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‘Why Are You Running Running?’ Losing My Freedom on Nairobi’s Badass Streets

9 min read. Moi Avenue at this time of night is like a river, with predators on both sides of the banks. Herds are crossing the valley oblivious that they are prey; the beasts are lurking everywhere, camouflaged, waiting. A stray member of the herd may just step into their snare.

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'Why Are You Running Running?' Losing My Freedom on Nairobi’s Badass Streets
Photo: Oluwakemi Solaja on Unsplash
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I generally consider myself a happy person. My body speaks for me most of the times, my excitement lifting me up to a low tree branch, just to touch it. It sometimes strikes me with bolts and sprints, and you might find me racing against no one in particular, sidesteps, goosesteps, jump steps.

A close friend once described me as an excessively physically active person, even for a male. He made sure to remind me of this “fact” when were walking together in town. He said to me, “Considering our physiques, you need to minimise your jumping around. We aren’t so big, but just realise you might scare an innocent person or draw unwanted attention to us.” I don’t know if I have scared anyone yet, but I have certainly got the unwanted attention. Three times so far; twice in the space of one week.

***

The first incident.

There is some sort of radio communication from the Israeli Embassy’s watchtower. Officers on the ground patrol the road, and the guard at Fairview hotel also monitors the movements outside. Probably wanting to be part of the action, the guard stops me first and asks, “What is wrong, why are you running running?!”

I hold my calm and ask, “Am I not supposed to run here?” I could have added that this is a public road, and I was practising my freedom of movement whether by walking or running. But two intimidating figures suddenly engulf me.

“Do you know this is a protected area?” one of them asks. He’s in a pair of jeans, denim shirt and black baseball cap, and could have easily passed for an ordinary person on the street if it weren’t for the radio on his side.

“Why are you running running behind a car, do you want us to think you are a terrorist?”

“Are you a Kenyan?”

The questions come in such quick succession that I don’t know which one to respond to first.

So I just say, “yes”, and hand over my ID. His colleague just stands there, saying nothing, probing with his eyes.

My place of birth is Kapsengere, a village in a place called Kapkerer in Terik. They must have considered it remote enough to not be able to produce a terrorist. They advise me not to make myself conspicuous, and then they smile to themselves as they return to position. A naive villager. I want to think this was the reason they let me go, but hindsight gives me a different view which you are going to see when I tell you my third run-in with security agents.

But first, the second incident.

I was stopped on the same road again, at the junction opposite Loreto Valley Road. I had noticed a Red Beret watching me walk down 3rd Ngong Avenue. He stopped me and asked me what I had in my bag. I told him it was my laptop and books. I opened the bag and let him see inside it and then he let me go. But he didn’t look satisfied. Since then, I have been avoiding 2nd and 3rd Ngong Avenue as I go to the library from Valley Road; I’ve been taking the much longer route on 1st Ngong Avenue. I’ve been telling myself that it doesn’t matter, a road is just a road; what matters is that I get to the library, right?

***

And now, the third incident.

It’s a few minutes past midnight but the night feels young. I’m walking fast, partly skipping and hopping, towards Bus Station trying to get there before the last matatu leaves town. I’m turning right at Naivas on Kenyatta Avenue towards the National Archives on Moi Avenue. Moi Avenue is that conveyor of the city’s nightlife that cuts the city into two, from Memorial Park all the way to Jeevanjee Gardens. The western side of the road is uptown, the other side is downtown.

Moi Avenue at this time of night is like a river, with predators on both sides of the banks. Herds are crossing the valley oblivious that they are prey; the beasts are lurking everywhere, camouflaged, waiting. A stray member of the herd may just step into their snare.

Just as I cross on the other side, I see a commotion. Two older men are throwing kicks and blows at a young man fixed between a canteen and a shoe shine stand. There are three other men around who do not seem disturbed by what’s going on. I didn’t need to think twice about it. It was obviously a robbery. I shout, and run to help the guy. It never occurred to me I would need more than a good heart and legs with this one.

Kijana, we ndo unatetea huyu hapa, mko pamoja na yeye eh?” (Young man, so you are defending this guy because you are together?)The gang pulls me in and is about to drag me on the ground when two Administration Police (AP) officers show up.

Afisa… Afisa nisaidieni!” Help me, I cry out loud, but the gang is not at all shook by their presence. The police officers on their part seem not to be in any kind of rush.

Afisa!” I cry out again, this time with my big voice, and it sends both parties cracking in laughter.

Hao pia ni afisa,” (those are also cops), the APs announce as they pass, leaving me in the hands of five men, all plainclothes officers.

We ni activist sindio, hebu fungua hiyo bag tuone uko na nini ndani!” (You’re an activist, right? Open your bag and let’s see what you have inside it!)

They call me an activist because I was rushing to someone’s aid.

I empty all the contents of my bag on the dusty pavement. Two of the officers fan out; one stands next to a lamp post, another lingers on the opposite side. The remaining three encircle me in the middle, where they alternate in interrogating me.

Hii ni laptop yako, ebu washa?” (This is your laptop, right? Turn it on.)

Haina battery na inahitaji moto kuwaka,” (The battery is dead), I say, holding it out for them to see. I’d just started to breathe easy again when they hit me with a totally unexpected plot twist.

Wapi risiti yake?” (Where’s its [purchase] receipt?)

Sina,” I tell them. (I don’t have it).

Haya. Rudisha vitu zako ndani ya bag, uende ukae na yule rafiki yako muliiba naye.” (OK. Put your things back in your bag, and go sit next to your friend and fellow thief.)

I settle next to a man humbled to silence by a proper beating.

“Eh… so you are a student?” The unit leader now speaks. He is a tall, light-skinned man in his forties whom we shall call Tooth. (He has at least two missing teeth in his lower jaw.) He says this while cuffing my left hand the man’s right one. I didn’t want to think about what this meant, choosing instead to focus on the question. I answer him.

“Storyteller and writer.”

Sasa hii yote inafanyika you are going to write eh?” Tooth asks. (Oh, so you’re going to write about all this?) It’s rhetorical, but my gut’s intention is to keep the conversation going,

Hapana! Naandika history na oral literature.” (No! I write history and oral literature).

Haya, pigeni stori na huyo jamaa akwambie kile amefanya.” (OK, so talk to that guy and let him tell you what he’s done.) Tooth climbs up to the seat of the shoe-shining stall, not looking, but surely keeping an eye on us with his ears.

For the first time I engage “the suspect”. He has been squatting silently, as if he was trying to make himself disappear.

Me nilikuwa tu nimetulia pale,” pointing to other side of the road, “Mse mwingine tu akakam akaniambia tuende tunyang’anye huyu kijana hapa simu, kidogo kidogo nikaskia watu wameanza kunipiga. Hata sijui ule jamaa, mi nasukumanga trolley huko Bus Station.” (I was just chilling on the other side of the road, and some guy told me we should go grab a phone from a boy who was standing here. Before I knew it people were beating me up. I didn’t even know the guy; I push a trolley there at Bus Station).

He adjusts the sleeves of his jacket. I notice he has a silver watch on his left wrist, and a closer look at him shows a face that appears too clean for someone who just got kicks and fists to his head. Now, another person I had not noticed before says he is the victim, and insists that the suspect was holding a broken glass bottle that was used in the robbery.

Unaona sasa, watu kama hawa ndo unataka kutetea. Ingekuwa ni wewe, tuseme akudunge na chupa ungesema nini?” Tooth says. (Now see, people like these are the ones you want to defend. If he had stabbed you with the broken bottle what would you have said?)

For a moment, Tooth seems empathetic, and I almost get Stockholm syndrome, trying to see things from my oppressor’s point of view. I actually almost feel safe in this moment. With the police, and not the thieves. Wait, I am cuffed together with a thief!

Meanwhile the other officers are on a harvest in the streets. All the targets are young males. Their first catch is a short young man in a black cap with combat (military fatigue) patterns on the front.

Kijana, we ndo unajifanya unataka kuvaa kama sisi?” (Young man, so you want to wear clothes similar to ours?) The young man is frisked head to toe then told to sit down on the steps of the stall, cuffed to a metal bar.

The second catch surprises me, a street boy barely thirteen years of age brought to Tooth. He (the boy) is not a Nairobian; this I know from the scanty Kiswahili and Kisii he won’t stop speaking. Let’s call him Sokoro.

Mbona mnafuata fuata watu mkiwasumbua, iko wapi simu?” (Why are you following following people and disturbing them, where’s the [stolen] phone?) Tooth demands of the boy as another cop warms his palms on Sokoro’s cheeks. He cries a few things in Kisii before he is gagged and left in the hands of Tooth.

Tooth is a real beast. He grabs Sokoro’s arm and starts twisting it, not for a moment setting his eyes off the boy who lets out a painful cry. He stops then repeats his question.

Sokoro is now silent. Tooth is irritated. He brings him closer to where I am and uses the metal bar the combat boy is chained to as a fulcrum. I helplessly watch as Tooth twists and pulls Sokoro’s arm like he would if he wanted to break an adult’s.

Aaah…aki unanivunja, wacha wacha…” (Stop, please…You’re breaking my arm!) Sokoro screams with tears now welling up his eyes. Tooth pulls one last time then stops.

The other beasts are still harvesting. Two unsuspecting young men, both in beanie hats, are about to be flagged. One of them senses it and tries to escape but the grid is locked. Tooth mentions something about young men dressed like them (in beanie hats, tight pants, sports shoes and Timbaland boots) being troublesome. The procedure is simple and the same for everyone: stop, show ID, get frisked then proceed to the ground after shackling.

Sokoro has broken free! He is running and screaming at the same time. His small frame was his key out the cuffs, but it is also his weakness; he never gets far.

Tooth is the first to land his hand on our boy when he is forced down. Another beast opens his arms wide for a clap. Sokoro is in between. I look away and prepare myself to forget what I’m about to hear.

“Now you want to tell me this one is not a criminal?” Tooth is addressing me now. “Whoever defends such people becomes an equal partner in crime, what we call an accessory. You don’t run shouting, ama do you know each other?”

Then he surprises me by saying, “Haya, tafuta kifunguu ya pingu.” (Look for the keys to your handcuffs.) There is a bunch of keys in his hand; in the middle is a small key, the cuff key. I look at him, then back at the keys.

“Si you say you are a literature man, tafuta kifunguu ya pingu.” It takes me a while to figure out what he meant – he wanted money. I had two hundred shillings in my pocket; I tell him I have only one.

Tooth opens the cuffs and sends me to his partner, “Enda nunulia yeye credit.” (Go buy him some airtime.) The cop refuses to take my one hundred shillings. I go for my bag next to Tooth’s seat, and before I leave Tooth’s partner takes out a pen and notebook, writes my name, ID number and phone number and declares, reading out my name first ,“You are an accessory, an aide to criminal activity and we have pardoned you.”

My legs trembled all the way to the National Archives, with cold air freezing my bones. I never wanted it to be the case of Lot’s wife, and my body seemed to understand this very well. The universe seemed to understand this too, and I walked stiffly all the way to Bus Station. I was glad to be safe, to be heading home. But what about Sokoro? Tortured for being helpless and homeless. What about the others? The combat guy, the beanie hat guys. The ones who were equally innocent as myself. They never did anything, what about them?

***

The Moi Avenue incident is obviously the most violent encounter I have had with the beasts compared to the other two. However, the Red Beret encounter is the scariest one now that I think about it; I was one of the beanie hat boys but on the right side of town, the other side of Moi Avenue. His dissatisfaction with my innocence is the same dissatisfaction Tooth and his unit had with the young men’s innocence, based on just their dressing. It didn’t matter that they passed every test they set; they looked like criminals and were therefore guilty.

My physical appearance that night with Tooth and Company was almost formal; I didn’t fit the profile. At the Israeli Embassy though, I was in jeans and a T-shirt, generally a sporty look. If I had a beard and hair on my head, would things have been different?

In hindsight, there are many reasons why I’m still a free man. Key among them is that I probably did not fit the profile of a criminal or terrorist at the time of the encounters, and when I did, I was in a privileged side of town where things tend to go down much different – where the benefit of doubt is afforded.

I changed my route to 1st Avenue, avoiding 2nd Avenue that is much closer to the library. Just to be safe.

But why do I have to go through all this? I do not want to have to change my route because Israelis feel unsafe with me running outside their embassy in my country. I don’t want to change my dressing, my hair’s look; I do not want to suppress my joy and happiness.

I want to be able to speak when something goes wrong; I do not want to pretend I do not know that torturing a crime suspect or a minor is wrong. I do not want to feel unsafe whenever I am around people who are supposed to protect me. I do not want to be scared, to feel helpless enough to want to give a bribe.

I do not want to be estranged from myself. I want to be free.

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Bulimu Chole is a poet and a fiction writer

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
Photo: Matt Chesin on Unsplash
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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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