I was once suspended for inciting a strike. Or at least that is what the letter said. It was the March of my second year in high school; in my first, we had gone on strike twice. The first was a peaceful act of protest that begun at the assembly ground on a cold Monday morning, moved to a kamukunji in the sports field, and ended with us walking seven kilometers to the highway.
The second was a brutal affair. To this day, I am not sure exactly why we went on strike. Days before the national exam begun, we woke up in a war zone. People breaking window panes, banging on doors, and fighting. What we woke up to, in the rooms nearest the toilets, which were nicknamed Soweto, was a hooded boy whipping one of my roommates with a hockey stick. The combined chaos was traumatic, and explains why I still hyperventilate whenever I hear a metal door banging.
The reasons for both were varied; the first involved a long list of asks, including a new TV. The reasons for the second were less defined, and did not matter much as we ran through the trees and climbed over the gate at midnight. What did was saving our lives, and helping the injured away from the mess.
After the chaos of my first year, we got a new deputy principal, a disciplinarian tyrant who came with the energy of a man on a mission. With no rules beyond those he decreed. Those rules were madness, and his favored way of implementing them was slaps, punches, suspensions and expulsions.
While I sat on the floor in his office that Wednesday morning in March, he said “I didn’t even know you, so huwezi sema ninakukuonea.” He said other things, but that is the sentence that lingers to this day. On that cold floor with my friend and classmate Jackson, who had returned from a previous suspension just two days before, our attempt at explaining what the grievance was dug us deeper into the hole. It was a simple demand, to restore the labor system we had found, which made first years the “wheelbarrows” of the school, with duties reducing as one moved through the four years. We had paid our dues, we felt, but the man sitting across from us did not want to hear. “You were planning a strike”, he repeatedly said, and our attempt at protest was indiscipline. We returned two weeks later, to sit outside the principal’s office as the adults in the room discussed how we should be punished. I was called in, for a short five minutes. I stood at the end of a long table, in a room full of men (including my father), and answered three questions. None was about what the issue had been, or what I had hoped to achieve. At the end of it, my tormentor pushed a ‘contract’ that stated that if I was caught in any act of indiscipline again, I would be expelled. Then I went back outside and sat. An hour or so later, my father, a retired high school teacher at that point, walked out right past me.
I spent the next three nights digging a pit, my act of penance. In my file, the contract sat at the very top, a reminder that this one misunderstanding would be part of my school record forever. Jackson did not survive. He survived our suspension, but he was on a third one within a week for a frivolous charge. Then he was expelled.
The result of this tyranny, which included a spy network (which is how they had learnt of our plan to approach the man), was not a better learning environment where discipline thrived to everyone’s benefit. It was the reverse. We became a police state in many ways, engaging in guerrilla acts of protest and subterfuge that extended beyond the school fence. Once, someone poked holes into the deputy principal’s tyres while his car was parked outside a hotel in a nearby town. Then, someone punched his young son in the face in the middle of a sports day. The culprit was never caught, even though the incident took place in the middle of the day on a field with hundreds of people.
Burned spies were hunted down and, in the middle of night, beaten to a pulp by groups of people with anything they could get their hands on. They lost their mattresses and blankets, and had to sit watching their laundry dry because it would disappear if they blinked too slowly. They became social pariahs, often only saved by being appointed to the prefect body, if they were not already members of it. Still, the resistance was broken by the brutality of the consequences.
The only time we came close to striking again was once when the deputy principal horsewhipped someone so badly he tore his back in multiple places. But there were many foiled attempts, sometimes only known to us when people were expelled. The relationship between the administration and the student body was irreparably broken, and it felt as if we were hostages as opposed to teenagers seeking an education. There was no recourse for injustice because even the parent body felt such measures were necessary to keep the peace. But it was not peace, it was just the absence of war.
Once, in my third year I think, we came back from the holidays to new rules. Only school uniform would be allowed within the school walls., Anything else we had with us was left in a pile, stashed in sacks, and hidden in the stores. Our t-shirts, jumpers, and pyjamas stayed there for more than six months. In the meantime, in the freezing days of Kijabe, we suffered recurrent bouts of flu and chest infections. Any attempts at getting our clothes back, so we could keep warm, resulted in the same consequences as organizing a strike or burning a dorm. So we stayed submissive, until we eventually could not. Three friends and I cornered the deputy principal one Saturday afternoon as he was walking up to his office. We told him, as politely and as vaguely as we could, that we were barely surviving the cold nights. He had this odd smile on his face, perhaps because of the distance we kept from him while we relayed the plea. Not be within arm’s reach of the man was a survival tactic, because he was ambidextrous with his slaps. He listened, and said repeatedly that whatever was not part of the school uniform was contraband. We told him about the chest infections, and the flu, but he was adamant. So we thanked him for his time and bid him a good day. It was only three months later that we got our clothes back, mouldy and damp. We could now wear them as long as they were under the school uniform. It was a small win, but a win nonetheless.
The man himself became my unwilling mentor (the lack of will was on my part) as I became the school pen. He pushed me to write more, and would publicly embarrass me if I had nothing for my five-minute news bulletin time slot during the school assembly. My reports were a mix of journalism, satire and sometimes pure gossip, a break in an otherwise boring school tradition. My personal relationship with him evolved from that Wednesday morning in March to somewhat of a distant friendship. He was still a brutal, angry man, but for some odd reason he thawed around me. To the point of once reminding him of a time he slapped me so hard I farted as I fell on my back in his office. He laughed about it, we both did. But his idea of our inclination towards mischief remained, as did his spy network and his own creepy appearance in the school at odd hours, hunting for new culprits.
Our school grades remained unchanged, but for the next three years, there were no successful strikes. Any problems we had that we couldn’t solve ourselves, we swept under the rug and moved on. Any knowledge we had of who was sneaking out to meet girls or buy food or go drinking we kept to ourselves. Unless it somehow found itself in the wrong circles, then all we saw was people carrying their metal boxes and threadbare mattresses out of the gate. Or coming back with a roll of wire mesh as punishment, before being expelled.
Since the first school strike in Kenya, at Maseno School in 1908, students have gone on strike for almost any reason you can think of. At Maseno, the problem was that no learning was happening. The students were instead manual laborers, until they got tired of it.
Once, Alliance High School went on strike because there had been a fight, about foreskin politics, during a football match. Then some strikes, and I would say quite a sizeable number, have been spontaneous, because as Margaret Gatimu found out in this study, of “established cultural norms which dictated fights for power and status.”
Then of course there have been more legitimate causes for protest. Trying to get the attention of the administrators and sometimes even parents to a real or perceived injustice. Or even, as we’ve seen lately, real criminal activity by and against students. In other places it has been teachers driving strikes, to make the institutions ungovernable and get rid of administrators they don’t like.
There were schools like Njoro Boys in Nakuru County and Githiga High School in Kiambu county which were legends in the strike business. I think I once heard they were gazetted at some point as problem schools, got two deputy principals, and gave one an open ticket to instil discipline.
In other schools, there were cases of rapes and deaths and fires. There was Bombolulu, St. Kizito and Kyanguli. There were claims of devil worship and homosexuality. The system doubled down on punishment to find some order, built on the colonial thinking that power is always right. And that children are always wrong, and any stubbornness on their part was an act of defiance. It was a system built to subdue; a boot camp designed to break young men and women and teach them their distance from power. To silence their ability to express themselves, their needs, and their problems. To teach them that to survive, they had to keep their heads down, their mouths shut, and their sexuality suppressed. Granted, the same thing was happening in the larger, adult world outside as well. So they expected their kids to submit too.
For the first seven years after independence, acts of protest in high schools were often peaceful. Then something snapped in the 1970s and they became more violent, more coordinated, and more destructive. A new authoritarian trend was trickling down the Kenyan social structure again, and the subjects in that system were reacting. It made high school and university students experts in guerrilla warfare not just against their teachers, but also against the state and its security forces. It brought fire, for example, the fore as a tool of choice because it is fast, vicious, and requires less cooperation on the arsonist’s part. It made administrators and teachers enemies of the majority, and anyone working with them equally so. It made betrayal punishable by beatings and recently, even poisoning. This is the stuff of war, not education.
Between 1986 and 1991, according to BA Ogot in his memoirs My Footprints on the Sands of Time, there were 567 school strikes (305 mixed schools, 206 boy schools and 56 girl schools). That was a rate of a school strike every two days of the school calendar. Despite this, President Moi only appointed a commission of inquiry after The Rape of St. Kizito where 71 girls were raped by the male students and 19 died trying to escape from their attackers.
That dark night was the worst yet, and it had begun as a protest against fees. The girls refused to participate in a planned strike, and on the night of July 13th 1991, all hell broke loose. The 271 teenage schoolgirls fled and hid in their biggest dormitory, locking all points of entry. At 1:00 a.m, after an initial attempt to break the doors had failed, the boys came back with bigger stones and smashed the doors down. The result was a massacre that shocked a nation, and the immediate consequence was the arrests of more than ten suspected rapists and three watchmen.
But the reaction, or rather the response of the school’s administration was the most telling of the problems emblematic of our school system. The principal said the school was haunted, and then added that rape was, in fact, a common occurrence there. He seemed to be saying that the only difference of the night of July 13th was that 19 girls had died, four of them from suffocation. The boys, as his deputy infamously and tellingly told the president “…just wanted to rape.”
It was appalling, but the response was not to try and make schools safer by listening and responding to student grievances, it was to double down on disciplinary measures. The Rape of St. Kizito was not the only time that year that boys in a mixed school broke down doors and dragged girls outside where they repeatedly gang-raped them. In another major incident of the year in another school, students protesting the bad state of their food drowned the school cook in a vat of porridge. The only reason St. Kizito made news, as someone noted at the time, was because 19 girls died. This remained the case when, 7 years later, 25 girls died in Bombolulu in a school fire.
And three years after that when 68 young boys were turned into smouldering piles of ash at Kyanguli. It was one of those days when everything that could go wrong, goes wrong. Arsonists begun a fire in a dormitory, then it got out of hand because someone had lost the key to one door and no one bothered to change the lock. Half the boys in bed that night couldn’t make it to the other side of the fire, and in the mix of panic, stampede and survival instinct, died. The same sequence of events happened at Bombolulu, except for the part where the girls were actually locked in their dorms at night. Sources differ on whether it was arson or the result of an electrical fault.
Then, in 1999, a group of arsonists locked four of their prefects in their cubicle at Nyeri High School, and doused it with petrol before setting it on fire.
In all these cases of extreme violence, there was always an underlying reason. At Kyanguli it was the cancellation of the results of the previous years national exams for 100 students, and the discussion, or lack of, on whether they should pay school fees to resit the exam. The pattern was the same. The administration had refused to listen to the students, and had responded only when it was too late. In their own macabre way, these extreme cases forced not just the administration, but the entire educational system to listen. But it was only as an immediate reaction to the tragedies, after which the system slid back into its old ways. And each generation of teenagers found that the only way to get the system to respond was to protest, burn a dorm, beat teachers and refuse to stay in school. Because of the overwhelmingly male nature of such violence, many of the strikes were in boy schools. Girls had to, and still have to, contend with the added gendered risks if they wanted to burn their school and escape in the middle of the night.
Each wave of school strikes is explained away with rampant indiscipline and the lack of corporal punishment in the school system. Despite the fact that research shows that violence among teenagers can spread like a contagion, as it often does in Kenya schools every few years, the glaring risk factor of one-way communication remains unchallenged. Children are meant to be seen and not heard and even teenagers, who are just years or months away from adulthood, are still considered treated as kids. Because often their priorities are different and immediate, like better food or less bullying, they are postponed until they cannot- be. Now, kids caught up in the only recourse they feel they have, are to be condemned with a criminal record for the rest of their lives.
The same approach to strikes in universities that has cowed student bodies and made those education institutions prison-like entities will be escalated at the high school level on minors. If you think about it, the school system and the prison system have many things in common… The authoritarian structures, the set dress code, the emphasis on silence and order, the negative reinforcement, the loss of individual autonomy and the collective punishment. Like a prison, students walk in lines and have set times, enforced with severe punishment, for eating, recreation, and sleep…and recently, just like in the prison system, we are trying to set the same uniform for all schools in the country.
The state is doubling down on punishment despite the fact that our laws, despite their many flaws, are insistent on the protection and privacy of minors, even when they exhibit criminal behavior. But none of this will help, at least not in the way they think it will. If the issues that trigger strikes remain, and the adults in the room insist on speaking above the kids they have been tasked to educate, then nothing will change.
Every generation is expected to have a sense of history, but high school students are still adults in the making. Which is why we place them in the care of fully-formed adults who, we expect in theory at least, have a sense of history embedded in their moral and professional code. But if the havoc of school strikes hasn’t changed much in the last 40 years, and students only stay in schools for four years, then who isn’t learning from experience?
A few years after I left, I was in my alma mater for an event when I bumped into my former tormentor and mentor, and we took a short walk together. There were many things to talk about, including how someone had burnt a dorm the previous term. The forlorn look on the man’s face, of failure on his part, was matched with his pursing lips, like a quiet determination not to let it happen again. I did not pry and got the details from someone else. After years of foiled strikes over different issues, both flimsy and salient, someone had finally succeeded. His choice of weapon, fire, was combined with another trait that tends to emerge in war zones; he was a lone ranger. He torched one of the biggest dorms in school, not at night, but in the morning while everyone was gathered for the school assembly. All the teachers saw was the smoke billowing towards the sky. There was no way to know who the lone arsonist was because the student body went on a stampede, expectedly.
A few years ago, the man who represented law and order at my alma mater tragically lost his son. The boy who had been punched in the school field, now a young man, drowned in a swimming pool. From the reactions in the many alumni Whatsapp and Facebook groups, what stood out was the lack of sympathy for his father. More than a decade after some of us left the school, which he had also left by then, he was still considered a vile human being who deserved any misfortune that came his way. This being said by people who were young parents, and who in a few years, would be driving their kids to begin their new high school life.
High school students might still be minors, but they are not the mindless creatures the school system is designed to treat them as. And they keep reminding the adults in power about this, generation after generation, often fruitlessly. The adults imagine schools to be utopias. They are not.
In Search of Grandmother’s Osuga Seeds
8 min read. OYUNGA PALA mourns the loss of indigenous crops and farming methods that were buried by capitalist modes of production that focus mainly on high yields and profit.
They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.
This poignant quote is attributed to the Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos. It formed part of a defiant response to the Greek literary community who criticised Christianopoulos’ poetry as provincial. The poem is part of a collection translated into English by Prof. Nicholas Kostis (1995). The original text read…
What didn’t you do to bury me
But you forgot that I was a seed.
True to text and like a seed, those lines have sprouted many versions of that phrase as mainstream metaphors for resilience and hope in the face of injustice, where individuals or groups of people go up against systems that are designed to bury them.
My own paraphrasing of those famous Christianopoulos’ lines would read:
They tried to bury us, we survived but we lost our way and forgot we are seeds.
The importance of seeds, and indigenous seed cultures, in particular, is a lost consciousness among the contemporary generation of African farmers. The introduction of hybrid seeds in post-colonial Africa progressively altered farming cultures and food systems. Commercial and certified seeds accompanied by a retinue of inputs, fertilisers, pesticides and the promise of high yields but only good for one season, have entrapped rural small-scale farmers in exploitative systems of the dominant agro-industry. Indigenous plant genetic varieties have lost significant ground to hybrid varieties, and consequently, the disappearance of indigenous food cultures and seed knowledge.
Discovering my roots
My own awareness of this crisis evolved over decades. I was brought up in a middle-class family, sojourned in Nairobi, chasing the Kenyan dream. My parents had one foot firmly planted in the ancestral village home, back in Gem, Siaya county.
As second-generation labour migrants to Nairobi, my parents arrived in post-independence Nairobi to secure residence, courtesy of the civil service, in the formerly “white” sections of the city. In these new upper-middle-class spaces, backyards were for recreation and not farming. Nonetheless, my parents never lost touch with their roots, perhaps informed by their acute awareness of the politics of belonging in Nairobi. The capital city was a marketplace where capital was accumulated and transfered from the centre back to the deprived margins. To augment the living costs of large households in the city and establish a security blanket in the event of political dislocation, they maintained a steady link with rural homes.
The importance of seeds, and indigenous seed cultures, in particular, is a lost consciousness among the contemporary generation of African farmers.
My father took us to the village every school holiday without fail. We learned to farm, mainly cash crops (maize and beans) as the staple. It was a labour-intensive crop when planted at scale without the aid of mechanisation.
My father was a civil servant securing measure of comfort after retirement and the loss of government perks. He invested in mono-cropping modern systems focused on high yield and scale for profit. It was during these excursions that I began to understand the clear gendered distinction between how men and women farmed. Men approached farming from a capitalistic frame modeled on the colonial imagery of “I had a farm in Africa” – that famous line by Karen Blixen in the book and movie Out Of Africa – while the women engaged in peasant farming, often associated with allotments around the home dominated by indigenous vegetables.
My grandmother’s permaculture garden
While seasonal farming of maize was a group family activity, my grandmother maintained a garden located outside her kitchen throughout the duration of her life. The kitchen garden was distinguished by plant diversity and the presence of diverse categories of food. Fruit, tubers, bulbs, rhizomes, an assortment of vegetables, fruiting creepers, medicinal herbs, spices and some grain.
Every plant in her garden had a function. To the unaccustomed eye, it appeared to be an unkempt and overgrown allotment, in stark contrast to the neat rows of maize that occupied our family’s three-acre farm. My grandmother practised an alternative style of farming that involved no pesticides, save for firewood ash, minimal tillage, composting and the allotment remained productive throughout the year. My grandmother’s generation employed permaculture principles that Bill Mollison, the Australian educator and co-founder of permaculture, brought to popular consciousness. Her philosophy of food production is captured in Mollison’s articulation of permanent agriculture.
“The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter.”
In hindsight, these gardens, a common background feature in most homesteads, served as the main source of the family’s daily nutritional needs. They acted as alternative food sources in the likely event of crop failure due to vagaries of the weather, the sporadic pest and wildlife damage and fluctuating market prices. Additionally, these granny kitchen gardens held something even more precious: a seed bank and a botanical lab where constant experimentation was taking place and heirlooms were preserved. The gardens epitomised food sovereignty in complete revolutionary terms.
My grandparents, who came of age in the nascent days of the British colony, suffered the disruption of an oppressive colonial order. The introduction of a cash economy and wage labour led to new methods of food production, initially as forced labour, and later as a necessity for economic security. While the men farmed to earn money, the women created alternative gardening spaces, delicately negotiating autonomy. A core part of the success of these allotments was seeds.
The loss of heritage seeds
We lost nearly all of the heritage seeds that my grandmother retained in her little garden. The tall pawpaws and red bananas that I thought grew wild as a child are non-existent. The chillies are gone, as are the medicinal herbs and the diverse indigenous vegetables. The traditional yellow-coloured maize known as nyamula of my grandmother’s time are rare sightings. All that I have left is lemongrass that I only went in search of after reading a feature article on its economic viability as a poor man’s cash crop.
In my ancestral village, the keepers of the seed are a generation of grandmothers whose significance is lost in the new agriculture order. The pockets of agribusiness prosperity in the village are exemplified by lush green maize fields propped by agri-tech groups like One Acre Fund that Christine Mungai writes about. Most of the village farms have been reclaimed by bush. Those outside the support network of agricultural companies or who lacked capital to fund farming activity sought alternatives after years of diminishing returns on depleted plots. The culinary habits, a quest for sophistication as an outcome of the colonial project, elaborated by Joe Kobuthi in an article on the hierarchies of food, are now fixated on processed staple substitutes of chapati, bread, mandazi and rice.
In hindsight, these gardens, a common background feature in most homesteads, served as the main source of the family’s daily nutritional needs. They acted as alternative food sources in the likely event of crop failure due to vagaries of the weather, the sporadic pest and wilidlife damage and flactuating market prices.
In a generation, I have witnessed the disappearance and loss of this oral knowledge on indigneous seed in not only food crops, but in trees as well. The predominant attraction to commercially viable eucalyptus, pines and cypress varieties has created tree farms in small holdings following the same ethic of plantation agriculture. Fast growth, high yield and maximum profit.
The indigenous fruits of Kenya are lost to memory and the fruits I now consider traditional, such as mango, guava, and avocado, have roots in Asia and South America. These fruit tree species dismissed for their poor market potential ultimately could not keep up with the evolving culinary habits. The nutritional value of indigenous fruits, such as tamarind, baobab, plums and berries, which grew in the wild, is well documented but restricted to the corridors of botanical research institutes.
Re-imagining food production
The industrialised food systems, with all their detrimental consequences, play havoc not just on our physical selves, characterised by the explosion of diseases of affluence but also on physical land through environmental devastation of water and air pollution and the depletion of biodiversity.
My foray into commercial farming was motivated by profit in an uncertain economy; it was an alternative source of income. I approached it armed with soil tests, fertiliser, certified seed, pesticides and the service of a freelancing agronomist. I decided to try my hand in scaling indigenous vegetables with a boom in demand for local veggies on supermarket shelves. I sourced my seed, the Giant African Black Nightshade (locally known as osuga) from a reputable company. My strategy was monocropping with a rigorous pesticide regimen. Despite my marginal success, it took two pest attacks on a half-acre plot to seriously consider alternative seed. The Catch-22 of hybrid seeds is the heavy reliance on agrochemicals for guaranteed yield. A Route To Food, an alliance against food insecurity in Kenya, conducted research that showed:
At least 32% of pesticide active ingredients that are currently registered and being sold in products in Kenya, have been withdrawn from the European market, due to their serious potential impact on human and environmental health.
This is what set me off in search of my grandmother’s osuga seeds.
Sowing seeds of hope
The seed stock was not available in my village and in the surrounding villages. Whenever I posed the question, I received a cursory response of “koth nyaluo tinde olal”. Indigenous seeds are no longer available these days. My persistence led me to the vibrant Luanda town market in Vihiga County. To my relief, I found a constituency of women selling regional varieties of indigenous vegetable seed, measured by the bottle top from as far as Ukambani. The seed retailed for a fraction of the cost of the certified seed I sourced from the local agrovet. When I asked the women about the stocks, they replied without hesitation, “Mbegu iko”. We have seed. They had formed communities where they collected, selected, exchanged, and preserved seed.
Seed developers have commercialised indigenous leafy vegetables with the emergence of several seed companies selling indigenous vegetable seed. The huge appeal has followed health concerns of meat and processed food-based diets and a return to healthy revitalising traditional plant-based diets.
In a generation, I have witnessed the disappearance and loss of this oral knowledge on indigneous seed in not only food crops, but in trees as well.
I remain aware that these market women in Luanda are an exception rather than the rule. This deliberate stewardship of resilient self-propagating seed is a response to the commercialisation of indigenous vegetable seeds, and in the face of capitalised seed control, they become the face of the resistance movement.
Their actions embody generations of knowledge and a tradition of survival in the midst of a sophisticated assault on the diversity of food crops. The number of peasant farmers on small-scale holdings that once produced the bulk of Africa’s food supply are dwindling. The place of seeds and their preservation is a conversation that happens in the margins amongst groups of community women creating alternative seed economies.
North America has witnessed a revival of native seed exchange banks as indigenous communities re-imagine management systems to store and protect native heirloom seeds that sustained Native American plant-based foods. Seed Keepers Networks are emerging to revitalise native plant species and the inherent rich cultural knowledge that accompanied traditional food pathways. Alongside that are foodie movements returning to tradition of reclaiming and re-imagining pre-colonial African diets that were largely vegan.
Similar initiatives with global visions, such as the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)’s Smallholder innovation for resilience (SIFOR) project, examine traditional knowledge-based innovation systems to strengthen food security in the face of climate change. Many of these initiatives abide by a funding model that involves foreign experts jetting in with capital to solve local problems that were exacerbated by neo-liberal economic policies. Where the women are acknowledged, they merely serve as mascots for narratives of rural poverty that appeal to saviour mentality complexes.
It is over two decades since my grandmother’s passing and I have only now come to terms with the significance of her garden and the loss we experienced. It is loss of knowledge, memory, culture and food sovereignty that is replicated among communities in the global South enduring the trauma of colonial dislocation.
The future of seed commons is going to be grassroots-based and sustained by networks of conscious actors organising to dismantle the power of the agroindustrial complex. The confluence of challenges arising from modern food pathways has triggered a case for re-imagination, not only of what we eat, but how we produce what we eat. What we need is culture recovery that revitalises the relationship with land and the foods we produce and consume.
And at the heart of this is replanting our grandmothers’ seeds that we ignorantly forgot to bury in fertile ground.
Written and published with the support of the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI) (www.routetofood.org). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.
Our Grandmother’s Miniskirt: A People’s History Through Photographs and Stories
8 min read. It was the women of that time that intrigued me most and I was watching their lives with the impatient envy of a child. I wanted to grow up and wear those cat-eye glasses and cute kitten heels, burn my hair straight, drink Babycham and laugh like they did, with a hand full of bangles held out at just the right angle.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been inviting people to share photos of their mothers, grandmothers and aunties looking stylish in the fashion of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The idea, which we are calling “Our Grandmother’s Miniskirt”, is simple enough, crowdsource photographs from Kenyan homes of women dressed in the style of that era; the photographs will be accompanied by reflections, essays, short stories or poems. The aim is to capture a history of ordinary people and to share this history through physical exhibitions, an online archived exhibition, and a coffee table book. I see the project as a celebration of Kenyan women and gives a snap shot of the emergence of the modern Kenyan woman.
By the time we staged the first mini-exhibition with a selection of 27 photographs submitted by people from around the country, I had come to understand that projects are not easy in that they all require planning and careful execution, even if they excite people. Getting people to send their scanned photographs from precious family albums has been challenging. The project goes into the intimate spaces of families and asks them to override their tendency towards privacy and share their lives with strangers. Of course this was always going to be a trial. It was not surprising that although the daughters or granddaughters were enthusiastic to participate in the project, their mothers and grandmothers — the subjects of the photos — sometimes refused to allow them to share these images. But I’m glad the images are trickling in.
Implementing the project over the last few months has helped me see its possibilities and expanded its scope in so many ways. Most important I am now looking for photographs before the 1960s and of Kenyan women wearing a variety of dress and hairstyles. The secret to the power of the project has furthermore revealed itself in the act of crowdsourcing. This approach has allowed people to connect and own the project, much more than if the photos were purchased from a media source.
My Childhood: 1960s and 1970s
The photographs have unleashed a collage of memories for me. I was a child in the 1960s and the 1970s watching Nairobi slowly emerge from its colonial yoke and my parents seemed to be at the centre of it all. They were amongst that group of Africans who were literally stepping into the shoes left by our colonial powers. My late father’s (William Ndala Wamalwa) career developed quickly and after only two or three years in government service, he stopped driving himself and moved to the senior government ranks.
But it was the women of that time that intrigued me most and I was watching their lives with the impatient envy of a child. I wanted to grow up and wear those cat-eye glasses and cute kitten heels, burn my hair straight, drink Babycham and laugh like they did, with a hand full of bangles held out at just the right angle. But most of all I wanted to wear those glamorous clothes that I saw women wear to parties and dinners – there seemed to be a party or dinner every other weekend! Miniskirts, bell-bottom trouser suits, halter tops, maxi dresses, stilettoes, kitten heels. I wanted to dance to the very dangerous James Brown, the elegant Supremes, the cool Fadhili William, the revolutionary Miriam Makeba, and the handsome Harry Belafonte. I thought all these musicians were my parents’ friends. Imagine my shock when I grew up enough to understand that these were distant celebrities.
For African women, hair means everything. Women spend large sums of money on our hair and even more woman-hours on styling it. Braiding can take eight hours. Typically a myriad of products are used on African hair, from oils, pomades, sprays, gels, dyes, treatments, conditioners and shampoos. How seriously do African women take their hair? Well in the days when we still had plastic bag around, Kenyan women could be seen risking their reputations by wearing plastic bags on their heads in broad daylight, to stop their hair from getting wet during an unexpected downpour.
But when it comes to hair, there was a simpler time. In the early 1960s, hair straightening was not yet fashionable and chemical relaxers had not yet arrived in the country. Kenyan women still wore their natural hair and fashioned it using African hairstyle traditions that involved elaborate cornrows, braids and plaiting. Saturday was the day when hair was dressed, typically with the help of skilled friends or relatives. Hair salons were still a faraway concept and the hair industry was a rudimentary affair and not the billion shilling industry of today.
In our home, many Saturdays found Aunty Truphena dressing my mother’s hair. Aunty Truphena was not my mother’s sister. But she and my mother were closer than sisters. They came from one of the smallest of the eighteen Luyhia sub-tribes, the Abanyala ba Ndombi, who are located in Navakholo division, north of Kakamega forest, in western Kenya. At that time, not many people seemed to have made it out of my Bunyala and it was rare to meet a Mnyala in Nairobi.
Sometimes Aunty Truphena straightened my mother’s hair using a hot comb heated on a charcoal jiko. She divided the wet hai,r drenched it in liquid coconut oil, and burnt it straight with the hot comb. Next she rolled the hair onto pink rollers and pinned it down. I wondered how she had learnt to dress hair like that. Her own hair was forever hidden under the flowered scarf that she always wore.
Nigerians Come to Town
The late 1960s were marked by an influx of Nigerians who came with their loud laughter, outsized personalities and strange food. They were mostly Igbos who had fled to Kenya as refugees from the Biafran War (1967-1970), but there was nothing “refugee pathetic” about them. In fact they came and took over our live,s adding flavour and passion like I had never experienced. I remember the names of one family in particular: Chief Jerome Oputa Udoji, his wife Mrs. Uzoamaka Udoji (Aunty Uzo) and their three children Scholastica, Osita Paul and Peter Ebelechukwu. The photograph of my mother below was taken at that time, and it was Aunty Uzo who made me realise just how beautiful my mother was, when she loudly exclaimed that my mother looked like Miss Kenya.
Mrs Rose Nanjala Wamalwa (Sitawa Namwalie’s mother) as an executive secretary at the Ford Foundation in Nairobi, Kenya (early 1970s). Photo Credit: Studio One.
Aunty Uzo was a force of nature. She and the other Nigerian women introduced me to a different way of being African. They were militant in taking on any vestigial racism that still had the temerity to cling on and even fight back, so soon after Kenya’s Independence. Aunty Uzo often regaled us with stories of the many battles she fought when white people dared to assert their colonial-era privilege. For us Kenyans, would so often acquiesce to everyday racism from the British, but not a Nigerian and definitely not Aunty Uzo. She fought with the priests at St. Mary’s school in Lavington where her sons were enrolled and she fought when white people tried to jump queues in banks or supermarkets and she argued with African waiters who tried to ignore her in restaurants. She was strong and assertive, always encouraging Kenyans not to be cowed by white people.
There were days when Aunty Uzo took over our kitchen and taught my mother how to cook Nigerian food, subjecting us to strange new flavours and aromas. Every so often our kitchen was overwhelmed by the strong smell of a dried fish imported direct from Nigeria which was even more pungent than our sivambala catfish dried in the hot sun of western Kenya. I learnt that Nigerians waste very little, cooking all parts of the goat,:the skin, meat, innards and hooves. The one dish that really tested my rather narrow palate as a child was a soup that combined beef, fish and chicken which Nigerians seemed to particularly love. When the war in Nigeria ended, our Nigerian friends left, leaving us changed for ever. But soon their place was taken by Ugandans fleeing the abuses of Idi Amin who began his rule in 1971, but that is a story for another day.
About the Exhibition
These photographs have triggered so many memories for me and it is my hope that they will do the same for all who see them. They document the social history of ordinary people in Kenya. I’ve learned that the past can be another country, sometimes a more interesting country than the narrow ideas that populate the present. I shared the premise of “Our Grandmother’s Miniskirt” with a young man, Basil Ibrahim who taught me the word hagiographic when he wrote the following in an email about the project;
“…a particularly interesting deviation from the hagiographic custom of The Great Men model of history-making…It is a model for bringing the archive to life, using memory, popular culture…in an experiment to provoke us to think about the implications the past has on the future we want.” (17 August 2019)
What he meant was that we tend to make saints of certain “great men” of the past (hagiography means the making of a saint), while ignoring the stories of ordinary people, who lived through those times. I hope that this project will correct that tendency towards hagiography.
When arranged chronologically, the photographs begin with one from1945 of a woman named Gatoro Ndugi M’Chabari, dressed in the traditional dress of the Tharaka ethnic community. The type of dress she wears was worn by married women. The unmarried ladies had their breasts left uncovered. The photograph was submitted by Mr Simon Mitambo, Gatoro’s nephew and shows her in what can only be described as a brief miniskirt. The photo was taken in Meru town in 1945, after entertaining the then colonial governor of Meru. In discussing her traditional dress, Gatoro Ndugi M’Chabari — who is over 90 years old — had the following to say: “Although we looked almost naked in miniskirts, there were no cases of sexual harassment.”
Gatoro Ndugi M’Chabari, from the Tharaka ethnic community. 1945, Photograph submitted by Mr Simon Mitambo.
In another story entitled, “The Village Woman and Son, Bound for England” John Sibi-Okumu pays tribute to his mother Maria Ajiambo, wa Agostino Munika nende Sarah Mbaye (the names of her parents.) She was also addressed as Naliali, her clan name from the Samia of Western Kenya. John estimates that she was born in 1936.
Maria Ajiambo wa Agostino Munika nende Sarah Mbaye, mother of John Sibi-Okumu. The photograph was taken in 1958 at Noble Studio in Nairobi when John, her first born son, was four years of age.
John’s story of his mother reveals many intriguing circumstances, first being that his mother was born on a sisal estate in Juja, Kalimoni, where his grandfather worked as a nyapara or ‘overseer.’ John notes that Tom Mboya was born in similar circumstances, showing the country had already started to change with people migrating from their homes and making new homes in different parts of the country.
Rosalie Kere wearing a “Stiff” skirt and her “Beehive” hairstyle (1961). Photograph submitted by Caroline Kere.
Caroline Kere shared the photographs of her mother Rosalie Kere – the first photo above – who had the distinction of being a poster girl for soap called “Nakasero” and “Lux” in the early 1960s. Caroline’s tribute story to her mother has the intriguing title, “The Amazing Story of How my Father Found my Mother”. Her mother and father’s story is such an improbable romance story worthy of a blockbuster Nollywood film, that you can read for yourself at the exhibition, the online archive or in the coffee table book that is to come.
What follows is an exhibition of selected photographs.
Grace Ntini, from Narok County. The photograph was taken in Nairobi in 1969. Grace was 24 years old and worked for Avis Rent-A-Car Company. The photograph was submitted by Grace’s sister-in-law, Rosemary Mesopirr.
Rosemary Mesopirr, who was 14 years old and a primary school pupil in the rural areas of Narok County. This photograph was taken in Mombasa in 1974. This was the first time she travelled to the Kenyan coast to visit her father who was a civil servant then. It was her first time to board a bus.
My Stylish Mother
By Doris Rutere
My mother Cecilia Kanyoe was a copy typist at Marimanti Rural Training Centre back in 1975. She was always detailed and careful in her choice of office wear. In this photograph she is wearing closed toe heels and has broken her suit with a turtleneck that matches her head gear, a chain and a wrist watch. I think they present a level of sophistication making her refined and chic. Next to her is Esther Muthoni, who was my mother’s friend. In the picture, she wears a wide belt on her cute mini-dress to create contrast while matching her head gear partly with her shoes.
Both women are quite careful in how they let their hands rest on their thighs.
Joyce Akoth, pregnant with her fifth born in 1973. This picture was taken in the early 1970s when Joyce worked as a teacher and before joining the Ministry of Public Works. The photograph of Joyce Akoth was submitted by her daughter Esther Adiambo.
Nancy Wanjiku Kimani , the photo was taken outside Kijabe Nursing Institute, where she was undergoing training as a nurse in Kijabe Town (1969). The photograph was submitted by her daughter Ruth Kimani.
A Letter to Stella Nyanzi: “You Teach Us to Lay Blame Exactly Where It Belongs”
6 min read. Too often we are willing to believe that if we are calm enough, if we are silent enough, polite enough, eloquent enough, poised enough, then the tyrants will listen. We believe that if we are ‘’well mannered’’ then we will be heard. You remind us that this is deception.
My sister Nyanzi,
I used to think tyranny means one-party rule, one media station and army garrisons everywhere. Now I know tyranny also means that who we love, how we live, how we die and even the speed of our death is chosen for us by people that never have to face us, by people that have learned not to fear our wrath or our collective pain. You have taught me this, because both of us live under tyrannies. As I write this, you are in Luzira Maximum Security Prison contending with the tyrannies of the prison authorities, the judicial system, the police, Makerere University, Museveni and his state and personal machinery. We live under multiple tyrannies at once, some more immediate than others, all of them intent on silencing us.
I am writing this from Kenya. I am writing from a country reeling through an economic recession that the state’s press statements will never admit exists. A manmade recession fueled by the looting that seems to grow more arrogant with each day. As I write this, many Kenyans are dying in public hospitals because there is no medicine or the doctors have not been paid or someone stole the money for the equipment. As I write this, there are young people attending endless seminars on entrepreneurship because they face grim rates of unemployment, this too is manmade disaster. I don’t know how many young men the police have killed today; I don’t know how many women have been sexually abused or killed by a country that just seems to hate its women. There are also the university students who are teargassed and beat up every time they try to march, and the many communities unhumaned by the state. I don’t know how many queer people have been stripped or raped or mocked or told to prove they are human beings today. These are the tyrannies I live under.
We share some of these tyrannies and for this, I call you sister. Allow me to call you Stella.
When you staged your first nude protest at Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), several academics gave media interviews to say that they condemned your protest and found it to be ‘’too much’’, they mockingly asked if negotiations had failed for you to go to such lengths. More insultingly, some said while they agreed you had legitimate grievances, you could have been more civil. They seem to think that you should have spoken more sweetly. I laughed when I heard them. You know how tyranny works Stella, how it works especially well in bureaucracies. You know how good bureaucracies are at silencing and ignoring. You and I know that bureaucracies move at exactly the speed dictated by tyranny, no faster and no slower.
It is a maddening thing to realize that even in the hallowed halls of universities, we are ignored and insulted and treated anyhow, as our people say. It is more maddening to know that our emails, our eloquent letters and our pleas will go unheard when tyranny is present, as it was at MISR. Tyranny often wears a nice suit and can be well spoken and well respected. At Makerere, you used the tools at your disposal in defense of yourself. The tools on that day were red paint, cellotape, your body, your voice and camera. Those were the tools available to you. The other important tool in your arsenal, arguably the most potent, is your refusal of respectability.
So often, women are only celebrated when we protest in service of the men in our lives — our brothers, our fathers, anyone but ourselves. I think of all of us who are scared of speaking in our own defense, scared of organizing for our own wellbeing, our reproductive freedom, our sexual freedom, our safety. I think of how we have been intimidated to believe that this is entitlement, as if being entitled is a bad thing. How many of us have swallowed indignity after indignity because the only person being humiliated is us?
Here, I pause, in the middle of my letter to acknowledge and greet you in the movements you come from, the movements that have shaped you and supported you. We know that often people are isolated from their movements in order to make them messiahs. But messiahs always fail because they don’t really exist. I greet you in the name of the #RotAtMISR , #WomensMarchUG , #ThisTaxMustGo , #PeoplePowerMovement and the many offline political actions you have taken. From standing in solidarity with students of Makerere when they protested arbitrary inclusion of fees, to caring for the Arua 33 that were victims of state violence, to dealing with menstrual injustice through the #Pads4GirlsUG movement.
It is from your movements that you have dealt with the effects of Museveni’s tyranny intimately, by seeing how your comrades are brutalized and seeing how relaxed the dictators can be even in the face of impassioned pleas for even a small measure of justice. You have seen your movements forced to wait on the dictator’s time. We all do so much waiting after all. We wait for enough money to take our relatives to decent hospitals and decent schools, we wait for courts to vindicate us and for the churches to speak for justice and for the police to stop killing. On both sides of the Malaba border, we wait. A feminist sister, Mumbi, has written about how we are forced to wait on the state’s time, wait on tyranny’s time, in order to live as human beings. Mumbi considers that one of the ways we can disrupt the state’s time is through the communities we build and how we care for each other.
You have given us another answer to how we can disrupt the state’s time; by abandoning respectability and politeness. After all, the tyrants know exactly what they are doing when they abuse our humanity. From your political actions, your Facebook posts, and your court appearances, we learn to call the tyrants by name and declare their shame to them. I read somewhere that your father died because of the poor healthcare system in Uganda, and in your writing, you lay the responsibility for this on Museveni’s head. Rightfully so. Another feminist sister, Sunshine, says that this is reminiscent of what Fela Kuti did when his mother (and our feminist ancestor) Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti died from injuries she got after the Nigerian police raided Fela’s home. Fela took his mother’s coffin to the army barracks, to Olusegun Obasanjo, who for all intents and purposes had killed Funmilayo. When you call Museveni a pair of buttocks, that is exactly what you are doing, connecting the tragedy of all the deaths and suffering caused by a sick state to the head of the state. Truth telling can start there, by us clearly naming the tyrants and abusers.
For some reason, tyrants hate this. They are shocked at the idea that we might call them what they are: abusers, misogynists, sexists, thieves, robbers, murderers, homophobes. You teach us to lay blame exactly where it belongs, to practice the radical truth telling that refuses to be distracted by bureaucracy. Stella, you say that politeness has been held captive, and the powerful don’t listen anymore, and sometimes we have to say fuck it and then people will listen.
Too often we are willing to believe that if we are calm enough, if we are silent enough, polite enough, eloquent enough, poised enough, then the tyrants will listen. We believe that if we are ‘’well mannered’’ then we will be heard. We think if we bend ourselves enough, the tyrants will feel some pity for us. You remind us that this is deception. Good manners are decided by the powerful, and after all — isn’t it the worst manners to steal and oppress? Yet no one accuses tyrants of having bad manners. No, bad manners are left to be a cross for us to carry to hasten our own silencing, our own internal and final deaths. Respectability protects the comfort of the tyrants. Your political actions show us that when we shed politeness, we can disturb their peace in potent ways.
You, like Audre Lorde, know that our silence will not save us. Not only that, but politeness and niceness cannot save us either. You know that we only get silent to work out our internal convictions and from there, we use whatever tools we have to shout, be it our bodies, our phones, our voices. We shout. We shout because we are being killed either way. Your poetry, court appearances and nude protest are all political actions, asking us what we are still afraid of. What do we gain by protecting the comfort of these tyrants to enjoy their theft, their tyranny unoffended?
Stella, you are a woman who has reached into herself and taken joy, taken brazenness and categorically refused shame. Your body is your manifesto, as you say, and with it, you declare and live your radical queer feminist politics every day. We are affirmed by you.
Some people think you are fearless, others believe you are unashameable, I don’t believe either of them. Even with the best intentions, they are trying to make you iron, invulnerable, and otherworldly. I know different. You are not otherworldly Stella, you are fully human.
In care and love,
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