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.
Reflections of Githeriman in the Age of Coronavirus
There is a world of githeri people living at the bottom of Nairobi’s urban existence, homeless or living in squalor. But the existential threat posed by the COVID-19 crisis has revealed that all our fates are intertwined, we are one, and the world has to acknowledge their existence as people, as human beings and not simply as labour, voters or markets.
The Government of Kenya’s hollow but public relations-savvy response to the coronavirus crisis has been wanting. The control initiative began following the appointment Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe to the Health Ministry in late February 2020. As the growing number of confirmed COVID-19 cases resulted in a worldwide pandemic, hysteria and public restrictions, the Health CS issued sterner directives that included fines and the threat of a jail sentence against those who failed to adhere to self-quarantine.
On the ground, however, there are signs of disorder. There have been reports of healthcare workers, unable to secure even the most basic face masks, judiciously scampering to safety at the sight of potentially infected patients. Nurses at the Mbagathi Hospital, which is serving as one of the designated national isolation centres, staged go-slows protesting lack of adequate training and protective equipment.
On 25 March the government announced a dusk-to-dawn curfew as a public control measure. On the first day of the curfew, on Friday 27 March, Kenyan citizens caught in the disruption of public transport as they tried to make their way home, met with police violence. Given an opportunity to show heroism, the administration was instead overwhelmed by its true nature, revealing its malevolent villainy. Two hours before curfew, police officers pounced on the unsuspecting public at the Likoni Ferry landing, unleashing indiscriminate brutal violence on women, old men, children and labourers trying to get home. This was only the beginning.
As the night wore on, video footage of the violence meted out on the public by the police—including footage taken by the police themselves—flooded social media. Public floggings of even those workers providing vital services that the government had exempted from the curfew—such as food delivery—were rampant all across Kenya. On the fourth night, a 13-year-old boy, Yassin Hussein Moyo, was shot dead by a police officer while standing on the balcony of his family’s apartment.
The bungling and ineptitude of the COVID-19 response by the Kenyan government has revealed that that which we are socially conditioned to call “our government”—that presumes a complex, omniscient and omnipotent establishment—is in reality dysfunctional. The coronavirus is revealing the truths of all levels of our incorporeal reality: our ideological system, our hegemon, our economics, our institutions and even our individual beliefs.
Sitting in Nairobi’s Eastlands, social distancing has turned out to be a cruel joke during this entire fiasco. It is an attack on the last human community we have. The one we were compelled to form after British colonialism took away our clans, our villages and our land; dumping us on that concrete public transport intersection called the city. The last human front is our neighbour.
The success of the British colonial enterprise in atomising our African societies in order to dominate us, by secularising our values and inculcating individualism into us, left us completely unable to defend ourselves against not only European aggression and plunder, but also against all predation. We have no defences, not just against economic predators like China but now apparently also against non-human threats like pandemics. “United we stand, divided we fall” is not a saying, it is an aphorism.
The colonial administrative infrastructure that was implanted by imperialism, disrupted and replaced our nuclear and extended families, our clans, our villages and our tribes through the systematic erasure of all avenues of communal bonding. Tribal social rituals were banned and children were separated from their families and herded into “Church Missionary Society”-run schools for re-education. Entire villages were condemned to concentration camps during the years of emergency. The colonial government, under whose auspices these violations took place, revealed itself to be nothing more than a policing infrastructure. The ideals of nationhood, property, healthcare, education all polydactyly, dysfunctional malformations masquerading as fingers. The Government of Kenya does not have a clenched fist, for a clenched fist could one day hopefully open into a gentle palm; it has a bludgeon.
We do not know our neighbours. Well, at least not intimately. We form extended families of convenience, to survive the harsh economic edge of these concrete jungles, but now capitalism has come for even that relationship.
Now everyone, including my neighbour, is a potential threat to my survival and that of my family. We are being compelled to teach suspicion and mistrust of even our neighbour’s children to our children, because how do you explain “social distancing” to a six-year-old boy? Children comprehend absolutes, not relative relations.
Meanwhile Twitterati elites with refrigerators choking with supplies frothed at the mouth, endlessly calling for lockdown. It is “us”, the hoi polloi who live in the bowels of the city—in Dandora, Mathare, Kawangware, Kibra—that the Twitterati elites are demanding that the government lock down.
Us, the Twenty-shilling Githerimen
As I read their tweets, I remembered a moment two years ago when an old man walked up to my friend’s food stall outside a Mosque in Dandora, a working class residential neighbourhood located next to Nairobi City’s garbage dump site. He politely asked for 20 shillings. What for? To buy githeri (a mix of boiled maize and beans). He had not eaten in two days. A plate of githeri was all he needed to get him through the day and night, and he could not afford it. From a position of privilege, many cannot perceive the economic value of 20 shillings nor imagine the economic microcosm in which it can have value, let alone how a man can be incapable of raising it. The Twenty-shilling coin is one of those irritating bits of loose change that we dump in the cup holders of our cars and use to pay parking boys or get rid of persistent beggars. Many do not consider the actual value of the coins; they are only good for handing out as small tips around the city.
Where was his family? His brother? His sister? His children? It is much easier to profile him as a drunkard. The only feasible rationale for not possessing 20 shillings is that he must have drank it all. Or that he must be a loser who he didn’t work hard, didn’t save, didn’t invest in his future, didn’t apply Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich-Dad Poor-Dad Cash-Flow Quadrant. Alternatively, he is profiled as a wife beater who terrorises his children. A man with no source of livelihood, no land title loses his identity. When he can no longer work, he loses his worth in an individualistic capitalist society and is reduced to begging for survival.
During the 2017 general elections, a man queuing to vote while eating his githeri from a polythene bag had the Kenyan middle class tickled no end. Plucked from obscurity, Martin Kamotho (The Githeriman) became an overnight sensation in a bizarre reality-show complete with media coverage. A few months later, he fell from grace, shamed as a man who had returned to his old alcoholic ways.
The old man who came looking for help at the food stall didn’t have the good fortune of random events conspiring to turn him into an overnight national sensation. He and millions of other githerimen, women, children and families remain unseen, invisible to the middle class. There is a world of githeri people living at the bottom of Nairobi’s urban existence. They are homeless or living in squalor. At night they sleep on the pavements outside buildings along River Road and Juja Road, along the hidden river beds of Ruiru, under bridges in the city, any nook or cranny that a man can fit into to shelter from the rain. They are invisible only because their humanity has been denied.
The world may be deliberately blind to what it owes them but it sees them very clearly when it has something it wants to take from them. Politicians rally them to harvest public opinion, corporate CEOs reiterate their value, echoing C.K. Prahalad’s The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits. Safaricom PLC, a leader in mining this fortune, it is said, experienced a 400 per cent leap in traffic when it introduced the twenty-shilling scratch card. Therefore, capitalism’s blindness is not congenital; it conveniently perceives only what is profitable unless compelled otherwise.
But those were “normal” difficult economic times, when 20 shillings was hard to come by, compared to the present reality of a society careening uncontrollably towards political and economic devastation. We are all hurtling towards our nadir at a sustained pace, oblivious to the oncoming apocalyptic rapture. This existential threat has revealed that our fates are intertwined, we are one, and the world has to acknowledge our existence as people, as human beings, and not simply as labour, voters or markets.
Public intellectual David Ndii has proposed that, in the wake of the restriction of movement, the socio-eonomically vulnerable should be allowed to flee the urban jungle to their rural areas as a means of decongesting the city. But many cannot even exercise that option. Capitalism in Kenya has now evolved into the dystopic future described by H. G. Well’s 1895 classic, The Time Machine. We now have a steadily growing population of Morlocks, generations of parents and children born in the bowels of the city who know no other home and have nowhere to run.
Capitalism and imperialism have hollowed us out completely. The destruction is almost irreparable. Capitalism has wreaked devastation on us all as a society in addition to the poverty of kinship brought about by the secular individualism of our social lives. Capitalism has pushed us into gaping chasms of economic disparity not only among the social classes but among members of a single family. I distinctly remember the collective gasp when the media revealed the poor dwellings in which the brother of the former President Kibaki’s lived before he died.
Individualism undermines, directly and indirectly, the purpose and synergy of every possible group formation: filial, commercial and political. And, therefore, it undermines the very existence of society. If man by nature is a social animal, individualism is not just directly antithetical to his nature but is also pernicious.
Capitalism, it is already apparent, is incapable of organising itself for the well-being of any living creature or ecosystem, let alone its primary host—man. The presumed most powerful man on earth, the President of the United States of America, was ineffectual in procuring basic medical equipment or in organising his government to respond to the pandemic. Democracy and it’s ruling class have been revealed to be nothing but enablers for capitalist extraction. Everything we have been taught about modern life and purpose has proven to be not just false, but insidiously detrimental to society and self.
There is global consensus that it is time to rethink both our social and economic system generally. But for Africa it is time to go even deeper and reconstruct our basic social structures, our bonds of kinship.
During the Ebola crisis in West Africa, afflicted and affected people were completely dependent on their families for care. The same happened throughout Africa at the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
But in spite of our experience, we have allowed capitalism and individualism to corrode these bonds and units of social cohesion. We only recognise them in times of crisis, because Africa has not developed state institutional infrastructure to compensate for this loss. It is time to reconstruct them from the ground up. And not in some workshop-based imperialist-funded aid agency project, but through an organic socio-political indigenously-driven initiative.
On January 29 2020, Dr McFie argued on a local political TV show, NTV AM Live, that democracy as a political system has failed because it is fundamentally flawed. He asked quite pointedly, where, in what vital productive human enterprise has the democratic process been used to determine leadership? He explained the rigorous process used to recruit business leaders and asked why, in the more important domain of governance, such processes cannot be considered. He then went on to propose that Africa needs to look to its history, to explore for the purpose of adoption, the processes through which people rose to become elders and leaders, to find our way out of the mess we are in.
I would argue that this crisis compels us to go deeper, to reconstruct our families, clans and tribes from the ground up, complete with the layers of leadership at all levels—clan, tribe, nation—upon a cogent set of spiritual beliefs.
We now have no choice.
Coronavirus, Curfews, Corruption and Conspiracy Theories
Despite a curfew and the threat posed by COVID-19, it is business as usual in Kenya. Bribe-taking and beatings by the police have not stopped. And people have resorted to concocting conspiracy theories to make sense of their precarious situation.
On Friday, 27 March 2020, the day the curfew took effect, I took a matatu ride to Zambezi, a distance of just about 20 kilometres from the Limuru-bound vehicles’ terminus on Kilome Road in downtown Nairobi. From this stage, you can board matatus going to Acre Ithano (Five Acres), Kiambaa, Limuru, Muguga, Rironi and Zambezi.
President Uhuru Kenyatta had, on 25 March 2019, decreed a 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew countrywide – the government’s latest effort to combat the now really frightening coronavirus disease that could, in one fell swoop, easily send swathes of people to early graves. With a broken healthcare system countrywide, a government that treats its medics badly, the patient-bed ratio in its hundreds of thousands, and a demoralised corps of medical officers, the pandemic in Kenya, like in Italy, Spain and now the US, could be truly calamitous.
I was at the stage by 5.15 p.m. The rush to beat the curfew hours was evident: They were no matatus, so the people, who unusually go home at this hour, waited anxiously. That was already one worry too much, but more poignantly, the matatus had been ordered by the government to ferry half their carrying capacities. So, the 33-seater minibus was now allowing only 16 to 17 passengers, while the 14-seater Nissan shuttles only carried eight passengers. This added unforeseen problem was, to say the least, wrecking nerves.
With this new travel constraint, the matatu crew found a perfect excuse to inflate the fare and take advantage of an already precarious situation. A couple of days before, when the government had decreed that matatus should reduce their carrying capacity to create “social distance”, the matatus had, without flinching, more than doubled their fares. Now with the onset of the curfew, the fare is set to increase even further.
This extraordinary arrangement created a perfect state of anarchy: the rush to leave town, the shortage of matatus, which exacerbated passengers’ anxiety and despondency, and the fear that if by chance you were caught during the curfew hours you would be beaten up by the easily excitable paramilitary squad deployed by the state or by the overzealous police.
My tout friend reminded me, matter of factly, that it had been a long time since the General Service Unit (GSU) police had been unleashed on the streets, and they, therefore, were itching to break some ankles and elbows and trample on people’s heads with their boots. And perhaps even kill one or two Kenyans.
My tout friend, who was once a street boy who grew up in the roughhewn of Nairobi’s central business district, where he had been beaten and harassed by the police, knew exactly what he was talking about. The GSU, it soon emerged, in their over-enthusiasm to follow and implement government orders, not only broke ankles and elbow bones, they beat people with sjamboks (blood-drawing whips used by the infamous Boer police on the black masses at the height of the anti-apartheid resistance). In the process, the police killed a boda boda rider and two other Kenyans.
Passing through Westlands, we met a mass of humanity trekking to Kangemi, Kihumbu-ini, Mountain View, Sodom, Uthiru and Waruku. The conductor told me the fare to any of these places from Westlands had shot up to Sh100. (On a normally day, it is Sh30.) The choice was with the commuters: to cough up the Sh100 or walk.
I looked up into the skies and saw that a storm was fast gathering. If by a dint of bad luck, the skies decided to open up then, the people would suffer a double tragedy: arrive home both drenched and tired.
The advent of the coronavirus pandemic in the country has not only threatened to exterminate a panic-stricken people, it has equally conspired to appear at a time of great economic turbulence in the country, which has threatened to wipe out even the little earnings that the people possess.
The trip was uneventful until we reached the makeshift police check that just sprouted in the middle of the road at Mountain View stage, between the Shell and Total petrol stations. The first thing that came to mind was that the police, in their usual style of collecting bribes, would at least pretend to check that the driver and his crew were actually obeying the government’s strict directive. But no. The cop went to the driver’s side where, without wasting time, he quickly “greeted” him (corruption does not recognise coronavirus).
Two thoughts immediately came to my mind: this looked like an illegal road block; the normal road block is usually erected just outside of the Kabete Police Station. Additionally, the recent directive by the government that traffic offences would be henceforth dealt with by the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) meant that there should not be a road block manned by the police on the roads. That rule had not changed, even with the pandemonium over coronavirus.
So what were the police doing on this particular road? The conductor told me that the Kabete traffic police, allegedly one of the most notorious departments in the country, was now erecting the road block as soon as dusk set in. “Tuliwazoesha vibaya, wako na njaa saa yote, na usipowalambisha, hautafanya kazi.” We spoiled them completely (by giving them bribes), so they are always hungry, yet, (the bigger problem) is, if you don’t grease their hands, you will never work.
For work to be done, the police must eat. The conductor said that the police now took it as their right to be bribed. “Let us not kid each other – police corruption is not about to end in a hurry,” said the conductor. He said that the Kabete police, in particular, couldn’t care less if people were decimated by coronavirus: “What they are most interested in is how they will continue to line their pockets.”
On arriving at stage 87, just after Uthiru, all pretence of being extra vigilant on combating the deadly coronavirus was thrown out of the window. At the Nairobi terminus, the conductor had been carrying a disinfectant (basically a mixture of soap and water), which he had sprayed on our hands. Once here, he dumped the can and began looking for passengers.
Women with huge baskets scrambled to board the matatu and snap the remaining seats. “Ithue tutihaicaga ndege.” We don’t board aeroplanes. “Coronavirus iranyita itonga.” The coronavirus is afflicting only the rich, said one woman, who grabbed the seat next to me.
At Kinoo stage, more people boarded the matatu: “Andu no mohaka mainoke…ni turikirara guku”. We must find our way home…I mean we can’t spend the night here, said some drunken fellow.
When we reached the next stage in Muthiga, some passengers dropped off as others alighted. By this time, the exorbitant fare had dropped to its normal rate of between Sh30 and Sh50. The chitchat in the matatu was, of course, about coronavirus. Conspiracy theories spawned by know-it-all dudes kept us busy and momentarily took away our attention from the more serious issue of observing social distance inside the matatu.
Blame the Chinese
“It is the Americans and the Chinese who are engaged in a biological warfare and now we’ve become collateral,” said an obviously drunk passenger. He said that the Chinese were devious and secretive people “You’ve seen them here – short and bossy and will not talk to anyone, unless shouting commands”.
Another claimed that China hoped to conquer the world by unleashing of the viral disease into the now global society. “How come they now seem to have, suddenly, found the cure for it? Coronavirus is ravishing the rest of the world as China, which has gone back to its normal self, now watches gleefully from afar. They have even offered to help Italy and America.”
The Chinese are constructing the Nairobi-Nakuru Road, which has stalled because the government has delayed payments to owners of buildings that need to be demolished to pave way for the expansion of the highway. The highway serves as the transport corridor of goods, from the Mombasa port to Burundi, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.
After excavating the original dual highway two years ago in the hope of rebuilding the road, the section between Uthiru and Kiambaa seems to have been abandoned. And so it is in a terrible state. It has become the bane of the ever-complaining motorists who have no choice but to use the mangled road. The section just outside Uthiru Girls School is so bad that when last week there was a huge downpour, the 100-metre distance caused a five-hour traffic jam. The section has huge potholes in which small saloon cars disappear. This section not only causes traffic snarl-ups, it has become a dangerous point where muggers and thieves steal mobile phones and other valuables from cars stuck in the mud.
“President Uhuru has taken too much debt from the Chinese, that’s why he couldn’t stop the plane from China from landing in the country,” ventured the drunkard, who now had taken to entertaining the passengers. “Agiruo arihe thire ucio na kiumia kimwe.” If he had tried (stopping the plane from landing), he would have been asked to pay that debt in a week’s time.
In February, a plane flying from China was allowed to land in Nairobi despite a government directive to not allow planes from China to enter the country. It is believed that the China Southern Airlines plane had several Chinese nationals in it who were allowed to disembark and mingle with the rest of Kenyans at the height of the coronavirus explosion in Africa. For some reason, many Kenyans believe that those unnamed Chinese (nobody knows where they “dissipated” to) could in the near future put the country at risk.
“Kiguoya kia mundu,” commented the noisy drunkard. “President Uhuru was the coward of the country,” he said. After mortgaging the country to the Chinese, he’s now beholden to them: he cannot do anything until he asks them. I don’t know who told him that coronavirus is most effective only at night. Should we now stop making love to our wives? Eno curfew nitukumenya uria tuku deal nayo. Just wait, we’ll a find way of dealing with this curfew.”
Another passenger said that President Uhuru Kenyatta had put the country on a semi-lockdown and now curfew “because he was targeting to reap billions of dollars that would apparently be disbursed by our benefactors, both from the East and West to combat the disease. He and his cronies have devised a plan to pocket the billions – for them, they are in business. All this scare-mongering is just that: tactics for them to make money. This is not a black man’s disease – have you heard any black person who has died of the disease? All the people who have died from coronavirus are all Caucasian. The black man’s body is not to be felled by a mere fever.”
One drunkard started singing the following chorus:
Mwihoko wakwa no we Jesu
Kuma miaraho nginya hwa-ini
Thayo wakwa no we Jesu
Kigeno giakwa no we Jesu
Gutire kindu kingi gwenda tiga we Jesu
My only hope is you Jesus
From early in the morning till late in the night
My only peace is you Jesus
My only joy is you Jesus
All that I need is you Jesus
“When it came to implementing the curfew, Uhuru suddenly discovers his mojo: he does not entertain nonsense, he is decisive, firm, tough talking and threatens fire and brimstone to anyone defying his order by sending the paramilitary police to roughen up people with their death-knell rungus (clubs). How is it that this decisiveness and firmness is often lacking when dealing with the thieves and robbers who are his cronies and friends?” posed the drunkard.
“Ask him to go after the looters, and he suddenly becomes exhausted, handicapped and helpless, throwing his hands in the air…‘murenda njike atia?’ What do you what me to do? Uhuru is fake…after messing our economy, he now purports to be fighting this monster invasion.”
Remembering Thandika Mkandawire, A Beloved Teacher
I have been lucky to meet many intellectual giants in my life. The truly great, like Louis Henkin-my Constitutional Law Professor in Graduate School – and Thandika Mkandawire, are those that teach you effortlessly and joyously, and without even a hint of condescension.
I am utterly distraught to learn that my favourite political economist and teacher, Thandika Mkandawire, has died. My intellectual development took a different direction when I found Thandika Mkandawire after Graduate School, first through his, edited, 1987 book “The State and Agriculture in Africa,” and subsequently through the brilliant work he did on Africa’s economic development, World Bank policies and the African state in the 1990s and throughout the 2000s. I am certain that if I had not come across Thandika when I did, my intellectual development would have veered off in a completely different, almost certainly less fulfilling direction.
I was – at the time- young, restless, and, intellectually, very adventurous. Graduate school had lit a spark in me. But it had left me somewhat jaded. I had suddenly realized that I did not care for legal doctrine. I liked – and still like- law’s forensic tools – but I found doctrine sterile: it was either noisily obvious or complicatedly trivial. This was especially so when lawyers launched into voluble disputations on some arcane point. True, jurisprudence had real insight but then jurisprudence is academic law. Most of the rest of law is applied, or to put it differently, law is to jurisprudence what accounting is to economics.
There I was then: June 1993, a newly-minted graduate bristling that my training till then had neither asked nor answered the questions that had taken me to graduate school. I wanted to know what to do when those sworn to implement the laws regularly ignored them. I did not know what incentives or disincentives to put in place to discourage dictators or corporate chiefs from stealing public money. Could such incentives and disincentives be legally designed? I wondered why theories of sovereignty did not address the ways in which economic prescriptions by multilateral agencies subverted people’s control over governments in debtor countries. I knew what the rule of law was and could speak and write with great eloquence about its characteristics. Yet if you asked how institutional design might help secure it, I could not answer you. This background is necessary to explain just what a profound effect Thandika had on me.
My journey towards acquiring the perspectives and tools that would eventually help me grapple with these questions begun in two places, with Thandika Mkandawire’s “The State and Agriculture in Africa” and with all-night, whisky-inspired debates and arguments with David Ndii at Invergara Club. (David won’t like these confidential disclosures!) Thandika gave me different perspectives on how to understand the state. In this book, I learnt to look into and to question the fiscal basis of the state, any state. That is to say, I learnt to ask how a state raised revenues because, it turned out, as I learnt still later, that revenues and where they came from, shape how a state treated its citizens. Does the state raise revenues from taxes or from mineral rents? States that live off taxes –called merchant states – must have some implicit understanding with the key tax-paying groups in society. For this reason, governance in such states is likely to be more inclusive. States that live off rents- called rentier states- rest on narrow, exclusionary bargains between politicians and the companies involved in extraction. Mineral economies are essentially off-shore economies: Governments in states with such economies don’t care for public support. They survive by repression or co-optation, that is, by buying-off opponents.
This analysis opened my eyes to much that I had missed in my education. It sent me scurrying in unfamiliar but exciting research directions. Now I could explain why so many mineral or oil rich countries were either so fragile or so dictatorial. I now knew why populations in those countries were often poor: Politicians would rather squirrel the money away to tax havens than invest in public services. They paid no political price if they did that.
Thandika was always brilliant: He had the uncanny ability to illuminate a subject or to upend received wisdom with a simple vignette. I remember being extremely impressed by Paul Collier’s and Nicholas Sambanis brilliant work on conflict. Collier and Sambanis had put to bed the old canard that African conflicts are caused by ancient ethnic hatreds and grievances through a series of empirical studies showing that most conflicts could actually be explained by greed. That is, they offered evidence that most conflicts were driven by the scramble for lootable resources. Thandika was not persuaded by this thesis and though I do not know whether he ever wrote an essay that specifically responding to this argument he wrote a number of penetrating essays that very cleverly chipped away at the argument. His 2002 deceptively low-key essay, “The Terrible toll of Post-Colonial ‘Rebel Movements’ in Africa: Towards an Explanation of the Violence against the Peasantry” is particularly on point. Thandika asked a simple question, “Why are African rebel movements so violent towards peasants?” He returned the answer, which felt so intuitively right to me, that it was because the rebels were invariably urban elites who had migrated their disputes to rural Africa. This was astonishingly obvious when I thought about it. Until the violence after the 2007 election, Kenyan elites squabbling over the presidency had always taken their blood letting to the rural areas.
Perhaps Thandika’s most influential work- with colleagues like Bayo Olukoshi – was his 20 year interrogation of the neo-liberal stipulations of the World Bank – sold to Africa first as Structural Adjustment Programmes and then as Poverty Reduction Strategies. The neoliberal agenda put forth by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher came to Africa and the developing countries dressed up as the Washington Consensus. First as Executive Secretary of CODESRIA and later as Director of United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, UNRISD, Thandika was in the thick of debates about the viability of the Washington Consensus as policy prescription. He was completely vindicated by the dramatic unraveling of the Washington Consensus -in its neoliberalism garb- in the 2008 financial crisis.
Thandika and a handful of African scholars fought long and hard to liberate Africa’s development debate from the stranglehold of the so-called North American Africanists. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s these Africanists were extremely influential in policy circles in the West. Though their advice was regularly sought, Thandika was deeply disenchanted with their work. This research argued that under-development was as a result of neo-patrimonial politics: neopatrimonialism was itself defined in segmental and hierarchical terms. The standard model has the President and his ‘tribes-mates’ sitting as patrons atop the state, their hands on the public kitty, serving a web of grateful clients who repay him with loyalty and votes. On this view, Africa was under-developed because these neopatrimonial webs undermined or eroded rational policy making.
Thandika could not abide this empirically bankrupt argument. He felt that the Africanists were selling snake-oil to policy makers in Washington and London. He noticed – as did other African scholars – that Africanist circles were not only hermetically sealed against perspectives from scholars working in the field in the continent, they had also become intellectually incestuous – liberally quoting and cross-referencing each other. They were not promoting debate, they were more like congregants at a neo-liberal wake. Thandika thought that the neopatrimonial perspective – though highly privileged and valued in donor circles in western capitals –offered nothing useful analytically. And even worse, it had no predictive value.
Thandika’s interpretations of the possibilities of democracy in Africa were always original, cautiously optimistic and always refreshing. He had genuine flashes of insight. He made me question much that I thought self-evident. He hated complacency. I was privileged to participate in many fora with him. I remember, in particular, a discussion panel I shared with him and Prof. Anyang Ny’ongo in Accra Ghana in April 2014 during the “Pan-African Conference on Inequalities in the Context of Structural Transformation.” It was the first time that I got a really good chance to have a chat with him. What humility, what gentle persuasion and what intellectual charm. I have been lucky to meet many intellectual giants in my life. The truly great, like Louis Henkin-my Constitutional Law Professor in Graduate School – and Thandika Mkandawire, are those that teach you effortlessly and joyously, and without even a hint of condescension.
God speed you along, Beloved Teacher. Here is Laban Erapu’s ‘Elegy’ that you may not walk alone to underworld:
When he was here,
We planned each tomorrow
With him in mind
For we saw no parting
Looming beyond the horizon.
When he was here,
We joked and laughed together
And no fleeting shadow of a ghost
Ever crossed our paths.
Day by day we lived
On this side of the mist
And there was never a sign
That his hours were running fast.
When he was gone,
Through glazed eyes we searched
Beyond the mist and the shadows
For we couldn’t believe he was nowhere:
We couldn’t believe he was dead.
I WILL MISS YOU.
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