forced to ask what it means to be contemporaries, to share a time/space, or even a mission with others in a world characterized by alienation.
In cases where the ideal of the generation does not acknowledge how different people are situated in the world/time, it becomes difficult to imagine a new human due to fidelity to the land, to the (mother) tongue, shibboleths, oaths, bloodlines, race, or class. Generational lines here involve the passage of things and meanings between variations of the same in ways that maintain foundations while disavowing foundational and other forms of violence. This desire to stay true to the name of the father, the son, and any other thing that they find holy, which in most cases is race, property, and group propriety, makes people inattentive to the lives of some of their contemporaries.
However, it is possible to compose a dissensual sense of time, ‘other’ contemporaries, and a common world with those who we are told are carriers of an insurmountable difference. In the Kenyan context, this involves refusing colonial inscriptions and narrow crisis-based sympathies that invoke old bloodlines as moral lines and even lines on the map. It is also a refusal to join alliances that invoke elite destiny/destinations and origins while being inattentive to our co-presence, people’s material conditions of existence, and ambiguous ethical relations.
Unlike co-presences that bring together multiple lifetimes, there are conceptions of the contemporary and generational times that fetishize a consumption of the present that erases the past and ruins the earth. These presentisms makes life in the present intolerable for many and the future improbable for other generations of human and non-human beings. They also invoke alternative histories and family stories that treat past injustices, dispossessions, and broken promises as anachronistic threats that call up ghosts that are too old for us to be concerned with today. So, they go on their knees and call on us to Forget! Forgive! They want a chance to develop the present without the burden of the past and responsibility to the future.
This is the mantra of the leadership of ‘our’ generation. In its quest for reconciliation, it shies away from the truth that the dry bones from the past constantly throw at it. It remedies the quest for justice, or dissenting voices through violence first and then development projects underwritten with human blood. With blood-soaked hands, they point upwards invoking gods of forgiveness. Downwards, they point to rails and roads that project today’s debts into the future. Pointing east, they contract comrades who pour concrete over the blood-soaked lands quickly entombing the dry and not so dry bones. To cover up their tracks, they accelerate time. They turn history into ethnology; compare one group to another, crunch numbers, and then project them into a perverse developmental scheme. Schools, roads, hospitals, language and other common entitlements become communal favours and bribes that individuals can plot to plunder.
In defence of this time of development and/as plunder, young tongues are sharpened. They sing praises and lick crumbs from the floor. They silence their own multi-lingualisms and disavow their impurities. These young tongues traffic in diglossia— two versions of the same language— one for the people that they now want to constitute as a single and unproblematic whole, and another for those that they consider part of their proximate, exclusive, and intimate world. A world that, even in the face of gaps in material conditions of existence and incommensurate world-views, considers itself to be one with the potentate, the potentate in waiting, or the one who is robbed of the status of potentate and pursues it perpetually.
As committed presentists, the figureheads of generational wars and cleavage stand hand-in-hand. They claim to be forming something new but only speak the old language of Peace, Love, and Unity now recast as grand projects of anti-graft and neoliberal development. In this monolingualism, the oneness of tongue ensures that only a few lick the bones dry. For them, being a contemporary is a perverse gastronomy. It involves eating together and then devouring those who serve them. It is a potential cannibalism that turns away from the cries of their contemporaries – “Watameza mate sisi tukikula nyama.”
During this orgasmic feast, we are told to suspend politics in the service of the economy. For these brothers turned foes, and then turned brothers again, the present is “our time to eat.” Others, other generations, must wait for their turn. In the meantime, their tongues can be put to better use…speaking in tongues, singing praises, and hurling abuses. After all, we are a generation of forgivers.
For the impatient, the generation of leaders-in-waiting, and those whose time has come and passed, they are summoned to hustle! Gamble and speculate. To be a plotter of one sort or another. To learn many trades and always throw their eyes askance. To learn how to wink and lick their lips. Engage side-hustles, side-kicks, and ‘side-dishes’ “…you never know which one will land on your lap. You never know which one will be an economic boom, or which one will make your loins ‘burst.’” They are told to plot and have no time for the plotless.
Beyond the shared games, our generation is forced to ask what it means to inhabit a rift between oneself and those with whom one shares a living space but whose rhythms of life, recent tongue-waggings, and eating habits, make it impossible to share a common world/time? Are they still your contemporaries? We are forced to speculate on how we can live with those who, owing to their dealings, do not only live in an exclusive space, but have fractured our present such that they can afford to live in another time. Those who shared our childhood but, in order to secure the future of their own children, have accelerated accumulation and destabilized the present for today’s children.
Speaking of our times in common involves breaking hegemonic temporal rifts between those who declare that it is their time to eat and those who live in perpetual hunger. Between men, women, and all others. Between those who are made premature elders complete with ceremonial adornments irrespective of their age and experience, and those subalterns who remain perpetual children. It involves disabusing ourselves of the times of otherness that is assigned to those who, according to Johannes Fabian, are located allochronically – in another time of human development (infantilism) or of social development (primitivism) and therefore must be represented, converted, developed, and brought into national or capitalist time even if they resist. For, according to the owners of our time, these people from another time do not know any better. If they resist, watajua hawajui.
But hope persists. Not due to a panglossian optimism that always announces that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds,” or a focus on the soul (for which it is well) even when things are evidently broken. Hope persists because we believe it is possible to compose new, ethical, and more equal ways of being-in-common while refusing to adapt and live with otherwise intolerable indignities. For a generation that had its hopes domesticated through the mantras of positive thinking, the fetishization of the hustle, funny memes, fancy civil society themes, and the language of adaptability and resilience rather than resistance against the intolerable, a new and raging hope becomes an imperative. One that breaks up with those children of the first and second liberation who salivate waiting for their turn to sit at the table as it is currently constituted. Like the South African Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall movements, this hope that is all the rage invokes old names and devises new revolutionary games for the dispossessed who refuse to be crushed any further.
This hopeful rage for a postcolonial age exists in Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s novel Matigari where Matigari ma Nijirũũngi returns from the bush and finds a new generation of neo-colonial collaborators such as Johnny Boy Junior (the son of the colonial collaborator John Boy).With new contemporaries from another generation— Muriuki , a poor boy who lives in the wreck of a Mercedes , Guthera, the sex worker, and Ngaruro wa Kiriro, the leader of the workers’ strike—, Matigari imagines and works towards a dissensual, yet more life-affirming present and future. These dissenters, children-turned-comrades do not only tell us what is amiss but point out that what we think is a gap, is really a gaping abyss. They make it apparent that the land problem, police brutality, education, and exploitation of labour, are not things to be solved through individual effort or some perverse form of self-help. They can be addressed by composing a more affirmative commonwealth.
Like the old laws of the fathers that Matigari contests, an old bifurcation is descending upon us today. One where familiar and familial handshakes on screen or behind the scenes are presented as solutions to ‘our’ problems without acknowledging their spectral character, their sacrificial logic, and their global connections. Standing hand-in-hand, the sons vow to get over with politics and return to economics (not political-economy) as if the economy were a domain devoid of politics.
But ‘our’ generation should know otherwise. Having lived through the tragedies of structural adjustment programs, the explosion of neoliberal self-help and occult economies, we know the violence of moves to naturalize the separation of the market and the state. We know that the economy is political and that the public / private split has been mobilized for the ruination and privatization of the commons as part of our neoliberal common sense. We know what IMF letters of intent mean and tremble when the appetite for borrowed money pushes us to live in borrowed space and borrowed time.
We have seen how the things we “cannot not want”; development, democracy, life, have been projected into the logic of sacrifice, enmity, and abandonment where some lives have to be given up in order for ‘our’ democracy or development to survive. For those who lived through the Moi years, we know the death-deploying force of emergency measures geared towards getting rid of traitors and ‘treasonous plotters’ by constantly asking people whether they want to be free or secure. Whether they want peace and security or free and fair elections. Whether they want politics or development. Whether they want peace, love, and unity under a single party and the ‘stability’ it guarantees or chaos and disorder of democracy and pluralization. These false choices affirm the sacrificial logic and sovereign violence that has always been part of our national plot.
A logic of sacrifice holds multiple generations captive. It asks them to choose between friends and enemies, politics and economics, modernity and tradition, good and evil with violence being deemed permissible if not necessary for the maintenance of order. As liminal figures, the uncertainty-generating youth become a problem to be solved through uncritical pedagogy, entrepreneurial services that turn them into a lootable resource and discipline. To maintain order, youth disorder or dissensus is dealt with violently at home, on the streets, at school, and across the border. Putting the youth in their proper place becomes a state fetish that ‘our’ generation silently condones or loudly cheers on in the name of restoring discipline, certainty, preserving the sanctity of property, and securing the nation.
But loss of certainty is more than a youthful concern. The uncertain times that ‘our’ generation is living through are tied to larger displacements of certitude on one hand, and the emergence of new forms of certainty or resurgence of old ones on the other. Under such circumstances, familiar political codes and coordinates do not hold. Calls for peace serve as a moral alibi for pacification, and developmental encroachment on wetlands and accelerated ventures into extractive carbon economies (like oil and coal) cover up the slow violence, corruption, and environmental destruction that is already here and that which is yet to come. They also pave way, not only for the end of the world as we know it (as Immanuel Wallerstein put it), but for the possibility of a world without us. A world marked by more drought, floods, smoke, choked seas, and more blood owing to backhand plots that decimate spaces that human beings (not a generation) share with other non-human beings.
These are the signs of our uncertain times where seemingly small acts in this small part of the world have effects elsewhere. After all, aren’t the fault-lines in Mai Mahiu causing speculation about continental drifts in the anthropocene — an epoch where man is recognized as a geophysical force. As UoN’s Amollo Kenneth Otieno (2016)states, we cannot continue relating to the land and construction in the same way in light of increased flooding and subterranean erosion along the existing fault line as well as the fissures arising from the liquefaction of less cohesive soils. However, the hustle continues. We people of the plot, even in the face of the earth opening up see opportunity in the weak volcanic ash/sand from Mai Mahiu. With this sand, we mercilessly build the ever-collapsing vertical plots of Huruma.
The episodic killing of contemporaries is part of the political imaginary we grew up with. It is not merely part of the assassin state’s extra-judicial violence, it is also a demotic people-sanctioned violence. Today, we cannot be critical of the militarization of the police in Kisumu without seeing its connections to the violence in Kismayu and the martialization of society. All the talk of “Our boys in uniform” in Kismayu intensifies hatred of the enemy without and prepares the ground for the violence, preemption, and revenge of ‘Our boys’ in Kisumu. The scandal, the tragedy, is that ‘we’ cheered on the KDF when they ravaged the Somali as part of Operation Linda Nchi. We turned a blind eye when they threatened to close Dadaab and deport the refugees. Silence…when the police ransacked Eastleigh and incarcerated the Somali in Kasarani as part of ‘Usalama Watch.’ ‘We’ are silent when Boni forest is bombed as part of Operation Linda Boni. We cheer politicians who wear military fatigues and dare each other to a fight.
Now that the guns are turned inwards and contemporaries deported, we put our faith in the handshakes of the sons of founding fathers even though we know that they conceive violence narrowly. With each embrace, with each song, with each prayer, we see new capitulations each generating a narrower sense of those one considers their contemporaries. These capitulations show that the old games do not work. The political appeal to the human conscience and moral good sense of the state and the ‘international community’ is falling on deaf ears. The Kenyan democratic order, borne out of popular struggle in concert with allies is now being sacrificed based on business and security interests. Based on the imperatives of the War on terror, AFRICOM strategies, Chinese business partnerships, and a gluttonous political elite that misreads diplomatic codes and trivializes the suffering of Kenyans, and non-Kenyans in Somalia, Palestine, and elsewhere. In their dealings, they reproduce the complicities of a previous generation that sat silently, exploited, and turned a blind eye, to the violence of apartheid in South Africa.
Whither the reformers of yester-years? They are both the subject and object of betrayals. In their perpetual calculations, capitulations, and political realignments, they too lost the plot. They betrayed the cause. The liberal democracy they summon is no longer compelling for it is taking place in an era when liberal ideals and the neoliberal economic order is in its terminal crisis globally. An age characterized by what some call illiberal democracy. An age that privileges resilience over resistance and as always, holds Africans and African politics to a lower standard… “rigged peaceful elections are good enough.”
We have been betrayed. Like their predecessors, the younger leaders remain inattentive to precarious lives at home and abroad. They reproduce the phallic logics of an older generation rather than composing something totally new. Because we are held captive by the law of fathers (patria) and the fetish of the fatherland (patriotism), both elite and subaltern classes articulate a phallic logic of comparative entitlement: “My suffering is bigger than yours, we are a bigger community than you are, our cut is deeper than yours.” The resultant phallocracy, if we are to borrow Grace Musila’s words, haunts Kenya’s politics. It is transgenerational and involves one generation of men learning the phallic logic from the other men in their lives. It permeates institutional and popular narratives about the ‘return to tradition’, fidelity to ‘our son/ our people’, the impossibility of co-habitation or mwanaume ni kujisimamia. The contest of sons, and protection of ‘our’ corrupt sons/daughters has become the basis of new friend/enemy distinctions. It is the basis of moral calculations about lesser or necessary evils and ultimately, the possibility or impossibility of co-habitation with those contemporaries marked by an insurmountable difference. It is the basis of the desire for more virile versions of an old self as a guarantor for ‘our’ survival. It is a most tragic and self-perpetuating sovereign ‘cock-fencing’ based on anxieties over ‘spending power.’
Can we, in search of a different plot, in the name of a new hope, dis-identify with the familiar/familial categories through which we are counted today? Can this generation, this composition of contemporaries, betray the forms of affiliation, phallic logics and fantasies, as well as the violence, and desires cultivated by the generations past? Can we decolonize our bodies and minds? Can we proceed in ways that question rather than merely assert what it means to be a part of a community (broadly conceived) or to be contemporaneous with others? Can we compose commons rather than seek our seat at the table farthest away from the commoners?
To do any of the above requires the betrayal of some of the things ‘our’ generation holds dear; its plots, its hopes, and speculations. It involves dis-identifying with the ideal of the generation and composing new contemporaries. From Matigari, a man who composes new contemporaries in the struggle against oppression, we learn that struggle and hope in struggle and life is vital. That victory, if there is one to be won, “is born of struggle” and even in crushed times and moments of darkness; “There is no night so long that it does end with dawn.”
The Day That Shook Nairobi
A former Indian diplomat recalls the terrifying moments after the terrorist attack on the US embassy in Kenya’s capital city.
August 7, 1998.
This date remains etched in my memory. Professionally and personally, it is one of the most significant and terrifying experiences of my life as a diplomat. At the time, I was in Nairobi, Kenya, serving as the Deputy High Commissioner and Head of Chancery at the Indian embassy in Nairobi, Kenya.
The day started out normally. Nairobi’s cool August breeze made for a salubrious day. As usual, in the morning, I went to the Indian High Commission on Harambee Avenue in Nairobi’s city centre. I took a quick look at the schedule, and I knew it was going to be a busy day. We were organising roadshows to promote the Resurgent India Bonds seeking Non-Resident Indian (NRI) funds, which were launched on 5 August 1998. India’s Independence Day celebrations were a week away. Furthermore, we had significantly increased our diplomatic outreach as India had conducted nuclear tests
in May 1998.
At about 10:35 a.m., I got a call on my landline. I left my computer, which was by the window, and picked up the phone at my desk. (It was the pre-mobile phone time though dialup internet and email were in use.) The call was from an old army colleague, with whom I had worked in Colombo.
A few minutes into the call, I heard a loud bang. I paused for a few seconds and said: “It sounds like a bomb.” My colleague joked that I had not gotten over my Sri Lankan memories. Even before he finished his sentence, there was another huge explosion. This time, the sound was deafening. The whole building shook.
The reverberation from the explosion was so severe that it shattered all the 16 window panes in my office. The impact of the blast ripped the partition between the rooms, which fell on my head. Fortunately, I was on the phone and not at the computer terminal by the window. I told my colleague that this was certainly a bomb and hung up.
My mind started racing with questions. Why would someone plant a bomb of such intensity in Nairobi? And, that too, two of them? Who could have orchestrated such a blast? The bank workers and teachers were on strike. The teachers had demonstrated for a few days behind the commercial buildings, in which our High Commission had several floors. I could not imagine that the bank clerks or teachers could do such a thing. The market street below us witnessed the occasional lynching of suspected thieves, but this was nothing like that.
Within minutes, many staff members came rushing into my room, horrified and alarmed about what had happened. Some of them thought it was an earthquake. Having lived through earthquakes in Japan and bombings in Sri Lanka, I was certain that this was no earthquake. In Nairobi, we never expected an earthquake or a bombing.
Our first reaction was to secure the embassy and evacuate everyone else, excluding the guards. All embassies have crises management plans and we had, fortunately, revised ours two years earlier, before the 1997 general elections in Kenya. We knew what to do. Before leaving my room, I called my wife’s office at the United Nations complex and asked her to ensure children of all mission personnel were brought home from schools.
Amidst the chaos, my staff and I made our way down the stairs. When we reached the street, we witnessed utter devastation. The street was covered in the wreckage; pieces of glass strewn all over the street. Hundreds of people were bleeding, their faces lacerated. Amidst the chaos, we decided to help wounded people. Using our embassy cars, we transported some wounded people to the Aga Khan Hospital, which was on the way to the Indian embassy’s residential complex.
Meanwhile, though the phones went dead in the city centre, we managed to establish contact with the High Commissioner through his car phone. When we informed him of the blast, he went directly from his UN meetings to India House and took charge of crisis management.
This was Al Qaeda’s first attack on American assets in Africa, with simultaneous bombings at Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. In Nairobi, the first explosion was a grenade attack. The second more powerful explosion was the detonation of a truck bomb. 214 people died, over 500 injured. Of them, 13 were US citizens. Most were Kenyans who happened to be at the crowded city centre when the bomb went off.
The five-storied Ufundi house building behind us came crashing down, burying most people beneath the rubble. Most were staff and students of a secretarial institute there. The rescue missions managed to extricate about 120 people from that rubble over two days. Some survived longer, but could not be rescued. The US embassy, barely 60 metres from our building, was damaged. The car park, where the truck bomb detonated, was wrecked.
That day, Kenya was grievously hurt. The nation had no idea why it was the victim. The story, from the US point of view, is well documented. Let me recount the unsung part of our story.
My team at the High Commission and all the families who lived at the Highridge estate rose to the occasion with great responsibility. In a few hours, we had set up dialup internet connectivity, opened an office and a crisis centre and established contact with Indian diaspora organisations. We also set up a meal ferry to the guards at the High Commission.
The Asian community, as the people of Indian origin are known in Kenya, reacted swiftly and generously. Many community organisations coordinated their responses and set up evacuation and rescue teams to support the administrative machinery that was struggling to understand the situation as well. Before noon, they managed to bring in heavy machinery from construction companies and set up functional kitchens
at the periphery of the damaged area, serving people who were part of rescue reams.
The Kenyan Asian community stood shoulder to shoulder and provided the much-needed support to all people at those critical times. They provided ambulances and many volunteers supported Kenyan efforts. But unfortunately, their role has not been fully documented or acknowledged.
By the time the full impact of the explosion came to light, after a day or so later, we were relieved that some of our friends in the US embassy, including Ambassador Bushnell, though injured, were safe. However, their Consul General, Julian Bartley, whose children went to school with ours, perished. A US diplomat of India origin, Prabhi Kavaler, who joined her husband in Nairobi on a couple posting a week earlier, was a casualty that unfortunate day.
The glass shards from the blast caused irreparable damage to hundreds of people. Several children from the Shree Cutchi Leva Parel Samaj School sustained severe eye injuries. Hundreds of people, who rushed to their office windows when they heard the sounds, were wounded by broken glass.
Many Asian doctors provided round the clock trauma and ophthalmic services for several days. The Aga Khan Hospital provided splendid services at that time. They refused financial support, which many hospitals obtained from the United States. The Asian Foundation led many initiatives, the Kenya Society for the Blind trained many affected people for computer literacy. The US embassy gave way to a memorial garden.
Kenya realised it was now in the crosshairs of international terrorism. It was the victim of terrorist attacks again in 2013 in Nairobi, and in 2015 in Garissa.
The Indian High Commission is still in the same commercial building. It has, of course, undergone many renovations. But the lacerations in our hearts have not healed.
Twenty-two years later, as I saw the horrific explosion in Beirut, I was reminded of the bomb blast in Nairobi. It remains fresh in my mind and I pray for the souls of all those innocent people who fell prey to terrorism that day.
This article was first published in the Madras Courier.
Head Teacher’s COVID-Induced Headache or When the Government Abdicates Its Responsibilities
The coronavirus has laid bare the government’s failings in the education sector over the last 60 years. Even now, faced with the challenges brought by COVID-19, it has opted to place the responsibility of ensuring that students can safely return to school squarely in the hands of school managements.
The head teacher of our local primary school reminds me of Mr. Musili, who ran the primary school I attended in downtown Nairobi back when Kenya was newly independent. He was greatly respected, little feared, and much loved by the pupils, as is the head teacher of our local primary school.
The school is old, built in 1947 by the colonial administration and, up until very recently, had pit latrines that were prone to flooding every time it rained. Kids barely out of their nappies would chase after Head Teacher across the quadrangle, “Teacher! Teacher! Choo zimejaa!”, and off he would go to call the exhauster, throwing 52,000 shillings down the toilet with each exhauster visit.
Head Teacher’s budget for running the school is meager; he receives each year – in three tranches – the grand sum of 335 shillings for each of the 846 pupils that are enrolled at the school. With that sum, Head Teacher must pay the electricity and water bills, buy firewood for the kitchen, maintain the school in a proper state of repair and generally keep everything ticking nicely. Luckily, his financial management skills are peerless; each of the 335 shillings is milked for all its worth and, somehow, the 11 shillings per year that the government deems sufficient for the purchase of sanitary towels for each pubescent girl suffice.
The fees paid by the parents of the 297 pupils that board at the school (26,500 shillings per student per year) are crucial to Head Teacher’s budget, bridging the gap between the government’s disbursements and paying the salary of the groundsman (who also takes care of the two cows that provide the milk for the morning tea), as well as the salaries of nine other support staff. That money also covers the cost of all meals and the sorghum, millet and maize flour uji the boarding pupils enjoy during the mid-morning break.
Head Teacher is a true educator; his is a calling driven by a passion to mould young minds and bring the best out of each of his charges. And so, despite the challenges and the lack of resources, our local primary school has built itself a reputation, drawing pupils from as far away as Nairobi, and attracting pupils away from local private schools.
Now the coronavirus has come to put a spanner in the smooth workings of Head Teacher’s finely calibrated budget, with the government placing squarely in his lap the responsibility of ensuring that the school is COVID-prepared when pupils return next year. Head Teacher has been advised by the education ministry that he will have to find ways to ensure that handwashing facilities are placed outside each classroom and office, outside the dorms and the kitchen, by the door of the school hall, in the toilets, at the gate and in the playing fields. Liquid hand soap must be provided, and a thermo gun foreseen, as well as hand and surface sanitisers.
A sick bay must also be established and a qualified nurse engaged. The non-teaching staff will need to be equipped with personal protective gear and the cooks in the kitchen will require food-handling certificates. The government doesn’t say where the money for all this is to come from, or indeed how adequate water supplies will be maintained come the dry season when water is prone to rationing.
To adhere to the one-metre social distancing rule, the school would need 48 classrooms. But a sudden increase in classroom space is unlikely to happen in an institution where the number of classrooms has risen from one, when the school was established in 1947, to 24 today. The Education Cabinet Secretary, George Magoha, has proposed the installation of temporary tents and the use of teleconferencing by teachers to ease congestion.
Well, as far as computer technology is concerned, Head Teacher is in possession of exactly one projector (without a screen) which was supplied by the government, together with the tablets that now lie gathering dust in their purpose-built strongroom for want of material that is suited to the recently introduced competency-based curriculum. In any case, the school only has five teachers who have received basic two-day computer-skills training as part of the government’s now collapsed Digital Literacy Programme. So CS Magoha’s proposal is moot.
The government also says that pupils found sharing textbooks shall be considered to have committed an offence. Well, at our local primary school, a textbook is, of necessity, shared between two pupils and so, based on that threat alone, the school will not be able to reopen. It used to be that the government would allocate a budget for books according to the size of the school population. With his usual careful use of resources, and zero tolerance for loss or damage of learning materials—and by organising book harvesting events—Head Teacher had managed to bring the number of pupils sharing a textbook down from one book for every ten pupils in 2013 to one book for every two pupils within five years. Then in 2018 the government decided to take over the supply of books to schools, but even today, in half the classes, one textbook is still shared between two pupils.
It is also highly unlikely that the boarding facilities will be expanded in time to meet the social distancing requirements and so, either the number of boarding students will have to be drastically reduced or the section will have to be closed down altogether; in either case, Head Teacher’s finely tuned budget will take a direct hit.
And as if the headache of ensuring that the school will be COVID-ready when classes recommence is not bad enough, Head Teacher has also been given the responsibility of “ensuring access to education [through] guidance and counseling” for those pupils who have fallen pregnant or have been caught up in drugs and alcohol abuse during the long COVID-induced break. Needless to say, even if Head Teacher were in a position to discover which among his pupils have been whiling away the time indulging in alcohol and drugs, there is not one trained counsellor on his staff to deal with the problem, even though the education ministry’s directive asks Head Teacher to “strengthen the guidance and counselling departments to help pupils and staff deal with the psychosocial issues in the wake of corona pandemic [and] prevent stigmatisation and hysteria in case of a detected case”.
The coronavirus has laid bare the government’s failings in the education sector over the last 60 years. That a school established over 70 years ago only recently managed to raise enough funds to build modern eco-friendly, wheelchair-friendly toilets is a clear indicator of the government’s neglect. It took the inventiveness of Head Teacher and his management board, the collaboration of parents and the support of the old students’ network to come up with a solution to save the 160,000 shillings lost annually to pit latrine exhaust services. And so, the toilet ratio of one urinal for every 30 boys and one toilet for every 25 girls is the one requirement that the school will be able to respect when schools reopen.
Still, something good for Kenya’s pupils might yet come out of this coronavirus pandemic; the government is reportedly considering moving the preference to day-schooling, with boarding schools reserved for pupils who must of necessity travel long distances to get to a school. This, in my view, is as it should be. Head Teacher should not have to confront an irate parent, fed up with having to deal with a troubled youth at home, or the complaint that the food budget has gone through the roof because the school holidays have been too long.
We Kenyans have long abdicated our responsibilities towards our youth, abandoning even the raising of our children to teachers, thus unwittingly widening the emotional gulf between children and parents and creating intergenerational alienation even as the government criminalises the youth, and issues edicts laced with threats each time it is confronted with a problem affecting them.
As Wandia Njoya says, “We have to grow up and think maturely about solutions such as restructuring our education system, revisiting the question of boarding schools, and treating adults who abuse the children they are supposed to take care of as criminals. Portraying youth as cheats and criminals, while failing to provide the education and social institutions they need to be functional adults, is irresponsible and an abdication of our responsibility as adults to care for the young. And we must care, not just as individual parents of nuclear families, as the evangelical narratives driven by the churches tell us to do. Instead, we must demand, collectively as voters, better political decisions that nurture our youth.”
A George Floyd Moment and the Reality of Being African in China
To a smaller but yet equally profound extent, Eric Jackson became our George Floyd, not dying under the knee of a racist cop, but under the crushing weight of a deeply racist and complacent system that denied him a duty of care.
I was at a trendy French salon in the heart of Beijing’s popular Sanlitun neighbourhood organising a photoshoot for the magazine I work for. The model on the shoot was a young Russian woman, our photographer Chinese and the owner of the salon was from France. As we went about prepping for the shoot, I noticed a little girl cowering behind one of the stylists. She appeared anxious. I was concerned, so I tried to get closer to find out what the matter was only for her to jump back and let out a shriek.
She told one of the Chinese stylists that a scary, ugly black man was looking at her. It took me a moment to realise it was me she was talking about. I am not sure whether the child and the stylist both assumed I didn’t understand Chinese, but the stylist proceeded to extol my virtues to the inconsolable child, saying how nice I was, how cool my hair looked, and telling her that she had no reason to be afraid of me. But the child repeated the same thing over and over again. I was black, ugly and scary. That coloured the rest of the day. I picked a corner in the waiting area where I had little chance of bumping into the little girl and stayed away from the styling area where the model was having her hair and makeup done until it was necessary for me to be there.
In Kenya, I had become used to the crippling ethnic profiling that was part of my life because of my last name, and the comments made about my appearance, my skin tone, or my facial features which were deemed undesirable or not conforming to those of the people from my ethnic group. I had learned to navigate the stereotypes, working to dismantle those that worked against me, while embracing the positive ones as a rudder towards growth. In this clash of numerous cultures, I had an identity. I could find my bearings easily, and remain grounded. But leaving Kenya confronted me with a whole new identity. I was no longer a Kikuyu guy from Nairobi’s Eastlands with all the baggage that came with that. I was black.
I have come to learn that being black has nothing to do with my culture, and very little indeed to do with my skin colour. It is a global metric by which my worth as a human being is measured.
China is not the easiest place to be black. It is a country with a long history of colourism amongst its own people and against outsiders, and a tendency to push towards homogenisation. Therefore, being black creates a visceral reaction among many locals which results in xenophobic and racist sentiments. Being proudly African, in whichever way that exuded from me, was quickly met with incomprehension at best and absolute disgust at worst. Why would anyone wish to be black, African and proud of it? I encountered a broad definition for people who looked like me, an extensive catalogue of black, ranging from the mildly acceptable, to the tolerable, to the unacceptable.
I have been told that I am not as dark as “real” Africans. And I have seen relief sweep across people’s faces when they realise that I am not from Nigeria. To be dark and Nigerian is to embody a negative stereotype both within and outside the black community. People tend to cling to those of their nationality, forming chat groups on WeChat, China’s version of WhatsApp, where they share their stories of racism and offer support to each other. For the chosen few who are welcomed into African American circles, the situation is no better as conversations and sentiments almost exclusively centre around the Black American experience in China and around the world. Many African Americans I have encountered in China, though proud to be affiliated with Africa, are often ignorant of its peoples and its cultures. It comes then as no surprise that when the Black Lives Matter movement started getting traction globally, Africans were expected to show solidarity, yet the conversation about what it means to be black and African in a country like China is not a single story.
As an African who identifies as Kenyan in China, my cultural and national identity are subsumed by a greater racial-cultural one. In North America in particular, being black represents an entire culture of Afro-descendants. Such broad identities leave no room for ethnic, regional and national identities from Africa. I have often been engaged in conversations with African Americans in China who automatically assume our lived experiences are to a large extent similar if not entirely identical. They refuse to engage with the notion that, as someone from a majority “black” country, my experiences of systemic oppression are not within the context of race. The man at the top consolidating power for himself and his cronies isn’t white but black. The face of oppression in my experience is my own.
And this subsuming of my cultural and national identity is adopted by the Chinese community, where the parent identity of people who look like me is African American, and so it is my job to align myself with that identity as much as possible if I hope to survive. China acts as a petri dish for how the world is stratified, not only along racial lines but along national identities as well. Towards the tail end of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in China, Chinese landlords in Guangzhou province systematically targeted African tenants, making unfounded claims that it was they who had and were spreading the virus. This was despite ample evidence to the contrary. The fear had been sparked by the growing number of cases imported into China before the borders were closed indefinitely. A negligible number of the imported cases were attributed to foreigners returning to China, and fewer still were attributed to Africans. This however didn’t stop the evictions, leading to a public outcry both in China and in the rest of the world.
However, to a large extent, African Americans were not singled out. This is because, according to popular belief in Chinese society, “blacks” from America and Europe are better. They can be trusted more. The hierarchy of races in China is ordered from the top in this way: white English speakers, white Western Europeans, white Eastern Europeans, white South Africans followed by Black Americans, South Americans, black South Africans, East Asians, Middle Easterners, Southeast Asians, Pacific Islanders, blacks from the Caribbean and, at the very bottom, the African, the generic term for sub-Saharan Africans. There is a premium placed on being from countries classified by the Chinese government as Native English speaking countries. These are The UK, the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, and South Africa. It narrows the pool of potential candidates for the highly sort after English teaching jobs in the country. Since there is little else in the way of jobs for foreigners in China, anyone who has passable English jostles for the few opportunities. Often, African nationals from English speaking countries are passed over for these types of jobs, even when the employer is willing to hire illegally. Some Africans resort to claiming American or South African nationality, a fact which angers Americans and South Africans in China, as they claim such individuals soil their national reputations.
A recent revision of the Chinese Greencard application process, which sought to make it easier for highly skilled professionals to gain permanent residence in China, laid bare the fear of the African. Chinese netizens took to Weibo (Chinese Twitter) and other Chinese platforms to express their displeasure at the possibility of an influx of foreigners into their land. The outcry took a decidedly dark turn as Chinese nationals expressed their displeasure at a possibly blacker, more Africanised China in future. Africans are already stereotyped as unhygienic, disease-infested layabouts, and the possibility of their being granted permanent leave to remain in China was more than many could contemplate.
China’s perception of people of colour is largely informed by the media. Stereotypes played out in TV shows and reinforced by sports are held as gospel truths. All African Americans are therefore either gun-toting gangsters, or tall pro basketball players, while Africans, especially Kenyans, are incredible marathon runners motivated by the need to run away from lions since we all come from the Maasai Mara. The African is an alien other in the Chinese consciousness. I have had to resort to showing photos of Kenya, of Nairobi, videos of the hustle and bustle to prove that I come from a city just like any other in the world. That phenomenon is not unique to the Chinese. I was once in an argument with an African American friend of mine about where Kenya was located in Africa. He insisted that Kenya bordered Nigeria and could not be dissuaded. Not until I showed him a map but even then, he fell back on his “American innocence”.
The stereotype of Africa as a disease-ridden, famine and war-ravaged continent is still taken as the gospel truth by many in China. There is an unwillingness to engage with the “masses of African people” who populate Chinese cities and study in Chinese schools. This misconception that all Africans are poor has spawned the belief that all Africans are economic migrants to China, constantly taking advantage of the Chinese government’s generosity in the way of the scholarships extended to seemingly undeserving African students, while Chinese students allegedly continue to go without. But these are the same scholarships extended to other Asian, European and South American countries, with the key link being the bilateral agreements forged between China and countries far and wide. Oftentimes, the students on these scholarships only receive them on the condition that they return to their countries of origin upon graduation, because Chinese-educated Africans are a greater asset to the Chinese government back in Africa. In actual fact, investing in African students is investing in China’s future. But your average Chinese citizen will be oblivious to this fact, instead choosing to vilify African students and the merchants who are a direct source of capital for Chinese businesses.
To exist as African is to exist in a state of apology. The proximity to whiteness that African Americans and Black South Africans have spares them the inconvenience of negative stereotypes. Africa sends some of its best and most brilliant to represent them in Europe and Asia. The African who does not fit into the negative stereotype becomes an exception to the rule rather than an example of what Africa has to offer. It means that in a society as stratified along racial and national lines as this one, the few opportunities available to foreigners in terms of work and education are measured out in relation to one’s proximity to whiteness. The African remains at the bottom, a position from which he is still expected to be gracious and grateful.
This ignorance is exhibited not only by the Chinese against Africans in China but also by African Americans and Europeans, who display a lack of interest in fully engaging with my story of blackness. This is particularly ironical considering the overwhelming support which Chinese netizens have shown the Black Lives Matter movement in America, with the protests in America and across the world receiving massive airplay on national Chinese news outlets.
When tenant evictions started happening in Guangzhou, however, it was through friends and families abroad that most found out what was happening. The horrific racism against Africans did not receive any news coverage beyond the government’s denial after international news outlets started reporting about it. The same government that called racism in America a social ill remained silent as its own citizens shared racist, xenophobic sentiments against Africans evictees in Guangzhou.
Anyone, regardless of race or nationality, can display a geographical ignorance of the world and the peoples that inhabit it. But this classification of nationalities and races by Chinese society has ensured that certain groups achieve and maintain superiority over others. The “Native English Speakers”, whether black or white, possess that thing so desired by China’s nouveau riche; to become an English speaker and thus attain the ultimate status of upward social mobility and be welcomed into the Anglophone world, portrayed as the world of the accomplished.
Africa is a massive continent with a population of 1.4 billion people. We come from 55 countries that are as distinct in their populations as they are in their cultural compositions and heritages. To some extent, one might describe African nations more as confederacies of distinct ethnic groups under various national flags rather than a united body of Africans.
Every crisis presents an opportunity. As African Americans confront systemic racism, Kenyans are also turning their attention to our own political history. In various WeChat groups, Kenyans in China are engaged in fervent discussions, expressing their political hopes for the future. It is to these groups that Kenyans turned when their situation was dire in places like Guangzhou and Shenzhen, receiving help from fellow Kenyans when the Kenyan embassy was slow to act. And it was to these same groups that those stranded in China—unable to afford the Sh80,000 airfare for repatriation—turned for donations when they were told in no uncertain terms that ndege sio matatu, you shouldn’t expect to catch a flight as you would a minibus taxi. In Kenyan WeChat groups, members are spoiling for a revolution of some kind. We all want change, but it falls apart at the seams when mention is made of tribe or political party affiliation. Yet we know that our silence and our refusal to engage with issues of social justice, equality and corrupt systems will not save us.
A disturbing event recently took place that fully encapsulates the terror of being black and African in China. In Kenyan and African groups across the country, people began sharing the photos and videos of Eric Jackson, a Ghanaian man who was turned away from four hospitals due to fears that he had COVID-19. A hospital eventually took him in but it was too late. Jackson died while undergoing treatment. He died of cardiac arrest. Videos of Jackson’s agonising last moments, and of his corpse on a gurney at what I speculate to be the entrance to a morgue, were a stark reminder of our place in this country. It was a terrifying manifestation of the Chinese rejection of our colour and our race. In one of the videos, his friend is heard pleading to be let into the hospital in fluent Chinese but the guard at the gate refuses and sends them away. He is heard asking, “Is this not a hospital? Do you not treat sick people here?”, and getting no response.
This incident knocked the air out of my lungs. To a smaller but yet equally profound extent, Jackson became our George Floyd, not dying under the knee of a racist cop, but under the crushing weight of a deeply racist and complacent system denying him a duty of care. In the Kenyan WeChat group, an outpouring of grief was followed by an important question; even if Jackson was dying of COVID-19, did he not deserve to be treated? Had he been a Chinese national, or even white, would he have been turned away? COVID-19 was the pretext for medical professionals to not only shirk their responsibility, but for individuals to go against that very human instinct of preserving a human life under threat. Jackson was denied medical help because to them his black skin and his origin meant his life wasn’t worth saving. Jackson wasn’t worth fretting over, and his death was not a loss. His friend’s desperate pleas, in their own language, did nothing to weaken their resolve.
We all recognised in that moment that Jackson was us and we were him. That could have been my dead body on a gurney somewhere in the south of China. Those could have been my final moments captured on short WeChat video clips for the world to see. That could have been my life devalued and ultimately lost because I was born black and African.
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