“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.”
Campus or Fortress? How Terrorism-inspired Security Checks Killed Public Discourse at Universities
After the Garissa massacre, universities became like military installations. Private security firms were deployed to man the gates and the buildings within universities. Non-students must produce national IDs and explain what they are going to do at the university.
A few years ago, I was in a matatu along Riverside Drive trying to get to town, but the evening traffic was unrelenting. I decided to get off the matatu and walk through the University of Nairobi’s Chiromo Campus, thinking that this might be a quicker way of making it to town in time for my evening beer.
At the gate, the security guard asked for my ID, which I promptly produced.
“A student ID, I meant,” he told me impatiently.
“I’m a former student, student leader no less. I just want to walk through to avoid this traffic,” I told him politely.
“It is past 5 p.m. Non-students are not allowed in the university compound.”
It was final. Unbelievable that a year earlier, anyone would walk through any public university without security guards demanding their ID and wanting to know which part of the university they were going to. I humbly boarded another matatu with a bad FM radio station on and endured the traffic.
Garissa massacre: The watershed moment
Sometime in 2012, when random terror attacks became the norm, buildings in the central business district, government facilities, shopping malls and other places likely to be targeted by Al Shabaab installed walk-through metal detectors. Those that could not afford the expensive apparatus bought cheap metal detectors and hired young men and women to man their buildings. Nobody knows how the detectors are supposed to stop marauding, gun-wielding murderers. (Having witnessed the Westgate mall attack in 2013 and the Dusit attack in 2019, we now know that they cannot stop terrorists.)
Around that time, there were messages that used to circulate on social media allegedly from Al Shabaab, outlining their targets, predictably the United Nations complex, government buildings, embassies of Western nations, shopping malls favoured by expatriates and the University of Nairobi.
Given the frequency of the attacks and their randomness, even the tough-headed University of Nairobi students grudgingly accepted the intrusive searches in the spirit of forestalling terror attacks. And any students who felt violated by the limitation of their liberties, the Garissa university attacks removed any doubt about the invulnerability of universities.
At dawn on Thursday, April 2, 2015, gunmen descended on Garissa University College and killed 148 students and injured another 79. It was the second deadliest terror attack since the 1998 Al Qaeda bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi that killed more than 200 people. The attack sent chills down our spines for its severity and cruelty.
After the Garissa massacre, universities became like military installations. Private security firm were deployed to man the gates and the buildings within universities. At the universities’ main gates, security guards began searching cars and frisking students. Non-students must produce national IDs and explain what they are going to do at the university. They don’t necessary keep these details, so you can cook up any excuse if you have ulterior motives. But the presence of the guards has definitely limited the foot traffic of the general public at universities.
Buildings that host the most important people within the university are now fortified, and senior university officials have security details that rival those of the President. I recently saw the Vice Chancellor of a top local university walking around the university. He had more than five bodyguards. The building where his office is located has no-nonsense security guards who ensure that they have taken your every detail before giving you the wrong directions to the office you need to go to. The apparatus and the many security guards who replicate their roles can give one a false sense of security.
In a way, the many security guards have made university less fun. Just a decade ago, when I was a student, the university was a free place for both students and the general public. If tired in town, you could walk to the university and rest on the seats or any of beautiful manicured lawns.
At the hostels, those from less fortunate backgrounds would host their relatives in their tiny rooms as they worked or went to college somewhere in Nairobi. Public universities had a comradely camaraderie regardless of the students’ backgrounds; there was an egalitarianism, a sense of belonging. Public universities had a tinge of elitism, but they were equally accessible to the sons and daughters of peasants and of wealthy folk.
Also, the university was a place of ideas. Several public forums used to be held at universities. Thinkers, writers, foreign dignitaries, and local celebrities came and freely interacted with us. There was no payment or the signing of some Google-doc for you to attend an event.
I remember a time when the Ghanaian writer Ayi Kweyi Armah visited the University of Nairobi in the mid-2000s. Barack Obama also came to the university when he was a Senator for Illinois. So did Hillary Clinton when she was US Secretary of State. Joe Biden visited when he was the Vice President of the United States. I remember when Chimamanda Adichie was brought by Kwani? in its hey days in 2008, when her magnum opus, Half of a Yellow Sun, had just been re-published by Kwani? Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo also delivered public lectures at the university. These forums and the resultant public discourses made the university experience all the more exciting.
I remember a time when there were no restrictions to anyone who wanted to attend. But in the last few years, there have been fewer notable public forums at the university. There have hardly been any new or controversial ideas on language, literature, politics, economics or philosophy that have been debated here in recent times. Universities have not provided an environment where we can contextualise what is going on in the country, the continent and the world.
There is no shortage of thinkers, philosophers and scholars whose works students should be exposed to, from Mahmood Mamdani to Achille Mbembe, Wandia Njoya, Stella Nyanzi, Kwame Antony Appiah, Evan Mwangi, Sylvia Tamale and Mshai Mwangola, among others. But you are more likely to encounter their minds in a civil society setting or other forums than at a university. Ironically, private universities that were citadels of the bourgeoisie have fared better in hosting these thinkers, who sometimes can be a thorn in the flesh of the ruling class and the bourgeoisie.
Symbols of segregation
Security guards act as physical gatekeepers of free intercourse of ideas that should take place in universities. Security guards are a symbol of segregation. There is a reason a public university is protected and a public market like Muthurwa is not. And the nature of security searches is so subjective. There are places you can go in if you are driving a big car or wearing a suit. A young man with dreadlocks will have a lot of difficulties going into the same place.
Al Shabaab, like their counterparts Boko Haram, have contempt for Western education, which is why they target educational institutions. However, when these terror attacks began, universities had become commercial enterprises. Since university education became commercialised through self-sponsored programmes, universities began swimming in billions. It was, therefore, in their interest to ensure that Al Shabaab did not disrupt the business side of things. Remember, most self-sponsored students come from middle class or wealthy families. Hence their lives matter more. A visit to the hostels where regular students stay can reveal the amount of neglect and class divide in our institutions of higher learning. The influx of self-sponsored students meant that the already limited resources in universities were stretched beyond the limit.
Politics and corruption also had an impact on public forums that took place at universities. It is hard to host an anti-corruption activist with progressive ideas at a university that is embroiled in mega corruption scandals. It makes the management very uncomfortable. Since the time of Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi, opposition politicians and human rights activists have always been uninvited to universities, as university managements have tended to align themselves with the government. It is not uncommon to see a university Vice Chancellor groveling with a team of tribal leaders at State House. Their presumed intellectual autonomy is at the mercy of the powers that be. Funding can be cut because of any perceived misdeed. This is not fiction; most universities have had their budgets cut because of some misunderstanding with the Ministry of Education. You can’t blame the management at times, since self-preservation is natural. Why host a talk on human rights of young men succumbing daily to extrajudicial killings and risk budget cuts when you can award a political bigwig with a dubious honorary degree to attract funding?
The upshot of this unwillingness on the part of universities to open their spaces for public discourses is that civil society organisations and the embassies of leading Western powers have taken over this role. The Goethe Institute, the Alliance Française and the British Council are doing what universities should be doing. This is not a bad thing in itself, as we need as many of these public forums as possible. However, with universities rarely hosting notable public events – save for entrepreneur forums where phony businessmen are allowed to sell their half-baked ideas anchored on neoliberalism – institutions of higher learning are losing much of their clout.
A local university erected a huge tower recently and the only events sanctioned to take place there are events that can bring money or improve the image of the university to the outside world. Its beautiful theatres cannot host the university’s student travelling theatre group because literature is considered a lesser discipline than commerce (possibly the most useless discipline ever invented by universities, but the most lucrative).
Universities have robbed themselves the agency of owning ideas, and Kenyans now have to rely on Western institutional spaces (embassies or spaces funded by NGOs) to provide forums for the many needed discussions. Young minds in much need of intellectual nourishment beyond what is served in class are poorer for this.
Foreign institutions, for all their accessibility, are viewed by many as elite institutions, and some of us neither feel at home there nor free to express our opinions as we would in a village baraza. You must adjust to certain dialectical expectations of the hosts.
The life of a security guard
Security guards are the best symbol of inequality in Kenya. Kenya is one of the most unequal societies in the world. According to data from Oxfam (often debated upon), 8,300 (less than 0.1%) of the population own more wealth than the bottom 99.9%. The richest 10% earn on average 23 times more than the poorest 10%.
Security guards who work with security companies are among the poorest Kenyans. A casual conversation with them reveals that they mostly walk to work. (Some live in nearby slums that are always near the richer estates and communities.) A simple chat with them will show you how meaningless their job is. They survive on a meal day (usually dinner). The reason they try to strike a conversation and become familiar with the people they frisk daily is so they can get a tip that they can use to buy a packet of milk and a KDF (a pastry favoured by the poor). Most have to moonlight, washing cars parked in spaces they man or running some petty errands for an extra coin to augment their meagre earnings that defy common sense.
What’s worse, the security companies fleece them – not only are they badly paid, the companies even deduct the cost of their own uniforms from their salaries. There is no transport allowance or transport provided by the company; most security guards walk for hours to get to work. Not even Francis Atwoli, the flamboyant Secretary General of the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU), has stood up for their rights.
When you scrutinise their work, you will find that they are a symptom of a badly diseased nation. At universities they symbolise the breakdown of the flow of ideas from the university to the public sphere. Public lectures were called so because the public could attend, but presently the public is not invited to universities. There are other gatekeeping methods, such as email bookings and notices that only students can access. Security guards best represent the barrier that has been erected. And at universities, they exist to remind us whose interests universities now serve. They are there in the pretext of terrorism, but everyone knows they are badly underprepared should a gunman strike.
It is the naiveté of the Kenyan elite that baffles me. We are all like the passengers on the Titanic. Privileged ones think they can escape the inefficiency of a government that has failed to provide basic services to the poor, from education to healthcare and security, by securing the services of private firms.
But if there is one thing that the Westgate, Dusit, Mpeketoni, Mandera and Garissa attacks have taught us, it is that a society only functions properly when the poorest and richest share the same privileges when it comes to basic services and public goods. Private schools and private hospitals will not fill the gaps in education and healthcare. Neither will private security companies fill the gaps in policing.
Geometric Circles, Zigzags and Waves: The Anatomy of a Kenyan ID
Some years ago, I forgot my national ID in a jeans pocket before a wash and it’s been steadily losing glue ever since. Now at least three corners of this sad rectangle have curled up to expose government paper with my zeros and ones. The card’s many adventures inside the small purse that lives in my handbag are evident. The open border is freckled with dust, eyebrow pencil shavings and a dash of blue ink. Imeona life.
Fifteen years before that peeling skin, that festering wound, had formed, I stood against a classroom wall in Embu to get my picture taken. It was a hot day and the man in a lab coat didn’t allow any of us to smile. We’d been advised to apply for our IDs while still in school to avoid the confusion and long queues at the chief’s camps that would really be practice for the first day we’d vote. (Many years later I would visit this hectic space and secure a new ID only to promptly lose it.)
I’d written to my father, giving him the list of information needed by all Form Four students whose 18th birthday fell within a particular window. His reply arrived by Kenya Posta’s express mail service and was written in red ink, greetings and all. Still visible on the top left column of the frayed card is the district of my father’s birth. Listed below that are the division, location and sub-location. Each concentric circle was intended to lead to where my grandfather lay sleeping. My father, the cartographer, even let me know the exact village and chief at the time, in case that was needed too.
A part of me likes to believe that the countless M-Pesa agents and watchmen and landlords and companies that have accepted this ugly and, quite frankly, suspect identification document all decided to show me a kindness. However, I’m also aware of the privileges that allow me to slip past. It is the security of a presumably harmless surname.
In 2013, I visited a cousin who worked as a dentist in Garissa. It was a largely pleasant nine-hour bus ride, but as we neared the township, our vehicle was stopped and soldiers boarded the bus. I watched with terror as they moved from seat to seat with bright flashlights, asking passengers to produce their IDs. I frantically pawed through my bag but as fate would have it, I only had my NHIF and job cards on me. My cousin had forgotten to let me know that I needed this crucial document. Perhaps it was an assumption that I would naturally have it on me. But at that time in my life, the fear of being pick-pocketed or mugged for my handbag was bigger than worrying whether anyone would question my Kenyan-ness.
That night, the police let me through. On the day I was leaving for home, the bus was stopped yet again. This time the soldiers used magnifying glasses and took their time scrutinising the tapestry of geometric circles, zigzags and waves. I had organized to have my ID couriered from home so I was able to board the bus after the first checkpoint. I had a seatmate, a young lady who was travelling with a small child and an elderly auntie. When we first sat down, she had the child on her lap and we shared polite conversation. At some stage, they disappeared to the back where her auntie was sitting. Later, the lady returned alone.
We got separated when we disembarked the first time but she made it through okay. That is, until we got to the second checkpoint. This time, the soldiers boarded the bus as on the night of my entry into Garissa. The waiting card that had served my seatmate well the first time wasn’t enough for these soldiers.
“Unaishi wapi?” (Where do you live?) asked the soldier, as he examined the laminated piece of paper.
“Garissa,” she responded.
“Basi kwa nini ulichukua hii kadi Wajir? Ebu toka kwa gari.” (Then why was this card issued in Wajir? Get off the bus), he replied.
And that was the last we saw of her. The bus pulled out of the checkpoint amid a flurry of animated shouts in Somali by the other passengers. As I craned my neck back towards the area we’d dropped them, I saw my seatmate being escorted towards a small mabati structure off the road. The conductor then came to sit by me and I asked him if the girl was coming back.
He said, “Huyo tumemwacha kabisa.” (We’ve left that one indefinitely.)
“But the slave who sees another cast into a shallow grave knows that he will be buried in the same way when his day comes…” – Chinua Achebe, The Arrow of God.
Mama, the last of Nyanya Kachui’s nine children, grew up right across from the mosque her grandfather had built and in the area her father had governed as chief. The story goes that her surname, Godoro, came from a joke her father had made when, as a young man, he marvelled at the length of a city bridge and how many mattresses one could fit on it. Her mother’s name was from her diminutive size as a child; she was as tiny as a chick, gachui.
Babu Mkuu Tairara died in Eastleigh.
Babu Godoro is buried beside him in Thika cemetery.
Mama was lain to sleep there too.
My other concentric circles.
If we traced my lineage through her, through them, if I was Salma, like my shangazis had wanted, would my tattered ID card still draw laughter if I’d given the district of their birth, listed the division, location and sub-location?
There’s a co-mingling of stupidity and smugness whenever I present my battered ID. They remain even when I’m trusted to enter my details into one of those large black notebooks as a nice security lady goes through my bag. To borrow Brenda Wambui’s term, that visitor’s log, beloved by procurement officers across the nation and no doubt purchased for its endless ruled pages and that no-nonsense hardcover, is speculative fiction at its best. I am simultaneously Wanjeri and Carol of ID 12345678 and neither of us is any safer.
“The alarm at the Ruiru base of the Recce Company of the General Service Unit was sounded at 6 a.m. on Thursday last week. As they gathered, officers of the elite paramilitary unit were informed that a possible terrorist attack had been launched on Garissa University College by suspected Al-Shabaab gunmen.” – Shame of slow response in 15 hour campus terror – Daily Nation
“The Kenya Police Airwing plane was not immediately available to fly the Recce Company on the morning of the Garissa University College terrorist attack because it was flying a small group of civilians from Mombasa.” – How police plane is misused for private mission – PHOTOS – Nairobi News.
One hundred and forty-eight people lost their lives in Garissa on April 5th, 2015.
Every once in a while I think about my seatmate and what fate found her. I hope she came to no harm. I hope her waiting card was accepted. I hope she finally got an ID. I hope her son, if indeed he was her son, was allowed to continue practising his family’s faith without fear; allowed to form a zebiba, a black mark on his forehead from constant contact with his prayer mat, like that on the foreheads of my wajombas; allowed never to experience either the Kasarani concentration camp or the Wagalla massacre; allowed to mourn with dignity first and only in the face of the loss of two sons like it should have been for Haji Yassin Juma.
It is not enough to empathise with the persecuted and the dead but it is a start. It is a virtue that is sorely lacking. This grand project called Kenya calls on all of us to hold space for kindness—the kind that M-Pesa agents and watchmen and landlords and companies and soldiers should show to clumsy girls who carry worn tapestries of geometric circles, zigzags and waves.
Forget Al Shabaab, the Police Are the Real Terrorists in Kenya
Rather than destroying the colonial system, what Kenyan leaders desired at independence was to replace the coloniser. So they saw no need to reform the police force, the very system that propped up the colonialist. Since then, Kenya’s police and security forces have been used as weapons of terror against the “natives” by the country’s administrators.
Listen. I don’t know how to write this. What am I saying even? A few months ago, my friend and I were at the Maasai Mbili Art Collective in Kibera, and the folks there were talking about attending reggae concerts in the city. “Hiyo siku walituangusha wengi. Mimi hizi form za reggae siendi tena.” (That day they struck many of us down. I don’t go for reggae concerts any more).
Listen. I don’t know how to write about this conversation that troubled me greatly, this conversation about kuangushwa at night after reggae concerts, this conversation about how these people doing the felling are merciless. Instead, in its place, here’s a story.
Once, there was a boy. The boy played football and disliked avocados and went to school.
In Kisumu, how many times did the boy join a crowd of people running away from police bullets?
How many times were the boy and his classmates, while in the middle of a lesson, told to lie down on the corridors of their school, away from the windows, because of police bullets?
Listen. I don’t know how to write this. Can you tell? Can you tell that I am struggling, drowning, to find the words, wrong or right, to say whatever it is I want to say?
Once, there was a group of children. The children were less than six years old, all in nursery school. One day, while they were in school, a group of police officers came into their school and tear-gassed the children.
This wielding of power like this and that on three-year-olds, on four-year-olds, on five-year-olds, is this not terrorism?
Actually, what is terrorism? My dictionary says, “Terrorism is the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.”
So, these little kids, are they civilians?
In Kisumu, the main road running through the city, the road that divided the city neatly into two, used to be called Jomo Kenyatta Highway. Here’s a story I heard. Do you know that one night, a group of people (or could it have been just one person?) rubbed off the words Jomo Kenyatta Highway so violently that from certain angles the words appeared to have been burned away? Now people call the road Bi Pendo Road. Samantha Pendo was a six-month-old infant bludgeoned to death in Kisumu by police on the night of August 10, 2017.
Is it a good thing that roads are named after babies killed because of terror, because violence was used against a civilian, against a baby almost too young to be a civilian, because some people somewhere were pursuing their political aims?
Then, the judiciary was told, “we shall revisit” by the president, but then hands were shaken, and this revisiting, me I don’t know when it will happen.
I don’t know many things. But sometimes I hear things. Did you hear about Caroline Mwatha, who was fighting for the victims of police violence in Dandora? Ati she died of an abortion. That’s the statement. Anyway, what do we know? Trust, that’s all we can do. We’re told to trust the system. We are wananchi – children and heirs of the land.
I read that the Kenya Police was established by colonial governor Sir James Hayes Sandler in 1902, but didn’t exist in its modern form until 1920 when Kenya became a colony. From the start, it was anti-African. The historian and journalist John Kamau describes it as “a tool for the settlers and administrators to enforce their will on Africans”.
The Administration Police’s mandate is a microcosm of this early anti-African attitude in Kenyan police work, seeing as when it was first established (it was known as the Native Police). Its mandate was to enforce the payment of taxes by the African populace, to control livestock movement, to provide forced labour for the coloniser, and to protect government installations. The village headmen stuffed the Native Police with local tough guys and bullies, ma first body as they would be called in Sheng, and these untrained recruits bullied the Africans into doing the things that the colonial administration wanted. Therefore, instead of protecting the locals and maintaining trust with them, the police force acquired a reputation as manifestations of the terror and violence of the colonial administration.
While one would have expected that the attitude of the police force would have changed with independence, it did not. Frantz Fanon writes, “The colonised man is an envious man. And this the settler knows very well; when their glances meet he ascertains bitterly, always on the defensive, ‘They want to take our place.’ It is true, for there is no native who does not dream of setting himself up in the settler’s place.”
Thus, since, rather than destroying the colonial system, what Kenyan leaders desired at independence was to replace the coloniser. So they saw no need to reform the police force, the very system that propped up the colonialist. Since then, Kenya’s police and security forces have been used as weapons of terror against the “natives” by the country’s administrators,
Another friend and I, at a sleepover at her house, talk about this. “The police is being anti-citizen? That seems to be a narrow premise,” she argues. “I would lean towards them being pro-state, and in this country, that often means anti-citizen.”
We were not just splitting definitional hairs. Her characterisation of the police being pro-state actually points out the irony of something we all know – that police officers are underpaid, have always been underpaid, are overworked, and live in deplorable housing conditions. So why would they be strongly pro-state if raiding citizens was not the purpose of their existence?
A police force/service/whatever it is they insist on calling themselves ought to be pro-citizen, but this one of ours – where Kikuyu police officers are deployed in Nyanza, Luo police officers are stationed in Eldoret, Kigsigis police officers are sent to Mombasa and Mijikenda police officers work in Embu – is anything but. They are deployed in this way so that they don’t form bonds with the civilians. When these bonds are formed, then the officers are transferred, especially immediately before elections when the administrators want to enact their little and big terrorisms on the native, and when we expect them to be so anti-citizen that we don’t realise the wrongness in this. They are supposed to be serving you, not terrorising you.
If the police service/force/whatever name they insist on calling themselves is built on the premise of being pro-state and thus anti-citizen, do the sporadic acts of virtue performed by individual police officers even matter? These, my questions, me I don’t know the answers, I don’t know whether my answers are right or wrong, or even whether it is my questions that are wrong.
How do we write about terror? Mimi sijui. I don’t know.
Instead, here is a list of attacks that Wikipedia classifies as the major terror incidents in Kenya:
- Nairobi bombing, March 1st, 1975 – 30 people killed.
- Norfolk bombing, December 31st, 1980 – 20 people killed.
- United States Embassy bombing, August 7th, 1998 – 213 people killed.
- Kikambala Hotel bombing, 28th, November 2002 – 13 people killed.
- Westgate Mall shooting, 21st September 2013 – 67 people killed.
- Mpeketoni attacks, 15th June – 17th, June 2014 – At least 70 people killed.
- Garissa University attack, April 2015 –147 people killed
- Dusit D2 Complex attack, 15th January 2019 – At least 21 people killed.
Who updates this list, I wonder. Whose job is it to add the grisly details of these deaths to this list? Don’t they know about Wagalla, when the Kenya government killed its own citizens in 1984? Here’s what Wikipedia says about the death toll of Wagalla: “The exact number of people killed in the massacre is unknown. However, eyewitnesses place the figure at around 10,000 deaths.”
Around ten thousand deaths, is that not terror? Or maybe because we read in the Bible that David killed tens of thousands so that’s no longer terror? What is it called when one of the men who is said to have abetted (authorised?) the massacre in Wagalla is appointed the chairman of the commission to investigate the Wagalla massacre? His name was Bethuel Kiplagat. Is that what they call dramatic irony?
Listen, I’m not an expert in these things of terrorism, can you tell? I’m not an intellectual, I don’t think solidly about these lofty things. Have you noticed that I’m quoting from Wikipedia? But here’s a question my editor asks: Why does death by terrorism grip our psyche? Why does Al Shabaab frighten us so? Is it because it’s a “globalised” death? Is it because vigils will be held and commissions of inquiry will be formed and presidents will make rousing statements about the country’s unity? Is it because terrorism is viewed as that committed by the other, the foreign, so that whatever the nationality of the individuals involved in the attacks, Al Shabaab is a foreign group against which we must all stand together?
Me I don’t know. Me I just hear things. Like how I heard that in Mathare, cops have their criminal networks, networks from which they eat, but that once in a while one of their superiors goes on TV and promises action, and then their bosses want action, and these same cops look for people to kill, people whose deaths will be action in the war against crime, and more importantly, people whose deaths will not threaten the networks that benefit these officers of the law.
On 28th February 2019, a community dialogue was held at the Kayole Social Hall. Organised by the Kayole Community Justice Centre, in collaboration with the Social Justice Centre Working Group, the dialogue aimed at addressing criminality and police brutality. The dialogue was a follow-up to the Machozi Ya Jana community dialogues held in Kibera, Kawangware, Korogocho, Mukuru, Mathare, Njiu and Dandora in 2017. I sit in my house and follow the #KayoleDialogue hashtag on twitter. The Director of Public Prosecutions, Noordin Haji, and the Directorate of Criminal Investigations boss, George Kinoti, are speakers at the forum. Question: Of the 123 people killed by the police in the 2008 post-election violence (according to the Government of Kenya), how many police officers were prosecuted successfully for these deaths, these acts of terror? Answer: Zero.
Here’s a story. The last one. A group of friends are having drinks somewhere in Nairobi’s CBD. When we leave, I decide that I want to walk for a bit to clear my head. Haiya sawa, one of them says, Tembea, but chunga this street and this street kuna makarao. You can go, he says, but watch out, on this street and that one, there are cops.
Question: Shouldn’t the one that terrifies you, the cause of the terror in the citizens, be considered the terrorist?
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