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Reflections

Decolonising My Soul: My Journey to Reclaim African Spirituality

11 min read. 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.

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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
I am…
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.

The scroll reads: “Destruyeron mis hojas, cortaron mis ramas, cortaron mi tronco…pero mis raices jamás podrán arrancarlas. Netzahualcoyotl” – They destroyed my leaves, cut my branches, cut my trunk (some versions say burnt my trunk), but never will they be able to uproot my roots.

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.

San* rock painting in the Dâures Mountains, in what is today Namibia. Image source: Trust for African Rock Art/David Coulson

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 reimagination, 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.

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Wangũi wa Kamonji is an independent researcher, dancer, writer and facilitator of regenerative presents and futures rooted in African lifeways. She is hearth keeper for the collective Afrika hai that researches, reconnects to and reimagines indigenous Afrikan knowledge and practices for regeneration. She is based in Ongata Rongai and blogs at wangui.org.

Reflections

I Accuse the Press

8 min read. The trend of knee-jerk public reactions of sympathy to heart-wrenching stories in the media, where ordinary members of the public rally in support of the highlighted case, masks a deeper problem. On the one hand is the troubling pattern of media profiling of the suffering poor to gain high audience ratings and, on the other, the exclusion of millions of others whose stories never get heard and hence receive no attention or assistance.

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I Accuse the Press
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On the 21st of July 2019, Citizen TV aired an investigative news feature, described as the “heart-rending” story of a young Kenyan man who, despite years of hard work and an excellent academic record in some of the country’s best schools, ended up homeless in the rough streets of Nairobi. The young man, Kelvin Ochieng’, is a 24-year-old who scored straight As at the famous Maranda High School before proceeding to the University of Nairobi where he studied Actuarial Science and graduated with a 1st class honours off the back of a Higher Education Loan and a scholarship.

Prior to the exposé, it had been reported that Kelvin resided in the Kosovo area of Mathare, where he was being hosted by a friend—Christopher Oloo—who had rescued him from the streets and taken him into the refuge of his tiny single room which he also shared with three other men. Kelvin had sought employment with several companies without success despite his impressive academic qualifications. Returning home to his rural home where he grew up was not an option. He remained acutely aware of the grinding poverty of village life and he bore the burden of the shining star of the family who was destined to change their fortunes thanks to his academic success. His failure to meet his family’s expectations weighed heavily on Kelvin and he confessed to having contemplated suicide on more than one occasion. Kelvin could not even afford the four thousand shillings needed for his graduation, let alone attend the ceremony.

Kelvin’s story is shared by hundreds of thousands of the unemployed youth who place all future prospects on the value of their academic qualifications. Kelvin was among the top-ranked in Maranda High School class of 2011, when the school topped the country in the KCSE exam school rankings and seemed assured of a spot in the university and on the path to secure employment. When the television cameras found Kelvin, he was one among the many young men who scramble for cars to clean at a car wash in Nairobi city. The television report ignited an engaging public response on social media and a lengthy debate on how the education system fails Kenyan youth.

The trend of knee-jerk public reactions of sympathy to heart-wrenching stories in the media, where ordinary members of the public rally in support of the highlighted case, masks a deeper problem. On the one hand is the troubling pattern of media profiling of the suffering poor to gain high audience ratings and, on the other, the exclusion of millions of others whose stories never get heard and hence receive no attention or assistance. What is the plight of those young people with a fraction of Kelvin’s level of education who are forced to grapple with harsh daily realities? The ones living in Mathare, like the selfless Christopher Oloo? Like myself? It is worth noting that the altruistic benevolence of Kelvin’s graceful host was mentioned only in passing, that his story was easily shunted aside as a normalcy to be used to draw greater attention to the “special” case of an unemployed graduate. Which is why I dare state, without fear of contradiction, that the report was insulting.

Allow me to put this into context. The general analysis of how degrading it is to live in a filthy environment with no proper sanitation and to endure the heavy stench of raw sewage was valid. But they were wrong to continue perpetuating on national television the single story of Mathare Valley as one of the most dangerous slums in Nairobi, and that you’ve got to watch your back because armed men live here. They had very quickly forgotten that what had brought them all the way down into the valley was indeed an act of great kindness.

What the news report was insinuating is that people with first-class degrees don’t deserve to be homeless or without income and that the insecurity and stench of Mathare is the preserve of the “less educated”. Mwalimu Wandia Njoya boldly refers to it as an “education-based discrimination” perpetrated by a kleptocracy. I couldn’t agree more. Nobody deserves to be poor, educated or not. Every person should be economically empowered regardless of his or her level of education. But as bad governance, impunity and class betrayal prevail, tolerated dehumanisation will only continue to escalate. Today I purpose to not only tell the story of Kelvin Ochieng, but also that of Christopher Oloo, who represents an infinite number of untold narratives of young Kenyans whose future is being greedily swallowed up by grand corruption which is stealing the resources that should go to development and potential job creation. Christopher’s story is my story. And I am neither on the outside looking in, nor am I on the inside looking out; I’m in the dead center, living the experience.

Mathare is rarely understood from a resident-centered perspective. Specifically, youth in Mathare are construed as being central to a critical urban problem of criminality and idleness, which constitutes the crime of which I accuse our mainstream media: that through their misguided reports they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives either through ignorance or through an established culture of bias. The media has a profit-driven mentality that has put the kibosh on its ability to assume the role of ally to the marginalised urban youth in speaking truth to power. It appears that the news agenda is solely to retain and expand the horizons of viewership. For many youth from urban ghettos, the media owners are seen as the authors of devastation who use media stations as propaganda machines to manipulate and exploit ethnic animosity among the working poor during election cycles.

Kenya is a country that sends its youth to the slaughter like innocent lambs. Most of us in Mathare did not choose to be born here and we face the odds that we face in life because we are poor and for no other reason. The limits of our ambitions seem forever set and we continue to be stereotyped as “dirty”, “crime-driven” people who are a threat to public security. The police operate in the valley as if it is the only place they need to control in order to tackle the problem of drugs and weapons.

Here, an encounter with the police is to be avoided at all costs. These wakubwa are the epitome of legitimised robbers. They stop any young man in sight on a whim and vigorously search them for clues of illegal possession, or so they make you think, while in reality this is just a strategy to check how much cash you have on you, giving them enough leverage to start building a case against you. Next, they sniff your fingers and in some cases ask you to spit on the ground to check the state of your throat and ascertain if you are a marijuana smoker. It is always important to remember that you are guilty until proven innocent. Everything has a price, too. Should the smell of marijuana be detected on you, negotiations about the purchase of your freedom begin at a thousand shillings, with an actual blunt costing you about two to three thousand shillings more. Think of this what you may, but failure to grease the palm of the mkubwa in question could earn you a painful whack on the back of the head: “Nyinyi ndio mnatemebea bila pesa mkisumbua watu hapa!” You are the type that walks around without money while causing disturbance here! Follows the threat to push you into the trunk of a nondescript car. You dupe yourself if you imagine your situation to be different and make the blunder of claiming that you know your rights. The only time you ever hear a change of tone and the words “Kijana, rudi hapa”, come back here young man, is when you have parted with “something small”.

People like to say, “If the poor don’t like the ghetto, why can’t they just leave?” and I wonder where one can really go when this is all the life they have known, where they have raised their children and have invested their little capital, if any. Go where? The few lucky enough to “make it out” of Mathare often only end up in another immiserated part of Eastlands, where the home will usually be a more spacious and solid structure, but with the same level of limited access to basic amenities, or worse. Following a fire at our house about two years ago, I helped my mother move to Githurai where I was convinced she would not have to worry about her belongings going up in flames, but less than three months later I was informed that she had moved back to the Kosovo area of Mathare. It took me a while to understand and make peace with her decision, and finally accept that she ached for a more familiar environment where she knew and could trust people, where she knew all the life hacks needed for survival. You know how they say that an old broom knows the room’s corners all too well?

The 2019 International Youth Day was themed “Transforming Education”, highlighting the efforts of the Sustainable Development Goals agenda to make education more relevant, equitable and inclusive for all youth. As kids, we were taught that in order to lead a good life, we needed to work extremely hard in school. I am more informed and mature now, more persuaded that education is meant to help you understand the world and its systems, that it should lead to effective learning outcomes, with the content of school curricula and pedagogy being fit for purpose not only for the future of work and life, but also for the opportunities and challenges brought by rapidly changing social contexts. More profoundly, it is supposed to provide the basics of a subject, then you decide on what you are going to do with the knowledge. However, Kelvin’s story is a sad commentary and a serious indictment of the state of the education system in this country. Students are not being equipped with skills that can help them survive after school. While it is a good thing to complete the education cycle and acquire some qualifications, graduating with stellar grades is not enough to set you up for success in the real world. Degree holders should also graduate in the school of life, to venture beyond the theory of the classroom and design solutions for the everyday problems facing the common man.

Less than twelve hours after Kelvin’s news story, some 1,000 job vacancies suddenly sprouted within a great number of companies around Kenya. I couldn’t for the life of me fathom why the offers for employment had not been made before. I bet a multitude of those corporations had already received Kelvin’s CV in the past. What had changed so drastically as to avail all those positions in such a short time baffles me. I now like to think of ours as governance by acts of magic. To make meaning of one’s life, therefore, youth have been left to rely completely on the beneficence of unfair advantage: family fortune and connections. The rest of us have been condemned to lower our expectations in the system, be patient and hope that things will get better eventually. Again, Kelvin was singled out when his story should have been used as a case study from which tangible solutions to youth unemployment can be derived. I mean, Kelvin is sorted out; then what? And this is the sad reality of youth only being presented with opportunities when it is expedient for institutions to exploit the situation. In the end, there are never really any sustainable solutions to young people’s issues. We wind up tied to short-term fixes that have more to do with harvesting cheap labour through catchy words like “platform”, “stipend”, “youth inclusion” and so forth.

Worse still, youth agendas are largely discussed in their absence, through cosmetic symposiums and panel discussions. Important decisions are often made without their invaluable input and perspectives being taken into consideration. This in turn strips young people of the power to determine their own futures, thus perpetuating generational sabotage. In Mathare, young people are putting away their imposed differences of religion, tribe and education to rely on themselves and organise around economic empowerment with the little in their pockets, whether this means registering a youth group to formally operate a car wash, boda boda business or go into urban farming. It is a step forward towards economic liberation, a rebellion against the status quo that dictates that we should be blindly patient and hopeful that opportunities will be thrown our way one day. For until the youth are allowed to own their spaces and shape their own futures, nothing substantial will ever emanate from these conversations.

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Reflections

Moi: The Passing of a Father Figure

7 min read. We are a generation that seeks closure yet the death of a father figure only seems to have opened an old wound that we thought had healed. Therefore, we are called upon to engage in an honest introspection of the Nyayo era in order to understand what it takes to initiate the exercise of healing and reconciliation.

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Moi: The Passing of a Father Figure
Croes, Rob C. / Anefo / CC BY-SA 3.0 NL (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/nl/deed.en)
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Nyayo! The word Nyayo conjures up the image of a past president and the experience of living under his regime. The term Nyayo had fallen out of usage for many of my peers until it was revived following the death of the former president of Kenya, Daniel arap Moi. I felt the power the word evoked before I knew its literal meaning. Nyayo means footsteps in Kiswahili. By the time Moi vacated power in 2002, I had become a proud member of a generation that believed in second chances and the eternal hope of a new spring. 18 years after Moi left power, his legacy still casts a long shadow. And so, for my generation, his death and memorial has created a moment for deep reflection.

I completed my 8-4-4 journey during Moi’s presidency. My first recollections of Moi are in primary school. This is the shared experience of a generation. I read with amusement several accounts of other Kenyans describing the anticipated presidential meet-and-greets, usually nothing more than a wave of the hand and a word of encouragement. From places as diverse as Turkana, Kitale and Nairobi, we shared the same stories. Each spoke of the reverence they accorded to a close encounter with the president. Many still speak of the Nyayo school milk programme with nostalgia. I remember the loyalty pledge and recall the words to the many songs composed in praise of Moi and his rule. These are the good memories we hang onto because the other memories of Moi’s rule are not pleasant.

After the failed coup attempt of August 1982, the sense of uncertainty grew as the regime’s aggression became more brazen. A normalisation of violence permeated society and the police operated like a predatory force. I remember the feeling of suppressed anger among the adults as life in Kenya became ngumu.

Moi was the nation’s father figure and therefore 24 years of Moi’s discharge of the role of fatherhood, both in the public and private spheres, was bound to have a tremendous influence on Kenyan patterns of masculinity. They say children ape what they see. Baba Moi was presented to us as the epitome of virtue yet what we experienced was the immorality of his power.

Baba wa Taifa, the fatherly figure I had grown accustomed to in primary school, had turned into an ogre in high school and by the time I joined university two decades later, he was a despot whose rule had become untenable.

The theme of fatherhood is a big part of Moi’s life journey. During his memorial service, his political protégés, President Uhuru, Deputy President William Ruto and opposition politician Musalia Mudavadi, all fondly remembered him as a father figure. Moi began his presidency in 1978 with a demand for blind loyalty and a public declaration that he would follow in the footsteps of the founding father of the nation, Jomo Kenyatta. Moi coined the Nyayo philosophy of peace, love and unity, which was no philosophical treatise at all but a command to comply unquestioningly. Moi took on his role with a zeal that in Mzee Kenyatta was never witnessed. He led from the front, touring the country building gabions and manifesting sporadic acts of generosity.

From the outset, Moi encouraged a culture of political sycophancy that thrived in the 80s. I became accustomed to seeing highly accomplished members of his cabinet heaping praises on Moi and pandering to his ego. No longer dazzled by the spectacle of majesty, I started becoming conscious of the contradictions of life under Nyayo and learning the place of fear in the patterns of duplicity I noticed in adult conversations. We rarely discussed politics at home or said anything negative in public about Nyayo because walls had ears. Witnessing those who suffered the consequences of engaging in anti-Moi politics drove us deeper into denial.

Moi the man, as many who met him have testified, was disarmingly charming. He was the head of a large family that he shielded from the spotlight. I knew of his famous sons—the late Jonathan, ace rally driver, and Gideon the polo player—as men of the world enjoying the perks of privilege. The other members of the family never, ever got any media coverage and were not easily recognisable.

The details of Moi’s marriage to Helena Bomet were never open to public scrutiny; better known as Lena, she was erased from public life and remained a mystery even after her death in 2004. (The grapevine did whisper, though, that the former president maintained a discreet bevy of mistresses.) We therefore readily accepted Moi as a bachelor by choice. A tall man who maintained good posture, dressed impeccably and exuded authority, Moi cultivated an ascetic persona and his robust form was attributed to a disciplined lifestyle that embraced a strong work ethic, eschewed alcohol and made sound nutritional choices. Moi also portrayed himself as a good Christian, scrupulously keeping up appearances of religiosity. He was the embodiment of the Jogoo (KANU’s party symbol), the dominant cockerel in the homestead, reinforcing his virility with a phallic symbol in the form of a rungu, a ceremonial club that became the subject of intense fascination among the youth.

I didn’t know anything about Moi’s own father or the stories of his childhood and how his upbringing influenced his adult life. That part of his life remained shrouded in mystery and in its place was the single story of an orphan boy from a humble background who, despite the adversity of the early years, was divinely destined for leadership.

Moi mirrored the stern father figure in the patriarchal tradition and Kenya was thus caricatured as a household with diverse personalities dominated by a harsh father who terrorised all into submission, a father who brooked no dissent and was consumed by anger. This is the male persona many of my generation experienced as the norm and Moi was just the extreme manifestation of a familiar parental figure. And so, while his methods were questionable, his motivation could be rationalised. He was the product of the prevailing cultural mindset.

Fathers start out as heroes to their children. The father epitomises the ideal a child aspires to become. It is the role of the father to bless the innocent child as he welcomes it into the world. A father who loses the capacity to bless becomes a curse to his children. So when a father turns abusive, the loss of trust overwhelms the psyche and pushes the child into a state of learned helplessness. A friend described being forced to watch as his father viciously caned the problem child of a large family as a more traumatising emotional experience than the actual physical punishment.

The overbearing personality of the father of the nation was familiar within many Kenyan households. But it is only after I became a father that I began to realise that a father’s bravado and outward show of strength is often a cover for vulnerability and in a culture where vulnerability is a sign of weakness, the façade is maintained even after the death of a patriarch.

Moi was not a relaxed man. He was rigid and vindictive. So when Mwai Kibaki came along with his unhurried manner and famed love of beer, the physical and emotional contrast between the two men was glaring. Kibaki came accompanied by a first lady, Lucy Kibaki, who had her own voice. The country witnessed the drama of a president’s private affairs playing out in public and a sense of vulnerability never previously seen from the holder of that high office. Kibaki was not pretending that he had it all together and he did not seem particularly bothered to be judged weak. Kibaki’s successor, Uhuru Kenyatta, has been humanised by the calm presence of his wife Margaret Kenyatta, despite the overriding sense of an irresponsible father completely divorced from the effects of his actions on those under his care. However, it remains apparent that Moi’s exaggerated masculinity has become the default position for political posturing. The Nyayo years birthed an alpha male complex that is still thriving and where politics is a charade of might, on display for the single purpose of retaining power, and that often involves violence.

It is difficult to mend a relationship with a father who uses violence to obtain validation. The refusal to forgive becomes an act of justice for those who have endured suffering. One can respect the context of the offender but forgiveness is much harder to arrive at without the active and honest participation of the offender. So many adopt a victim mentality, since we are socialised into a culture of violence that arose from the legacy of colonialism, and brutality is accepted as a rite of passage into adulthood.

The betrayal of a father figure and the shame the victim endures feeds an anger that can become self-consuming, leaving one feeling helpless. This is a national condition that has set in with the complete loss of trust in the ruling elite’s motivations, and is compounded by a sinking sense of entrapment because, even though Moi—personified as the original tormentor—is dead, his disciples still rule in the house that he built. It is the collective trauma of a generation communicating loudly in a silence that has been mistaken for solemnity. Death offers some exoneration, for it allows for courage to voice out one’s truth as an exercise in closure and as part of the process of forgiving a father shackled by his own notoriety.

In a society that retains rituals that build and preserve the community of the ruling elites, the citizens who are held hostage and turned against each other in the contest for power by the elites lose all hope of justice. After the conflict, the elites perform elaborate rituals of redemption and reconciliation while the citizens, torn by violence, are left with the bitterness of sharing space with their offenders. The leaders, guided by firm precedent, are never accountable for their excesses and those who have suffered under them learn to grieve in private.

The elaborate charade of Moi’s redemption ritual has been exhausting, knowing that those who share responsibility for the transgressions of the Moi regime continue to manufacture their own narratives of conversion. As justice is deferred, memory becomes the last space for contest but even that is no longer sacred.

To achieve closure for past atrocities and inhumanities and bring healing, one has to remember correctly. Though we are socialised to forget our pains through the doctrine of “accept and move on”, Sigmund Freud warned that we repeat what we don’t want to remember. Memory is necessary for healing for it aids in scrutinising the motives of the offender and the circumstances that gave birth to those motives so that we do not end up becoming what we hate. Psychologists talk of the limitation of focusing hate on a father when the problem lies beyond him. In understanding the circumstances that created the father, we gain a real chance to liberate ourselves from the bondage of our past.

We are a generation that seeks closure yet the death of a father figure only seems to have opened an old wound that we thought had healed. Therefore, we are called upon to engage in an honest introspection of the Nyayo era in order to understand what it takes to initiate the exercise of healing and reconciliation. Beyond the apportioning of guilt, the bigger task is to restore the broken social fabric that is devastating our communities. We need new rituals in the face of an impotent justice system, to get the offenders and the victims to share the bitter herb of truth lest we give over our whole lives to defending our positions and forgetting the value of restoring the disrupted social harmony in society. And it starts with acknowledging that Nyayo broke us and that our pieces were scattered to the four winds.

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Reflections

The Contested Narratives of a Dead Man’s Legacy

8 min read. Kenyans are passionately split into two constituencies: those that remember the late former president Daniel Arap Moi as vile and reprehensible and those that remember him as a benign Baba. But it is our duty to critique him, to hold him accountable for his wrongs, and to allow the stories he suppressed to be told. This is necessary as it is also cathartic, an exercise that can be the beginning of an exorcism that this country’s troubled soul so desperately needs.

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The Contested Narratives of a Dead Man’s Legacy
Croes, Rob C. / Anefo, Daniel arap Moi 1979b, CC BY-SA 3.0 NL
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The death of former president Daniel Toroitich Arap Moi has drawn mixed reactions from various   quarters. On social media, there are those who are feting his strengths, from his health and discipline in keeping physically fit, to the Maziwa ya Nyayo school feeding programme, to keeping Kenya “an island of peace”. Then there are those who remember him as the man who ruled Kenya with an iron fist, under whose regime there were several hugely controversial and still unresolved murders, most glaringly that of former foreign affairs minister Robert Ouko. Then there are those others who, in cynical Kenyan fashion, are demanding a public holiday because, well, am not sure why, but that’s just the Kenyan condition, in its fearful and wonderful glory. To say the reaction to Moi’s death is a mixed bag is an understatement. That different people have different ideas of his legacy should not be something to be resisted but something to be accepted and celebrated.

I remember as a child in the early 90s sitting with my late dad, an avid historian—and my sisters, watching Moi on television addressing a huge crowd. One of my sisters wondered why people would choose to come out and cheer such an awful politician with such a terrible political record. (For context, I was born and raised in a region that made no bones about its disdain for Moi. Combine that with a household that approached politics with a critical fascination and that conversation wasn’t out of place.) It is my dad’s response that I so clearly remember: “Regardless of what we know or think about him, look at that turn-out, history will judge him as a popular man”.

In a country with a short memory, a terrible grasp of history and a hugely youthful population where more than two-thirds is under 25 years, it may be difficult to recall a time when the level of expression and openness we are currently experiencing was unheard of. That we can say what we think about the late president should be celebrated as a sign of freedom of expression, one that wasn’t available under his regime. Moi is like that elephant in the old poem that several blind men touched and interpreted to be different things. Just like the elephant was a wall, a fan, a tree, etc., Moi was a dictator, a tribalist, a corrupt individual, a political strategist of Machiavellian genius, the man who ruined a country, the tree planter, the gabion builder and, of course, just Baba. Baba who walked with his ivory rungu (with all its phallic symbolism), the emblem of his power and exclusivity. Moi was all these things to different people.

However one felt about Moi, we can collectively agree that Moi made his presence felt everywhere. It was in the way his activities dominated the news bulletins, in the way graduation ceremonies were at the mercy of his diary because he was chancellor of all public universities. It was in the way we were reminded of his benevolence through the milk that was periodically delivered to primary schools. It was in the way development projects were withheld from areas of the country he perceived as opposed to him. It was in the way schools and other public institutions were named after him. It was in the way he hired and fired senior government officials on a whim and kept them glued to the one o’clock news. How he mastered and liberally weaponised divide-and-rule politics, creating and destroying political careers like the all-powerful sovereign he had fashioned himself to be. It was in the various random acts of kindness he extended to certain citizens, for which the recipients were eternally loyal whilst others viewed them as nothing but exercises in pious performativity. It was in the way he named a public holiday after himself and on the very first Moi Day got the popular Congolese musician Mbilia Bel, then in the prime of her career, to re-write one of her hits and perform the song live, in praise of his regime. And it goes without saying that the song was played all the time on national radio. Many other songs were composed in his praise, ad hoc compositions for the numerous Harambees he attended. Moi also captured the national imagination with his almost invisible private life. The wife we only heard about but never saw, not to mention the rumours of the incident that led to her banishment. Moi captured the state, made the ruling party KANU his domain, and remained a fixture in the visuals and imagination of Kenyan citizens. He was The Sun King of his time, l’état, c’est moi could have been his alternative slogan, it certainly was the zeitgeist of the time for those who remember his rule.

It is Moi’s luck that he ruled at a time when the flow of information could be controlled by the government. With limited independent news and TV stations outside of the compromised state broadcaster, it was difficult to get news narratives outside of what the government wanted reported. Distances, in terms of geography, and lack of freedom of speech meant that we got to hear what the government wanted us to hear and any alternative stories were quickly killed, and if they couldn’t be contained, they would be easily delegitimised. Of course, it really helped that his regime existed in a technologically different time, before the era of citizen journalism. He did not have to deal with the narrowcasting headache of citizens practising everyday resistance by filming, shaming and naming his political misdeeds, socially organising beyond geographical limits and demanding political accountability.

And so there are stories that we will never know unless we actively endeavour to record them as part of our history. We will never know the accounts of the victims of tribal clashes in Kenya, particularly the 1992 clashes. The Parliamentary Select Committee chaired by Kennedy Kiliku compiled a report, popularly known as the Kiliku Report, but it was shot down by Members of Parliament and its findings aren’t available to the public. One of the few things we do know is that six cabinet ministers were adversely mentioned in the report and they wasted no time in pre-emptively lawyering up. This is but one example of the histories that we have failed to record under the Moi regime.

Reminders of Moi’s violence are present with us, physically and metaphorically. They are in the Nyayo House Torture Chambers where unspeakable acts of violence were committed against people whose only crime was to have a contrary imagination of societal happiness. They are in the shame of our complicit national silence, that we refuse to honour these individuals who risked so much to give us the political freedoms we enjoy today. The freedom that allows me to write this article, which at the time of my birth would have been labelled seditious material, eliciting dire consequences. It is in the failure to open the torture chambers to the public as a memorial to our dark history. We are reminded of him by the Nyayo Monument at Uhuru Park which looms over the city like an avenger ready to whip errant citizens back into line.

Perhaps Moi’s greatest political legacy is being felt today as his political acolytes of the early years of his rule now run the country. In a country that is struggling economically and experiencing a social breakdown of order of sorts, many have been quick to draw the symmetry between the current times and the economic dire straits of the Moi regime, especially from the 90s to the early 2000s. The Jubilee government has been kind to Moi, sanitised him some will say, and helped erase his little black book of political misdemeanours, leaving in its place the image of a benign granddaddy/Baba whose leadership Kenyans fondly miss and yearn for. More glaringly for those pursuing the symmetry angle, is the transition politics Kenya is currently undergoing. Deputy President William Ruto is facing hostility and frustration from sections of a government that he is part of, and this has been linked to efforts to prevent him from ascending to power in 2022 when President Uhuru’s term comes to an end. Ruto—who entered into a political pact with Uhuru Kenyatta in 2013 as a way of countering the charges brought against both of them at the International Criminal Court in The Hague—has been likened to Moi, who faced humiliation and opposition from a section of President Jomo Kenyatta’s regime.

As Kenyans get to express their various opinions about their second president, he will also be remembered abroad. For the people of South Sudan, there will be those that will remember the support Moi gave to the Sudan Mediation Process in one of Africa’s longest-running conflicts, a process that, under the stewardship of Rtd General Lazarus Sumbeiywo, led to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2005 and ultimately to the birth of South Sudan as a nation state in 2011. During the Sudan civil war, the Kenya government gave the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) leadership tacit support, allowing them and their families to live in Kenya and taking in refugees from South Sudan. Kenya’s role during the cold war cannot go without mention either. As a littoral state, geographically positioned in the horn of Africa, Kenya was of great interest to the Cold War powers. The country allied itself with the western capitalist bloc and proved to be a significant American ally, signing military agreements giving the US naval access at the coast. At a time when most countries in the Horn were deemed to be socialist-leaning, Kenya became a key entry point for the capitalist bloc in the proxy Cold War excursions in the Horn of Africa.

A lot can be written about Moi; these contested narratives about him should be taken as a boon, an opportunity to write the complete and contrary histories of this man who ran a country for 24 years as head of state but whose political career preceded the birth of Kenya as a nation state. This was a man who joined the Legislative Council in 1955, was part of the Lancaster House delegation of Kenyan leaders that negotiated our country’s independence. Moi was in the first opposition government of newly independent Kenya as a member of Kenya African Democratic Union, KADU. He served as a cabinet minister and eventually as vice-president under Jomo Kenyatta. All this took place more than two decades before he ascended to the presidency. All Kenyans, and specifically the critical thinkers of our time, ought to explore the structural consequences of Moi’s regime on the Kenyan condition. While Moi might have been credited with keeping Kenya peaceful during his tenure, as events in 2007/2008 would show, this was but a Potemkin village whose internal contradictions eventually unravelled. The vagaries of Moi’s regime, the physical, economic, political and psychological violence all took a toll on the nation state; something had to give. He perpetuated a political legacy that he had inherited, where the country was at the mercy of powerful political and economic interests keen on extracting and enriching themselves. Beyond the political repression were the economic consequences of his regime: rampant looting and corruption. It is our responsibility to critique these political and economic actions and their effect on the social breakdown of our society.

That we must deconstruct and interrogate Moi’s political career is not just about freedom of expression. It is our civic duty. It is our responsibility to future generations whose only glimpse into who this man was will be in the written and oral histories we will leave behind. We should as a nation engage with this man’s political career especially since he was present during so many critical political moments in Kenya’s history. Part of understanding our history involves understanding pivotal political personalities around this history. So we must critique him, we must hold him accountable for his wrongs, we must allow the stories he suppressed to be told. This is necessary as it is also cathartic. This exercise can be the beginning of an exorcism that this country’s troubled soul so desperately needs. From Moi’s death we can find life, we can choose to reconstruct what our country will look like into the future as we discard the ills his regime and those before him foisted on us. From these contested narratives we can set a new trend where we honour dead public figures by thoroughly examining what their life as public leaders was. This is how we create a culture of transparency and accountability, holding our public leaders accountable in life and even in death, particularly those whom we couldn’t fully hold to account during their lifetime. Ours is a nation with a troubled soul and this could be the beginning of our healing.

Moi’s death will certainly expose Kenyans to an experience similar to what Zimbabweans went through following the death of their founding father, Robert Mugabe, in 2019. There are those that will love him and will let that love come shining through. There are those that will hold him accountable for the grievous political, economic and social injury he inflicted on the country and its citizens. For those whom he wronged, the victims that never received recognition, compensation and/or closure, they will experience a myriad of emotions; from anger at justice miscarried, to sadness. It is a time they are likely to relive their trauma at the hands of the former president. The Kenya government position is clear: instructions for flags to be flown at half-mast, national mourning up until the burial, and a state funeral. A hero’s send-off. Given that the President and Deputy President have a shared history with the late former president, this doesn’t come as a surprise. For the rest of Kenyans, we are passionately split into two constituencies: those that remember him as vile and reprehensible and those that remember him as Baba. Then there is that other constituency that couldn’t care less, the one that just wants a public holiday.

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