There’s something uncomfortable about looking at pictures of your parents at a time when they made each other happy. – Aminatta Forna
Our parents are an example of two things:
What marriage should be like;
What marriage should not be like.
I met the husband I never married when I was sixteen. He became the biological father of my child a few years later and he was proud to call me his wife. We never had a wedding albeit living together … in theory – as he often travelled meaning we did not really spend much time together. And by the time we reunited, we had spent so much time apart that we felt like strangers. We had become accustomed to making separate decisions in separate countries and over time, our worldviews evolved in divergent directions. As I had become a mother at a very young age, I started, as many women might, feeling a little empty. My child was growing older and being a mother could not define my whole identity. What happened to all the things my younger self-thought I would one day do?
My parents, who are card-holding members of the Baby Boomer generation, modeled to me as a child, that in a marriage, one stays put until death do us apart. You may hurt and drain yourself, but in the end, you will have done the honourable thing by staying wedded.
Later in life, parents resting in their graves, married to death, you look back at old photos and realise they were once possibly happy. They had good times. They kissed, loved and laughed. Then I mirror that against my own relationship that did not stand the test of time.
Old photos with your former partner, only tell one little part of the whole story – the part that is most hopeful and happy.
Happy … that little word people have written hundreds of books about because we are socialised to seek happiness all our lives. These popular notions do not really capture the full spectrum of the human experience but they continue to prevail over the choices we make and do not make.
I did not choose to be born to a Kenyan father and a Russian mother. Yet, they informed a large part of the insecurity I both consciously and subconsciously developed around love and marriage. They informed the choices I made and they informed the choices I did not make.
As a woman in her 30s reflecting on my parents’ complex marriage, I have developed a curiosity about what really built their union; why did they stay together, despite the unforgiving conflicts?
I do not have any easy answers but in the process of dissecting the complexities, I came to realise how daring my parents were. They ventured outside the bonds of their culture, and, merged to find solace in each other, creating new identities in worlds that were distinct from the worlds they were born into.
My father was an intellectual, who studiously worked toward a success he had defined in his mind. He was among the privileged Kenyan Baby Boomers, from his hometown, Kuria, and from the country in general, to travel abroad for higher education circa 1965. Not only did he travel overseas, he travelled into the tensions of the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war.
I have tried to recreate the past in my mind. What was life like for a young black African man in my mother’s hometown, the southern city of Krasnodar, close to the Black Sea – the warmer part of the country. If only I was older during his final days, we might have had these conversations, and I would be better informed. There were times, as a child, I felt he wanted to tell me more but he did not know how too. We would sit and stare at each other. He would murmur something incomprehensible to my young mind about his regrets. Years later, I hold vague memories of what might have transpired. He wanted to speak of the hardships of his past. He wanted to talk of the racial hardships in the USSR. The Soviets, who had been isolated from the rest of the world found African people completely alien and projected all manner of negative stereotypes. In my view, it was not an overt kind of racism with a historical context common in the West. It stemmed from a profiling of the unknown given that exposure to black people was nearly none existent. The name-calling took place mainly amongst the men, who over a few drinks could become fast friends. This is not to say grave and violent incidents did not occur, more so among the less educated or jobless. Being the studious man he was, he persevered through it all and gained the respect of the Soviets, going on to earn a PhD in Agricultural Engineering.
I also heard he handled quite a number of substantive projects and began to earn money that distinguished him from the rest of his peers. In time this made him something of an outlier and an exotic catch for the Russian ladies. Many women of the time harboured dreams of any ticket out of the USSR. They were told of a tropical location with succulent mangoes and sunny days throughout the year. The commonly viable escape was the West and Africa in its remoteness, held a certain allure for the adventurous.
The alcoholic addiction that afflicted the troubled Soviet men further made the foreign men a more appealing option regardless of race. The strong Soviet women kept the homes going and the broken men found solace in war songs and vodka shots. The contrast in modest behaviour and disciplined lifestyles displayed by African men made them objects of curiosity for many women. They were hard-working and appeared to have clear visions for their future. They all dreamt of the big things they would do back home. Mixed-race children like I came to be known as ‘mulatos’. But it was not that simple. While my grandmother was against the idea of mixing blood and polluting the purity of their race, the Baby Boomers dared to be different. Not all had the courage to do so, as my mother did. Several women would end up aborting their mixed-race babies. My mother bore my sister in 1980, and as normally happens, the family grew fond of the baby. Although my sister recalls having a happy early childhood there, it was deemed not the most suitable option to raise a mixed-race child in the Krasnodar Krai.
Among the Africans, the Kenyans were deemed reliable and quite a number of them proudly brought their dainty Russian brides home. My father was fluent in Russian. So fluent that if someone spoke to him on phone, not having seen his face, they would assume that he was white and possibly blue or hazel eyed. I know he was also a charmer, for I recall him fondling my mother in front of other guests at parties, who themselves were too conservative to do the same with their partners. He was a man defined by his zeal, swinging between extremes of utter joy and frightful bitterness, as if he embodied two different people.
His public displays of affection toward my mother embarrassed me. Compared to the restraint of his peers, he seemed inappropriate. I questioned the authenticity as well. I would normally walk away from the scene thinking of it as a short-lived façade. By the third day of the week, they would be throwing unpleasant curses at each other. This was my normal, outside the fixed smiles in the family photos.
My mother was also an educated woman with a Masters degree in Economics and a beautiful cursive handwriting that I worked hard to emulate. The quality of the education, for all men and women alike, was high; the one thing the country did not compromise amid the chaos leading to the fall of the USSR was educational standards. While the men were burdened by the trauma of the cumulative conflicts of the time and the patriotic duty as the state’s soldiers, who put their lives forward for their country – willingly – many at a steep price, the women ended up filling the ranks as the brains of their institutions. It was common to have a significant number of women in varied fields from accounting to aeronautics. The first Russian woman in the world to fly to space in the 1960s was Valentina Vladimirovna – coincidentally, my mother was also a Vladimirovna.
There is a subtext to this inclusivity. The legal equality of women and men in Russia came circa 1917 under Lenin, who believed that women had a crucial and economic role to play in the communist revolution and need not be tied down to domestic roles. For about a decade (before much was reversed) not only was abortion legalized, but marriage was separated from the church and children born out of wedlock enjoyed equal rights. It always positively baffles me that the likes of my mother were born into Women’s Rights and still prioritized domesticated roles and motherhood above other pursuits of self.
My father, on the other hand, had been away from home for about 15 years. Through his hard work, the young family moved to Kenya around 1985, to start a new and supposedly free life under the sun. There were high expectations placed on my father, having been a pioneer of high education and interracial marriage in his community. He felt obliged to come back with a family, look settled and successful, with several not-so-well-off relatives waiting for the ‘benefits’ of his achievements. As Yvonne Owuor wrote in Dust, they would, “show up in every inconvenient season with a long story, one thin dead chicken – stolen – and hands outstretched to receive alms,” from him.
To his community, he was a new man. He returned wearing his one of a kind velvet suits, reading Russian books and playing vinyl records from our very large collection. I clearly remember Donna Summer among them. Mother blended into the Kenyan workforce and even joined a Kuria women’s chama. Her outward calmness, elegance and dedication to being a homemaker, disguised her actual bravery. She had rebelled against a system; left her homeland, found ways to sink roots in a new land and raise a family. She spent occasional nights missing Mother Russia- when she’d sit in the verandah after dinner, the glass door shut, looking out into the darkness in deep thought, having a cigarette whose puffs took her back home – the only times I saw her smoke. I would watch her silently from a corner of the sitting room, out of her line sight trying to read her pensive mood.
Like the round leaf and a lily flower that floats on the surface of the water in a pond, my parents sustained each other. A symbiotic relationship, picturesque on the surface and turbid below. So they floated, one upon the other, content in regiment, solid in growth only to be fragmented in loss.
Is that what marriage really is? A deep-rooted binding institution, further complicated by our heritage, nurturing, beliefs; something that I misunderstood while I fixated on my parents’ photos? How could I trust this institution?
So a few years into my own, so-to-say, customary marriage, the union finally came to an end. It was not a one-day affair. It was a steady decline; an airplane preparing for landing in bad weather accompanied by a series of drastic actions, and regret that it could not have gone any other way. It was not a smooth landing.
I began rebuilding the parts of me I had shattered. He too left to pick up the parked parts of his life before my existence. I was the interlude that gave it an ideal neither of us could live up to. I once thought leaving was strength until I realised the strength was in the staying. I did not have the courage my mother had to stay. Neither can I be certain that she should have.
Having made peace with the paradox of choice, I went through a period of exploring life stories – memoirs and autobiographies. Among them was Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed where she explored what I would call a traditional childhood, girlhood and transition to womanhood in the context of her Kikuyu upbringing.
Roles were defined, expectations were clear – no surprises. Family and marriage were a communal affair necessitated by the need to organise life, retain values and manage the community’s resources. You could not wake up one morning and decide to unlove someone. Neither could you voluntarily neglect your role.
Her parents were of a time when polygamy was a norm. Co-wives were friends and the children played together, calling all the wives ‘mother’. Wangari writes that she did not sense any discrimination and if her parents had any problems they were kept out of it; she never saw them argue. Perhaps it was not acceptable for a wife to be confrontational with her husband. Nonetheless, roles and expectations were not ambiguous. It was not about the individual, it was about the community. Marriage was an expectation and families in the same homestead often married from the same community, expectedly grooming certain young men and women for marriage. This generally meant you married someone with shared communal values. You learnt to love and respect each other. We cannot ascertain that this would always be the case, but longevity of marriage was in some way guaranteed.
Wangari herself, who pursued her higher education in America, never witnessed the traditional longevity of her marriage. Her husband called it quits. She said her husband claimed that she was, “too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control.” But rather than defend these reasons (of which I suspect were traits she was, in fact, proud of) she beautifully captured the fragility of contemporary marriages when examined objectively.
“When we go through profound experiences, they change us. We risk our relationships with friends and family. They may not like the decisions we have taken or may feel threatened by our decisions. They may wonder what happened to the person they once knew. There may not be enough space in a relationship for aspirations and beliefs or mutual interests and aims to unfold. For a couple, this is particularly so because most people marry young and are bound to grow and change in their perceptions and appreciation of life.”
Regardless of this opinion, she wanted to keep her marriage for social reasons but did not wish to give up any of her aspirations for a more traditional role. Her marriage was officially annulled in 1979 but her bigger picture still stood as, “I was still the chairman of the National Council for Women of Kenya and I was still developing the Green Belt Movement.”
Influenced by the American school of thought, she needed to accomplish what she felt was her mission in life. “I also took America back to Kenya with me … There is a persistence, a seriousness, and a vision to America: it seems to know where it is going and it will go in that direction, whether you like it or not.” Wangari held onto her aspirations, my mother held onto her family- both strong choices for women who came from family-oriented communities. Wangari showed her strength overtly, my mother held it silently.
So I say to myself, let bygones be bygones as I examine contemporary marriages in search of role models to follow. In this new age, many of my millennial peers have had the opportunity to study abroad, subscribe to western notions of love and romance and have bought into the idea of one’s individual aspirations as the epitome of the pursuit of happiness and fulfillment. Those I looked at for hope in marriage have not survived the institution. Some are living in the same home-like ghosts, at the brink of sanity. Others settled for companionship and neglected the institutional commitment of marriage. Others, like myself, have developed a phobic awareness of the responsibilities of marriage, and have acceded to the idea that it is bound to fail.
Marriage comes down to choice: the choices mama made, the choices Wangari made, the choices I am making. Their choice to leave or stay, evolved into my choice to marry or not, on the backdrop of my reflections and attitude toward their marriages. In as much as I judged their choices harshly in my younger years, I now look at them with empathy – an empathy that does not seek to explore that path. An empathy that looks at my modern life as an advantage in the freedom we think we hold and in how we navigate our lives. An empathy that elevates the value of companionship in our chaotic urban lives and dismisses the idea that marriage is crucial for its attainment – for after all, their stories show the loneliness their marriages hid and the irony of committing to a life partner but craving freedom. So much for the myth of Happily Ever After.
In retrospect, I feel I have found a new (but detached) appreciation for the institutional and dutiful nature of marriage in a world where choice has become narcissistic. Everything depends on the individual. Your happiness depends on you. Your misery depends on you. It is your fault for attracting a flawed partner. We continue to await the unattainable, The One. These are the egoistic ideals we ruin our communities chasing. We forget that by the very act of holding an identity card, we represent civil principles, we forget that marriage is supposed to give us certain rights in how birth, death and resources are organized, besides the traditional legitimacy within our community.
I take comfort in my choice to refrain from binding myself to the institution only to let it down. A comfort bred in the art of singlehood, while subconsciously in the search for that which I know I will never find – the Happily Ever After. Something my mother already knew when she chose to stay.
THE COLONIAL STATE, AUSTERITY AND “MIDDLE CLASS” ANGST: An insiders perspective
This short film by Amina Bint Mohamed, and featuring activist Aimee Ongeso, explores the concerns and challenges of the so-called ‘middle class’, a demographic whose definition is contested and whose security is precarious. Unemployment, a high cost of living, and commercialized social services make it nearly impossible to ‘live one’s best life’. Though the blame is often put on poor financial literacy, Ongeso says the buck stops with the state – and she reflects on the strategies that families like hers are using to survive these hard times, and disappointments they navigate, while recognizing that the problems they face emanate from the exploitative colonial nature of the Kenyan state.
NAIROBBERY: City of Injustice, City of Grief
Prior to being let go from the most promising job I’d ever gotten, I’d entertained the idea that maybe I was somehow safe. But when the news was broken to me over a static-laced WhatsApp call from the mdosi, I barely reacted.
‘Do you have anything to say?’ he asked.
‘Is this decision final?’ I responded.
‘Yes, it is.’
‘Then I have nothing more to say.’
An awkward silence reigned the conference room and eventually I left them to whatever else they needed to settle. I walked to my desk, broke the news to my family and started looking for a new job. It’s now been four months. I am yet to work in an office again.
I was almost 25 when I was technically fired. Each day that passed without a response to my job applications felt like a tightening noose.
Others who have been through the same – and it appears as though anyone with ambition has gone through this – told me, ‘Relax. These things happen. Enjoy this moment.’
That’s the problem. What’s to be enjoyed when there’s no money to leave the house? Eventually the stress of job seeking began to suffocate me, an unseen persisting pressure pushing my mind further and further to that inevitable pop. It once got so bad that a friend figured that the best way to comfort me was to show me how many other people had survived my situation.
‘Even Oprah was fired,’ she exclaimed. But that’s about the only thing some of us will ever have in common with Oprah.
Job seeking in Kenya right now seems to be an extreme sport. One where only the resilient or downright lucky get to win. For some, getting a job is a straightforward affair. Graduate, intern, employee, retire. For others it gets a bit more creative. One friend of mine said you only need three key things, ‘Looks, manners and connections.’
I thought it a bit shallow. She disagreed.
‘Looking good is one step in the right direction. When you’re presentable, the world is your canvas. That’s why the world’s best conmen are also the best dressed. The moment you look good, it gets easier to insert yourself in groups. Once you do that, you can get connections anywhere.’
The logic in it couldn’t be denied. Looking good is its own reward. Think about it. Everything we wear is indicative of adhering to an acceptable aesthetic. You have to look a certain way to be taken seriously. You can’t show up to a pitch meeting with unruly hair and mismatched sneakers. And you can’t just say that being sloppy is your preference. There is a standard to meet.
You have to graduate from Charm School to be able to create a job opportunity out of a chance encounter. That’s half a foot in the door. Why our teachers couldn’t spare a moment out of the pointless curriculums to share this about adulting, we may never know.
But it can’t just be about looking good. It has to be about qualifications too. Perhaps the reason why I can’t get a job I would be perfect for is because I may not be as experienced as the recruiters want. Or because I don’t possess the requisite degree. However, Twitter is inundated with posts of highly qualified individuals looking for work, any work. Plenty of individuals with prestigious degrees in fields like Microbiology and Engineering are looking for any kind of job. A few have taken to the streets with banners showing their qualifications.
Unemployment rates in Kenya are at a crisis point. Recent reports from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics show that seven million Kenyans are unemployed. Out of these, 1.4 million have been desperately looking for work. The rest have given up on job hunting, with some opting to go back for further studies.
The data suggests that rate of unemployment is at 7.4%. Other studies show the rate at 11.4%. I couldn’t care less about the numbers. So what if seven million other people are as jobless as I am? It doesn’t change my personal situation.
Sometimes these jobs are only available at entry level. And even then, they end up being frustratingly temporary. A friend who eventually opted to seek employment abroad had an interesting early experience before he left.
After being employed as an I.T. intern in a reputable firm, a workmate suggested that he seek a permanent position.
‘Just apply,’ he was told, ‘What could go wrong?’
After making the application, the senior manager called him aside and told him he needed to grease the wheels.
‘You need to buy the wazee a mbuzi.’
After months of arduous labour configuring laptops and providing tech support, this was the thanks he got. When he showed hesitation in providing the mbuzi, the manager refused to approve his pay for two and a half months. This forced my friend’s immediate supervisor to pay him out of pocket. Eventually he had to leave the job and figure out what else to do. He was lucky enough to get a better opportunity a few weeks later.
But his happy ending isn’t the norm for entry-level workers. In 2016, I left a job as a data entry clerk because the project got axed. Other companies hire interns and have a policy against retaining them. Some start-ups, though courageous enough to hire newbies in the work environment, end up sinking anyway because of finances.
While this is a ‘norm’, it spells a world of doom for young people in their early twenties. Most of us end up getting mjengo type jobs where they’re veritable casual labourers. The mjengo system is a daily struggle to earn an unsteady pay check. Contracts that are renewed monthly. No job security. Linear use of skills. Doubtful job roles. No benefits. No legal protections. And you have to struggle through them because you’re ‘paying your dues’. Desperately hoping that perhaps the universe sees it as a proof of workmanship. That it will in turn reward you.
Then this is where the Boomers and Gen Xers come in. Parents are mad at the ‘lack of initiative’. If you’re hard at work shouldn’t there be fruits to show of your labour?
My father had one such conversation with me when I was unemployed after my first internship.
He raised one hand above his head, ‘These are your expenses.’
Another hand hovered near the ground, ‘This is your income.’
He brought his palms to meet around his face, ‘This is where you should be. Why can’t you get a job?’
Because nobody would hire someone fresh out of college with only three months’ experience to their CV.
The murmur of frustrated parents echoes around homes in the city that still support their recent graduates.
‘Why don’t you start a business?’
‘Food always makes money.’
‘Even with the economy sinking, Kenyans won’t stop wearing clothes, go into the mtumba business.’
But to be honest, entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone. It’s suited only to a gifted few. And even so, entrepreneurs struggle to make it through in a crony capitalist state like Kenya.
Another friend who owns a wildly successful travel solutions company told me, ‘Not everyone is cut to do it.’
Sure. All you need is guts, guile and a never-ending thirst for glory, right? Wrong.
My friend went on to add, ‘Cash flow is a serious problem, at least for me. Business only booms when the economy is good.’
‘So how did you survive?’ I asked.
‘You have to stretch the shilling, make sure you have years of savings for utilities and expenses because profit will be erratic. Work from home, use business offices if you have to reduce rent expenses. Keep a routine. Prepare for bad times. The 2017 election period caught us off guard. Nairobi is no longer just about Kenya. Understand that you will be facing international competition.’
This sounds like a lot to think about. It’s also what affects one entrepreneur among millions of others. If you are unemployed with barely any savings to your name, do you jump into that pool?
Technically, starting a business in Nairobi is supposed to be easy. Running it and keeping it afloat isn’t. And with the rising costs of living in the country, starting a business seems like a bad idea.
Essentially, it brings you back to the job-seeking arena. Get a job, save some cash and start a business, yeah? However, getting that job still isn’t easy. Most job-seeking sites have sales jobs aplenty. Sales seem to be the most common job available in the country.
‘Sales jobs are numerous because no matter what is happening, you’ll always want someone out there touting your product,” a friend of mine who heads business development for a media company tells me. It’s basically free marketing. That way your company is always known and you always have a potential client to add to your portfolio.’
Sales job are also notoriously poorly paid. Some companies even pay only on commission with no retainers or benefits. You can operate at no cost to the company.
It’s not always what it seems though. A sales operator for a hardware company told me it was difficult for him to get there. After leaving a job at an insurance company to go back to school, things didn’t improve just because he had upgraded his papers.
Two years with casual jobs, he eventually gets an email inviting him to an interview. The fact that it was being held in the conference room of a church raised a few flags, none of them red. Upon showing up at the gate, a young well-dressed man asked for his name, phone number and a two-hundred-shilling registration fee for the meeting.
‘Meeting? I thought this was for interviews?’
‘No, this is a network marketing meeting.’
He looked around and saw the poster then. It was a gathering for a multilevel marketing training course organised by a well-known cosmetics company. Why did they have their meeting in a church? God knows. Perhaps church halls are cheaper? Maybe for credibility? Churches do have a reputation for getting people to make it rain so…
Months passed before he got a sales job that barely provides him with an income. But at least he gets that coveted job experience recruiters live for.
Nairobi ensnares dreamers, those who have the temerity to be ambitious, in its gaping maw, sucking them dry and then spitting them out. This phenomenon doesn’t spare any generation.
A lady who had left for red, white and blue pastures in the early 2000s returned to Kenya after two years of experiences worthy of a depressing Chimamanda immigrant epic. Upon her return, she expected to be reinstated at her civil service job.
‘It’s standard practice. As long as you asked for leave, you just go to HQ and they reinstate you,’ she told me.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned.
‘When I left, I asked for the time off over my supervisor’s head. He threatened me, told me to return after a month or else. I didn’t return. And when I was back two years later I found out he’d written a bad recommendation to the seniors at headquarters.’
‘Did you give up?’ I asked her.
‘No, I talked to a former workmate. He organised a meeting with one of the men in charge and they told me to pay KSh20,000 if I want to be reinstated. I paid and they told me to wait for two weeks then I can get my old job back. I didn’t. They were reshuffled into other jobs and I never even got back the money I paid.’
‘What about your supervisor? Couldn’t you talk to him and get him to rescind his bad recommendation?’
‘No, he died shortly after I came back. I was on my own. Every time I paid off the officials, they would get reshuffled. Eventually I ran out of money and none of them were willing to help unless I paid them.’
‘What about family? Couldn’t any of them help?’
‘Nobody wants to help a 40-year-old woman who could afford to travel abroad. And everyone else said they didn’t have any money or connections.’
Years later, she finally got a job. But she moved as far away as possible from Nairobi and its burdensome toxicity.
Is there any hope for little old me? We of the woefully unprepared for jobless insecurity, do we stand a chance? After experiencing an unprecedented bout of brokeness I reached out to people who were going through the same. Spells of having no money, crises of faith and crippling self-doubt. I asked a friend who has been through some of the most Dickensian worst of times.
‘It gets better,’ my friend promised.
‘After clearing college, our school was changed which made my diplomas unusable. That was barely my first hurdle. After that I got a sales job but turned it down because I just can’t do sales. I have tremendous respect for the people who do. I ended up drifting.’
‘Drifting?’ I asked.
‘Yeah, I was sneaking into classes at a friend’s school. I worked as a cleaner in a computer stall, I worked in a movie shop, I learnt to talk to people, how to broker deals and whatnot. I lost friends. I moved to Zimmerman and got a great job doing IT security then I got fired after a month. Let me tell you, don’t believe your own hype. Don’t oversell yourself on your CV.’
‘I don’t even know how to do that in my CV,’ I quipped.
He laughed uneasily.
‘I got an internship along Mombasa road where I had to walk to town every day because they weren’t paying us. After, I went to a job in Karen where after two months, the money stopped coming in. The company was going under but the boss didn’t tell us until after five months. I didn’t leave until after seven months. The boss would give us handouts. But then I ended up not paying rent. Eventually my house was locked and my stuff auctioned except my laptop and the clothes on my back. I contemplated suicide so many times, I looked for ways I could leave all this from being shamed by my relatives, friends with the ‘alirudi ocha‘ vibe.’
‘But after this I got my ‘big break’ because of a blog I had been writing since 2013. A CEO from abroad emailed me about it. At first, I thought it was a con but I just responded and got an amazing opportunity consulting with them. It’s what I’m doing now. I’ve worked with celebrities, big tech and governments.’
I was so inspired by his story. Empowered too. Binging on prosperity porn is one of the survival mechanisms of dreamers who toil in dead-end jobs or are ‘in-between jobs’. Stories like my friend’s show that while Nairobi makes you struggle, it can breed greatness, right?
We soak in all the stories about people who were felled by circumstance or their own folly managed to claw their way back, and maybe even thrive.
You have to be lucky. You have to be timely. My peers call it ‘your moment will come’. My more religious peers say, ‘Wait for God’s time’. Because there is a heavenly itinerary for when watu ordinary like Mwende and Kimemia will finally get someone to notice their work. The sad truth is that for most, dreams come true through the ‘blessing’ of others. It is that successful people give you a chance to shine. It makes me realize that it’s not necessarily your fault if you miss out when you’ve been working so hard for ‘the moment’.
My former employer even reached out to me after I was let go, ‘It had nothing to do with you or your talent,’ she insisted.
Maybe there are forces at work that can swing either way. 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 get that dream job or set up that dream business. It seems like a whole lot of moving parts, and I can’t blame anyone who can’t keep up.
Structural Adjustment, Revisionist History and Revelations from a Forgotten Past
1. “Sap? Ahh in full pls? Yohhh I’m legit outttttt.”— Sandra, 23.
I spent Mashujaa Day in a gallery in Kibera. Every Saturday, the gallery, Maasai Mbili, has poetry readings, and I, together with a friend, had gone for one of these. When we got there, we found one of the regulars talking about his shujaas. First, my mother, he said, because it wasn’t easy raising a person like me. We nodded, and someone in the room said that all mothers are heroes. He went on. Next, Moi, because he led the country well, and presided over the economy well, unlike other presidents.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this sentiment, this feeling that Moi was good for the economy, and that any disruptions to the economy were due to foreign malcontents. Rasna Warah has written about this, the sanitization of Daniel Moi into a kindly old man who held the country together. I’ve also been thinking about the whitewashing of history that led to information about Moi’s economic incompetencies being hidden away from generations of children who were not alive at the time, or too young to remember. I’m also thinking about SAPs, and how their knowledge is not part of the histories of a certain generation.
2. “So, I don’t really know what SAPs are, but I’ve heard them in conversation. They are important, they keep us in check. They are like a ‘learning point.’ They teach a man how to fish and he won’t ever grow hungry again. The fuel increase is one way SAPs have affected us. Don’t know any other…I don’t think it’s an everyday conversation, unless it’s something you are aware about/interested in and you have like minded people to discuss it with.” — Sabina, 26
I am unable to remember Moi as president. My memory of politics begins with Danson Mungatana telling Raila, “Kama yeye anakula samaki wa Lake Victoria, mwambie mimi nakula mamba za River Tana.” Moi, for me, exists as a distant event, like the Mau Mau and Patrice Lumumba and the extension of the Lunatic Express to Port Florence in 1901; events that happened, and were important to our histories, but which I never encountered directly.
A few years ago, when I was preparing to join campus, my parents and I had a conversation about their campus experiences. Back when my father had been doing his BSc and his subsequent MSc, he had been the recipient of a monthly government stipend. Every month, he told me, the government would deposit money into their accounts for their general upkeep. For my father, who was a child of the city, the child of middle class parents, this payout meant that he enjoyed a measure of independence from his parents. My mother, on the other hand, came for a large family whose patriarch had died early in her life, and whose matriarch was a single uneducated woman living in the village. For her, this payout meant that she could pay for her younger sisters’ school fees. A few years after they were done with campus, as part of the Structural Adjustment Programmes of the late 80s and early 90s, these stipends for campus students were halted. The wanton kleptocracy and naive economics of Moi’s government meant that decades later, we would have to go through campus by our own means, or face the weight of student loans.
3. “Yeah, I don’t know what SAPs are…No, why would I bother with them? All I know is we are being forced to celebrate a dictator who killed people.” — Nyasetia, 23.
As part of my thinking about Moi, I’ve been thinking about SAP’s, what they are, and what they represented. Ngala Chome writes about growing up in Kisauni in the 90s, and about how the implementation of the SAPs ravaged his community. For them, kids born at the turn of the Cold War years, “the tumultuous period of the 1990s reared its ugly head when the colour of ugali turned from white to yellow; when teachers stopped showing up for class; and when trips to the shop to get candles became more frequent.”
My parents got married during this period of the yellowing of ugali. We often rewatched the VHS tape of their wedding and, for years, it, together with Holes and The Gods Must Be Crazy were my favorite audio-visual experiences. That is, until I discovered Hillary Ng’weno’s The Making of a Nation. In a 2011 interview, Chacha Mwita, who was the managing editor of The Standard newspaper when government functionaries raided their offices, described Ng’weno as “one of those people without whom you cannot understand Kenyan journalism.”
4. “Bana, mimi nilimaliza tu shule…Ni kitu nishawaisoma mahali, though I don’t have much info about it.” — Nigel, 22.
How do you make a nation? How are the stories of a nation made? Who makes a nation? Do the stories of a nation make themselves? And after the stories of a stories are made, who makes them disappear? What are the stories of a nation? What came first, the stories or the nation?
5. “What I know about SAPs is that they were a program initiated by the World Bank in the 90s in Kenya, and I think some other African countries, when there was an economic crisis, to kind of ‘streamline’ spending in the country…I’ve tried asking my parents about this…but they give very avoidant answers that say a lot without explaining anything really.” — Hilda, 24.
Moi’s destruction of the Kenyan economy was not the dominant event in the global economy in the 1990s. Around the same time when ugali was turning yellow, the Russian economy was being gobbled up by a group of Russian robber barons. While Mikhail Gorbachev’s envisioning of the perestroika might have been altruistic, he was unable to understand what ‘opening up the economy’ would mean to the average Russian citizen who was either unable or unwilling to take part in the strongest-in-the-jungle catfight that would follow. Or, they had not read the History of Kenya and the 1970s opening up of the country’s economy recommended by the Ndegwa Commission on Public Structure and Remuneration that would lead to an oligarch class before the oligarchy.
In his book, Not Yet Uhuru, Oginga Odinga famously dismisses Daniel Moi, describing him as “…influenced by the missions, overawed by settler power, and making a slow adjustment to political trends and the need to make independent judgement.” It was this type of dismissive attitude that led cynics to dismiss Moi as a passing cloud when he ascended to the presidency, and later, to postulate to the argument that he had done his best with the little resources he had, mental or otherwise. I do not know how accurate Oginga’s assessment of Moi was. I’ll add it to the list of things I know not.
6. “I don’t know what these are…I have heard of it but I don’t know what they are.” — Anita, 19.
Things I know not: How it was to grow up in the SAP-afflicted economy of 90s Kenya; whether Danson Mungatana actually does eat mamba za River Tana or whether he was just beating stories; how the stories of a country are made, and who makes them; how J.M. Kariuki, one of the original robber barons, came to be described as a maker of a nation; what a nation is; whether they were on a break; whether the future history of Kenya will be written to say that the current robber barons in charge of Kenya did what they could with the economy, and that the economy collapsing the way it is was the fault of malicious foreign malcontents who were trying to spoil Kenya; and why Awilo Mike and Riziki split up.
7. “No idea.” — Paul, 22.
When I was in class eight, my school decided that, to motivate us, it would give class eight students milk. Everyday, at 3.10, on trays placed in the corridors outside our classes, we would each pick a glass of milk. We knew, of course, that the milk was useless with regards to our KCPE performance. After all, what was the use of milk if the school decided that we ought to stop attending classes? What was the use of milk if it was the only form of nutrition we got because our broke parents were unable to put food on the table because they had lost their jobs? Wasn’t the free milk just a vanity project if, because of programs brought on by kleptocracy and economic incompetence, healthcare and education were unreachable and expensive? Still, we drank our milk, because it was to keep us motivated enough to do well in our exams. However, a few days into the milk program, it was cancelled and we were switched to juice. Turns out the school had been buying expired milk.
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