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MILLENNIALS AND MARRIAGE: A Status Report

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MILLENNIALS AND MARRIAGE: A Status Report
Photo: Benita Elizabeth Vivin on Unsplash

If a doctor were to diagnose millennial marriages, he would find them diseased, plagued by forces of nature beyond their control. These three anecdotes illustrate the three biggest challenges that millennials are grappling with in marriage.

In December 2014, I accompanied a friend to Embu, in Eastern Kenya for a ruracio (A traditional Agikuyu and Aembu wedding ceremony). It was a well-attended ceremony that brought together two traditions (Luo and Aembu) with a dash of modernity, given my friend had defied his family rejection of the woman’s position (due to her ethnicity) – reveling in love and idealism of the youth and urbanization, to marry across ethnic lines.

The two had been living together since graduation, two years before, and the ruracio had been accelerated by an inevitable pregnancy, so the man had to ‘make things right.’ But they were married in every sense of the word upon the blessing of her parents after the Christmas Eve ruracio.

They were meant to live happily forever. However, forever did not last six months.

In a dramatic, if not disturbing discovery, it turned out the child was not his. The DNA results devastated my friend. They ‘divorced’, with no chance of remarrying.

At 27, life had served him one of the most brutal blows. My friend went into depression, taking to alcoholism, sleeping around, seeking solace in church before he could sober up a year later.

Not sure what became of the woman, except that she was 26, and was to be a part of growing number of single mothers under 30 in the country.

Is that the end for the two? We can assume that they may attempt to get married in the future.

A few years back, one of my closest friends fell out with a woman he was cohabiting with (more like kicked out of the house).

They were about the same age; however, the girlfriend joined the university earlier by going through the ‘parallel program’. My friend waited for two years and a government stipend before joining the public university. She graduated way ahead of him, and by the time my friend was finishing his undergraduate, she was through with her masters. A parallel program averaged two and half years compared to a regular program that took four or five years and could be imperiled by a strike by students or lecturers.

She got into gainful employment, rose through the ranks in her organisation, and continued to support her man for two years before she got tired of the man’s jobless status and dumped him. My friend is not the first man to be dumped or left because of his dim economic prospects.

Lastly is the case of Jeff Nyongesa*. When his wife requested his indulgence and permission for a night out with the girls, he grudgingly consented. They have a six-month-old baby, and the agreement was that she would be home by 11 pm. She was not home by midnight, and on calling her she didn’t answer her phone, and worse she switched it off (or it ran out of charge). Seething, he called her mother and all her authoritative relatives and raised a storm, spelling it out in black and white that he was not happy with ‘their daughter’s’ conduct. He says gleefully, this ‘tamed’ her.

***

In the first instance, the problem is adultery gone wrong. The second instance is an increasingly common problem, as we are hit with economic recession; many young men are jobless, underemployed—stuck in jobs that can hardly sustain them, let alone a marriage. It has aptly been called a mancession-where more male-dominated jobs are lost compared to female-dominated ones during a period of economic difficulty.

Understandably, men can provide for their unemployed wives, but for women, the support often comes tethered to an expiration date. And there is enough anecdotal evidence to support this. Undeniably, there are exceptions, but largely found among the ranks of older women with cultivated patience and not so much among the younger peers.

Women world over, while empowered and economically secure, are socialized to still desire a man who can provide, and the male status is linked to the role of a breadwinner. So dire, that in America, Trump’s election was largely attributed to the scores of unemployed men in America’s Rust Belt, who have lost their jobs to technology, or factories having been shipped to China or Mexico.

In a poll conducted in the US and published by the Harvard Business Review, ahead of the 2016 American elections, it emerged that even the thought of earning less than their spouses made men vote for Trump. Intuitively, men know what it means when a woman earns more.

A study done more than a decade ago and published in the journal of Biology Letters confirmed as much:

Men prefer younger women due to their higher fertility, while women prefer older men due to their wealth and high status, which makes them good providers for the offspring.

Nyongesa’s case is a barometer of shifting cultural mores. As millennials, we are in a contradicting transition. As an Anthropologist, Paul Omondi (of the University of Nairobi) pithily puts it…

“A modern, educated woman can go to her job during the week, attend a chama meeting on Saturday, go drinking and dancing on Saturday night, go to Church on Sunday, and still make time for the family.”

All her aspirations are antithetical to traditional African socially prescribed expectation of a woman’s place in marriage.

We are stuck with an outdated ideological construction of gender. Men have resisted conformity to conventional feminism ideals that preach: what is sauce for the goose, is sauce for the gander, hence the false sense of emasculation.

For all the progressive nuances and liberalism millennial men may have cultivated and displayed, if a poll is run on what men expect in women they want to marry, their expectations will correspond to the traditional expectations their fathers’ generation. Women want a better version of their fathers for husbands: sensitive, available, liberal and preferably financially well off.

Both sexes are disappointed that neither is living in the traditional paradigm.

A brief history of Women Empowerment

Nobody should fault women for wanting it all. It was a necessary moral choice to empower women so that they can be active participants in the economic development.

The journey to gender equality started in 1975 at the UN Conference on Women. National governments acknowledged women as the missing link in national development and economic success. The authors of this paper, argue the intentions to empower women were good, the opportunity cost of not empowering women without involving men had socio-economic and political risks. The plight of the boy child in Kenya was not part of public discourse for nearly three decades until about a decade ago when Maendeleo ya Wanaume led by a dubious Nderitu Njoka surfaced and tried to articulate the problems of men in the wake of the gains accrued from women empowerment.

The Eurocentric education we inherited after colonialism altered our indigenous worldview in favour of the Western way of life. African women long suppressed by patriarchy would benefit from this education, and 40-odd years later since we started involving women in economic development, our country’s GDP grew from $3.25 in 1975 to $ 75 billion in 2017, but not without socio-cultural consequences.

In education the gender gap reduced over the years to 59 percent for men and 41 for women by 2015, according to the Nation Media’s Newsplex investigation. The gap is still shrinking, and career levering courses such as nursing, medicine, dental surgery, environmental studies, biochemistry and pharmacy are attracting 57 percent women compared to 43 percent men. And the Constitution of Kenya 2010 empowered women even more, with the two-thirds gender rule, giving them access to more opportunities both in the private and public sector.

Education has had multiple benefits, shaping societal attitudes to an extent vices such as gender-based-violence, female genital mutilation, deadbeat dads are actively discussed in society and the law, while slow, is now responsive, bolstered by the civil society mainstreaming of human rights issues.

Our mothers and their predecessors were forced to endure abusive marriages, some getting infected with HIV by promiscuous husbands, forced to stay by societal expectations, their choices limited by poverty, since men were the privileged breadwinner wielding all the social clout.

Education helped the society to stop frowning on single mothers and divorcees as it happens to the forerunners like Wangari Maathai and Martha Karua.

It has created an environment where women can thrive and have a bright future where their choices are not dictated by marriage.

Enter Kibaki

In 2002, Mwai Kibaki took over as Kenya’s third president and the following decade witnessed an unprecedented growth, and expansion of the Kenyan economy, opening doors of educational and career opportunities to a wider previously ignored female demographic.

Following the adoption of self-sponsorship in higher education, in the 2000s, the expansion and the proliferation of several universities, more students previously cut off from university admission pegged on bed-capacity (notoriously at 10,000 for more than a decade.) This has churned out nearly 50,000 graduates each year in the last decade according to the Ministry of Education. Nearly 40 per cent of these graduates are female.

The jobs markets that exploded after Kibaki took over, were mainly in academia, marketing, banking and real estate (and the expansion of the Civil Society which addressed some of the most pressing issues affecting women and children) creating a friendly job environment for female career progression.

Coincidentally, throughout the 1990s, the Structural Adjustment Programs killed the manufacturing sectors as many industries were privatized, often subsequently run down. Examples are abound such as Kenya Railways, several textile industries grounded by the importation of second-hand clothes that sabotaged the whole chain of production. The postal service, Telkom, Public Works, farming lost out to privatization and once vibrant towns such as Kitale and Kilgoris in Transmara all but died.

Women may have joined the workforce, but they still lag in formal employment. According to the Kenya Bureau of Statistics, efforts to bridge the gap have been paying off. As of 2016, men still hold 65.5 % (1.68 million) of the workforce compared to women, 34.5% about 880,000. The gap is being closed considering more women than men are taking up Masters and PhDs, according to the Ministry of Education. One MoE official said the affirmative action had helped women access education and this presently reflects in the workplace in the corporate sector as more women take up managerial jobs.

The Impact

As millennials, we witnessed our fathers losing their jobs and their breadwinning roles and the logic of two-income families sunk in properly during the SAPs years. Indeed women aspiring for education was with the hope of bringing something to the table and among millennials a job (or the prospect of getting one) is usually a key consideration in marriage.

And we have education to thank for opening doors to more women, making them eligible for marriage in the present tough economic times.

But education had other effects.

Education in its socialization effect also exposes women to limitless choices their mothers never had. Urbanization creates an environment for a woman who was under a tight leash of patriarchy to excel in cities. And with the liberalization of the media in 2002, access to the internet, pornography and Hollywood, it meant millennial women were no longer chained to the constricting and narrowly defined roles of their mothers’ generation.

With procreation no longer a pressing priority of marriage, women are free to chase academic and career dreams, or even their passion, until they are ready. Technology has enabled In-Vitro-Fertilization that has saved couples who can’t conceive, or those who are too busy. Further options of adopting, surrogacy, freezing of eggs, are all sipping into our society and those who can afford are already embracing these new approaches to parenting.

Men, maybe out of moral consciousness or fear of being exposed as deadbeats on social media or legal coercion have become more responsive to the children of their estranged wives or exes. And many modern men are open to the idea of co-parenting. This makes single parenting less of a stigma.

For those averse to marriage, getting a child ‘out of wedlock’ is not the social crime it was two or three decades ago. Older women who find it hard to find a spouse can go to a sperm bank or can get into an arrangement with a man to supply the sperm and support, if needed.

Nowadays it is no longer what the children need, but what the parents want.

When women do not have to be economically dependent on men, and they have options of conceiving a child, not necessarily in the confines of marriage and this choice can change relationship dynamics completely.

Traditionally around the world marriage was a logical arrangement for procreation, economic and social cohesion.

The present economic, social and cultural environment for the first time since Industrial Revolution means we must alter that definition. Women want an equal footing in marriage and men have to readjust accordingly. Marriage now, according to Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel in an Atlantic article, is based not on duty and obligation but on love and affection.

And millennials prefer life in the cities and towns to the villages. This too has western implications on our societal mores. Life in the city affords one anonymity and access to sex, food, security in their terms.

In cities, women have a bigger pool of sexual and sensual talent to pick and choose. Sexual liberalism is evident.

In the bygone era, where most women were destined to be housewives, there were binding social conventions and women were expected to practice uncompromising fidelity. But at the workplace, with frequent traveling to conferences, business-related excursions sex has become casual and transactional. Now, everywhere women look, there are available men, who can offer everything they want, but not necessarily in one package.

We live in a time and in a society that has embraced the romance idealism defined through the Western cinematic universe. The relational power men held is no longer absolute and these societal changes are redefining gender relationships at a rapid speed. The ground has moved, the old ways have fallen apart and we know not where to turn.

From sex to money, men no longer have the monopoly to the things that they used to ‘control’ women. This means in the future marriage will become a contest for equality, with no spouse hoarding the power to control the other.

Choices Millennials have to make

Millennials marry on need basis. Women have choices; they can go to school, pursue career without the encumbrances of marriages. When they marry young, they still have a choice to navigate, despite the obligations of motherhood. With the leverage of personal income, most women now have the capacity to own property, changing the dynamics of matrimonial property ownership that are often the subject of ugly succession woes. As this Nation article and many others have shown more and more women are players in Nairobi’s real estate market.

Me, on the other hand, will take longer to marry as long as their economic prospects are dim. Presently, the age of marriage has risen considerably to 28, tittering towards 30.

Most men still pine for the good old days of control and women can no longer conform to old gender order. Women want freedom, are ready to break the rules (if only to revenge on their adulterous husband) even as societal rules are kinder to a cheating man, as opposed to a woman. In fact, in my opinion, even women are finding monogamy to be too constricting. Millennial women have a higher likelihood of abandoning a marriage that does not serve their interests, as they tend to make more individualistic decisions that alienate them from obligations to the extended society.

What does the future look like for the millennials adulting?

Serial monogamy might make sense. Polygamy is not economically viable anymore and proselytizing Christians have made monogamy the only moral choice. More marriages will be undone by infidelity and the dwindling economic fortunes of men. Women no longer have to stay in an abusive relationship or one that is in emotionally or sexually unfulfilling relationships. Men will find themselves being thrown out and will have to learn to either shape up or pack up.

Single-motherhood will cease to bear the social stigma previously attached to it. And the rising age of marriage means individuals will be looking for companionship as opposed to the material or procreational aspirations of the youth.

But serial monogamy is predicated on experimentation. Once the first marriage is broken, people are afraid of the second trial, but will nonetheless experiment until the idea of a right person shows up.

“These days, many of us are going to have two or three significant long-term relationships or marriages,” predicts psychotherapist Esther Perel.

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Silas Nyanchwani is a writer and journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Reflections

AND GOD RESTED ON THE SEVENTH DAY: Faith as a tense truce in an African reality

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AND GOD RESTED ON THE SEVENTH DAY: Faith as a tense truce in an African reality
Photo: rawpixel on Unsplash

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.

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Reflections

THE DAYS OF SITUATION: Reflecting on the Reflections Series ‘Beyond The Numbers’

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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.

Beyond the Numbers

Read: Beyond the Numbers series

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.

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Reflections

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

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EARTH AND RUST: The decline of a Kenyan town
Photo: Laini-Moja, Kitale

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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