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Reflections

Letter to the ‘Tribe’

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Letter to the ‘Tribe’
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To Mzee,

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.

Your son,

Empire Man

 

References

Kissinger’s 1974 Plan for Food Control Genocide by Joseph Brewda
Executive Intelligence Review

Origin and Growth of PCEA

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

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Arkanuddin Yasin is an Ideological Activist and a member of the pan-global Islamic Political Party Hizb ut-Tahrir.

Reflections

I Shall Plead for Breath No More

Enough is enough I shall bow down no more.

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I Shall Plead for Breath No More
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I can’t breath

In this system of breathlessness

Which deprives me of air

Dignity and humanity.

That scorches me in the fire of hell on earth

Of their ghettos and gallows

Which alternate as my home year in year out

For decades and centuries

Since they robbed me from my land

Packing me like sardine

In boxes called boats.

My anscestors died of breathlessness on high seas

I die of breathlessness on highways

Under the knee of white brute

Pretending to police the route

To heavenly palaces

Of his kith and kin.

Who enslaved me in their homes and plantations

Ensnared me in their factories and industries

Breathing smoke and carbon from its chimneys

Blackening my lungs

Thickening my arteries

Leaving me vulnerable to be killed in tens and thousands

From coronas and sars of this world.

Enough is enough

I shall bow down no more

I shall worship at the altar of white god no more

I shall be cheated by dollar bills no more

I shall kneel down in churches no more.

I shall plead for breath no more

And there shall be fire next time no more

Fire is now and here

To stay for ever

Till I can breath again

Breath again and again

Without shiver or fear.

Issa Bin Mariam (Issa Shivji)
Dar es salaam
31/05/2020

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Reflections

A Tale of Two Lockdowns, 33 Years Apart

The lockdown in Entebbe brings back memories of another lockdown in a boarding school in Teso, where, in the midst of a raging war and looming starvation, a young boy lost his childhood and learned the true meaning of loneliness and abandonment.

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A Tale of Two Lockdowns, 33 Years Apart
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I did not return to the scene until 15 years had passed, by which time I was already more than twice as old as I had been when the events of 1987 abruptly ended my childhood.

In early February 2002, I was in the press pack that accompanied the inaugural East African Legislative Assembly on the inspection of the Soroti Flying School, once the property of the East African Community. I found time and nipped off to St Andrews Madera Boys School, where I had studied from 1985 to 1987.

Even then, in my mid-20s, the paradox was unavoidable: Had I truly left St Andrews the day that the Red Cross evacuated scores of us school children trapped behind the front lines in Soroti?

Can a psychology shaped by the tragic knowledge of impermanence and strife learn to trust and easily move on? How could I say I had put the months of 1987 behind me when the first thing I did upon return to the school was to make way straight for the Stretcher House dormitory?

Standing there with my face pressed against the window, looking inside, it was the events of early August 1987 that came to mind, to that early morning when a teacher sent me and two friends to buy soap in the town with the absurd, early colonial name, Camp Swahili. And there, as we ask about, comes the single gunshot, the high whine of a military truck racing back to town, and then the preternatural sight of the men, the fighters of the rebel prophetess, Alice Lakwena, shirtless, in their black shorts, their torsos glistening in the sun from shea butter, which we later learned had been smeared to bounce off bullets.

The key event shaping a personal future starts at that moment. Explanations are not needed. You have learned a lesson; when the time has come, you must run, do not hesitate. We are going very fast. We cut through the Madera Seminary, which in ordinary times had been forbidden. We are reaching the school compound when the bombardment begins, and all over the town, when the shock of the explosion draws our attention, we see a pillar of black smoke, as if to announce the beginning of hell, habemus bellum.

We make it to the Stretcher House dormitory and dive under the beds. And there, for the next two hours, we track the movement of the front line by how close the sounds of battle are. We hear it recede from the town, come past the flying school, which is a mile from our complex of missionary schools. (Madera was set up in 1914 by the Mill Hill fathers and came to include a school for the blind, a girls’ school, a boys’ school, a technical college and a seminary.)

Shortly, the front envelopes us. Its progress is majestic, slow, following the sloping ground from Soroti town, going down a slight incline to dip into a swamp. This swamp halts the battle, as the army decides against pursuing the attackers beyond the Arapai ridge.

There is, intermixed with the terror, a character to war you read about but is the privilege of an accursed few who get to know it intimately. It is the macabre nature of war that men find irresistible, the grisly truth that a war in motion can also be attractive.

Yes, the sounds of war can be a terrifying, seductive symphony. The sharp mosquito-like buzzing sound of a bullet flying mere feet from your ears, the tearing, rocketing then shuttering register of mortar shells, the ear-splitting rending, as if a giant were holding a sheet of metal as one holds a piece of paper then rips it to pieces as missiles tear overhead. The inscrutable lopping repetitiveness of a machine gun that sounds like someone drumming on a home-made drum fashioned from an old aluminium saucepan. But everyone looks forward to the artillery, the big boy stuff, with dread fascination; the imperious rapid impatience of Katyusha rockets which come as if the earth were being cut up by a high-velocity grinder tool, and, target found, the centre of the world collapses.

In a lockdown, life loses meaning

But as I drew away from the window, my memory drained, I remembered that I had to leave to rejoin the delegation of East African MPs at the Flying School. Then a shot of the feeling I once lived with daily attacked me

How can one explain such a feeling? There’s the febrile malarial listlessness to it, a dry-throated longing, like having a nightmare whilst fully awake. That day in early 2002, I felt as I had for much of 1987 – that there was no point to life, that going on with it would only lead to a future of dystopian mediocrity.

But if the 2002 reunion did not answer the question, then March 2020, when news came of the world locked down in fear, left little doubt. There, across the valley from my apartment in Entebbe, the planes stopped landing and taking off. The grass around the runway was starting to grow wild. Amidst the dead silence all around, I could sense the collective fear of humanity that was awaiting the calamity.

It reminded me of 1987. I heard once more the silence of the skies when the flying school Piper and Cessna planes stopped flying. I saw the spot of greenery on the runway. The school lawns, once meticulous, had become wilderness. And in the night, there were blood-curdling cries that registered in the morning as another funeral in the villages beyond the Catholic missionary complex of Madera.

This was the second time in my life that I was going into a lockdown. The first one lasted nearly a year and it was devastating. It was only in March 2020, 33 years later, that I began to learn that a certain part of me never made it past August 1987.

My mind went back to that day when I saw the fighters of the Holy Spirit Movement of Alice Lakwena. It was the first time I saw them; I never saw them again; I have never managed to unsee them since.

By August of 1987, northern Uganda had already been in a lockdown for many months. The savage war in Luwero, southern Uganda, had migrated to the north. And there, with changed fortunes, yesterday’s rebels becoming government and yesterday’s government forces the new rebels, the texture of the violence acquired a new complexion. And yet 1987 was early days in what would be a savage two-decade-long war that has not yet ended. But how could an 11-year-old boy whose chief interest in life was to see mummy know that?

The manner of the war meant we were liable to get trapped easily. Hitherto, northern Uganda had had a string of nationally enviable schools. The shutdown of the schools began in Gulu, and made its way east, as did the fighting. The result was that we who came from Lango and Acholi were at the initial stages, in the safety of Teso, by which calculation our parents thought it best we stay there. But no one had anticipated the rapidity with which the war would move. Within weeks, in late July 1987, the Holy Spirit Movement of Alice Lakwena had crossed over to Teso. That morning, we saw the rebels running down from the Arapai Railway station to Soroti town, where they aimed to take over the airfield of the flying school.

The lagging progression of the war had allowed parents from the east and south to pick their children via the road to Mbale in the east. We would have needed the road to the west, which was shut off. Hence, the first term break had come and we had stayed in school. The second term had started and it was thought best we simply continue with our studies.

But there was to be no second term. Barely had it begun than the parents returned, this time with the vigilance of birds not taking a chance with their nest again. Then the road to the east was cut. We were doomed.

We, the seven students who had spent the last six months at the school, felt the loneliness instantly. In a lockdown, the early days are the most lonely. You feel the prickliness of abandonment. After the warm companionship of crowds is gone, you become aware of your status. There is a grim numbness from which you emerge drained of everything, even fear.

Your concern is for it to end, for you to get your old life back. But that life is gone. Sterner times await you. You learn new ways, new languages, believe in new gods and causes. It is likely that you or the people you love or know will die. You will learn fear.

When the school was empty, we, the stranded, knew we were preparing for something darker. The first month was the worst; we had hope. We spent hours watching the drive into the school, hoping to catch the familiar frame of a parent, the sound of the diesel 504 Peugeot from Aboke that would collect us.

One teacher, Miss Ekit, kept watch over us, like an aunt, but she had nothing to feed her relatives taking refuge in her house, let alone us.

For the next four months, the 400 by 300 metres of Madera Boys marked the confines of our world. We dared not, and were warned against, going into Soroti town. There was a railway station over the ridge of Arapai. There was no train. There was a flying school close by. Only the most connected parents airlifted their children away.

To stay locked down, to know that darkness is enveloping the world around you, is a terrifying reality whose greatest damage is not what happens or what does not happen to you in the months you spend alone. You go into isolation expecting the big moments, the war, the calamity, to come confronting you personally. More often than not, the extremes do not happen. But that is also a revelation; because the big things have not come to you, you grow to learn that you are but one insignificant soul. When the extremes do come to you, as they do to a few unfortunate ones, then that too is another revelation; you were but a mere speck of dirt in the great maw of history. You are personally ground into the dirt but war, or peace, plough on regardless.

A Do Me Good hangs us out like tethered goats

As the shutting down of the north began, hidden impulses and prejudices started to surface. The deputy head teacher of Madera Boys, a prickly little man we called A Do Me Good (which was what he called the cane he never walked without) separated all the Luo speakers from the rest. Our beddings and suitcases were taken out of the dormitory. We stayed under the trees during the day and slept in the classrooms at night. We were the dangerous breed. The Nilotics had been overthrown by their arch enemies. Now a punitive raid by the southerners in power against the Nilotes was feared. And in Teso, it was thought, associating with Luo speakers would draw the ire of the new rulers.

In the initial stages of the war, this fear was an extreme event. An attack did come, but it was from further north, and they came, not for us, but for the cattle of the Teso. The Karamojong cattle raids intensified, and we watched as Teso, once a rich, well-fed and proud region, lost its collective wealth.

Before we had even left, skin diseases of indescribable virulence had spread throughout the land. That had been during that ill-fated second term when we had remained uncollected in the school. And although the Ministry of Education had been informed of A Do Me Good’s doing, and we had been reinstated in the dormitories, what was coming for the north was bigger than the calculations of an obscure deputy headmaster in an obscure school.

Everyone one else left and so there were hundreds of beds left for us. As my childhood friend John liked to joke, there was now a bed for each of his fingers, toes, ears and teeth.

But something else stuck. To be foreign in a time of strife is to attract fear and suspicion. In our case, we had spoken the same language as the last regime’s, and the fear of association – for the Teso were as Nilotic as we were – stayed throughout the time we lived alone in the school.

The second month arrived. The delivery of maize meal and beans from the Ministry of Education ceased. The school store was broken into and the last morsels of food were taken. First we ran to the teachers. We returned with sticks of cassava. Some called us “Elangoit” (Teso for Lango) to our faces and chased us away. For me personally, it was a frightening time. (My name, Kaiza, is from my great grandfather three generations past who was Bunyoro, a culture and language my own grandfather barely remembered, but it meant I would be regarded as enemy by all sides). It did not take long for us to realise that it had been the same ministry delivery that had kept them fed.

There unwalked paths to the roads disappeared and the lawns had a return-to-the wild look. Unswept, the leaves played in the wind. There was a high season of large, egg-yolk orange sunsets. The dusks descended as harbingers of doom. We feared the nights for the dreams that awaited darkness. We feared the nights because children fear darkness. There was a cemetery close by and in the evenings, we thought we caught willow-the-wisps skirting the perimeters. (As I write this from Entebbe, power is gone, dogs are barking wildly and two days ago, a neighbour who returned from Europe with all his family, workers and dogs, was taken into quarantine.)

In the desultory daytime air, we kept to the shade. Towards the end (which you never see coming), we switched from fearing the nights to fearing the daylight. We started to long for the night. We knew the school very well and could stow away in safer corners at night, even inside the heavy branches of the mango trees, till morning.

In a last twist of the knife, one day, Okello, my second cousin, came running to Teacher Ekit’s house where we had taken water, and informed us that a military truck had come and taken two of the boys, the Ejuras, away. They were flown home in a helicopter. We came from the same town. Their father knew people. They left us behind. Now there were just five of us left – me, John, Okello, the portly Akona, and Ocen, a quiet little boy I never heard from since.

The going of the Ejura boys marked a turn for the worse. Corrosive silence took over. We played football less. Looking back, this was preparation for the next phase, and when it came, our own childhood deserted us. We aged prematurely.

Learning to live without food 

Starvation is an event of immense clarifying power. It seems there are two types of human beings: those who have never faced starvation and so do not know many things; and those who have faced starvation and can see through the veneer of most things.

Whilst we had had the supply of maize and beans, we led sad lives, longing for home and fearing for our safety.

But when one day, Okwana, the school cook, did not show up, something switched. Three days went by with barely anything to eat. There was the shame we individually shared, when one by one, we disappeared – to forage in dumps, to gouge the backs of kitchens.

The suggestion might have come from John. He was the strongest-willed of our lot. His father was the doctor of Aboke, an imperious old man. John had the family haughtiness in him. It had come as a chance discovery one morning when while collecting fruits from the borassus palm trees fringing the school, I stumbled upon a root. John came to pull me up. But I had heard a snap in the soil. I went down and dug hands in. I came out with a large tube of cassava. Disbelief. Joy. The surreal moment.

But we had become wise to something by then. John bade me be quiet. We poked around and discovered that this garden, belonging to one of the teachers that had fled the war, had been badly harvested. We took what tubers we thought we could conceal. We ate some raw, but decided that it was best we steal over to the Madera Technical College, over the fence, to cook it, to avoid attracting attention.

Along with some sweet potatoes we dug out of poorly harvested fields, we settled upon cooking in the soil. We dug up the ground, and lighting switches, waited for the bigger sticks to catch fire. We collected rocks and placed these in the fire, and placing the cassava and potatoes in with the rocks, we covered the lot and left. We returned and dug out baked cassava and potatoes.

We fed off the gardens around the school for about a month when the tubers stopped coming out. We collected tins, including paint tins, to cook with. But by then we had discovered the “carelessness” of the Teso farmer. That was our actual word. We set out to “correct them”. Hence the word “correction” was what we called our forage.

The word would have been from Okello, my second cousin. Okello was the genius. His marks for all four primary school subjects lingered in the 80s range.

The story from there took on its own character. It was what we became. The fear we had had of ranging out the school perimeter vanished. Hunger gave us courage we were unprepared for. We made our way past the school for the blind, correcting, gathering. We found groundnuts. We found patches of vegetables we recognised. We gathered tamarind fruits. We walked boldly past military roadblocks.

The groundnuts were a boon. We gathered skills we did not know we had. To turn the nuts into butter, we roasted the seeds in hot soil, taking the moisture out. We pounded the lot and ground them. With the vegetables we had sun-dried, the groundnut butter made for a delectable sauce, a far cry from the cassava.

We went past the flying school, going south of the prisons farm.

This manner of feeding became routine. And we used the correction walks to beg for salt from families we knew in Soroti town. The shutting down of the region was having a terrible effect as essentials and incomes ran out. By comparison, we in the school had space, the “correction” to live by.

But the town had its complexities, of course. There were the Asian families in Soroti town who never seemed to run out of things, whose shops remained well-stocked. There were the high civil servants in the senior quarters. There were the bars and restaurants that lined Jumbhai Road that our steps slowed down going past. The piles of chapati, samosas and roast chicken were set there as if to remind us of our status.

And so the discovery of a further truth in the life of decline.

In town, we got looks. We were shouted away from certain places.

It was John who understood this instantly. The state of us had deteriorated. We had no soap. We were malnourished, unwashed, and walking in town. We were a threat. Who knows, a piece of soap, a soda, precious things, might be snatched.

It was a long walk back to Madera. The looks we got began to register. Our hands were covered in scurvy. We had seen town children our own age playing with samosas and chapati and ice cream.

It was not the war that was damaging; it was what the war turned you into that did the harm.

Ice cream had become too good for us.

Till today, I do not understand by what miracle none of us came down with malaria or typhoid. In the state we were in, it would have taken but a little nudge for the ultimate to come.

By late 1987, banditry had taken hold. Internecine conflict had broken out between the Teso that supported the new Museveni regime and those that did not. Class differences turned Teso against Teso. We watched as even some of our own teachers put on military uniforms and joined either the rebels or the new regime and an intra-ethnic war raged. Each morning brought news of someone who had disappeared the night before.

There was a teacher, Mr Odongo, who had kept a distant, avuncular eye on us. He never approached us but hung about where we understood he was overseeing us. One evening, there was a gunshot, so close that the shock of its explosion silenced our little group. Later in the night, we heard a knock on the classroom door. Mr. Odongo may have studied our peregrinations and knew we no longer slept in the dorms. When we opened the door, there he stood, cradling his arm. He had been shot.

We did not know that the bullet had to be taken out. We did not know why he was running a temperature. But John, from watching his father, understood a few things. It was he who ran out for help. Mr. Odongo was taken by adults to hospital and we never heard of him again.

Another teacher, whose brother had joined the government militia, was not so lucky. The bullet got him square in the chest.

A bridge, a land mine

We became inured to life, which is a dangerous stage. One day, a skirmish broke out in Arapai but we just sat by the window, watching, wondering if they were killing many, in between talking about what they were eating back home.

Another afternoon, over at the girls’ school, where my sister was, but which was better provisioned because the nuns ran a tight ship, we heard screaming. In no time, we heard the gunshots and saw scores of men running with the mattresses they had stolen from the girls.

Shortly, we watched as, first, a helicopter sounded off overhead. Then, there was the piercing roar of what may have been a Mig15 fighter jet. John and I were sitting under the tall jacaranda trees by the football field. The Mig heeled up, then, in a terrifying moment, it pitched down, splitting the air, screaming and then it dipped below the tree line. Then it was coming up.

The explosion tore the air apart. We did not run. We had been told to stay put if soldiers or planes appeared. The fighter jet tumbled overhead, we saw it turn upside down, the head of the pilot showing.

In the commotion of jet roar, we had not noticed them. But a single shout drew our attention swiftly. The army had amassed by the football field. And in a straight line, shoulder to shoulder rather than single file, they started to march, sweeping into the bush.

We heard our names. It was Miss Ekit. We got up and ran to the dormitory. She pulled us in and shut the door. We all went under the beds.

There was something about that second battle, coming sometime in November, that was different. It did not sound as dramatic. In fact, it was dull. And it cleared off into the distance. But after that, masses of people disgorged from the countryside and Soroti town became a refugee camp. A Do Me Good disappeared.

We discovered that there had been far more people in the vicinity of Madera than we had known. All had been in hiding, but were now outed by a turn in the war that we did not understand.

People were listless. A faraway look diverted their attention from the immediate. A look like hunger, but deeper, more spiritual. Mute, dull, zombies. We had stopped noticing ourselves, but there we were. Our clothes were too big for us. We had taken to stripping bark off trees to tie our shorts in place. Our shirts were in tatters.

The next week, Miss Ekit told us to pack. She had heard me narrate my stories of travel, for before 1985, my father took me around the country on his business trips. I understood a bit about Kampala, as I knew Mbale very well. Ekit asked me about a friend of our family who was a high-level civil servant in Mbale. She had me repeat his name and the street on which he lived. I did not understand why.

The next day, a long truck drew up outside the technical school. Again, the amazement came. There were scores of schoolchildren hidden in many places whom we did not know about. We were packed into the truck. It drove out of Soroti. We did not speak. If we crossed Bukedea, the border between Teso and Bugisu, we would be safe.

But there was one last throw of fate before we left. We had not yet crossed Aoja Bridge when an explosion whipped our heads to the back. A van had driven over a land mine and lay on the roadside, burning.

The truck had missed it. We the Aboke group were left in Mbale. I took the group to the home of my father’s friend. My father came shortly afterwards and took us all back to the north, via Kampala. But not to our town. In my absence, my family had fled to a place near the Nile, where we still live.

In the coming months, Teso turned into hell, culminating in the notorious Mukura massacre, some of whose perpetrators were the first to die in the Rwanda war five years later.

I did not see John, Akona or Okello again till the late 1990s, and have not seen them since.

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Reflections

Education in a Time of Coronavirus: How e-Learning is Impacting Poor Rural Students

Unable to exploit the internet like their more fortunate peers, poor students in Kenya’s rural areas are losing more of what little chance they have to succeed in an education system that already does not favour them.

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Education in a Time of Coronavirus: How e-Learning is Impacting Poor Rural Students
Photo: Unsplash/Roman Mager
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“[T]he Government of the Republic of Kenya at this time (. . .) is not going to consider stopping e-learning. Well, I keep saying that (. . .) all our children are equal. Those who can access content, they will get access of the content (. . .) I think it is better to allow the ones to get, and hope that the period is as short as possible, and when the time comes we shall empower the others.” – Education C.S. George Magoha

Solomon sent me a message to say that he wouldn’t be coming in the following day; he wanted to finish some tests he had started the night before on Tusome and send them in for marking. Solomon is a student in a boys’ boarding school in chilly Kinangop, high up in the Aberdares, but he’s been back home since the coronavirus came to play havoc with the school calendar.

The message was sent from a cheap smartphone with a cracked screen. Solomon didn’t always have a phone; I used to have to call his granny, an irascible old woman with a harsh tone of voice and an abrupt telephone manner, if I needed to talk to him. “Uga!” (Say!), she would bark, leaving me momentarily confused about why I had called.

Left to fend for three orphaned grandchildren at an old age and with no income other than the money she could make as a casual labourer, Cũcũ wa Solomon had no choice but to send the children out to look for work during the school holidays, and that is how I first met Solomon, a pimply lad in an oversized hoodie and a tattered pair of sneakers. Since then Solomon has come to me during the school holidays, helping with the weeding and trimming the hedge, making a man’s daily wage to supplement the family’s income, and recently buying himself a second-hand cell phone.

Solomon is in Form Four now and will sit for his Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education this year; he tells me that he has received a message from his school confirming that the exams will start on the 4th of November. He has his smartphone and the wages with which to buy himself internet bundles, but without the textbooks and his teachers’ help, I do not know what Solomon’s chances are.

Mose’s situation is quite different. His mum has a kabambe of a phone, with a long-lasting battery and a bright torch that takes over when the electricity tokens run out in the two-room rented home she shares with her two boys. It is not of much use to Mose, who is in his last year at our local primary school, and who would need a smartphone to register on the Tusome platform in order to access revision notes and mock tests.

The closure of all schools was announced very abruptly on a Sunday by the government, leaving the teaching staff at our local primary school with very little time to prepare homework for the pupils while they waited for schools to reopen. And so, the head teacher, a deeply committed educationist who accomplishes very much with very little, has resorted to sending links to downloadable learning materials to the parents of Class Eight pupils even while acknowledging that, for a great many, access is impossible. Registration on the Tusome platform is free but it still costs 50 shillings a day to use, 300 shillings a week and 1,000 shillings monthly (contrary to the misleading information on the site).

Wa Mose works as a casual labourer on the surrounding farms and on building sites, earning 250 shillings from eight in the morning to one in the afternoon. She’s an industrious woman; she knits school jumpers to order in the evenings and does other people’s laundry in the afternoons. Still, her earnings have not stretched to the acquisition of a smartphone and now she is fretting over Mose’s prospects come the exams.

But even if Wa Mose did own a smartphone, her son would have to spend hours squinting at the small screen, scrolling through all the 141 pages of mathematics before taking the online tests and moving on to the next subject. The pages are not printable, and even if they were, they would cost 1,410 shillings to print. Wa Mose would have to find money for that one subject alone (and there are five in total), not to mention the cost of the internet bundles it would take.

One might be led to believe that the Tusome platform is an initiative of the Ministry of Education since it borrows its name from a programme run by the ministry, but it is in reality a private money-making initiative that is merely providing access to PDFs of scanned copies of existing learning materials.

Over at Teachers Arena, a website that started out as a WhatsApp group where teachers shared resources and information, there is no need for registration; access to the content is free and the material is downloadable and printable. However, the mathematics section alone runs to 54 pages. At our local cybercafé, Wa Nancy charges 10 shillings per printed page, so it would cost 2,700 shillings—at the very least— to print the revision notes and mock tests for all the subjects.

To avoid leaving her children at home unsupervised and getting up to no good, Wa Mose has sent the boys to their grandmother where, fortunately, there is a radio on which they can listen to the educational programmes that are broadcast by the Kenya Institute for Curriculum Development.

However, even this choice is not open to all. When I asked Kahiga’s mother if at least the family had a radio, her answer was simple and stark: “We have nothing.”

Wa Kahiga lives with her children in a rented room on the edge of our township, selling her labour to others for 50 shillings an hour. Work is not always easy to find and hunger is familiar in her home. And although quiet and soft-spoken, she is forthright and brutally honest if the choice is between the PTA contribution and keeping the family fed. Nevertheless, the head teacher keeps Kahiga in school and waits patiently for the money to be found. Now Kahiga is at home, waiting, and lacking the means to improve his chances of escaping the grinding poverty that is his lot.

Mose’s head teacher is not sure how the school will make up for the lost time. Although the majority of the school’s pupils are day scholars, the school does offer boarding facilities for pupils coming from further afield, as well as those from our locality whose parents wish them to board. He had contemplated proposing that all the 176 KCPE candidates become boarders for the rest of the year once schools reopen in June (if they do), with the staff teaching from early in the morning till late in the evening after supper, as well as on Saturdays, so that the syllabus can be covered before the exams. But space in the dormitories is limited and squeezing in more beds would compromise the social distancing necessary to stop the spread of the coronavirus. And so the head teacher has had to give up that idea; as it is, he is not even sure how the school will practise social distancing in the classrooms.

Still, it is unlikely that many parents of day scholars would have taken the head teacher up on that suggestion, even were it workable. The extra money to cover the boarding fees and the necessary supplies would have to be found, yet many of the parents have not paid last term’s boarding fees in full, which has in turn had a knock-on effect on salaries. The school relies on the fees to pay the ten support staff who include the workers employed to cook and clean after the pupils and the groundsman who also doubles up as the school’s baker. The head teacher has had to call upon the goodwill of the school’s banker to pay their April salaries but he has forewarned them that May salaries may not be paid on time.

The rains have been abundant, though, and there is plenty of work available weeding on the farms around us. All hands are on deck now, with parents and their children going out to sell their labour and earn as much as they can before the rainy season ends, so the wherewithal to settle last term’s balances and cover next term’s costs might yet be found.

Even though mobile telephones have become ubiquitous in much of the country, the digital divide remains firmly in place, a vast chasm that keeps children from rural areas and disadvantaged backgrounds separate, unable to exploit the internet like their more fortunate peers, and, in this time of coronavirus, losing more of what little chance they have to succeed in an education system that, from every fathomable point of view, does not favour them.

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