At 11 pm on Thursday, 20th October 2011, I turn the last page of Coconut by Kopano Matlwa, and I know that I’m not going back to church again. I don’t know what that means at that moment, having been a staunch Catholic, but I know that I’m not going back.
That night was the beginning of my now seven-year quest to discover, recover and live African spirituality. The quest has involved many locations and people – many of them not in Africa – and has helped me to re-evaluate and reconstruct a world that had come crashing down that night. It was not a direct or easy journey. People had many questions, especially those who had known me as the person who would constantly invite others to Mass, or who would confess the mortal sin of having skipped Mass. I didn’t have the answers, and I was making this journey far from home and without much (worldly) guidance. The crash that happened that night hadn’t left a map of where to go, much less where to begin, so I had to make the way as I went.
After seven years of being on the journey, I can say that I have arrived at several shores of knowing and understanding. Even more, however, I have begun to wonder about the silence around African spirituality, and its persistent labelling as sorcery or devil worship. And as a researcher of the environment, I see the connection of these silences and the colonial enterprise, which forced a forgetting of an all-alive Earth, the ancestors and other un-embodied beings like nature spirits, and rendered the Earth as a space for domination. We’re all living with the ecological fall-out from this kind of worldview. I started asking myself: can we recover these ways of being, knowing and doing, and re-engage with the living Earth from a place beyond coloniality?
But back to the night of the crash. In the book I had just read, Fikile, a waitress living in a township, aspires to make it big and be white. She visits her grandmother, Gogo, and participates in her prayers that go on for several hours, a dramatic performance accompanied by wailing and sobs. Gogo moans the lot of black South Africans, the violence, the unemployment, the pain, the assault…The prayer was moving to read until I got to the end where Gogo inexplicably made peace with the God she was praying to, convinced that this God would resolve the issues and make a way. That jarred. This same God that she was praying to was brought by the same people whose coming caused the troubles she was praying about. And that was the end for me.
Walking into the uncertainty was not easy. For weeks and months after, I would scour the Internet trying to find apologies from the church for their hand in colonialism. There were none. Not even in that most progressive Vatican II Council where they finally decided that Africans singing in church and praying in their languages was okay. So I kept walking.
The questions propelling me were in the silences. Whereas Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and even Buddhism, had some form and reality for me, I wondered what African religion was; I had never been told about it or come across it. I had grown up in Nairobi, or more rightly, in Ongata Rongai (yes there are people who’ve lived here all their lives), and without grandparents – they had died before I was born or soon after. I did not have much contact with any “rural home”. On both sides, family members had long been swirled into urban Nairobi pursuits. My brothers and I were third generation “uprooted” in a way. But I was sure that my people had had religious or spiritual practices of some sort. The question was how to find those out while I was studying in the United States. So I started with the one thing I knew I had: my grandmother. My grandmother died a year and seven days before I was born, and I feel she went to call me, the last of the granddaughters named after her. I began my quest by calling to her.
Soul searching, seeking to find
Pieces of clay, mud and morning’s breath,
Evening light, sounds and fire stones,
The human warmth that makes me, me.
The touch of my cũcũ – and the others that I didn’t know-
Her stories by firelight, the food we might have made together.
I wish she had taught me to weave,
To warp and weft and tie the knots of this life’s kiondo.
My gogo’s spittle in blessing…
I call on it on this journey I’m taking,
To sound the depths of my heart
And avoid treacherous waters.
One of the ways I was calling her was through poetry. I had written poetry in high school but stopped when I got to university, so I began writing again. This time I was writing a different kind of poetry, one that was calling out to my ancestors, seeking a path, seeking clarity on where to go. I also began to do libations as a way of praying, without necessarily knowing the formula (there isn’t really; ritual is more about spirit than form, though form can carry spirit). I would call on my grandmother, and as I poured libations I repeated the one line of Kikuyu prayer I knew: “Thai thathaiya Ngai, thai”, a call for peace, in between my imploring: help me on this journey, I’m trying to figure my way back, I’m trying to learn these things, open the way for me, show me, teach me.
On the path of sounding out the silences, I started reading more writing by African authors. Up to that point I had been an ardent consumer of the so-called classics – William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and the like. I had not encountered much African literature besides the mandatory high school set-books and I was thirsty for anyone who could tell me anything about African traditions. So I began a self-guided course on reading African authors, going to the library to look for fiction by Africans, asking for recommendations from friends and devouring all that I could find in between my classes: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Chimamanda Adichie, Ngwatilo Mawiyoo, Okot p’Bitek, anthologies of short stories… As I kept reading, ways of thinking and worldviews (on women’s clothing, on prisons as justice, on men’s beauty) that I had never questioned began to fall away. Histories of Kenya’s colonial period, and of colonialism in the Americas, also helped me understand the world as it exists now was created and was not a matter of fact, unchangeable. Reading was a way of beginning to see with new eyes.
I also learnt how to cook, researching on indigenous African crops and trying out new things with traditional ingredients – a way of reimagining the old. Cooking was significant for me because I had always resisted learning at home; I was sure that I would then be expected to cook for my elder brothers. But away from my mother’s kitchen, I made my own world by experimenting, baking with nduma and millet, learning to make pilau, mahamri and mukimo and so on. That was also the semester I enrolled in voice lessons and began to sing in an a cappella group. In high school I had been labelled tone-deaf and asked to stand in the back and mouth the words during the inter-house singing competitions. In subtle internal ways, singing rearranged me, opened me up, and helped me to regain a sense of self and voice in the new becoming.
The following year, I travelled on a programme studying cities in Brazil, South Africa and Vietnam, and I took the opportunity to learn from other traditions. I figured ancestrality and indigenous spirituality are not only African, and I could learn from different systems of connecting to and venerating one’s ancestors. In every place, I would ask people to tell me and show me how spirituality was done. In Brazil, my host-mum took us to an Umbanda temple, Umbanda is one of the major Afro-Brazilian religions syncretised from practices and beliefs of enslaved Africans taken to Brazil. I wasn’t there as a tourist spectator; I was there to learn and practise alongside others. At the temple, one of the practitioners broke out of the circle of the initiated worshippers and approached me to pray with me, something that my host-mum later said never happens. I took this as a confirmation that I was on the right path even though I didn’t have absolute clarity.
In South Africa I met an academic professor at the University of Cape Town who researched African traditional religions. Something he said helped me understand one of my difficulties with accessing indigenous spirituality in East Africa. He said that traditional religions in West Africa tend to be more public. There are shrines and priests and priestesses devoted to different gods and goddesses and you can go to them and learn. In East and Southern Africa, religions are more private and family-oriented. Even though sacred sites may exist, large community rituals are less common. So if you want to learn outside of family, there’s no place you can say, “Let me go there”.
Vietnam was fascinating because ancestral veneration is absolutely integrated in the culture. Houses have an ancestral shrine where family members place food and other items, food that we later consumed. Walking down the streets you are bound to see, and perhaps be shocked by, people burning money. Upon asking we found out that they were burning dollar bills (fake ones) to send to their ancestors in other realms. Seeing the seamlessness of these practices in daily life was useful and inspiring. In later years I have wondered what difference this holding on to indigenous philosophies and practices in East and South Asia makes compared to Africa’s seeming rush to black out her own.
When I went back to campus for my last semester, a bit less uncertain, I joined a dance group whose main repertoire was dances from Haiti connected to vodu, another syncretised African religion created from the mix of traditions carried by enslaved Africans to the Caribbean. I began to learn the history of the Haitian revolution, and to dance for the gods and goddesses (Lwas) of a tradition that sparked and sustained the revolution that birthed what was the first black republic in 1804.
Later that year, I continued exploring spirituality through dance when I travelled back to Brazil and began dancing the Orixás of Candomblé, yet another syncretised African religion. My host-brother, Dimas, was an activist and practitioner of Candomblé. Observing his practice in song, drum, dance and prayer, having conversations despite my struggling Portuguese, was special. The Orixás, or Oriṣas, are a deity pantheon in Yoruba Ifa tradition that embody particular traits and are often connected to certain nature elements. To this day I feel a great affinity to and respect for these African-based religions as they exist in and have been preserved and added to over time in South America and the Caribbean, and I continue to dance and teach these dances.
Travelling to Mexico afterward, I joined weekly Aztec/Mexica dances at the invitation of my friend Lupita (not Nyong’o; the name is common in Mexico, here short for Guadalupe) that happened in a public square under moonlight. In this dance that would last two hours or more, we saluted all six sides (North, East, West, South, up and down), danced the stories of different animal gods, and ended by claiming the continued glory and fame of Mexico-Tenochtitlan whose roots had not and would not be decimated.
This declaration at the end of each dance never failed to bring tears to my eyes, as it explicitly recognised the violence of colonialism, and declared the continued resilience of a people’s spiritualities and ways of being. The sense of community and welcoming amongst these dancers was also beautiful. After each dance we would gather and share food, gratitude and updates from the week. In participating in all of these dances I recognised that these were not my traditions, but were traditions that had similar tenets and elements as the tradition I was trying to get closer to. Dancing became a vehicle to reach my people. Vodu, Candomblé and danza Mexica-Chichimeca connected me to my body and my spirit, and then through that reconnection, to my ancestors, because my ancestors are in me and I am in them.
I went back to South Africa and this time had the opportunity to meet with a sangoma for a bone reading. He was recommended to me by a colleague who had struggled for years with debilitating depression that no doctor or medicine seemed to be helping with. She went to the sangoma as a last resort, figuring, “well nothing else has worked”. I had just one question for my ancestors: am I on the right path? My ancestors said yes. They said keep going, keep asking and finding out.
Considering I was due to move back to Kenya, I had one question for the sangoma: who in Kenya can I speak to about this, where can I go to continue to deepen this journey? He gave me a four-part prescription to formally introduce myself to my ancestors and pilgrimage to their lands. He also gave me the name of a woman also on her indigenous spirituality path and who works with communities to revive their ecocultural practices for freedom and well-being. When I met Wanjiku she introduced me to a tens-of-thousands-year-old African cultural and spiritual tradition in the form of African rock art, a heritage that had been unknown to me up to that point. Meeting Wanjiku was also a relief because I now had living proof that it was possible to live one’s African spirituality in East Africa.
At home, I was met with the same barrage of questions that my friends had thrown at me when I first left the church. I came back without a job or money (a no-no if you’re coming from abroad), having left the church, and having dropped the three English names my parents had given me at birth. None of this went down easy for them, and the pushback I experienced was so intense that at one point I wasn’t speaking with one of my parents. My parents have never really come round to this new self that I am. They think I am lost, and they still try and get me to go back to church. But I am known for my stubbornness.
It’s been seven years and I’m at the point now where I introduce myself as a practitioner of African indigenous spirituality, no longer afraid to show up in my fullness. Africa, ancestrality and the Earth are a core part of who I am. When the crash happened, I thought I would have to go through the rubble picking piece by piece, and evaluating what is useful to keep and what is not. Along the way I have done a lot of reconstruction and re–imagination, picking up and discarding. Much has been embodied, and has happened in doing: libations, writing, singing, dressing, dancing and cooking. My journey has also had lots of gifts along the way – of knowledge, instruments, conversations, practices, movements, songs, rituals, food, and connections. All of these elements were researched, reconnected to, reimagined, reconstructed, and welcomed into, and form a part of my practice today.
I’ve also learned to engage with nature spirits and recover the ontology and practice of a living Earth that is integral to African cultures. Like sitting in a garden. Like speaking to whoever is around me – animal spirits, plant spirits, water, rocks, all allies in the journey to reconnect to self, to ancestors and to Earth. Paying attention to animal messengers. Giving thanks to and paying full attention to my food, to water, to air. I have learnt to salute new lands that I travel to and acknowledge the land as sovereign and alive. I have learnt to listen and sing songs and dance dances that are gifted through such interactions. And the journey continues.
For my Master’s dissertation in African Studies last year, I researched what African ways of being, knowing and doing have to offer for healing and thriving past colonial wounds and today’s continued coloniality. I wanted to think about ideas and practices that are beyond a governance centred on the colonial state, beyond justice practices that are restricted to a Western model retributive justice, and beyond a view of the Earth that only sees her as dead resources to be exploited.
Still, in reading and engaging with post-colonial academic African works, I kept having the feeling that we have not yet gone far enough. We have not yet taken the jump to imagine complete freedom, and the absence or transformation (not reform) of some of our shackles. We have been hard at work decolonising our minds for several decades, but I see less work to decolonise our bodies and even less to decolonise our spirits and restore a relational philosophy and practice in relation to our ecologies, societies and unembodied relations.
It takes some courage to step forward and declare certain things when all around you there is reluctance to hear that or see that, but that is the medicine required for these deeply troubled times and spaces we’re in. My ancestors tell me that this is medicine necessary for Africa today, and that the Earth and all who make home with her require it.
Reflections of Githeriman in the Age of Coronavirus
There is a world of githeri people living at the bottom of Nairobi’s urban existence, homeless or living in squalor. But the existential threat posed by the COVID-19 crisis has revealed that all our fates are intertwined, we are one, and the world has to acknowledge their existence as people, as human beings and not simply as labour, voters or markets.
The Government of Kenya’s hollow but public relations-savvy response to the coronavirus crisis has been wanting. The control initiative began following the appointment Cabinet Secretary Mutahi Kagwe to the Health Ministry in late February 2020. As the growing number of confirmed COVID-19 cases resulted in a worldwide pandemic, hysteria and public restrictions, the Health CS issued sterner directives that included fines and the threat of a jail sentence against those who failed to adhere to self-quarantine.
On the ground, however, there are signs of disorder. There have been reports of healthcare workers, unable to secure even the most basic face masks, judiciously scampering to safety at the sight of potentially infected patients. Nurses at the Mbagathi Hospital, which is serving as one of the designated national isolation centres, staged go-slows protesting lack of adequate training and protective equipment.
On 25 March the government announced a dusk-to-dawn curfew as a public control measure. On the first day of the curfew, on Friday 27 March, Kenyan citizens caught in the disruption of public transport as they tried to make their way home, met with police violence. Given an opportunity to show heroism, the administration was instead overwhelmed by its true nature, revealing its malevolent villainy. Two hours before curfew, police officers pounced on the unsuspecting public at the Likoni Ferry landing, unleashing indiscriminate brutal violence on women, old men, children and labourers trying to get home. This was only the beginning.
As the night wore on, video footage of the violence meted out on the public by the police—including footage taken by the police themselves—flooded social media. Public floggings of even those workers providing vital services that the government had exempted from the curfew—such as food delivery—were rampant all across Kenya. On the fourth night, a 13-year-old boy, Yassin Hussein Moyo, was shot dead by a police officer while standing on the balcony of his family’s apartment.
The bungling and ineptitude of the COVID-19 response by the Kenyan government has revealed that that which we are socially conditioned to call “our government”—that presumes a complex, omniscient and omnipotent establishment—is in reality dysfunctional. The coronavirus is revealing the truths of all levels of our incorporeal reality: our ideological system, our hegemon, our economics, our institutions and even our individual beliefs.
Sitting in Nairobi’s Eastlands, social distancing has turned out to be a cruel joke during this entire fiasco. It is an attack on the last human community we have. The one we were compelled to form after British colonialism took away our clans, our villages and our land; dumping us on that concrete public transport intersection called the city. The last human front is our neighbour.
The success of the British colonial enterprise in atomising our African societies in order to dominate us, by secularising our values and inculcating individualism into us, left us completely unable to defend ourselves against not only European aggression and plunder, but also against all predation. We have no defences, not just against economic predators like China but now apparently also against non-human threats like pandemics. “United we stand, divided we fall” is not a saying, it is an aphorism.
The colonial administrative infrastructure that was implanted by imperialism, disrupted and replaced our nuclear and extended families, our clans, our villages and our tribes through the systematic erasure of all avenues of communal bonding. Tribal social rituals were banned and children were separated from their families and herded into “Church Missionary Society”-run schools for re-education. Entire villages were condemned to concentration camps during the years of emergency. The colonial government, under whose auspices these violations took place, revealed itself to be nothing more than a policing infrastructure. The ideals of nationhood, property, healthcare, education all polydactyly, dysfunctional malformations masquerading as fingers. The Government of Kenya does not have a clenched fist, for a clenched fist could one day hopefully open into a gentle palm; it has a bludgeon.
We do not know our neighbours. Well, at least not intimately. We form extended families of convenience, to survive the harsh economic edge of these concrete jungles, but now capitalism has come for even that relationship.
Now everyone, including my neighbour, is a potential threat to my survival and that of my family. We are being compelled to teach suspicion and mistrust of even our neighbour’s children to our children, because how do you explain “social distancing” to a six-year-old boy? Children comprehend absolutes, not relative relations.
Meanwhile Twitterati elites with refrigerators choking with supplies frothed at the mouth, endlessly calling for lockdown. It is “us”, the hoi polloi who live in the bowels of the city—in Dandora, Mathare, Kawangware, Kibra—that the Twitterati elites are demanding that the government lock down.
Us, the Twenty-shilling Githerimen
As I read their tweets, I remembered a moment two years ago when an old man walked up to my friend’s food stall outside a Mosque in Dandora, a working class residential neighbourhood located next to Nairobi City’s garbage dump site. He politely asked for 20 shillings. What for? To buy githeri (a mix of boiled maize and beans). He had not eaten in two days. A plate of githeri was all he needed to get him through the day and night, and he could not afford it. From a position of privilege, many cannot perceive the economic value of 20 shillings nor imagine the economic microcosm in which it can have value, let alone how a man can be incapable of raising it. The Twenty-shilling coin is one of those irritating bits of loose change that we dump in the cup holders of our cars and use to pay parking boys or get rid of persistent beggars. Many do not consider the actual value of the coins; they are only good for handing out as small tips around the city.
Where was his family? His brother? His sister? His children? It is much easier to profile him as a drunkard. The only feasible rationale for not possessing 20 shillings is that he must have drank it all. Or that he must be a loser who he didn’t work hard, didn’t save, didn’t invest in his future, didn’t apply Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich-Dad Poor-Dad Cash-Flow Quadrant. Alternatively, he is profiled as a wife beater who terrorises his children. A man with no source of livelihood, no land title loses his identity. When he can no longer work, he loses his worth in an individualistic capitalist society and is reduced to begging for survival.
During the 2017 general elections, a man queuing to vote while eating his githeri from a polythene bag had the Kenyan middle class tickled no end. Plucked from obscurity, Martin Kamotho (The Githeriman) became an overnight sensation in a bizarre reality-show complete with media coverage. A few months later, he fell from grace, shamed as a man who had returned to his old alcoholic ways.
The old man who came looking for help at the food stall didn’t have the good fortune of random events conspiring to turn him into an overnight national sensation. He and millions of other githerimen, women, children and families remain unseen, invisible to the middle class. There is a world of githeri people living at the bottom of Nairobi’s urban existence. They are homeless or living in squalor. At night they sleep on the pavements outside buildings along River Road and Juja Road, along the hidden river beds of Ruiru, under bridges in the city, any nook or cranny that a man can fit into to shelter from the rain. They are invisible only because their humanity has been denied.
The world may be deliberately blind to what it owes them but it sees them very clearly when it has something it wants to take from them. Politicians rally them to harvest public opinion, corporate CEOs reiterate their value, echoing C.K. Prahalad’s The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits. Safaricom PLC, a leader in mining this fortune, it is said, experienced a 400 per cent leap in traffic when it introduced the twenty-shilling scratch card. Therefore, capitalism’s blindness is not congenital; it conveniently perceives only what is profitable unless compelled otherwise.
But those were “normal” difficult economic times, when 20 shillings was hard to come by, compared to the present reality of a society careening uncontrollably towards political and economic devastation. We are all hurtling towards our nadir at a sustained pace, oblivious to the oncoming apocalyptic rapture. This existential threat has revealed that our fates are intertwined, we are one, and the world has to acknowledge our existence as people, as human beings, and not simply as labour, voters or markets.
Public intellectual David Ndii has proposed that, in the wake of the restriction of movement, the socio-eonomically vulnerable should be allowed to flee the urban jungle to their rural areas as a means of decongesting the city. But many cannot even exercise that option. Capitalism in Kenya has now evolved into the dystopic future described by H. G. Well’s 1895 classic, The Time Machine. We now have a steadily growing population of Morlocks, generations of parents and children born in the bowels of the city who know no other home and have nowhere to run.
Capitalism and imperialism have hollowed us out completely. The destruction is almost irreparable. Capitalism has wreaked devastation on us all as a society in addition to the poverty of kinship brought about by the secular individualism of our social lives. Capitalism has pushed us into gaping chasms of economic disparity not only among the social classes but among members of a single family. I distinctly remember the collective gasp when the media revealed the poor dwellings in which the brother of the former President Kibaki’s lived before he died.
Individualism undermines, directly and indirectly, the purpose and synergy of every possible group formation: filial, commercial and political. And, therefore, it undermines the very existence of society. If man by nature is a social animal, individualism is not just directly antithetical to his nature but is also pernicious.
Capitalism, it is already apparent, is incapable of organising itself for the well-being of any living creature or ecosystem, let alone its primary host—man. The presumed most powerful man on earth, the President of the United States of America, was ineffectual in procuring basic medical equipment or in organising his government to respond to the pandemic. Democracy and it’s ruling class have been revealed to be nothing but enablers for capitalist extraction. Everything we have been taught about modern life and purpose has proven to be not just false, but insidiously detrimental to society and self.
There is global consensus that it is time to rethink both our social and economic system generally. But for Africa it is time to go even deeper and reconstruct our basic social structures, our bonds of kinship.
During the Ebola crisis in West Africa, afflicted and affected people were completely dependent on their families for care. The same happened throughout Africa at the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
But in spite of our experience, we have allowed capitalism and individualism to corrode these bonds and units of social cohesion. We only recognise them in times of crisis, because Africa has not developed state institutional infrastructure to compensate for this loss. It is time to reconstruct them from the ground up. And not in some workshop-based imperialist-funded aid agency project, but through an organic socio-political indigenously-driven initiative.
On January 29 2020, Dr McFie argued on a local political TV show, NTV AM Live, that democracy as a political system has failed because it is fundamentally flawed. He asked quite pointedly, where, in what vital productive human enterprise has the democratic process been used to determine leadership? He explained the rigorous process used to recruit business leaders and asked why, in the more important domain of governance, such processes cannot be considered. He then went on to propose that Africa needs to look to its history, to explore for the purpose of adoption, the processes through which people rose to become elders and leaders, to find our way out of the mess we are in.
I would argue that this crisis compels us to go deeper, to reconstruct our families, clans and tribes from the ground up, complete with the layers of leadership at all levels—clan, tribe, nation—upon a cogent set of spiritual beliefs.
We now have no choice.
Coronavirus, Curfews, Corruption and Conspiracy Theories
Despite a curfew and the threat posed by COVID-19, it is business as usual in Kenya. Bribe-taking and beatings by the police have not stopped. And people have resorted to concocting conspiracy theories to make sense of their precarious situation.
On Friday, 27 March 2020, the day the curfew took effect, I took a matatu ride to Zambezi, a distance of just about 20 kilometres from the Limuru-bound vehicles’ terminus on Kilome Road in downtown Nairobi. From this stage, you can board matatus going to Acre Ithano (Five Acres), Kiambaa, Limuru, Muguga, Rironi and Zambezi.
President Uhuru Kenyatta had, on 25 March 2019, decreed a 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew countrywide – the government’s latest effort to combat the now really frightening coronavirus disease that could, in one fell swoop, easily send swathes of people to early graves. With a broken healthcare system countrywide, a government that treats its medics badly, the patient-bed ratio in its hundreds of thousands, and a demoralised corps of medical officers, the pandemic in Kenya, like in Italy, Spain and now the US, could be truly calamitous.
I was at the stage by 5.15 p.m. The rush to beat the curfew hours was evident: They were no matatus, so the people, who unusually go home at this hour, waited anxiously. That was already one worry too much, but more poignantly, the matatus had been ordered by the government to ferry half their carrying capacities. So, the 33-seater minibus was now allowing only 16 to 17 passengers, while the 14-seater Nissan shuttles only carried eight passengers. This added unforeseen problem was, to say the least, wrecking nerves.
With this new travel constraint, the matatu crew found a perfect excuse to inflate the fare and take advantage of an already precarious situation. A couple of days before, when the government had decreed that matatus should reduce their carrying capacity to create “social distance”, the matatus had, without flinching, more than doubled their fares. Now with the onset of the curfew, the fare is set to increase even further.
This extraordinary arrangement created a perfect state of anarchy: the rush to leave town, the shortage of matatus, which exacerbated passengers’ anxiety and despondency, and the fear that if by chance you were caught during the curfew hours you would be beaten up by the easily excitable paramilitary squad deployed by the state or by the overzealous police.
My tout friend reminded me, matter of factly, that it had been a long time since the General Service Unit (GSU) police had been unleashed on the streets, and they, therefore, were itching to break some ankles and elbows and trample on people’s heads with their boots. And perhaps even kill one or two Kenyans.
My tout friend, who was once a street boy who grew up in the roughhewn of Nairobi’s central business district, where he had been beaten and harassed by the police, knew exactly what he was talking about. The GSU, it soon emerged, in their over-enthusiasm to follow and implement government orders, not only broke ankles and elbow bones, they beat people with sjamboks (blood-drawing whips used by the infamous Boer police on the black masses at the height of the anti-apartheid resistance). In the process, the police killed a boda boda rider and two other Kenyans.
Passing through Westlands, we met a mass of humanity trekking to Kangemi, Kihumbu-ini, Mountain View, Sodom, Uthiru and Waruku. The conductor told me the fare to any of these places from Westlands had shot up to Sh100. (On a normally day, it is Sh30.) The choice was with the commuters: to cough up the Sh100 or walk.
I looked up into the skies and saw that a storm was fast gathering. If by a dint of bad luck, the skies decided to open up then, the people would suffer a double tragedy: arrive home both drenched and tired.
The advent of the coronavirus pandemic in the country has not only threatened to exterminate a panic-stricken people, it has equally conspired to appear at a time of great economic turbulence in the country, which has threatened to wipe out even the little earnings that the people possess.
The trip was uneventful until we reached the makeshift police check that just sprouted in the middle of the road at Mountain View stage, between the Shell and Total petrol stations. The first thing that came to mind was that the police, in their usual style of collecting bribes, would at least pretend to check that the driver and his crew were actually obeying the government’s strict directive. But no. The cop went to the driver’s side where, without wasting time, he quickly “greeted” him (corruption does not recognise coronavirus).
Two thoughts immediately came to my mind: this looked like an illegal road block; the normal road block is usually erected just outside of the Kabete Police Station. Additionally, the recent directive by the government that traffic offences would be henceforth dealt with by the National Transport and Safety Authority (NTSA) meant that there should not be a road block manned by the police on the roads. That rule had not changed, even with the pandemonium over coronavirus.
So what were the police doing on this particular road? The conductor told me that the Kabete traffic police, allegedly one of the most notorious departments in the country, was now erecting the road block as soon as dusk set in. “Tuliwazoesha vibaya, wako na njaa saa yote, na usipowalambisha, hautafanya kazi.” We spoiled them completely (by giving them bribes), so they are always hungry, yet, (the bigger problem) is, if you don’t grease their hands, you will never work.
For work to be done, the police must eat. The conductor said that the police now took it as their right to be bribed. “Let us not kid each other – police corruption is not about to end in a hurry,” said the conductor. He said that the Kabete police, in particular, couldn’t care less if people were decimated by coronavirus: “What they are most interested in is how they will continue to line their pockets.”
On arriving at stage 87, just after Uthiru, all pretence of being extra vigilant on combating the deadly coronavirus was thrown out of the window. At the Nairobi terminus, the conductor had been carrying a disinfectant (basically a mixture of soap and water), which he had sprayed on our hands. Once here, he dumped the can and began looking for passengers.
Women with huge baskets scrambled to board the matatu and snap the remaining seats. “Ithue tutihaicaga ndege.” We don’t board aeroplanes. “Coronavirus iranyita itonga.” The coronavirus is afflicting only the rich, said one woman, who grabbed the seat next to me.
At Kinoo stage, more people boarded the matatu: “Andu no mohaka mainoke…ni turikirara guku”. We must find our way home…I mean we can’t spend the night here, said some drunken fellow.
When we reached the next stage in Muthiga, some passengers alighted. By this time, the exorbitant fare had dropped to its normal rate of between Sh30 and Sh50. The chitchat in the matatu was, of course, about coronavirus. Conspiracy theories spawned by know-it-all dudes kept us busy and momentarily took away our attention from the more serious issue of observing social distance inside the matatu.
Blame the Chinese
“It is the Americans and the Chinese who are engaged in a biological warfare and now we’ve become collateral,” said an obviously drunk passenger. He said that the Chinese were devious and secretive people “You’ve seen them here – short and bossy and will not talk to anyone, unless shouting commands”.
Another claimed that China hoped to conquer the world by unleashing of the viral disease into the now global society. “How come they now seem to have, suddenly, found the cure for it? Coronavirus is ravishing the rest of the world as China, which has gone back to its normal self, now watches gleefully from afar. They have even offered to help Italy and America.”
The Chinese are constructing the Nairobi-Nakuru Road, which has stalled because the government has delayed payments to owners of buildings that need to be demolished to pave way for the expansion of the highway. The highway serves as the transport corridor of goods, from the Mombasa port to Burundi, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.
After excavating the original dual highway two years ago in the hope of rebuilding the road, the section between Uthiru and Kiambaa seems to have been abandoned. And so it is in a terrible state. It has become the bane of the ever-complaining motorists who have no choice but to use the mangled road. The section just outside Uthiru Girls School is so bad that when last week there was a huge downpour, the 100-metre distance caused a five-hour traffic jam. The section has huge potholes in which small saloon cars disappear. This section not only causes traffic snarl-ups, it has become a dangerous point where muggers and thieves steal mobile phones and other valuables from cars stuck in the mud.
“President Uhuru has taken too much debt from the Chinese, that’s why he couldn’t stop the plane from China from landing in the country,” ventured the drunkard, who now had taken to entertaining the passengers. “Agiruo arihe thire ucio na kiumia kimwe.” If he had tried (stopping the plane from landing), he would have been asked to pay that debt in a week’s time.
In February, a plane flying from China was allowed to land in Nairobi despite a government directive to not allow planes from China to enter the country. It is believed that the China Southern Airlines plane had several Chinese nationals in it who were allowed to disembark and mingle with the rest of Kenyans at the height of the coronavirus explosion in Africa. For some reason, many Kenyans believe that those unnamed Chinese (nobody knows where they “dissipated” to) could in the near future put the country at risk.
“Kiguoya kia mundu,” commented the noisy drunkard. “President Uhuru was the coward of the country,” he said. After mortgaging the country to the Chinese, he’s now beholden to them: he cannot do anything until he asks them. I don’t know who told him that coronavirus is most effective only at night. Should we now stop making love to our wives? Eno curfew nitukumenya uria tuku deal nayo. Just wait, we’ll a find way of dealing with this curfew.”
Another passenger said that President Uhuru Kenyatta had put the country on a semi-lockdown and now curfew “because he was targeting to reap billions of dollars that would apparently be disbursed by our benefactors, both from the East and West to combat the disease. He and his cronies have devised a plan to pocket the billions – for them, they are in business. All this scare-mongering is just that: tactics for them to make money. This is not a black man’s disease – have you heard any black person who has died of the disease? All the people who have died from coronavirus are all Caucasian. The black man’s body is not to be felled by a mere fever.”
One drunkard started singing the following chorus:
Mwihoko wakwa no we Jesu
Kuma miaraho nginya hwa-ini
Thayo wakwa no we Jesu
Kigeno giakwa no we Jesu
Gutire kindu kingi gwenda tiga we Jesu
My only hope is you Jesus
From early in the morning till late in the night
My only peace is you Jesus
My only joy is you Jesus
All that I need is you Jesus
“When it came to implementing the curfew, Uhuru suddenly discovers his mojo: he does not entertain nonsense, he is decisive, firm, tough talking and threatens fire and brimstone to anyone defying his order by sending the paramilitary police to roughen up people with their death-knell rungus (clubs). How is it that this decisiveness and firmness is often lacking when dealing with the thieves and robbers who are his cronies and friends?” posed the drunkard.
“Ask him to go after the looters, and he suddenly becomes exhausted, handicapped and helpless, throwing his hands in the air…‘murenda njike atia?’ What do you what me to do? Uhuru is fake…after messing our economy, he now purports to be fighting this monster invasion.”
Remembering Thandika Mkandawire, A Beloved Teacher
I have been lucky to meet many intellectual giants in my life. The truly great, like Louis Henkin-my Constitutional Law Professor in Graduate School – and Thandika Mkandawire, are those that teach you effortlessly and joyously, and without even a hint of condescension.
I am utterly distraught to learn that my favourite political economist and teacher, Thandika Mkandawire, has died. My intellectual development took a different direction when I found Thandika Mkandawire after Graduate School, first through his, edited, 1987 book “The State and Agriculture in Africa,” and subsequently through the brilliant work he did on Africa’s economic development, World Bank policies and the African state in the 1990s and throughout the 2000s. I am certain that if I had not come across Thandika when I did, my intellectual development would have veered off in a completely different, almost certainly less fulfilling direction.
I was – at the time- young, restless, and, intellectually, very adventurous. Graduate school had lit a spark in me. But it had left me somewhat jaded. I had suddenly realized that I did not care for legal doctrine. I liked – and still like- law’s forensic tools – but I found doctrine sterile: it was either noisily obvious or complicatedly trivial. This was especially so when lawyers launched into voluble disputations on some arcane point. True, jurisprudence had real insight but then jurisprudence is academic law. Most of the rest of law is applied, or to put it differently, law is to jurisprudence what accounting is to economics.
There I was then: June 1993, a newly-minted graduate bristling that my training till then had neither asked nor answered the questions that had taken me to graduate school. I wanted to know what to do when those sworn to implement the laws regularly ignored them. I did not know what incentives or disincentives to put in place to discourage dictators or corporate chiefs from stealing public money. Could such incentives and disincentives be legally designed? I wondered why theories of sovereignty did not address the ways in which economic prescriptions by multilateral agencies subverted people’s control over governments in debtor countries. I knew what the rule of law was and could speak and write with great eloquence about its characteristics. Yet if you asked how institutional design might help secure it, I could not answer you. This background is necessary to explain just what a profound effect Thandika had on me.
My journey towards acquiring the perspectives and tools that would eventually help me grapple with these questions begun in two places, with Thandika Mkandawire’s “The State and Agriculture in Africa” and with all-night, whisky-inspired debates and arguments with David Ndii at Invergara Club. (David won’t like these confidential disclosures!) Thandika gave me different perspectives on how to understand the state. In this book, I learnt to look into and to question the fiscal basis of the state, any state. That is to say, I learnt to ask how a state raised revenues because, it turned out, as I learnt still later, that revenues and where they came from, shape how a state treated its citizens. Does the state raise revenues from taxes or from mineral rents? States that live off taxes –called merchant states – must have some implicit understanding with the key tax-paying groups in society. For this reason, governance in such states is likely to be more inclusive. States that live off rents- called rentier states- rest on narrow, exclusionary bargains between politicians and the companies involved in extraction. Mineral economies are essentially off-shore economies: Governments in states with such economies don’t care for public support. They survive by repression or co-optation, that is, by buying-off opponents.
This analysis opened my eyes to much that I had missed in my education. It sent me scurrying in unfamiliar but exciting research directions. Now I could explain why so many mineral or oil rich countries were either so fragile or so dictatorial. I now knew why populations in those countries were often poor: Politicians would rather squirrel the money away to tax havens than invest in public services. They paid no political price if they did that.
Thandika was always brilliant: He had the uncanny ability to illuminate a subject or to upend received wisdom with a simple vignette. I remember being extremely impressed by Paul Collier’s and Nicholas Sambanis brilliant work on conflict. Collier and Sambanis had put to bed the old canard that African conflicts are caused by ancient ethnic hatreds and grievances through a series of empirical studies showing that most conflicts could actually be explained by greed. That is, they offered evidence that most conflicts were driven by the scramble for lootable resources. Thandika was not persuaded by this thesis and though I do not know whether he ever wrote an essay that specifically responding to this argument he wrote a number of penetrating essays that very cleverly chipped away at the argument. His 2002 deceptively low-key essay, “The Terrible toll of Post-Colonial ‘Rebel Movements’ in Africa: Towards an Explanation of the Violence against the Peasantry” is particularly on point. Thandika asked a simple question, “Why are African rebel movements so violent towards peasants?” He returned the answer, which felt so intuitively right to me, that it was because the rebels were invariably urban elites who had migrated their disputes to rural Africa. This was astonishingly obvious when I thought about it. Until the violence after the 2007 election, Kenyan elites squabbling over the presidency had always taken their blood letting to the rural areas.
Perhaps Thandika’s most influential work- with colleagues like Bayo Olukoshi – was his 20 year interrogation of the neo-liberal stipulations of the World Bank – sold to Africa first as Structural Adjustment Programmes and then as Poverty Reduction Strategies. The neoliberal agenda put forth by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher came to Africa and the developing countries dressed up as the Washington Consensus. First as Executive Secretary of CODESRIA and later as Director of United Nations Research Institute for Social Development, UNRISD, Thandika was in the thick of debates about the viability of the Washington Consensus as policy prescription. He was completely vindicated by the dramatic unraveling of the Washington Consensus -in its neoliberalism garb- in the 2008 financial crisis.
Thandika and a handful of African scholars fought long and hard to liberate Africa’s development debate from the stranglehold of the so-called North American Africanists. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s these Africanists were extremely influential in policy circles in the West. Though their advice was regularly sought, Thandika was deeply disenchanted with their work. This research argued that under-development was as a result of neo-patrimonial politics: neopatrimonialism was itself defined in segmental and hierarchical terms. The standard model has the President and his ‘tribes-mates’ sitting as patrons atop the state, their hands on the public kitty, serving a web of grateful clients who repay him with loyalty and votes. On this view, Africa was under-developed because these neopatrimonial webs undermined or eroded rational policy making.
Thandika could not abide this empirically bankrupt argument. He felt that the Africanists were selling snake-oil to policy makers in Washington and London. He noticed – as did other African scholars – that Africanist circles were not only hermetically sealed against perspectives from scholars working in the field in the continent, they had also become intellectually incestuous – liberally quoting and cross-referencing each other. They were not promoting debate, they were more like congregants at a neo-liberal wake. Thandika thought that the neopatrimonial perspective – though highly privileged and valued in donor circles in western capitals –offered nothing useful analytically. And even worse, it had no predictive value.
Thandika’s interpretations of the possibilities of democracy in Africa were always original, cautiously optimistic and always refreshing. He had genuine flashes of insight. He made me question much that I thought self-evident. He hated complacency. I was privileged to participate in many fora with him. I remember, in particular, a discussion panel I shared with him and Prof. Anyang Ny’ongo in Accra Ghana in April 2014 during the “Pan-African Conference on Inequalities in the Context of Structural Transformation.” It was the first time that I got a really good chance to have a chat with him. What humility, what gentle persuasion and what intellectual charm. I have been lucky to meet many intellectual giants in my life. The truly great, like Louis Henkin-my Constitutional Law Professor in Graduate School – and Thandika Mkandawire, are those that teach you effortlessly and joyously, and without even a hint of condescension.
God speed you along, Beloved Teacher. Here is Laban Erapu’s ‘Elegy’ that you may not walk alone to underworld:
When he was here,
We planned each tomorrow
With him in mind
For we saw no parting
Looming beyond the horizon.
When he was here,
We joked and laughed together
And no fleeting shadow of a ghost
Ever crossed our paths.
Day by day we lived
On this side of the mist
And there was never a sign
That his hours were running fast.
When he was gone,
Through glazed eyes we searched
Beyond the mist and the shadows
For we couldn’t believe he was nowhere:
We couldn’t believe he was dead.
I WILL MISS YOU.
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