It is not your fault.
You did not fail to lead. You had no thought.
You did not fail to protect. You had no dominion.
You are not a child of two worlds colonialism and post-colonialism, pre-World War II and post-World War II, you are child of no world.
You are silent because you are lost.
How can you become what you do not know? Who knows what a Kikuyu was? Was like? So that you could be Kikuyu?
What does interring 1.5 million members of a primitive agrarian tribe do to its memory?
It sears. It purges it.
It prepares it for loading with new thoughts, new memories.
Mzee, you were de-centred before you were born.
What Riika (Age-Set) are you? Who are your relatives to the other in the larger family that is tribe?
Yes, Mzee, you would not know. And this is through no fault of your own. Your sole point of access to tribal history and initiation into the social order was interdicted decades before the birth of your generation. That is the “Riika” social system. It is not only the repository of the social map of the Kikuyu tribe, it also facilitated social initiation in ceremonies that defined transition from boyhood to warriorhood to junior elder to senior and finally to tribal council. It is this information void that makes every Kikuyu, a stranger to every other Kikuyu. It is the information that makes every Somali a brother to another Somali. It is the information at the heart of “Somali FIRST”.
There has not been a Riika ceremony in a century and a half. The Colonial Government in a stroke of diabolical genius banned the one dated for 1910 making the last one of 1898 the last existent social memory of self.
The breadth and depth of the Imperial war to enslave your people was multi-generational and socially kaleidoscopic in terms of spectrum of tools applied; consisting of conventional, economic, psychological, biological and cultural prongs.
Your history and identity were systematically erased at all levels of consciousness and awareness.
The Church Missionary Society that cultured you was all about Imperial mission. Did you know the idea of the Church Missionary Society was conceived by Charles Grant, the Chairman of Imperial British East India (IBEI). And it was executed by British Members of Parliament William Wilberforce, in the last quarter of the 18th Century, all Secular Imperialists, not a single clergyman.
Closer home, the Presbyterian Church of East Africa which was the institutional protagonist of Christianity in the Central Highlands is actually the bastard child of the Imperial British East Africa company believe it or not. Yes, it is not a secret, it is public information. One century after the establishment of the Church Missionary Society around 1891 Sir William Mackinnon, Mr. A. L. Bruce and other directors of the Imperial British East Africa Company dispatched another group of Imperial agents with Bibles in their hands to British East Africa. As incredulous as it might sound the spiritual values of the Kikuyu tribe were given to it by its expropriator and slave master, the infamous Imperial British East Africa Company.
Can you see why Kikuyus are capitalists by faith? Why sons kill fathers for land and wives kill husbands for property? Why poverty is the ultimate sin in Kikuyu land? Can you now see the source of the Kikuyu tribes’ pseudo-Imperialist hubris? The Imperial British East Africa (IBEA) Company is the Kikuyu tribe’s pseudo-deity, it is the sovereign source of its spiritual beliefs.
During “the emergency” in the fifties, when the “Mau Mau” resistance rose, the church, both Protestants and Catholics, did not remain silent, neutral or inactive. The missionaries threw their weight behind the British forces and joined their ranks even serving on armed patrols. Yes, “the missionaries” did not call for peace and or love here, there was no division between the Catholics and the Protestants, there was a unified call to in-discriminatory armed action against all “natives”. Bring them to bear, how dare they resist Imperial expropriation and Christian occupation!
This language and phrasing as harsh as it actually sounds is actually quite mild. As bizarre as it may sound they did see themselves as Christian saviours of savages, and were surprised by the resistance. In fact, so much so, their analysis of the Mau Mau resistance ranged from a form of mental illness to spiritual evil. Language exactly equivalent to that being used to describe Muslims resisting the brutal occupation of their land, pillage of their resources and rape of their women; Terrorists, Irrational, Bloodthirsty, Extremist, Retrogressive, Deranged… How could anyone hate American Democracy? How could anyone hate British Christianity?
Mzee, not even your denomination is a matter of theological consequence. Your denomination is a result of imperial interest. What I mean is that your Catholicism or Protestantism was decided by the outcome of the Kikuyu 1913 Conference, a meeting wherein the Mission divided between its various missions different regions of the Kikuyu highlands with Sykes-Picot level avarice. Stating that it would prevent “unseemly competition”(sic) and ensure strategic obstruction of Islam into the region. It was the First Council of Nicaea all over again, pure empire.
I am reminded of a quote by Paul J. Getty “The meek shall inherit the earth, but not it’s mineral rights…”. Our dear father is the promise of transcendental real-estate, a “paradise” where we would continue, condemned to servitude, damned to sing for eternity, in praise of a nondescript god who denied us everything in all worlds, for eternity, yes father, for eternity.
Do you now see what the network of churches and schools in the Mt. Kenya region are? Do you understand the ramifications of their concentration in the ‘white’ highlands? It is Kenya’s “Iraqi Greenzone”. It is the network of snake pits, it is the operational heart of the occupation.
The network of churches and schools in the highlands you grew up in, formed the imperial psycho-socio-cultural beachhead. Its concentration intensity is an indicator of the special interest the British Imperialists had in the Kikuyu tribe and its land. Or did you think the appearance of Rev. Musa Gitau, the establishment of Musa Gitau Primary school in 1901, the 1907 recruitment, culturing and emergence of chief collaborator Johnstone Muigai Jomo Kenyatta from this institution and the simultaneous banning of the tribal Riika ceremony of 1910 as all coincidence? The Kikuyu tribe was being specially prepared for a special task. Remember the Kikuyu tribe was not simply broken like other tribes, it was actively re-programmed to serve as the vanguard of British Imperial order in the territory. A sociological scale “nyapara” (taskmaster).
And now to compound an already irreversible problem, the colonial territory’s administrative order many think is “their” government, “Serikali nisaidie”, entrenched, expanded the socio-cultural and psychological warfare infrastructure that is the Christian Imperial-Missionary schools it inherited. It not just the physical infrastructure but the organization i.e. schedule, format, management method and all. Not just the syllabus but even the book contents as well. Imagine, the native administration did not even bother to either review even re-write the history books. In effect, it became natives yoking each other and their young physically, economically, intellectually, culturally in a never-ending cycle of self-driven slavery into perpetuity.
The Kikuyu tribe was totally socially reprogrammed. Not even your diet was spared. But how could diet escape control, food in that age was the entire economy. Food is sustenance, to enslave people control their survival, bringing me to my next point.
Total cultural re-engineering via economic and belief interventions. In 1893 depending on which version you want to believe, Mr. John Paterson who came to support the “Christian mission” introduced the first coffee seeds.
Why is this significant?
The use of food as a weapon can be later seen as captured by the insidious intent of the Royal Commission on Population, which King George VI had created in 1944 “to consider what measures should be taken in the national interest to influence the future trend of population.” The commission found that Britain was gravely threatened by population growth in its colonies, since “a populous country has decided advantages over a sparsely-populated one for industrial production.” The combined effects of increasing population and industrialization in its colonies, it warned, “might be decisive in its effects on the prestige and influence of the West,” especially effecting “military strength and security.”
Let me digress a bit to magnify the ramifications of this, not as articulated by me, but by the imperialists themselves. Henry (Heinz) Kissinger in a report for the United States of America, the imperator of our century, in this rather obviously labelled report “Food as a Weapon” revealed knowledge and awareness that dependency on imports for basic food ultimately lead to famine and death that for them has the intended positive outcome of population reduction outside of Birth Control means.
It has statements and questions that any human being would find fiendish. Listen to the “celebrated Statesman” Heinz Kissinger state; “Mandatory programs may be needed and we should be considering these possibilities now,” the document continued, adding, “Would food be considered an instrument of national power? … Is the U.S. prepared to accept food rationing to help people who can’t/won’t control their population growth?”
He also predicted a return of famines that could make exclusive reliance on birth control programs unnecessary. “Rapid population growth and lagging food production in developing countries, together with the sharp deterioration in the global food situation in 1972 and 1973, have raised serious concerns about the ability of the world to feed itself adequately over the next quarter of century and beyond,” he said.
The report goes on to predict, that the cause of the coming food deficit would not be not natural, but a result of western financial policy: “Capital investments for irrigation and infrastructure and the organization requirements for continuous improvements in agricultural yields may be beyond the financial and administrative capacity of many LDCs (Less Developed Countries). For some of the areas under heaviest population pressure, there is little or no prospect for foreign exchange earnings to cover constantly increasingly imports of food.” Kissinger Said.
“It is questionable,” Kissinger gloated, “whether aid donor countries will be prepared to provide the sort of massive food aid called for by the import projections on a long-term continuing basis.” Consequently, “large-scale famine of a kind not experienced for several decades—a kind the world thought had been permanently banished,” was foreseeable—famine, which has indeed come to pass.
Based on my understanding it becomes clear that the I.B.E.A and P.C.E.A Church were the modern day Monsanto and Bill Gates Foundation G.M.O alliance of your time. Where the founding P.C.E.A church wielded the Imperial Bible to justify subjugation and domination, Monsanto and Bill Gates Foundation wields science and influence to push ‘democratic’ equality in a veiled philanthrocapitalism agenda.
The introduction of a cash-crop economy coupled with taxes and forced labour, Mzee, was not economic warfare, it was slavery, a brutal war to enslave.
Everyone loves to quote Winston Churchill “We can afford to be generous in victory…”. The British were definitely generous; to the French they granted Limestone mining concessions, the American’s off-shore oil drilling rights. They, the British, own everything else; the Gold, the Oil, the Titanium, the Land and even the Women. And what in terms of land or minerals they have been unable to exploit for capacity, timing or other political or economic reasons, they have cordoned off with expropriatory legal tools titled “Natural Wildlife Reserves”, “National Parks”, “Conservancies” and all other manner of evolving terms.
One hundred and sixty seven years ago (Jan. 2nd, 1851), Henry Venn uttered these words:–“If Africa is to be penetrated by European missionaries, it must be from the East Coast.”
Mzee, consider us fully – penetrated. From the East Coast. If only you would have been awake to their designs.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi a pre-eminent Daimyō, warrior, general, samurai, and politician of the Sengoku period in the 16th Century is regarded as Japan’s second “great unifier”. In November of 1586, Hideyoshi ordered the expulsion of all Christian missionaries on Kyushu. Later on in 1596, he ordered the crucifixion of six shipwrecked Spanish Franciscan missionaries, three Japanese Jesuits, and seventeen Japanese Christians at Nagasaki.
This moment, I submit Mzee, was the moment that bought Japan another 500 years of independence. This was the reception Dr. Johann Ludwig Krapf should have received when he hit the East Coast beach in 1844, under the patronage of the Imperial British East Africa Company via it’s psycho-social-cultural warfare arm – the Church Missionary Society.
Mwene-Nyaga does not exist, Gikuyu is lost, there are no Kikuyu. The land has been conquered and the tribe has been scattered. It was actually effectively scattered in 1890 when the last Riika ceremony turned out to be the last. With its history lost its identity evaporated in a Century even awareness of genealogical existence will cease to exist. In simple terms, the tribe will not exist in 100 years. Imperial British East Africa Company with its socio-cultural prong the Presbyterian Church of East Africa succeeded in reprogramming an agrarian Bantu tribe into an amorphous mass of secular capitalist individuals. The Kikuyu are victims of the victory strategist Sun Tzu classified as not just victory, but a victory that is complete. The Kikuyu tribe vanquished, never to rise again. The women who bear Kikuyu genealogical heritage should be married and absorbed into the tribes that survived the imperial scourge, this is their only hope for safety, security and honour. The Kikuyu men who cannot establish new colonies and tribes should dissolve into the nihil of time.
The only way is forward. The Kikuyu as a people or as individuals must reject Man as Sovereign. In Monarchical form or Demos form both have translated to tyranny. There is no way back to the past, the “Mungiki” attempt revealed everything about where the path back into the past would lead. The Kikuyu must find a new Sovereign, or be damned to eternal humiliation.
If the new Sovereign be a man or material being, it can bring nothing but misguidance and oppression. For the true sovereign must be able to answer the question of where we have come from, why we are here, where we are going. The true sovereign must be established above and outside our material reality for creation cannot define its own purpose. The true sovereign will create just, cogent, tranquil internal and external order.
I have walked my journey, conducted my search, and found a sovereign who qualifies vengeance, guarantees inheritance of the earth to those who serve him unreservedly and promises Jannatul Firdaus, an afterlife replete with spoils of war that make Valhallah pale in comparison, adorned couches and raised thrones, wide-eyed virgins and youthful serfs.
This is the Sovereign I will serve, this is the Sovereign my son will serve, this is the Sovereign I invite you to serve, Oh Gikuyu.
Kissinger’s 1974 Plan for Food Control Genocide by Joseph Brewda
Executive Intelligence Review
Imperial Reckoning: The Untold Story of Britain’s Gulag in Kenya – Caroline Elkins (2005)
The early attempts at ecumenical co-operation in East Africa: the case of the Kikuyu Conference of 1913
Studia Historiae Ecclesiasticae, October 2010, 36(2), 73-93 – Julius Gathogo
AND GOD RESTED ON THE SEVENTH DAY: Faith as a tense truce in an African reality
When I was growing up in rural western Kenya in the mid-80s, my father, a Seventh Day Adventist (SDA), imposed Adventism upon us like a colonial identity card. He was an Adventist because his mother was an Adventist. That part of western Kenya was under intense competition between the Catholic, Anglican and Seventh Day Adventist churches. The Seventh Day set up a stronghold in central and south Nyanza regions with churches in every corner of the community. We were expected to carry this spiritual card around for many reasons. One was to inspire some sort of righteous pride, to show that we were better than others, mostly Catholics and non-believers, though Catholics were the other main Christian denomination in our community. We were being trained in denominational politics, that even though we were worshipping the same God as Catholics, we were different, more sanctified. Unlike them, our bodies were free from impurities like tobacco and alcohol. And that was not all. Coca-Cola and coffee were prohibited; soya was touted as the best alternative (but you could only find soya in shops in Nairobi).
My mother protested the Seventh Day Adventist church and its restrictions. She did not understand how eating cold food on Saturdays made anyone holier; she always prepared hot food. My father protested but grudgingly ate it all the same. Also, my mother had no personal vendetta against Coca-Cola. She drank it and made us drink too. My father frowned but couldn’t do much. He was always a minute too late, just as we were putting down empty bottles. In addition, my mother was ambivalent to religion; she was raised in a big traditional family where religion was a pastime and not a primary way of life. My father should have also protested a long time ago. My uncle too. Both are polygamists. Being polygamists, the church never accepted them the same way they accepted the church. As a teenager, I could partake in Holy Communion, but my grandfather, father and my uncle – grown men with much more social status than I – could not. They joined other men, mostly polygamous, in grudgingly walking out of the church during Holy Communion. In my mind, I didn’t think that polygamy, per se, made you a good or bad man. There were very good polygamous men – loving, caring and responsible. And there were bad monogamous men, who abused their families every day.
Deeply entrenched polygamy in our community was the elephant in the room in our local church. Most men seated in the pews were in polygamous families. Our church relentlessly depicted polygamy as barbaric and backward. I have always asked myself why my dad continued in this church that was seemingly subjecting him and fellow polygamous men to emotional abuse every Saturday. He later even embarked on a project to build a big church sanctuary closer to our home. Why would my father, and African people in general, join and support churches that deeply conflicted with their traditional way of life?
The Seventh Day church did not have formal method, or doctrine, to accommodate traditional practices of Africans they had come to teach about Jesus and salvation. This is was not a democracy where the heathen communities had a vote. The church’s intention was clear- convert as many as possible and to grow into a dominant, influential force. My father and polygamous men in the community accepted that the church was way more powerful than they, and that by joining it they could access some social power in a rapidly changing world. The church also accepted that these polygamous men were difficult and would not easily change their ways. The pastor seeming to have recognized this contentious issue, prayed fervently about everything but skirted around it.
For the first nineteen years of my life when I attended Seventh Day Adventist church, I never heard a pastor mention the word polygamy by name during sermons. They would preach strongly against adultery without mentioning polygamy. It was not lost to any person paying attention that lust and adultery, in the context of this Christian worldview, was the first step towards polygamy. Within this complex social set up, there was some sort of unofficial truce around polygamy- this truce would only be broken during Holy Communion when polygamous men would leave the church. Women must have viewed themselves as winners in this struggle between their men and the church. This was one of the few occasions when they would get a seat at the table and partake in a ceremony that their husbands could not. The men protested silently- most would skip church on days when Holy Communion would be served. My father would also often talk of David and his son Solomon as some of the famous men in the bible who married multiple wives. This contradiction in the bible must have been a source of consolation to my father and many men in my community.
In the 1980s and 1990s, during the early era of HIV/AIDS, there was a visible rise in televangelism and miracle healing, and a corresponding increase in the number and prominence of traditional healers and medicine men in our community. Public prayers were being made for all these throngs of young men and women dying of this incurable disease. Privately, African traditional medicine men and women were sought to appease whichever spirits had brought this curse to the people. Mainstream churches vigorously preached abstinence and riled against contraceptives, while in the dead of the night, when the church was officially asleep, traditional healers were brought into homes to prescribe final rites for the dead. Some of these rites included “corpse cleansing” through sexual intercourse with the dead in some communities.
This perpetual conflict between traditional spiritual practices and Christianity has always been a source of both personal and communal conflict. I remember when my uncle Ben was sick, strangers would visit ostensibly to “pray for him”. I knew these people were not Catholics or Seventh Day Adventists. I could tell they were traditional medicine men and women. Sometimes they would stay for days, and I would hear my grandmother telling her fellow women from the church that these medicine men were distant relations who were visiting. I could tell she appreciated the inadequacy of the Christian God in these difficult situations, but that she still struggled with that reality. I saw in her eyes the guilt of resorting to traditional medicine when she had lost faith in the ability of the Christian God to heal my uncle Ben. This was deep in rural Kenya, yet she did not dare be free in following the traditional practices of her people. I have come to learn that this personal struggle, both mine and hers, were a manifestation of years of calculated and successful emotional blackmail to the individual and community by missionaries.
One of the enduring impacts of Christianity in my life was the image of white savior. This image was thrust on my young mind through the powerful sermons on Saturday by our local pastor. The sermons always ended by him commanding us to “fall at the feet of the cross” and “obey”. Obedience would ensure blessings and prosperity. This image of falling at the image of a white male has always overwhelmed me. It struck me even more later when I was living in the United States, where white superiority is always hanging over black and brown people’s heads like a dark cloud.
I recently came from a trip to South East Asia and had a chance to experience a deity that wasn’t in the image of a white savior. I was struck by the images of massive statues of Buddha that resembled the local people. They were in all shades of brown, dark brown and sometimes black. Having lived in the USA for almost four years now, I was puzzled by this free colour continuum of Buddha statues. I made note of this and asked my hosts and friends who were surprised by my observation. They had never made similar observations. The differences, they said, came down to design and material used to make the statues of Buddha. There were no subliminal racial messages of superiority and inferiority in these statues. I apologized and let them know that I live in environment where race permeates every fabric of the society.
This experience introduced me to a unique reality that most Africans who are Christians have never had – the reality and the power of having a God who resembled the locals, who looked like the local rickshaw driver, beggar, teacher and doctor, hit me very hard. It brought back memories of the many times my father struggled to contort reasons to reassure me and my siblings that as much as the Christian God had very explicit Caucasian features, on the inside, he looked like us, Africans. And that before this God, all races were equal. I was always confused by this halfhearted assertion. I felt like we were always struggling too hard to impress the Christian God and we all fell short.
I have started thinking of how powerful and relatable it would be to have a God whose image members of my community would relate to. This would perhaps empower and inspire many people, including my son, whom I am not sure how to introduce religion to. How can I read him a Bible that has been used to control my people for generations without feeling a repulsive guilt? No, I cannot. I am rebelling against everything peddled with a white supremacist agenda. I have decided against that. That is why I struggled with thoughts of taking him to my grandmother’s church in Kenya. I decided against this church that refused to accept my father.
But then again, I have to ask myself, which is this African deity I am seeking? Moreover, where is this deity? Is it possible to reconstruct and empower all the traditional African deities destroyed by colonizers and missionaries? In addition, can our communities be empowered to find strength in their old ways of thinking?
This is the space and personal conflict that the entry of Christianity suspended me, and my community, into, and we are still grappling with it. Sometimes the presence of the local Seventh Day Adventist church in my community feels like an ever-present symbol of domination. But sometimes it looks like a space that offered my grandmother sanctuary and gave her meaning about life, and also gave women their own social status as Holy Communion-partaking believers. I want it to work for us, but I know I hold no vote, and I doubt my community has the power to reshaping practices and doctrines we feel do not align to the traditional values of my community. This faith has always been – take it or leave it. But I think we need something else.
THE DAYS OF SITUATION: Reflecting on the Reflections Series ‘Beyond The Numbers’
I was ten years old in 1996 when my parents separated. It seems to me that I had never really noticed them before it happened. Until that tumultuous December my parents were like the air around us – crucial to life, and you would notice when they shifted around, but otherwise somewhat unremarkable. I always thought my extended relatives were much more interesting than my parents – my aunt, who lived with us for a while, laughed loudly, spoke excitedly, and let us watch Indian movies late into the night when my mother was away working the housekeeping night shift at the New Stanley. My mother’s (step)father, my Guka, always brought us halua and kaimati every time he visited. We were fascinated bulging veins on his hand, wondering why they popped back up no matter how hard we tried to push them down.
And then, it happened. My father spoke a lot at this time, more than I had ever heard him speak, it seems, and he would say things like – “your mother is using you as a conduit to get to me.” At the end of his long speeches, I would go to my blue and red Oxford English Dictionary and look up the word conduit. And my mother became more quiet, I think, transfigured into glass that was dangerously on the verge of shattering at a moment’s notice. I was terrified at the thought of this. How does one pick up those kinds of shards?
But what none of us siblings could have known at the time – I am one of three – was that our family’s troubles were not ours alone, and that the intensity of our struggle to remain afloat was not entirely the fault of my mother and father. It was, (objectively?), the wrong time to get divorced – they were walking right into an economic blizzard, with the three of us in reluctant tow.
Kenya was in the midst of an economic recession, the fallout of implementation of the infamous Bretton Woods structural adjustment programs (SAPs), which led to a slash in government expenditure, especially on public servants’ salaries, administration, economic and social services. To make matters worse, the architects of the Goldenberg scandal had promptly drained an equivalent of 10 per cent of Kenya’s GDP from the Central Bank, just like that. Neglect and dilapidation were all around us, and in my ten-year-old mind, I connected the dots and concluded that this is actually what happens when your parents split up – the world goes to literal ruin. Garbage starts flowing in the streets. Potholes eat the road in front of your house.
Which is why I was not prepared for how painful this month’s Reflections series at The Elephant would be to read, edit and curate. They remind me, in the words of @tjjullu on Twitter, ‘ndalo situation’, days of situation, when the folks would say, “you know the situation…. We’re in a tight situation…”
Twenty-odd years later, state theft, poor fiscal management and an exorbitant debt appetite has ushered in a new season of austerity measures. Ndalo situation.
This Reflections series was intended to go ‘Beyond The Numbers’ of macro-economic policy and excavate the memories of those tough times, and connect that with what’s going on today. How did families cope? How did it affect social arrangements, like people having to live with relatives, or the stress that it put on marriages? How are millennials being affected by its iteration today – frustrating unemployment, and the unspoken angst of not being able to achieve dreams? How do we connect the brunt of the hustle to the dysfunction in national economics? How does society react to this culturally – chanelling frustration through music, sports, the arts and so on? And what are the untold stories of those traumas that were never discussed?
The series began with Lutivini Majanja’s extensive piece on how tea – its availability, quantity and quality – marked her family’s turbulent economic fortunes and domestic disruptions.
Then came Gloria Mari on the ‘extreme sport’ that is job searching today, where beyond skills, qualifications, work ethic and experience, it seems like you have to have guardian angels, good luck charms and even the occasional visit to the mganga to have hopes of finding a well-paying job.
We published Carey Baraka reflecting on how disconnected younger millennials are even from the memory or understanding of the 1990s ‘ndalo situation,’ and what that lack of memory does to a generation grappling with through similar challenges – but without a historical anchor to ground the struggle.
Filmmaker Amina Bint Mohamed explored the concerns and challenges of the so-called ‘middle class’ in a short documentary film, a demographic whose definition is contested and whose security is precarious.
There was Wanjeri Gakuru’s reflection on “flying out” as a way for families to cope with a depressed economy and diminished opportunities in the 1990s, but that is no longer an option today, with increasing xenophobia in the traditional ‘greener pastures’ – US, UK, Australia, and the like.
Darius Okolla detailed the decline of his hometown Kitale during those years, where the earth and rust seemed to swallow everything, and how the town never really recovered.
And Silas Nyanchwani’s devastating article on how he was making more money as a student a few years ago, than as an adult today with a family to support (and with a Masters degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the world), was almost too much to bear.
But could anything good come from all this distress? At a different time in my life, I would have written something clever about how economic turmoil allows innovation to emerge.
Like the way M-Pesa’s success may be partly because after the pervasive joblessness of the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a whole group of people who were willing to do the dreary work of being M-Pesa agents.
Much of the talk around M-Pesa has been why it worked so well in Kenya, and not so well in other places, and various reasons have been advanced – Kenya had a huge unbanked population, a lenient regulator, and a culture of sending money to relatives and friends.
But on the agent network, Safaricom had envisaged that agents would bolt on to already-existing businesses, like pharmacies, kiosks and convenience stores, which would then just do the M-Pesa transactions in a corner somewhere, the company’s corporate communications head told me in a past interview.
But the rapid rollout of the agent network was possible because of the very high informality in the Kenyan economy. In fact, the company was surprised at how there was a whole cohort of people willing to be M-Pesa agents as a stand-alone job, basically self-employed, sitting in a small stall, with no salary, benefits, or retirement package, earning a small percentage of every transaction.
Today, I can only make that argument intellectually, and even so, not completely sincerely. I am much more sensitive to the suffering that we tend to gloss over when we neatly tuck such losses into grand narratives of progress – that it all ‘worked out’ in the end, look at M-Pesa!
As philosopher Walter Benjamin argued, narratives of progress render history coherent and harmonious by resolving the traumatic dimensions of history, incorporating them into affirmative accounts that underwrite the positions of those in power.
It means that memory is always in danger of becoming a tool of the ruling classes, a situation that “threatens to murder the dead twice, to erase and eliminate the dissonant quality of past suffering, injustice, struggle and loss.”
Mine is a melancholic hope today, a “hope draped in black” in the words of writer Joseph Winters. It is the kind of hope that refuses to peddle in fantasies of a coherent, harmonious world unscathed by painful events, conditions and memories, in the name of the gospel of innovation. Sometimes suffering produces innovation. But it always produces pain, and the cheerful silver linings obscure this.
This series is our attempt, in the words of author Ralph Ellison, “to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain…in the hope that we might transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.”
Like Winters, I see melancholy gesturing towards a better, more promising hope, which must entail contemplation, remembrance, and critical encounter with vulnerability, cruelty, and death, rather than endeavours to resolve or deflect them through reassuring images of progress.
It is a blues sensibility, “unhopeful but not hopeless”, offering no solutions, only a way of responding to, working through, and coping with painful incongruities.
Perhaps the next M-Pesa will come out of all this. Perhaps not. But we at The Elephant will be a witness to ndalo situation.
EARTH AND RUST: The decline of a Kenyan town
Once in late 1996, a neighbour’s clothes were stolen from the hanging line when she went to work, a theft that fascinated the neighborhood to no end. Who would do such a thing? Why – for heaven’s sake? Our version of burglary was the smell of despondency with a tinge of crude survival, pain and hunger pangs. By DARIUS OKOLLA
I grew up in Kitale. The story of the deterioration of my hometown in the 1990s mirrored the tumultuous decline of just about every factory-dependent town in the country; it was subtle, gradual, almost imperceptible, and forever disguised as the typical wear and tear of urban spaces – but it was more than that. It was thievery, corruption, and disenfranchisement, shoving it down the path of visible decline; a depreciative spectacle masked by rural docility and the often-accepted rural poverty.
First came the increasing cases of theft. These were often acts of burglary that surprised us in their desperation as much as they exasperated the victims by their sheer banality. We had an outhouse in our compound measuring about 8 feet by 11 feet, where we stored farm equipment, tree seedlings, charcoal sacks – pretty much everything that was bulky and intended for outdoor use. At first the break-ins at this outhouse were infrequent, then they happened about once every few months.
The stories from neighborhood increased. In nearly all the incidences there were no guns used, often no attacks, not even violent break-ins – just missing farm tools, stolen livestock, and pilfered homes when the owners had briefly travelled out of town. Once in late 1996, a neighbour’s clothes were stolen from the hanging line when she went to work, a theft that fascinated the neighborhood to no end. Who would do such a thing? Why – for heaven’s sake? Then there were the stories of food stolen alongside a burning charcoal jiko as someone cooked outside the house, a story told with awkward hilarity.
John Kirimaiti, Wanugu, Wacucu and the elite cadre of fascinating gun-toting gangsters were the stuff of distant cities told with near-legend flair that we knew we’d never have to worry about. Our version of burglary was the smell of despondency with a tinge of crude survival, pain and hunger pangs, which drove able-bodied humans to steal anything they deemed to be of market value.
When we first moved to Kitale in the early 1990s we lived at Section Five, a row of patterned townhouses with hedged compounds of cypress, flowers, worldliness and tranquility. Nearby was Matano, consisting of dozens of two storied homes with large balconies, cream walls and wooden doors named in alphabetical order. Bondeni, where we would go ride the swings at the children’s playground, was not far either.
My folks were somewhat too extraverted for the austere life of hedged picket fences in that neighborhood, so we moved to Section 21, a well tarmacked, more concrete-y neighborhood lying to the west of the town. The streetlights worked, the town matatus ran the transit service with an efficiency that we, for the longest time, took for granted. We moved again just when private landowners started buying property in Section 21 and setting up unplanned developments.
As Section 21 began to sprawl, it is perhaps not a coincidence that the locals transliterated its name to Tuwani (two-one-i), betraying its deterioration, imbuing it with a villagized name, vibe and life.
Our next neighborhood, Mitume, for the better part of the 1990s was a large piece of land with few houses and lot of grassy fields. Mitume (Kiswahili for apostles) a name likely derived from Christ The King Catholic church parish nearby, was far different from the organized suburb life of Section 21, though it offered a stronger sense of community. Mitume wasn’t spared either as slowly, random developments popped up on what was once sprawling grassy fields.
Chipped paint, dirt, and dilapidation slowly ravaged the children play area at the swings at Bondeni estate that we had left behind. The swings grew rusty, then bare-boned and dangerous for kids to play on. Then they got vandalized and whatever remained of them was run into the ground by neglect, swallowed by the earth and rust. Beside it, where dusty paths met collapsing hedges, garbage strewed onto the road from what were once neat, well-ordered homes.
I attended a public school and so did most of our neighbors, and most of our parents were either in the informal sector or worked as civil servants. It’s still intriguing how the elders seemed so unaware of just how vulnerable they were to downward mobility given their faithfulness in following every single news item on the radio. How come they didn’t see what was coming?
Baba Silas, my friend’s dad worked the Kenya Cooperative Creameries (KCC) and so did most of my friend’s dads who worked in various parastatals, like Baba Wycliffe, Baba Jaredi and on and on. Somehow our parents’ names were hallowed, so they were just ‘Baba nani’ and ‘Mama nani’. Baba Silas – I never got to know his name – carried himself with an air of officiousness, always in a leather jacket, with a slow walk; his neck seemed stiff as he walked, with a slight swagger and a polythene bag at hand. He always carried a polythene bag, I’m not sure why.
He’d lose his job during retrenchment as the parastatals got downsized and then collapsed in the mid-1990s. But I didn’t see him for a while, as we moved from Mitume estate to Lessos, where our parents had bought some land. Lessos estate is named after the Lessos farm in Eldoret, given that the Kalenjin owners who gave the place its name had moved to Kitale from Eldoret.
Set on a ridge overlooking a forest, you could always see the factories in Section 6 and Section 19 on the opposite ridge about four kilometres away, across from Lessos forest in the valley below.
From Lessos, the few remaining factories including a leather tanning factory, Kenya Seed, Western Seed and a dozen other factories let out a low dull hum that on a quiet afternoon reached all the way to our home. Slowly by slowly, the hum grew fainter as the firms collapsed until the sound was no more. But quickly, the silence as it was quickly replaced by the cacophony of human activity, especially a construction boom that hit the estate in the 2000s. The town’s population was rising, properties were becoming smaller and more sub-divided, and unplanned developments were everywhere.
As the hum of factories faded to whimpers, informal businesses in the neighborhoods rose sharply as retrenched workers desperately tried their hands in business, trying to secure an income for their families. Most of them collapsed within months or a few years after inception.
The 1997 elections carried with it a strange sense of camaraderie and hope in the town, partly because multi-party politics had expanded the democratic space and increased a sense of political freedom. Men (and they were mostly men) stood atop old Peugeots and Mazdas, flashing two-finger salutes and yelling in the air, drowning the silent scream of a town choking under the stranglehold of Structural Adjustment Programs.
In 1998 my mum sent me to call over a relative who lived about 40 kilometers away for a job opportunity at a local company – this was before cellphones were a thing. I must have been 10 years old. This relative had already unsuccessfully applied for the job dozens of times. I arrived late in the evening as he worked on his shamba, weeding his sukuma wiki and cassava.
‘‘Hii kazi bwana nimeapply, fare nimetumia mingi na mimi nimechoka, wacha tu nilime.’ (I’ve applied for this job many times and used so much fare; I’m tired, let me just farm). I was taken aback by the vulnerability on display, his frustration breaking through into an involuntary rant to a 10-year-old.
This time though, he got the three-month gig, which still only paid peanuts and barely provided him with meaningful cash. He’d leave for Kisumu afterwards, then Eldoret, then Nairobi and back to Kitale then Eldoret again.
I would run into Baba Silas in the late 1990s, a few years after he’d been fired from KCC. He looked haggard, tired, his trouser torn at the knees. He was working at a brick-making factory, and I ran into him taking a break under a makeshift grass thatched shade, eating the mjengo githeri at lunch time. His sagged chin reflected dignity under assault, he looked shaken to see me, and a bit sad.
Then came the early 2000s and the town broke into a palpable air of difficult-to-justify yet hard-to-dismiss optimism. When Narc luminaries came to Kitale stadium for what would be their only visit to the town before the 2002 elections, I sneaked from home to go watch the revolution happen. I was 13 years old.
“Hii movement bwana! It will last for at least 30 years,” my relative would tell me matter-of-factly after the momentous event. His life certainly changed. He landed a better paying gig, then got married. His wedding, albeit later in life than was expected, reflected his changing fortunes, much more than anything. We often take for granted how the frequency of social functions such as weddings, birthday parties, cookouts, and get-togethers reflect a rising society.
He’d secure better fortunes across the country, marry, settle down, buy a plot of land, build his home and essentially hit all the markers of adulthood that had eluded him for most of his life, all in a span of eight years in the 2000s.
Unfortunately for Kitale, the town never got to deftly negotiate with the colonial state in ways that could secure it enough resources to help it fully recover. It didn’t help that the town’s patriarch, Kijana Wamalwa, would pass away a few months into the Narc wave.
Still Kitale continued to grow, the population growing exponentially in the 2000s. During the 2007 post-election violence, given its cosmopolitan makeup, Kitale provided a somewhat safe harbor for those kicked out of their homes in the outlying regions. The population soared but the infrastructure and the vitality of its urban life didn’t. I see all that every time I go home.
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