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.
AND GOD RESTED ON THE SEVENTH DAY: Faith as a tense truce in an African reality
When I was growing up in rural western Kenya in the mid-80s, my father, a Seventh Day Adventist (SDA), imposed Adventism upon us like a colonial identity card. He was an Adventist because his mother was an Adventist. That part of western Kenya was under intense competition between the Catholic, Anglican and Seventh Day Adventist churches. The Seventh Day set up a stronghold in central and south Nyanza regions with churches in every corner of the community. We were expected to carry this spiritual card around for many reasons. One was to inspire some sort of righteous pride, to show that we were better than others, mostly Catholics and non-believers, though Catholics were the other main Christian denomination in our community. We were being trained in denominational politics, that even though we were worshipping the same God as Catholics, we were different, more sanctified. Unlike them, our bodies were free from impurities like tobacco and alcohol. And that was not all. Coca-Cola and coffee were prohibited; soya was touted as the best alternative (but you could only find soya in shops in Nairobi).
My mother protested the Seventh Day Adventist church and its restrictions. She did not understand how eating cold food on Saturdays made anyone holier; she always prepared hot food. My father protested but grudgingly ate it all the same. Also, my mother had no personal vendetta against Coca-Cola. She drank it and made us drink too. My father frowned but couldn’t do much. He was always a minute too late, just as we were putting down empty bottles. In addition, my mother was ambivalent to religion; she was raised in a big traditional family where religion was a pastime and not a primary way of life. My father should have also protested a long time ago. My uncle too. Both are polygamists. Being polygamists, the church never accepted them the same way they accepted the church. As a teenager, I could partake in Holy Communion, but my grandfather, father and my uncle – grown men with much more social status than I – could not. They joined other men, mostly polygamous, in grudgingly walking out of the church during Holy Communion. In my mind, I didn’t think that polygamy, per se, made you a good or bad man. There were very good polygamous men – loving, caring and responsible. And there were bad monogamous men, who abused their families every day.
Deeply entrenched polygamy in our community was the elephant in the room in our local church. Most men seated in the pews were in polygamous families. Our church relentlessly depicted polygamy as barbaric and backward. I have always asked myself why my dad continued in this church that was seemingly subjecting him and fellow polygamous men to emotional abuse every Saturday. He later even embarked on a project to build a big church sanctuary closer to our home. Why would my father, and African people in general, join and support churches that deeply conflicted with their traditional way of life?
The Seventh Day church did not have formal method, or doctrine, to accommodate traditional practices of Africans they had come to teach about Jesus and salvation. This is was not a democracy where the heathen communities had a vote. The church’s intention was clear- convert as many as possible and to grow into a dominant, influential force. My father and polygamous men in the community accepted that the church was way more powerful than they, and that by joining it they could access some social power in a rapidly changing world. The church also accepted that these polygamous men were difficult and would not easily change their ways. The pastor seeming to have recognized this contentious issue, prayed fervently about everything but skirted around it.
For the first nineteen years of my life when I attended Seventh Day Adventist church, I never heard a pastor mention the word polygamy by name during sermons. They would preach strongly against adultery without mentioning polygamy. It was not lost to any person paying attention that lust and adultery, in the context of this Christian worldview, was the first step towards polygamy. Within this complex social set up, there was some sort of unofficial truce around polygamy- this truce would only be broken during Holy Communion when polygamous men would leave the church. Women must have viewed themselves as winners in this struggle between their men and the church. This was one of the few occasions when they would get a seat at the table and partake in a ceremony that their husbands could not. The men protested silently- most would skip church on days when Holy Communion would be served. My father would also often talk of David and his son Solomon as some of the famous men in the bible who married multiple wives. This contradiction in the bible must have been a source of consolation to my father and many men in my community.
In the 1980s and 1990s, during the early era of HIV/AIDS, there was a visible rise in televangelism and miracle healing, and a corresponding increase in the number and prominence of traditional healers and medicine men in our community. Public prayers were being made for all these throngs of young men and women dying of this incurable disease. Privately, African traditional medicine men and women were sought to appease whichever spirits had brought this curse to the people. Mainstream churches vigorously preached abstinence and riled against contraceptives, while in the dead of the night, when the church was officially asleep, traditional healers were brought into homes to prescribe final rites for the dead. Some of these rites included “corpse cleansing” through sexual intercourse with the dead in some communities.
This perpetual conflict between traditional spiritual practices and Christianity has always been a source of both personal and communal conflict. I remember when my uncle Ben was sick, strangers would visit ostensibly to “pray for him”. I knew these people were not Catholics or Seventh Day Adventists. I could tell they were traditional medicine men and women. Sometimes they would stay for days, and I would hear my grandmother telling her fellow women from the church that these medicine men were distant relations who were visiting. I could tell she appreciated the inadequacy of the Christian God in these difficult situations, but that she still struggled with that reality. I saw in her eyes the guilt of resorting to traditional medicine when she had lost faith in the ability of the Christian God to heal my uncle Ben. This was deep in rural Kenya, yet she did not dare be free in following the traditional practices of her people. I have come to learn that this personal struggle, both mine and hers, were a manifestation of years of calculated and successful emotional blackmail to the individual and community by missionaries.
One of the enduring impacts of Christianity in my life was the image of white savior. This image was thrust on my young mind through the powerful sermons on Saturday by our local pastor. The sermons always ended by him commanding us to “fall at the feet of the cross” and “obey”. Obedience would ensure blessings and prosperity. This image of falling at the image of a white male has always overwhelmed me. It struck me even more later when I was living in the United States, where white superiority is always hanging over black and brown people’s heads like a dark cloud.
I recently came from a trip to South East Asia and had a chance to experience a deity that wasn’t in the image of a white savior. I was struck by the images of massive statues of Buddha that resembled the local people. They were in all shades of brown, dark brown and sometimes black. Having lived in the USA for almost four years now, I was puzzled by this free colour continuum of Buddha statues. I made note of this and asked my hosts and friends who were surprised by my observation. They had never made similar observations. The differences, they said, came down to design and material used to make the statues of Buddha. There were no subliminal racial messages of superiority and inferiority in these statues. I apologized and let them know that I live in environment where race permeates every fabric of the society.
This experience introduced me to a unique reality that most Africans who are Christians have never had – the reality and the power of having a God who resembled the locals, who looked like the local rickshaw driver, beggar, teacher and doctor, hit me very hard. It brought back memories of the many times my father struggled to contort reasons to reassure me and my siblings that as much as the Christian God had very explicit Caucasian features, on the inside, he looked like us, Africans. And that before this God, all races were equal. I was always confused by this halfhearted assertion. I felt like we were always struggling too hard to impress the Christian God and we all fell short.
I have started thinking of how powerful and relatable it would be to have a God whose image members of my community would relate to. This would perhaps empower and inspire many people, including my son, whom I am not sure how to introduce religion to. How can I read him a Bible that has been used to control my people for generations without feeling a repulsive guilt? No, I cannot. I am rebelling against everything peddled with a white supremacist agenda. I have decided against that. That is why I struggled with thoughts of taking him to my grandmother’s church in Kenya. I decided against this church that refused to accept my father.
But then again, I have to ask myself, which is this African deity I am seeking? Moreover, where is this deity? Is it possible to reconstruct and empower all the traditional African deities destroyed by colonizers and missionaries? In addition, can our communities be empowered to find strength in their old ways of thinking?
This is the space and personal conflict that the entry of Christianity suspended me, and my community, into, and we are still grappling with it. Sometimes the presence of the local Seventh Day Adventist church in my community feels like an ever-present symbol of domination. But sometimes it looks like a space that offered my grandmother sanctuary and gave her meaning about life, and also gave women their own social status as Holy Communion-partaking believers. I want it to work for us, but I know I hold no vote, and I doubt my community has the power to reshaping practices and doctrines we feel do not align to the traditional values of my community. This faith has always been – take it or leave it. But I think we need something else.
THE DAYS OF SITUATION: Reflecting on the Reflections Series ‘Beyond The Numbers’
I was ten years old in 1996 when my parents separated. It seems to me that I had never really noticed them before it happened. Until that tumultuous December my parents were like the air around us – crucial to life, and you would notice when they shifted around, but otherwise somewhat unremarkable. I always thought my extended relatives were much more interesting than my parents – my aunt, who lived with us for a while, laughed loudly, spoke excitedly, and let us watch Indian movies late into the night when my mother was away working the housekeeping night shift at the New Stanley. My mother’s (step)father, my Guka, always brought us halua and kaimati every time he visited. We were fascinated bulging veins on his hand, wondering why they popped back up no matter how hard we tried to push them down.
And then, it happened. My father spoke a lot at this time, more than I had ever heard him speak, it seems, and he would say things like – “your mother is using you as a conduit to get to me.” At the end of his long speeches, I would go to my blue and red Oxford English Dictionary and look up the word conduit. And my mother became more quiet, I think, transfigured into glass that was dangerously on the verge of shattering at a moment’s notice. I was terrified at the thought of this. How does one pick up those kinds of shards?
But what none of us siblings could have known at the time – I am one of three – was that our family’s troubles were not ours alone, and that the intensity of our struggle to remain afloat was not entirely the fault of my mother and father. It was, (objectively?), the wrong time to get divorced – they were walking right into an economic blizzard, with the three of us in reluctant tow.
Kenya was in the midst of an economic recession, the fallout of implementation of the infamous Bretton Woods structural adjustment programs (SAPs), which led to a slash in government expenditure, especially on public servants’ salaries, administration, economic and social services. To make matters worse, the architects of the Goldenberg scandal had promptly drained an equivalent of 10 per cent of Kenya’s GDP from the Central Bank, just like that. Neglect and dilapidation were all around us, and in my ten-year-old mind, I connected the dots and concluded that this is actually what happens when your parents split up – the world goes to literal ruin. Garbage starts flowing in the streets. Potholes eat the road in front of your house.
Which is why I was not prepared for how painful this month’s Reflections series at The Elephant would be to read, edit and curate. They remind me, in the words of @tjjullu on Twitter, ‘ndalo situation’, days of situation, when the folks would say, “you know the situation…. We’re in a tight situation…”
Twenty-odd years later, state theft, poor fiscal management and an exorbitant debt appetite has ushered in a new season of austerity measures. Ndalo situation.
This Reflections series was intended to go ‘Beyond The Numbers’ of macro-economic policy and excavate the memories of those tough times, and connect that with what’s going on today. How did families cope? How did it affect social arrangements, like people having to live with relatives, or the stress that it put on marriages? How are millennials being affected by its iteration today – frustrating unemployment, and the unspoken angst of not being able to achieve dreams? How do we connect the brunt of the hustle to the dysfunction in national economics? How does society react to this culturally – chanelling frustration through music, sports, the arts and so on? And what are the untold stories of those traumas that were never discussed?
The series began with Lutivini Majanja’s extensive piece on how tea – its availability, quantity and quality – marked her family’s turbulent economic fortunes and domestic disruptions.
Then came Gloria Mari on the ‘extreme sport’ that is job searching today, where beyond skills, qualifications, work ethic and experience, it seems like you have to have guardian angels, good luck charms and even the occasional visit to the mganga to have hopes of finding a well-paying job.
We published Carey Baraka reflecting on how disconnected younger millennials are even from the memory or understanding of the 1990s ‘ndalo situation,’ and what that lack of memory does to a generation grappling with through similar challenges – but without a historical anchor to ground the struggle.
Filmmaker Amina Bint Mohamed explored the concerns and challenges of the so-called ‘middle class’ in a short documentary film, a demographic whose definition is contested and whose security is precarious.
There was Wanjeri Gakuru’s reflection on “flying out” as a way for families to cope with a depressed economy and diminished opportunities in the 1990s, but that is no longer an option today, with increasing xenophobia in the traditional ‘greener pastures’ – US, UK, Australia, and the like.
Darius Okolla detailed the decline of his hometown Kitale during those years, where the earth and rust seemed to swallow everything, and how the town never really recovered.
And Silas Nyanchwani’s devastating article on how he was making more money as a student a few years ago, than as an adult today with a family to support (and with a Masters degree from one of the most prestigious universities in the world), was almost too much to bear.
But could anything good come from all this distress? At a different time in my life, I would have written something clever about how economic turmoil allows innovation to emerge.
Like the way M-Pesa’s success may be partly because after the pervasive joblessness of the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a whole group of people who were willing to do the dreary work of being M-Pesa agents.
Much of the talk around M-Pesa has been why it worked so well in Kenya, and not so well in other places, and various reasons have been advanced – Kenya had a huge unbanked population, a lenient regulator, and a culture of sending money to relatives and friends.
But on the agent network, Safaricom had envisaged that agents would bolt on to already-existing businesses, like pharmacies, kiosks and convenience stores, which would then just do the M-Pesa transactions in a corner somewhere, the company’s corporate communications head told me in a past interview.
But the rapid rollout of the agent network was possible because of the very high informality in the Kenyan economy. In fact, the company was surprised at how there was a whole cohort of people willing to be M-Pesa agents as a stand-alone job, basically self-employed, sitting in a small stall, with no salary, benefits, or retirement package, earning a small percentage of every transaction.
Today, I can only make that argument intellectually, and even so, not completely sincerely. I am much more sensitive to the suffering that we tend to gloss over when we neatly tuck such losses into grand narratives of progress – that it all ‘worked out’ in the end, look at M-Pesa!
As philosopher Walter Benjamin argued, narratives of progress render history coherent and harmonious by resolving the traumatic dimensions of history, incorporating them into affirmative accounts that underwrite the positions of those in power.
It means that memory is always in danger of becoming a tool of the ruling classes, a situation that “threatens to murder the dead twice, to erase and eliminate the dissonant quality of past suffering, injustice, struggle and loss.”
Mine is a melancholic hope today, a “hope draped in black” in the words of writer Joseph Winters. It is the kind of hope that refuses to peddle in fantasies of a coherent, harmonious world unscathed by painful events, conditions and memories, in the name of the gospel of innovation. Sometimes suffering produces innovation. But it always produces pain, and the cheerful silver linings obscure this.
This series is our attempt, in the words of author Ralph Ellison, “to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one’s aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain…in the hope that we might transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism.”
Like Winters, I see melancholy gesturing towards a better, more promising hope, which must entail contemplation, remembrance, and critical encounter with vulnerability, cruelty, and death, rather than endeavours to resolve or deflect them through reassuring images of progress.
It is a blues sensibility, “unhopeful but not hopeless”, offering no solutions, only a way of responding to, working through, and coping with painful incongruities.
Perhaps the next M-Pesa will come out of all this. Perhaps not. But we at The Elephant will be a witness to ndalo situation.
EARTH AND RUST: The decline of a Kenyan town
Once in late 1996, a neighbour’s clothes were stolen from the hanging line when she went to work, a theft that fascinated the neighborhood to no end. Who would do such a thing? Why – for heaven’s sake? Our version of burglary was the smell of despondency with a tinge of crude survival, pain and hunger pangs. By DARIUS OKOLLA
I grew up in Kitale. The story of the deterioration of my hometown in the 1990s mirrored the tumultuous decline of just about every factory-dependent town in the country; it was subtle, gradual, almost imperceptible, and forever disguised as the typical wear and tear of urban spaces – but it was more than that. It was thievery, corruption, and disenfranchisement, shoving it down the path of visible decline; a depreciative spectacle masked by rural docility and the often-accepted rural poverty.
First came the increasing cases of theft. These were often acts of burglary that surprised us in their desperation as much as they exasperated the victims by their sheer banality. We had an outhouse in our compound measuring about 8 feet by 11 feet, where we stored farm equipment, tree seedlings, charcoal sacks – pretty much everything that was bulky and intended for outdoor use. At first the break-ins at this outhouse were infrequent, then they happened about once every few months.
The stories from neighborhood increased. In nearly all the incidences there were no guns used, often no attacks, not even violent break-ins – just missing farm tools, stolen livestock, and pilfered homes when the owners had briefly travelled out of town. Once in late 1996, a neighbour’s clothes were stolen from the hanging line when she went to work, a theft that fascinated the neighborhood to no end. Who would do such a thing? Why – for heaven’s sake? Then there were the stories of food stolen alongside a burning charcoal jiko as someone cooked outside the house, a story told with awkward hilarity.
John Kirimaiti, Wanugu, Wacucu and the elite cadre of fascinating gun-toting gangsters were the stuff of distant cities told with near-legend flair that we knew we’d never have to worry about. Our version of burglary was the smell of despondency with a tinge of crude survival, pain and hunger pangs, which drove able-bodied humans to steal anything they deemed to be of market value.
When we first moved to Kitale in the early 1990s we lived at Section Five, a row of patterned townhouses with hedged compounds of cypress, flowers, worldliness and tranquility. Nearby was Matano, consisting of dozens of two storied homes with large balconies, cream walls and wooden doors named in alphabetical order. Bondeni, where we would go ride the swings at the children’s playground, was not far either.
My folks were somewhat too extraverted for the austere life of hedged picket fences in that neighborhood, so we moved to Section 21, a well tarmacked, more concrete-y neighborhood lying to the west of the town. The streetlights worked, the town matatus ran the transit service with an efficiency that we, for the longest time, took for granted. We moved again just when private landowners started buying property in Section 21 and setting up unplanned developments.
As Section 21 began to sprawl, it is perhaps not a coincidence that the locals transliterated its name to Tuwani (two-one-i), betraying its deterioration, imbuing it with a villagized name, vibe and life.
Our next neighborhood, Mitume, for the better part of the 1990s was a large piece of land with few houses and lot of grassy fields. Mitume (Kiswahili for apostles) a name likely derived from Christ The King Catholic church parish nearby, was far different from the organized suburb life of Section 21, though it offered a stronger sense of community. Mitume wasn’t spared either as slowly, random developments popped up on what was once sprawling grassy fields.
Chipped paint, dirt, and dilapidation slowly ravaged the children play area at the swings at Bondeni estate that we had left behind. The swings grew rusty, then bare-boned and dangerous for kids to play on. Then they got vandalized and whatever remained of them was run into the ground by neglect, swallowed by the earth and rust. Beside it, where dusty paths met collapsing hedges, garbage strewed onto the road from what were once neat, well-ordered homes.
I attended a public school and so did most of our neighbors, and most of our parents were either in the informal sector or worked as civil servants. It’s still intriguing how the elders seemed so unaware of just how vulnerable they were to downward mobility given their faithfulness in following every single news item on the radio. How come they didn’t see what was coming?
Baba Silas, my friend’s dad worked the Kenya Cooperative Creameries (KCC) and so did most of my friend’s dads who worked in various parastatals, like Baba Wycliffe, Baba Jaredi and on and on. Somehow our parents’ names were hallowed, so they were just ‘Baba nani’ and ‘Mama nani’. Baba Silas – I never got to know his name – carried himself with an air of officiousness, always in a leather jacket, with a slow walk; his neck seemed stiff as he walked, with a slight swagger and a polythene bag at hand. He always carried a polythene bag, I’m not sure why.
He’d lose his job during retrenchment as the parastatals got downsized and then collapsed in the mid-1990s. But I didn’t see him for a while, as we moved from Mitume estate to Lessos, where our parents had bought some land. Lessos estate is named after the Lessos farm in Eldoret, given that the Kalenjin owners who gave the place its name had moved to Kitale from Eldoret.
Set on a ridge overlooking a forest, you could always see the factories in Section 6 and Section 19 on the opposite ridge about four kilometres away, across from Lessos forest in the valley below.
From Lessos, the few remaining factories including a leather tanning factory, Kenya Seed, Western Seed and a dozen other factories let out a low dull hum that on a quiet afternoon reached all the way to our home. Slowly by slowly, the hum grew fainter as the firms collapsed until the sound was no more. But quickly, the silence as it was quickly replaced by the cacophony of human activity, especially a construction boom that hit the estate in the 2000s. The town’s population was rising, properties were becoming smaller and more sub-divided, and unplanned developments were everywhere.
As the hum of factories faded to whimpers, informal businesses in the neighborhoods rose sharply as retrenched workers desperately tried their hands in business, trying to secure an income for their families. Most of them collapsed within months or a few years after inception.
The 1997 elections carried with it a strange sense of camaraderie and hope in the town, partly because multi-party politics had expanded the democratic space and increased a sense of political freedom. Men (and they were mostly men) stood atop old Peugeots and Mazdas, flashing two-finger salutes and yelling in the air, drowning the silent scream of a town choking under the stranglehold of Structural Adjustment Programs.
In 1998 my mum sent me to call over a relative who lived about 40 kilometers away for a job opportunity at a local company – this was before cellphones were a thing. I must have been 10 years old. This relative had already unsuccessfully applied for the job dozens of times. I arrived late in the evening as he worked on his shamba, weeding his sukuma wiki and cassava.
‘‘Hii kazi bwana nimeapply, fare nimetumia mingi na mimi nimechoka, wacha tu nilime.’ (I’ve applied for this job many times and used so much fare; I’m tired, let me just farm). I was taken aback by the vulnerability on display, his frustration breaking through into an involuntary rant to a 10-year-old.
This time though, he got the three-month gig, which still only paid peanuts and barely provided him with meaningful cash. He’d leave for Kisumu afterwards, then Eldoret, then Nairobi and back to Kitale then Eldoret again.
I would run into Baba Silas in the late 1990s, a few years after he’d been fired from KCC. He looked haggard, tired, his trouser torn at the knees. He was working at a brick-making factory, and I ran into him taking a break under a makeshift grass thatched shade, eating the mjengo githeri at lunch time. His sagged chin reflected dignity under assault, he looked shaken to see me, and a bit sad.
Then came the early 2000s and the town broke into a palpable air of difficult-to-justify yet hard-to-dismiss optimism. When Narc luminaries came to Kitale stadium for what would be their only visit to the town before the 2002 elections, I sneaked from home to go watch the revolution happen. I was 13 years old.
“Hii movement bwana! It will last for at least 30 years,” my relative would tell me matter-of-factly after the momentous event. His life certainly changed. He landed a better paying gig, then got married. His wedding, albeit later in life than was expected, reflected his changing fortunes, much more than anything. We often take for granted how the frequency of social functions such as weddings, birthday parties, cookouts, and get-togethers reflect a rising society.
He’d secure better fortunes across the country, marry, settle down, buy a plot of land, build his home and essentially hit all the markers of adulthood that had eluded him for most of his life, all in a span of eight years in the 2000s.
Unfortunately for Kitale, the town never got to deftly negotiate with the colonial state in ways that could secure it enough resources to help it fully recover. It didn’t help that the town’s patriarch, Kijana Wamalwa, would pass away a few months into the Narc wave.
Still Kitale continued to grow, the population growing exponentially in the 2000s. During the 2007 post-election violence, given its cosmopolitan makeup, Kitale provided a somewhat safe harbor for those kicked out of their homes in the outlying regions. The population soared but the infrastructure and the vitality of its urban life didn’t. I see all that every time I go home.
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