My grandparents on both sides of the family were early converts to the Yearly Meeting of Friends, also known as Quakers. You could say the Bible, school, tea and sugar were all tied to an idea of what it looked like to prosper in modern Kenya. Part of what showed that you were prospering was: tea and bread for breakfast, tea and bread at 4 o’clock, and tea at night for the adults sometimes, and also for the watchman. My mother had died soon after I was born. Yet my father, a single parent, was providing these things for his four children. He was prospering. And tea was at the centre of prosperity, as were visitors. I was taught that you must offer tea to guests. This is how you make them feel welcome. This is how you put meaning into the words ‘feel at home’.
I learnt to make tea from watching our house help. We had a specific tea sufuria, from which she knew, just by looking at it, what level the water had to be. The water had to be warm before the tea leaves were added, and boiling when the milk was added. I was the last born, and so would act as the watcher of the tea sufuria, the one tasked to stand by the cooker and watch the tea rise and rise and then call for an older sibling or adult to come and switch off the cooker. I was taught that you couldn’t let the tea rise in the sufuria just once. You had to turn down the heat and then turn it up again, blow on the rising tea, and then stir it with the plastic sieve before finally turning off the cooker and pouring the tea into the blue enamel birika. There was some instruction about being careful not to stir the tea too much.
We always had our tea with bread, often spread with butter, jam or marmalade. Sometimes we’d have bananas instead, like the Kamau family in my English textbooks. Other times we’d have boiled maize, boiled sweet potatoes, boiled nduma or makhayo (maize and beans) instead, but this would happen when we had come from Kakamega or a visitor had brought something from Kakamega, home, as my father called it.
It was always two teaspoons of sugar per cup of tea.
My father had worked at the same organization, a subsidiary of a multinational company, since before I was born. Aside from providing a salary that allowed us to live as we did, the job ensured that we had calendars, t-shirts and even tablecloths that carried the company’s brand. In this way, his working in that place was a part of my identity. However, in 1988 my father had a dispute with his employer that resulted in him being forced to resign. He had just remarried, and so losing his job made for a rocky start to a new marriage.
In 1988, the exchange rate was 17 shillings to the US dollar. This mattered because the income he lost was based on this exchange rate. More on this later.
In the wake of my father’s unemployment, his new marriage quickly broke down, and then he decided to sue his former employer. The turbulence meant that we moved a lot – 1989 felt like a strange nightmare. But by 1990, things had begun to settle down. My father, single again, had secured a new job, my sister and I had moved to a private primary school while my brothers attended good high schools. It seemed to be going back to normal except for the lingering court case that my father was confident he would win. From here onwards, the 4 o’clock tea was less likely to have accompaniments but it was mostly still available.
But this was the time that the Thermos flask began to be more of an everyday-use item. When we were younger, The Thermos was an item reserved for visitors. It was carried out on a tray along with newest mugs and the visitors’ sugar bowl. But gradually, we started using it everyday. The Thermos was a genius hack because it meant not having to look for fresh milk every afternoon, and not having to light the cooker, saving on gas. But it also meant that the 4 o’clock tea was the tea that had stayed in the Thermos since morning.
My father met someone else, and remarried again. We moved to a house that was much closer to my school. This came in handy on days when there was no fuel or car to take my sister and I to school. But then, the job troubles returned – it turned out that his previous employer was the client of his new employer and so this new job ended sooner than expected.
In my school diary, where it said ‘Father’s occupation’, I wrote ‘businessman’. A code.
10 o’clock tea break
In my first primary school, a government school, tea had been served with bread every break time. Here, in the private school, we were required to carry our own snacks –whatever your preferred to eat and drink. It was understood that this had to be junk food – crisps, chevda, biscuits, chooze and diluted juice. You could carry bread and tea but also it was the sort of snack you didn’t feel proud to remove from your bag. At some point, I could no longer keep up with these requirements. Sometimes I had juice only, other times bread only. Other times nothing. I carried boiled eggs to school but was too embarrassed to eat them so I carried them back home and ate them in my bedroom after school.
But there were always some of us who didn’t carry break. The ones who spent the entire 20-minute break intently focused on play or with faces hidden behind books. I may have at times made an unnecessary announcement about not feeling like eating. I doubt anyone cared really, and if they did they never made a big deal of it. My school fees kept rising, and my parents were the loudest ones in the PTA meetings, complaining. Eventually I moved back to a government school to complete Standard 7 and 8. Here, at least, we were more than a few people who didn’t carry anything for break. At least some of the my anxieties about break-time-hunger resolved.
Around us there were sugar shortages, and the absurdity of only being able to find sugar cubes, which couldn’t be rationed quite as easily. And there were times we switched to direct-from-the-farm milk suppliers because this milk was thicker and could stretch much more.
In 1992 all of my siblings and I were in our teens. I was the only one not yet in high school. Every beginning of term my siblings would undergo an extreme scrutinising of school shopping lists. Do you really need 5 bars of soap? Didn’t I buy you a shoe brush last term? Are you sure toothpaste costs that much? That kind of thing.
The tea and bread were never enough when they returned home for the holidays. The price of milk had leapt from 2 shillings to 3.50 shillings and it kept increasing. The price of bread had leapt from 4.75 to 6 shillings and then the government officially reduced the loaf size from 500 grams to 400 grams. This created all kinds of tension in the house. I learned to wake up extra early so that I could get the good bread slices – the crust, or the accidentally thick slices. At times we had to manage things by working out a roster of some kind, predetermining how many slices each person got and who got the extra slice if there was any. Sturungi (black tea) days instead of milk tea days became the norm. Jam was a Sunday breakfast delicacy or a thing that was offered to guests only and then it was disappeared for good. There was always the awkward moment when we had been told that there was no more margarine, or sugar, but a visitor arrived and these things appeared out of unseen stores. These were the times I hoped that the visitors would decline the extra slice of bread, already bluebanded and jammed because later it might be mine.
The visitors who saved us are the ones who showed up with milk, tea leaves, bread and margarine. For them and for ourselves we staged a dicey performance, pretending that we already had the sugar, the tea leaves and the milk we needed for making their tea. We were meticulous in arranging the tea cups on trays and providing them water to wash their hands. We might have even faked running to the kiosk for the extra ingredients that we didn’t actually have the money to purchase.
Deep freezer tea
Around this time, we had switched from cooking with gas to cooking with the kerosene stove or charcoal cooker. It just made more sense. In the happy event that there was gas, then this was strictly reserved for reheating food and anything that cooks fast like tea. Especially tea for visitors.
We were growing, our appetites had increased, so it meant always having a lot of tea around. But the tea was still always prepared with that one 500 millilitre packet of milk from childhood, sometimes getting really translucent. But we always prepared a lot of it, and leftover tea was good – it was there to be sipped later to soothe our teenage hunger pangs, and could be served to unanticipated odd-hour visitors, or added to new tea for next time. At about this time that this strange innovation took hold at home. Deep freezer tea.
Until this disruption, leftover tea would sit in the kettle or the flask. If it went unconsumed until the end of the day, it was transferred into an old empty Kimbo tub or any other plastic container and stored in the fridge. In this new order, we learnt that tea in the freezer did not give off that stayed-in-the-flask or recycled tea whiff. It was important, as such, that once breakfast was done, that it was quickly removed from the flask and let to cool off before being stored in the freezer. We’d always been having the old leftover tea mixed with new tea. Now, especially in the afternoons, the kitchen counter constantly had defrosting blocks of tea. There was the regular panic of having forgotten to take the tea out of the freezer. At times it was the unappealing blandness of two separate batches of defrosted tea combined. If you mixed the not-yet-defrosted frozen tea with the fresh tea on the stove you ran the risk of burning the tea. Burnt tea is terrible. The freezer can’t save it. Nothing can. Of course, our visitors always got tea made with fresh milk. Of course there were times I got reprimanded for mixing in old tea, or burning tea that was intended for visitors.
Rituals of visiting
When I was about 12 years old, I accompanied the adults in my life on a visit to a friends’ house. We’d travelled to this house with a girl, my age mate, and her mother. At this house, we’d sat on the sofas and waited to be served. We stared at the wall that had photos and pictures of the host family. The host brought out the jug with warm water, the basin and a hand towel. We washed our hands in turns and watched quietly as the tray of cups, sugar and the kettle was brought out. Our host then went around asking us what we would like to have. How many teaspoons of sugar? When it got to my age mate’s turn, she said she didn’t drink tea. She asked if she could have cocoa instead. The rest of us were all tea and two teaspoons of sugar takers. The host returned to the kitchen to seek out the girl’s preference and then returned to report that there was no cocoa. She asked the girl if she could take soda instead. The girl’s mother, somewhat angry, said that her daughter was just pretending. She insisted that cold water was all the girl needed. The host suggested that they could buy soda but the girl’s mother was firm. No need to spoil her. While we sipped our teas with buttered (not margarined) bread, the girl ate her bread with water. This scene stayed with me for years. I could never understand why her mother had to be so harsh. Now I look back and think how maybe these adults knew something about what this serving visitors’ good tea was costing our host.
Tea as consolation
Throughout the 90s my father never again secured full time (permanent) employment. It helped that my stepmother had a stable job that provided housing. It made it possible to stay in Nairobi even after we had lost the house he’d once owned. My father tried all sorts of ways to stay afloat. He was a taxi driver; an air travel agent, whose office also offered photocopying, printing services and telephone services; he ventured into politics; became a management consultant; and a computer instructor. Sometimes home entertainment was a practice round for a presentation on a slide projector, or watching training videos such as The Unorganized Manager. Sometimes, I’d come home from school and find him playing his old records – Franco, Tabu Ley and taking tea. Some days he’d be excited about the political events, the rise of multiparty democracy, or about whatever was showing on our very unclear CNN broadcast on our illegal connection of KTN. The court case that we’d thought was ending soon, was still going on and some days he was in a bad mood, playing dirge-like nostalgic music as he talked about the court proceedings.
There was the first time we had sturungi and rice for supper. There were not enough money to buy cooking oil and sukuma wiki. There was only rice and ugali flour in the kitchen cupboards. Rice was the better option.
When my father eventually moved out of Nairobi, my siblings and I remained because school was in Nairobi. I was in Standard 8 when I moved in with relatives. It was a bit of a shock to notice that they didn’t ration sugar as we had. At home we’d adapted to having sugar mixed in the tea while it was still in the sufuria, or going without sugar at all. At my relative’s house, we had tea and bread and it felt so weird to carry break to school again. A different universe.
Of breaking habits
I had missed the first day of high school because of a delay in getting money to sort my school fees and shopping. I had missed the class orientation session. At the 10 am break time, on my first day in high school, I went looking for my Form 2 roommate to ask her where the tea was served. She laughed and explained that in the school, break time was not for tea unless you had a doctor’s note. Those students who had notes from their doctors went to the dining hall and drank from their packets of UHT milk and their Marie biscuits. The rest of us, normal students, just studied or basked in the sun until break time was over.
In December 1997, my sister and I met my father in town, with our packed bags, as we were going to travel to Kakamega after court. I had just completed Form 3. Until then I’d always seen these losses and cutbacks that had happened to my family as an isolated situation. That morning though, we met my father along with former colleagues and friends who were there to accompany my father to court. They were all dressed in suits that had been bought around the same time, a while back. Faded. They had this look of trying to appear okay when it was evident that things had gone awry for all of them. They were jovial enjoying their tea at Trattoria restaurant, a short distance away from the high court. As if drinking tea in such a place was their normal routine. As if it was the kind of place they had always belonged. And yet it wasn’t. We were all smelling victory. I imagined that my father would come out of court and we’d be able to afford anything. However, that afternoon, the judgment was postponed. And it was postponed many times over until 2003 when it felt more like a release than a victory.
This part, my father tells me over a cup of tea: He sought audience with Chief Justice Cocker, Chief Justice Chesoni, and Chief Justice Chunga. He was always being told, write a letter. He wrote letters. He eventually got his judgment in 2003, but the victory was partial. His compensation was handed over at the USD/KSh exchange rate of 1988 rather than 2003. Still, it was something.
Tea as reparation
I keep trying to create a tea recipe that will be mine. It started when I bought a batch of chai masala that was just tasteless. I then purchased the unprocessed ingredients separately – dried cloves, cinnamon sticks, cardamom seeds, black pepper, fresh ginger. I’m trying to determine what the perfect proportion is. Some of it comes from that place of not wanting to experience the wateriness of tea, the burntness of tea, and the memory of scarcity it evokes. It comes also from wanting an elaborate reason to justify standing so close to the cooker to just watch the tea.
I’m lactose intolerant but have refused to accept it. I take milk often and then regret it. I go off milk and then get back again. I feel a little anxious when the milk runs out at the wrong time of the week. When the Finance Bill 2018 was passed I went and stocked up on milk because I’d like to believe that when I stop taking milk tea (if I ever do), that it will not be because I cannot afford it.
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Of Chapati, Identity and Migrant Politics in Europe
The common narrative is that imperialism, colonialism and Western staples have influenced the non-Western world. But the Global South too is impacting the West, one plate at a time.
In the mid-90s, my mother paid a visit to an aunt who had emigrated to Scandinavia and settled in Stockholm, Sweden, for over two decades. Of the many memories she held on to from that trip abroad, her most notable was the culture shock she suffered at a lunch that my aunt’s neighbour had hosted in honour of the guest from Africa.
Swedish staples were laid out: cinnamon buns, pancakes, pea soup, mashed potatoes, pickled cucumbers, cheese and lots of bread. After sampling foods that did not appeal to her palate, my mother turned to my aunt and whispered in Dholuo, a touch of concern in her voice, “Gikelo chiemo saa adi?” What time are they bringing out the food?
We are what we eat and food is a social identifier; being thousands of kilometres from home, my mother was simply looking for the familiar in a foreign place. The food choices that one makes are a significant indicator of one’s cultural identity in a foreign country. When significant numbers of Kenyans started seeking economic and educational opportunities in the West in the early 80s and 90s, the essential items that they would request to receive from home were largely food items.
Some of the most popular choices were maize flour, chapatis, Farmer’s Choice sausages, local flavours such as the Royco brand of food seasoning and indigenous green vegetables. Things have of course drastically changed. Foods from Asian, Mediterranean and African cultures that were once considered exotic are now readily available in the supermarkets of many European capitals.
Nothing says home like the taste of food. In fact, finding authentic African food becomes a way of finding one’s grounding and establishing social solidarity. When I moved from Kenya to a Dutch suburb just outside Amsterdam, one of the first things I went out in search of was our food.
Family members would call from home and ask with great concern whether I was able to find food. On one occasion, I turned on the video on my cell phone to show them the boiled corn I was chomping on that I had bought in an African market in Amsterdam; they were duly reassured.
The villager in Europe
My first Kenyan contacts in the Netherlands spent a great deal of time pointing out to me where in Amsterdam I could get “our food”. I was shown the Kenyan-owned restaurant where I could get a taste of home. I discovered the Biljmermeer neighbourhood in Zuidoost, the South-East of Amsterdam, known for its African presence drawn from Suriname, the former Dutch colony in South America, and the significant constituency of West African immigrants.
I was pointed to the Moroccan neighbourhoods in Nieuw-West for authentic shawarma, and for rotis and chapatis, to the Asian supermarkets dotting the Amstelveen suburbs that cater to a growing South-Asian expatriate community.
As a conscious pan-Africanist raising young children in a European capital, my food choices have become something of a political statement. I am reminded of assassinated Burkinabé revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara’s enduring statement:
“Where is imperialism? Look at your plates when you eat. These imported grains of rice, corn and millet — that is imperialism’’.
The common narrative is how, largely through imperialism, colonialism and the now dominant neo-liberal agricultural policies, and Western staples, particularly wheat, have influenced the non-Western world. What is not talked about enough is how the Global South is impacting the West, one plate at a time.
In a sense, Europe’s multicultural dynamics are best illustrated by the food on your plate. Besides the politics of identity that has set me off in search of flavourful sweet potatoes, cassava, indigenous vegetables, plantains and tilapia in pop-up African markets in Amsterdam, food has also become a big pointer of my multicultural influences. As an East African, my food choices are heavily influenced by South Asian and Middle-Eastern cuisines.
I remember the first Asian supermarket I spotted in the upmarket Amstelveen suburb of Amsterdam. When I walked in, I struck an immediate rapport with the storekeeper, establishing his country of origin, greeting him in Hindi and asking about the varieties of dhaal, dengu, beans, basmati rice, spices and, of course, chapati available. When I crossed over to a Middle-Eastern grocery store, I switched to an Arabic salutation to express the joy of finding familiar foods. An Ethiopian woman I met at a pop-up market remarked about Kenyan love of Indian food and my response turned into a historical lesson on the centuries of exchange between the East Coast of Africa and the Indian sub-continent via the Indian Ocean.
While African food is still limited to African hubs, with the occasional sighting of an Ethiopian or Eritrean restaurant, Asian-inspired cuisine is widespread. I can find chapatis in many places in Amsterdam and this points to how the humble chapati and pishori or basmati rice are perhaps the herald of the Asian century. Every European city now has a sampling of Asian fine dining restaurants, from Japanese, to Chinese, Indian, Korean, Indonesian and Thai cuisine.
Chapo lives matter
It is almost impossible to talk about culinary influences without encountering imperialism and resistance and the chapati movement serves as a great illustration of culinary globalisation. I have been thinking about the rapid rise of the chapati and the socio-political history of this popular South-Asian flat bread.
About a century ago, way before the arrival of British imperialism in Kenya, a curious incident occurred in India in 1857. Mark Thornhill, a British magistrate serving in the town of Muttra, now Mathura, discovered after some investigations that chapatis were travelling up to 300 kilometres across India. This bizarre distribution of chapatis set off the panic buttons in the British ranks.
The rapid movement of chapatis from hand to hand, village to village had all the markings of a conspiracy and a rebellion. Police runners would bake and hand over the chapatis to their colleagues who in turn would keep the chain going. The chapatis were unmarked and those who accepted the offering would make more batches and pass them along, sometimes moving them up to 300 kilometres in one night.
The chapati moved from village to village with the sort of efficiency that would today be described as viral. It did not help matters that the police were the conduits of this underground chapati railroad and a deep sense of unease spread across the British ranks. A revolt did eventually break out later that year and the movement of chapati was seen as part of the campaign of mobilisation.
While a century ago the chapati served as a symbol of agitation, and was the inspiration for a mutiny against British occupation, in the East African colony where the South-Asian labourers brought in to construct a railway from Mombasa in Kenya to Uganda had stayed on and built an influential minority community, the chapati would a century later emerge as a social leveller in Kenya.
In my formative years in the 70s and 80s, chapati was an exotic dish and a status food. Maize, the Kenyan staple, had been demoted to common fare and those wives who demonstrated the ability to make chapatis improved their social standing. Chapatis were a delicacy, only served during important feasts like Christmas and at highbrow weddings. In Nairobi today, the chapati is about the easiest food to find and consistent in its production across the board.
From the highbrow restaurants to the simple street food stalls, the chapati is the one common denominator. In a cash-strapped economy, chapati flour offers more value for money because of its versatility. It is easy to store, transport and can be consumed with a variety of accompaniments or on its own. Ugali, the dominant by-product of maize flour, lacks that kind of culinary diversity. Chapati is adaptable where ugali is not.
The great corn game
From the 1880s to the dawn of independence in the 60s, maize was the status food introduced by the British as a cheap food source for African farm labourers. With urbanisation and the introduction of wage labour and, later, mechanised mills, maize overtook millet and sorghum as the preferred food of the emerging elite who found it finer and more aspirational. It was considered sweeter, and it also doubled up as a cash crop.
In my home county of Siaya, celebrated historian E.S. Atieno Odhiambo argues in his book Siaya: The Historical Anthropology of an African landscape, that the introduction of maize into the texture of Siaya life was a mode of westernisation. Maize meal was known as kuon ongere, the white man’s ugali, eaten by those who had acquired a Western education. In the last 20 years or so, the chapati movement has grown. Presently, it is Kenya’s preferred fast food, more readily available than fried potato chips, and it has overtaken bread as a breakfast staple.
Chapati is made with wheat flour, and if we follow the logic of Yuval Noah Harari’s persuasive argument, in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, that the wheat plant manipulated and domesticated Homo Sapiens to its advantage to become the global staple leading to the westernisation of our diet, we could say that Asia is manipulating the global palate. South-East Asian nations are now the world’s largest wheat-importing regions and consequently we are witnessing an Asianisation of our diets, the most telling sign yet that the future is Asian.
The story of the chapati’s movement across Africa and Europe is also the story of the power of multiculturalism and how the Asian and African diasporas use food to assert their identities and influence the foreign cultures they integrate into. The Japanese took sushi global. Chinese takeaway is a popular cultural marker of the North American fast food culture.
What we cook and eat is more than symbolism. My desire to preserve my culture is manifested through my food choices and culinary practices and this is a trait common to all migrants who find themselves negotiating minority positions in dominant cultures.
Asia and Europe have a long history of trade and the modern Silk Road continues to assert its influence on European culture. The largest supermarket chain in the Netherlands, Albert Heijn, sells a range of products aimed at marking Ramadhan in a country where a far right populist figure and leader of the third largest political party, PVV, Geert Wilders is infamous for his anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant sentiments.
These new flavours from Asia and now Africa challenge dominant narratives in subtle ways. From the street corners of the colonies, they are now to be found on the high streets of Europe. Asia’s population and material prosperity has gained traction in Europe and its cuisine is no longer the stereotypical cheap fast food but is now part of an expanding repertoire of fine dining.
Europe as a globalized pantry
The influx of African foods in the Netherlands, for example, is directly linked to its growing African diaspora. It greatly surprises my mother, living in Kenya and worried that I may be subsisting on bread, ham and cheese, that I eat pretty much the same food I would eat in Kenya.
It might be logistically harder to source coarse maize flour than it is to find chapatis but I no longer have to have a contact in the airlines in order to get a taste of home abroad. The proliferation of other foods in Europe shows the varied pathways of culinary globalisation and the inevitability of change brought about by migration.
In some pockets of Europe, the growing influence of minority food cultures has become a political issue. In 2016, Denmark’s Ministry of Cultural Affairs carried out a poll seeking to identify core Danish values. One revealing pointer from this survey was the prominence of eating consumption in the responses, elevated as a symbol of Danish identity and interpreted as part of a culture war and a stance over migration.
In the Netherlands, the influence of the former Dutch colonies — notably Indonesia and Suriname — on the national cuisine is well established. Nasi Goreng, a rice-based meal introduced by Indo-Dutch people, fries with satay or peanut sauce, Suriname sandwiches locally known as Surinaamse broodjes, now count as national dishes.
Spices from the Dutch East Indies penetrated local cuisines and the Dutch embraced these new flavours from abroad in much the same way that the British love curry and favourite English food choices are South-Asian in character.
With the changing food supply chains in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the questions of food politics and identity are emerging more prominently. There is a growing sentiment of European food nationalism, where eating local is associated with patriotism. European consumers, particularly those from the South, are increasingly interested in where their food comes from in order to support local farmers and preserve their cultures from foreign influences.
Since food is a cultural identifier, Europe’s politics of identity and belonging is bound to continue playing out on your dinner table. The revolution you might be looking for might just start on your plate.
Reflections on Tyranny and Terror in Kenya Then and Now
How do we channel our emotions when the tyrant is this amorphous cold gel of capitalist corporations and totalitarian organisations?
I am over half a century old now, bald, aching in new places everyday, with more and more of my peers signalling the quickening approach of our generation to our graves by their affliction with new health problems every passing day.
Growing up in the Moi era in Kenya, one just grew up. No one I knew had any sense of teleology ; most of us just tried to survive, others endeavoured to prosper if they could.
This is the outcome for a society whose entire existence is premised on kowtowing to the desires of one man. All thought, speech and action — outside of those actions undertaken in the pursuit of fulfilling organic needs — were measured against the risk of offending Moi.
This obviously had the effect of stunting individual and collective thought.
Stunting collective thought regresses a society into superstition and imbecilic reasoning. For those who can remember that era, any tragic motor accident with massive casualties was always explained as some form of “occultic sacrifice”. Such tragic accidents had to be the consequence of some “unseen forces”. Institutional incompetence was never even remotely considered. Who’d have dared blame the Big Man’s government? Moi was “No.1 in everything”: agriculture, engineering, education… there were songs and poems praising the greatness of his genius, culminating in the highpoint of then Education Minister Peter Oloo Aringo’s declaration that Moi was “The Prince of Peace” himself! And this of course served “the Big Man” well. Being bankrupt of thought and vision, “the Big Man” could not tolerate the slightest criticism.
In such an environment, fear is not just an indispensable tool; it is the only tool by which a tyrant can maintain his rule. From the oldest and most infamous tyrant, Firaun (Pharaoh) of polytheistic Egypt, to the land of the brutal Count Drakula, atheistic Romania under Ceausescu in the 80s, belief in sorcery, witchcraft and magic becomes the refrain of the collective mind when dominated by irrational fear. Even elites do not escape it; Elena Ceausescu, the tyrannical wife of Nicolae Ceausescu, was said to retain a personal witch, in spite of the atheism of the state they ruled.
Rule is either by consent or coercion, there is no other method. Consent is acquired by mass adoption of an overpowering vision that encapsulates certain ideas and values. Coercion needs no explanation. Therefore, in a political medium devoid of ideological proselytisation, police are the primary tool of rule.
This creates an environment of paranoia with a vicious feedback loop. Thoughts driven by irrational fear, lead to irrational action. Irrational action heightens paranoia, both in the masses and in the ruling class, which leads to further irrational action by the ruling class, on and on without end until there is a revolution or a coup. Both of which start the process all over again if the elites fail to anchor the society in a rational doctrine with a consistent and transparent system of governance.
This was Moi’s world.
Like any tyranny, everyone was suspicious and relatively fearful of everyone in a political sense, even colleagues and friends. Everyone fears everything in such an environment; even “walls have ears“, an aphorism turned adage.
The police love such a world.
They preyed on us everywhere, no public space was safe, no private space was sacrosanct.
They could strip you naked if they wanted, they would riffle through your pockets like robbers if you claimed you had no money, they would fondle women and even rape them in police cells with absolute impunity. They were hyenas in a sheep enclosure.
A close elder with whom I discuss the politics of the day, one day revealed he was a veteran of the infamous Nyati House torture chambers when, to our consternation, in the middle of the conversation, cracking us up with dark humour, he suddenly started stating bizarre and irrelevant facts, “Mama yangu anaitwa Rebecca Anyango (my mother is called Rebecca Anyango)”, “Alisoma shule inaitwa Busonga Primary (she went to Busonga Primary School)”. He explained that after several rounds of torture one would start answering questions without waiting to be asked. The security agents no longer needed to speak to you, you would volunteer anything and everything you knew, unprompted.
What had been my elder’s crime?
He had denounced Moi while having a drink in a bar, unaware that the next table was occupied by state security agents. To date, he looks around suspiciously before airing his opinion and uses a whispering tone even in private conversation.
This was Moi’s world.
While the fear in the mind of the ruler is largely paranoia born of his own certainty in his illegitimacy, the fear in the mind of the masses is legitimate.
Today I feel the same fear I sensed in my parents.
The difference is that today it is global, it is pervasive and it is not fear of a man; it is the fear of expressing a thought.
For everyone, it started as fear of expressing the idea of political pluralism born of the Cold War. Then the War on Terror was declared, and for Muslims it became fear of expressing the idea of Islamic law, then Islamic Jihad and now Islamic caliphate.
Now, every society has, for want of a better term, it’s “domain of discourse”. In the formal sciences “domain of discourse” is the set of entities over which certain variables of interest in some formal treatment “are allowed to range”. So for instance, in some tribe of valiant horsemen “T”, if the set of entities allowed for dowry are horses “H”, the suitor can include any type of horse in payment of said dowry but cannot present a mule or a car. It is not a question of means of “transport”. Certain “formal rules” determine “the allowed range”.
An alternative definition of “domain of discourse” is a class of objects considered within a given context. Any proposition outside is considered false. If a society believes their queen is a deity, then the proposition that she will one day die isn’t just heresy; it is — in the words of former Attorney General of Kenya Charles Njonjo — “treason”, given the political context. This of course assumes that the definition of god includes immortality as an attribute of god. There can be no social order without an agreed “domain of discourse”. This “domain of discourse” is unfashionably termed as “the officially-sanctioned religion” of the state. This is the nature of society.
The problem in a tyranny is that the “domain of discourse” is calibrated by the whims of the tyrant. Given his paranoia, the boundaries and nature of the domain of discourse keep being shifted by whatever demon or bogeyman plagues his dreams at night or his mind in the present. This has the effect of crippling social functioning and stagnating society.
This is why all absolute tyrannies not only do not progress, but regress into superstition.
Today we have no visible absolute tyrant but we live in the same fear.
The police prey, assault, extort, rob and kill with the same impunity they did under the tyranny of Moi.
The economy is in the same decline, public pilferage has compounded and we have returned to the same sense of hopelessness and fear we experienced during the Moi «error».
We are suffering the same psychological, physiological, economic and political dysfunction.
But who is our tyrant now?
Who are we to blame?
Whose effigy are we to burn?
Now I realise, whether rightly or wrongly, that there was value in knowing the tyrant, in having all our problems represented by one man. We could channel our thoughts and our emotions, or more specifically our curses and our hatred. This not only had a placebo effect, but it also gave us hope that we could surmount our problem; since our problem was a clear, measurable, defined, finite object, it was therefore resolvable, it was a question of time. We could look forward to the tyrant’s death; that was something to hang on to.
So, this gives us a question, a starting point to frame the problem of our time — who is defining and shaping our dystopian reality? And the next logical question is: who shapes a society’s reality?
If the answer is The Sovereign, then our tyrannical sovereign can only be identified by the powers he exhibits.
Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century scholar who first most comprehensively defined the Sovereign in his magnum opus The Leviathan, first published April 1651, goes into great depth in describing the characteristics of the Sovereign, mainly in terms of his rights. But they can be largely grouped or reduced to four broad categories.
The first and most important, is the right to legislate. The Sovereign calibrates all social relationships through legislation. Second, he decides the religion of the commonwealth. This is intrinsically linked to education and culturing on everything from morality, what is right or wrong socially, to ethics, what is right or wrong individually. The third is the right to take life — to kill. This can be defined as the right to punish by death within and the right to declare war without. The fourth in place but no less significant than the rest, is the authority to levy tax – economics.
Applying this criteria, let us look at the most significant phenomena in our time in each of the described elements.
The most significant legislative initiative in the last two decades has been the passing of “terror-related” legislation around the world. It suspended the fundamental values of modern civilisation that have hitherto been taken as completely obvious, that is, Human Rights and even the Geneva Convention. It abrogated legal tenets that are the basis of modern civilisation, such as “The right to trial” and “Habeas Corpus”. It created a secret police force and a prison network around the world, introducing to modern vocabulary the terms “extraordinary rendition”, which is really just supranational kidnap and detention, and “waterboarding”, which is really drowning someone alive. These laws remain in place, and are often used against political dissenters.
Our lives have been defined by the “War on Terror”, the Iraq War, the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and a host of other countries since the assassination of American Imam Anwar Awlaki and Iranian General Qasem Soulemani in absolute contravention of the already torn illusion of international law.
Who is the sovereign capable of waging war unilaterally, kidnapping, detaining and/or killing citizens of disparate nations around the world without fear of consequences?
Our taxation is now directly linked to our level of debt. Our currency is pegged to the dollar. “Our” here is global humanity. Therefore the state of our economic welfare is in a long-winded way determined by the printer at the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Fort Worth Texas, United States of America. Well, at least materially.
Who is the sovereign who dictates our Tax regime through the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank?
Of late, the COVID-19 pandemic has served as the political cover for the largest rollback of political rights of assembly and suppression of political organising and activism. Under the guise of “Public Health” concerns, we have witnessed the most brutal and savage acts of police aggression on even the most innocent crowds; people struggling to get home.
Governments have expediently weaponised the pandemic globally. Even in Europe, where an entire generation has grown up completely unaware of the nature of police brutality, COVID-19 has revealed the imperialist underbelly of the modern Westphalian Nation-State. The brutality of the normally benign police of “civilised Western Europe” has stunned media elites.
Who is the Sovereign shaping COVID-19 policy so consistently across the globe?
It seems that globalisation did not only globalise markets; it globalised the tyranny of the capitalist police-state.
Our tyrant is a supranational system of totalitarian state-funded entities and organisations, unaccountable to anyone and only subservient to capitalist imperialism. Where does one protest against a World Bank loan that has been advanced and signed in the citizens’ name without their consent? How would one hold to account the opaque global Anti-Terror Police deathsquad infrastructure that was created via the terror-related legislation worldwide? How does anyone challenge the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 policy which is the basis for the current political suppression and police brutality around the world?
How do we even channel our emotions when the tyrant is this amorphous cold gel of capitalist corporations and totalitarian organisations? The psyche needs a tangible finite target to focus on, a crisp image; the humour may be macabre, but one misses the ol’ days, when we knew exactly who the bad guy was.
To the Brothers and for the Women in Our Lives
We were made husbands before we became men, and it might benefit us a great deal to restore the trust we once had in the guidance given to us by the women in our lives.
Since childhood, my great aunts, my grandmothers and the older women of my clan have referred to me fondly as their husband. “Nga uyu mundu wange,” here is my man, here is my husband, they would always remark in Maragoli whenever we met, never failing to claim this very unusual relationship to me with the biggest village smile on their faces. This, if you can imagine, was one of the few things that didn’t exactly excite my curiosity as a teenage boy. They were women in whom I had unquestioning trust, but what kind of humour! I could not understand where the grace of a woman that old had gone for her to say such a thing. Why? How? It was something too big for my brain to bother with at that time. Now that that boy is a few years older, the message is decoded from the different words of another group of Maragoli women in a closer space and time.
Highrise Estate Kibera is a special place to me. Apart from being my refuge during times when “the situation” seems unbearable in the adult world, where I retreat to the cradling love and care of my aunt and my cousins, it also happens to be a space where I get to experience the village from my interactions with Maragoli laundry ladies. There are a lot of Maragolis here, and most of them live on the other side of the wall in Soweto Kibera — where the real ghetto is. The lives of the people of Kibera, how they make a living, you will find very interesting.
In the early hours of the day, Mbagathi Way’s pedestrian paths might easily be mistaken for the venue of a serious racewalking event as Kibera residents — Nairobi’s labouring class — race past each other as they trek to Industrial Area. At around mid-morning, the journey becomes shorter for some, those opting to make stops midway as others turn back all the way. While it might seem like a foolish thing for them to do, it is a well-informed decision.
Some of those who woke up earlier are on their way back, they need not say anything about where they’re coming from. Neighbourhoods such as South C, Nairobi West, Madaraka Estate and finally Highrise Estate become their checkpoints; you never know, someone might need a parking lot swept, a house cleaned, some laundry done, some dishes fixed. No functioning human being wants to gamble with energy they lack the resources to replenish. So they change direction, reversing from an industrial vision to a domestic one.
Women are the majority among those changing direction, coming back home, not because their muscle mass will not allow them to finish the race early enough, but because it has made them unsuited for the roles industrial work provides for the labouring class.
So, what is the significance of the relationship between Highrise Estate Kibera, Soweto Kibera and this labouring class? Or, what is left of it in this story? It is more or less the same significance my great aunts, my grandmothers and the older women of my clan share with the laundry ladies of Highrise Estate K. in my life.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit us in early 2020, a lot of women in the employment class just above the labouring class started working from home; a good number of them were sent on compulsory leave without pay. With less cash at their disposal and more time to spend around the house, many of them had to let go their domestic workers. Were they to go back to the ghetto? In Highrise, at my aunt’s and the neighbouring blocks, these women sit outside their sources of employment.
A keen eye will easily lead you to the Maragoli laundry ladies’ base in the area. You will see them seated next to water jerrycans and buckets, stoically bearing the Nairobi heat as they wait for the few opportunities available to them. When the pandemic was at its peak in mid-last year, some of them would go for days without finding a single client, but still, they would not ask for anything from the people they knew. Rather, they hollered out at them like friends and would only insist on us promoting their side-hustles. One such woman is Maggie.
Maggie, a middle-aged woman with a son she recently disclosed to me was in medical school, would shout out to me, “Maragoli!”, caring nothing about whether I was a block away or just on the other side of the road. She would easily convince me and my cousins to buy a few of the avocados she was selling, it mattering not to her whether we had ready cash; we would pay when we had it.
From being her customers, our relationship with Maggie grew over the months to that of neighbours who have no problem commenting about how the other is looking today — not flattery, just raw, honest village banter brought to the city. Recently, Maggie made a personal comment about me; she said, “Sahizi mwili wako unaonekana vizuri, last year ulikuwa unaonekana na wasiwasi sana”, now your body appears alright, you had lots of worries last year. This was weeks after another powerful remark made on the first day of February 2021. Remarks that decoded the message in the words of the women who claim me as their husband back in the village.
“Genye’kana munyo’re zi’gasi mtange’ kuhinzira.” You are supposed to find jobs and start working, functioning, Maggie said to me and my older male cousin late that February afternoon. I had no idea what observations led her to utter such remarks, but they were delivered in a tone so light that we almost laughed. So detached was her position as she made them that it would have been really easy to miss the concern and interest she had for us. And it bugged me, more than the thought of being my grandmothers’ husband bugged me as a young boy. It did not help that both of us had quit our jobs a few months before the pandemic exploded to “focus on our art”. What humour! Why would she say that to me? Now this appealed to my sense of curiosity just as it confounded me. Was she simply asking us to find jobs so that we could in turn provide employment opportunities for her? Was she encouraging us to keep on looking for opportunities and not give up? Or was it a witty rebuke to Maragoli youth walking around the estate in the peak of the afternoon, pretending to be in the same position as her, lacking opportunity?
I remain unable to place these remarks. Nevertheless, if Maggie Maragoli sees me essentially as a Maragoli man then, truly, I am her husband. The women of my clan must have been teasing me with the responsibility that comes with being a man in the community. That as a Maragoli man you are answerable to more than one woman in your life; your functioning does not just benefit the woman you raise a family with, it is essential for the whole community’s prosperity. It might also be that we fit the image of the man Maggie would like the daughters of the community, her daughters, to have, and that she is playing her role in moulding these functional partners. Whatever the meaning of the remarks, they remain a response given in an attempt to show direction.
Only one message is clear.
A deep concern seems to be building up among a group of women from the ghetto. Not about themselves, not about their children, not about anyone really close to them. Just their husbands. A concern that manifests itself as a wound, an old wound, a very visible wound which regenerates into the painful thing it was many years ago when it was first inflicted by our fathers. We, their husbands, are that wound.
In the ghetto, Kibera at least, based on the selective principle industries apply in recruiting workers of the labouring class and the number of women in domestic work, there are more men in meaningful employment than there are women. Is it, then, beyond us to say that when the vision for women is reversed from industrial roles to domestic roles in the labouring classes of capitalist systems — worse in a corrupt country — the people become poorer?
Oftentimes, I find myself promising to give something back to these women in the future. I want to make them happy, these distant but very present wives of mine, these very close but physically distant wives of mine, for the priceless education they have given and continue to give me. But time is limited, and it would break so much to go beyond oneself, I am just one among many men of the community. And what makes me think that I carry the key to their happiness!
The surest thing I could give is my ear.
I get it, I think, I feel as though I have gained understanding. I have to function.
We were made husbands before we became men, and it might benefit us a great deal to restore the trust we once had in the guidance given to us by the women in our lives. Our mathes, our sisters, our senjes, our gukhus. These women whose presence, physically, emotionally and in memory, has never failed to check us at every stage of our growth as human beings. We should trust the women in our lives to give us direction, not answers, on what proper manhood looks like.
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