In the year 2003, when I was a second-year student at Kenyatta University, news of Dr. Odhiambo Mbai’s assassination broke. It was a time in Kenya when political tensions around constitutional amendments were rising like dark ominous clouds, engulfing the national psyche.
Dr. Mbai was the opposition’s lead in the negotiations that were taking place around the new constitution. It was a quiet day at Kenyatta University before a loud war cry tore through the morning air. Someone must have heard from the news on the radio or watched breaking news on television in the common room that Dr. Mbai had been murdered.
Upon hearing the news, we ran out of our lecture halls onto Thika Road, blocked it, and exploded our anger on innocent unsuspecting motorists. Thika Road was our coliseum, a place where we found some relief from the bloody plays we had with Kenya’s riot police. We needed to be heard by our government, and we were following a script that the government had taught us. To survive, one needed to be faster, more ruthless and more efficient than a government that took pride in its monopoly of corruption and brutality.
In the next few days, Thika road would be full of all sorts of debris, blood and tear gas smoke. We wanted to know why Dr. Mbai was killed, and who was responsible. We would have not protested, but Kenya being a place where justice is as scarce as life-saving medicines in public hospitals, we needed to register our anger somehow.
Most of us did not care much about the details of the constitution. It sounded like a bulky document, too complex and beyond the comprehension of the common Kenyan. It was, like any political tussle, defining the fault lines along tribal affiliations. My major attraction to it was that Raila Odinga and many other progressives were behind it. And that Dr. Mbai had paid with his life for it. And that two of my comrades, one from the same hostel as me, had been shot during these riots. In the midst of all the tear gas and gunshots, I knew I was living some realities that I had only watched on television.
In the following weeks, we succeeded in forcing the university to provide us transport to Mbai’s funeral. At the funeral, we were met by multitudes of people mourning in confusion, anger and loss. Many had walked on foot from afar, in the hot tropical sun, to join in the mourning. I am not sure if these personal sacrifices were inspired by a strong sense of connectedness to the struggle or some form of communal kinship.
At the funeral, I ran into my younger brother, who had traveled from Moi University. There was something eerily familiar at this funeral. I felt like I was walking on a path I was aware of, one that my grandparents and parents had walked before. It was one darkened with an engulfing sense of loss and helplessness of an entire community.
I went home later that day and I sought out my grandfather. As an ardent supporter of multi-party democracy, and by extension Jaramogi Odinga and then Raila Odinga, I wanted to hear his thoughts. I was also seeking comfort in his eyes that had experienced similar pain. We would take turns swimming in the sea of communal grief. He counted on his fingers and toes the numbers of young, industrious and pioneering men from the Luo community who had been assassinated since the community migrated with Odinga into the opposition. This decision would start a quest for power and democracy, a quest that would turn the community into a hunting ground for a bloodthirsty government.
Prior to Mbai’s death, the concept of being a Luo in Kenya, though occupying most of my early childhood, was abstract. I knew we had issues with the government and we were paying a steep communal price for it. My young mind could glean from the heated political discussions in our household that Luos were engaged in perpetual struggle with powers that were perceived to be the Government of Kenya. I was also aware that prominent members of the Luo community were under active persecution.
In this environment, it was a burdensome task reconciling my national identity with my ethnic identity. Tension was always in the air, in the daily news bulletins, in the local dailies. It was dangling precariously in our household too, ready to drop at the dinner table and explode into emotional political diatribe. I could feel the tension in my father’s vociferous lamentations about the systematic exclusion of Luos from the national government. The people in the government were eating and we were poor. Our time would come. Before that, we needed to consolidate all efforts behind Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, and Raila Odinga thereafter. The two were the only anointed vehicles for our economic and political emancipation.
I knew that efforts at consolidating an entire community were met by ambivalence in some sections. The debate about opposition politics being a Luo agenda or the Odinga family’s ambition was a topic that was approached with utmost care, lest one slide and fall into the unwanted pile of traitors. This was a no-go zone unless one wanted to pry open community scars, like Tom Mboya’s assassination. This debate also always ended with someone yelling the word traitor at another person. The same word, traitor, was yelled in our household whenever a Luo accepted a cabinet appointment from President Daniel arap Moi during the infamous one o’clock news bulletin on KBC.
I knew the region we occupied, the vast Luo Nyanza that straddles the shores of Lake Victoria to the sugarcane belt, was deliberately marginalised. The roads were broken, the hospitals bearing the greatest weight of malaria and HIV were subjects of justification by NGOs for grants to save the people. Kisumu residents, seated on the shores of an expansive lake, were thirsty for liberation and for clean water to drink.
One of these traitors was Ojwang’ Kombudo. When Kombudo expressed support for Moi – an action that required public prostration with effusive praises lathering on Moi – he became a traitor. His support for Moi introduced the community to the good life that came with support for Moi, KANU and the government – his constituents in Nyakach enjoyed a short period of piped water and electricity. Like a pimp, Moi had his hand firmly on the Kenyan cookie jar, opening it to dish goodies to his cronies, with the most subservient getting the most, including opportunities to loot public funds.
Kombudo did not last long. In 1992, a wave of opposition gripped Luoland to the last man. Denis Akumu from Ford-Kenya replaced him. President Moi got into a fit of rage, sent government people in uniform to remove water pipes, including the ones that were at my grandfather’s gate. Electricity poles were not spared either. Once again, like a political pimp, Moi and his government were reminding the Luo community of the costs of supporting opposition. The remnants of broken pipes and vandalised water points, including one just near my grandfather’s homestead, serve as a reminder of the costs of voting against the government of the day.
In addition to marginalisation, there were deaths too. The first one I learned of was that of Argwings Kodhek. (I had an uncle named after him though I did not know the weight of memory that the name carried.) I came to learn of its significance listening to the songs of Gabriel Omolo, a popular Luo musician. In a deep sonorous voice, with each beat punctuated with pain, Gabriel mourned Kodhek. As if his lyrics could bring Kodhek to life, Gabriel pleaded with Kodhek’s killers to let Kodhek enjoy the fruits of his toil. It did not help that my grandfather played this song every other weekend before gazing deeply into the landscape of Nyakach – a landscape at the mercy of soil erosion, its nutrients washing away helplessly, just like the Luo community that was getting wiped out by the ferocious forces of multiparty politics and repression.
This would all end. There was a religious conviction that all these sorrows would be magically washed away when one of our own got into power. It was, therefore, imperative that the community united to the last man in support of the Odingas.
The communal wound from Argwing Kodhek’s mysterious death had not yet healed when six months later, Thomas Joseph Mboya fell to an assassin’s bullet in Nairobi. Mboya’s star shone far beyond Kenya. His wide and deep influence was evident in his friendship with influential Americans, such as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. He was also the first Kenyan to grace the cover of Time magazine in 1960. His assassination, therefore, not only sent shockwaves around the country, but internationally as well.
Within Kenya, Mboya’s assassination sent a chilling reminder to young ambitious people that no one would be spared when Jomo Kenyatta’s presidency was threatened. My grandfather bemoaned how Mboya’s rich connections, as well as his prominence in the government and abroad, could not save him. Mboya’s death continues to be one of the biggest “what if” moments for the Luo community. What if he had lived? What if he had never gone to that pharmacy on Government Road (now known as Moi Avenue)? What if he had joined the opposition with Odinga? The threat was real, whether in government or in opposition. It did not matter where one’s star shone. It only mattered that its shine did not threaten the status quo.
The Luo community persisted after these assassinations. There was a shared belief that Kenya needed change in leadership and assassinations would not break their zeal. The differences between Jaramogi and Jomo Kenyatta continued to fester like a cancerous wound. Four months after the assassination of Tom Mboya, Jomo Kenyatta made a two-day historic official tour of the region, ostensibly to familiarise himself with development projects there. The Luo community, still mourning Mboya, rebelled. Kenyatta’s guards reacted violently, shooting dead 11 protestors.
The extent of communal loss between January 1969, when Argwings died, to Mboya’s assassination in July of the same year and the Kisumu massacre three months later pointed to a systematic attempt at violent subjugation of the Luo community. The occurrences of those days are passed from generation to generation as a slow and painful narration of how the government killed Mboya, then came to our town and killed more when all we needed was to be left alone.
This year marks fifty years since those fateful events. The people who lived through that period, like my grandfather, have very hardened souls and a very strong suspicion of the government. It does not help that during each election cycle, regions occupied by the Luo community become over-policed and over-militarised and young people of the community become fair game when elections results are disputed.
I was only six months old when the coup failed. A good number of the soldiers involved were from Nyakach, my maternal grandfather’s home. And their misguided ambition had thrown the community into the dark underbelly of Kenyan politics.
As expected, the failed August 1982 coup entrenched government paranoia of young Luos. President Moi’s government essentially implemented systematic exclusion of young people from Luoland and other communities perceived to be sympathetic to the opposition from recruitment into the police and armed forces. This was a big blow to the quotidian life of the community. In a struggling economy with a rapidly growing population, the armed forces and the police provided sources of income and employment to healthy young people. By blacklisting young men and women from the Luo community, the government imposed a form of official economic depression on this community as an additional tool aimed at forcing them into political subjugation.
There were other deaths of note at the time when Raila was placed in detention after the attempted coup. The most prominent of these in the mid-1980s was that of the Gem MP, Horace Ongili. The immediate former area MP, Otieno Ambala, one of the leading suspects, was arrested and charged with the murder along with six other suspects. However, after a few months in jail, he collapsed and died of a heart attack. There was a feeling within the community and across the country that he too was killed to shield the real killers.
Nonetheless, this tragedy robbed the Luo community of two prominent leaders within a span of six months. This was a scary déjà vu moment, since Kodhek and Mboya had been assassinated approximately six months apart. The community felt that the government was eliminating prominent Luo males or imprisoning them in order to subdue the community’s will to fight. The government seemed to be reading from the same script that the colonialists used against the Kikuyu and other communities fighting for independence in Kenya.
In the early 1990s, as the opposition was gaining a very strong foothold in western Kenya, Dr. Robert Ouko’s star started rising within President Moi’s government. Dr. Ouko’s presence in the government meant that Moi had started looking at Luos in a slightly better light. He began visiting schools and dishing money in big brown envelopes during harambees and to delegations that visited him at State House. The benefits of “having our own” closer to the presidency was becoming evident.
This did not last long. In February 1990, Dr. Ouko was abducted from his home and killed in one of the most gruesome cases Kenya has ever witnessed. The Luo community’s grief was palpable. I was only eight years old and I remember violent riots in the streets of Kisumu. I remember my dad pacing, gesturing and talking with my uncle, who was a university student then, late into the night, angry at something. All universities were closed as rioting students burned their grief and rage in bonfires of lament. When Moi decided that he would forcefully attend Ouko’s funeral accompanied by hundreds of armed riot police officers, university students chanted to Moi, “You killed him, you burnt him, now eat him!” Another prominent Luo, Hezekiah Oyugi, who was the Minister for Internal Security, died in mysterious circumstances two years later, in June 1992. Ouko and Oyugi, like Mboya, were not spared, despite the fact that they were staunch supporters of the government.
In 2007, I directly witnessed loss in the form of post-election violence resulting from disputed elections. My job as a public health researcher in Kisumu exposed me to untold community suffering. In the free medical camps that had been organised by local NGOs, men and women, thousands in numbers, would show up with bodies broken and maimed by bullets. It was like a scene from what I imagined a war-torn country to be. I did not talk about these horrors with my grandfather because they overwhelmed me. They were close, inescapable and frightening.
During the 2017 elections, not much had changed. The violence continued, with over 300 people, even young children, dying from police violence. Several hundreds were shot and maimed too.
A couple of weeks before the August 2017 elections, Chris Msando, an ICT Director at Kenya’s election commission, was abducted, tortured and killed before his body was dumped in a forest. Again, there was another chilling reminder that there was a price to pay by anyone who was perceived to be an impediment to the status quo. This was almost fifty years after Kodhek and Mboya’s assassinations, and targeted killings have not stopped.
One of my early childhood memories is when Raila Odinga was released from detention in 1988. As a child, I was fascinated by my grandfather’s surprise that Raila did not die in prison. Most people, having known how ruthless Moi’s regime was, had expected Raila not to survive jail. I could sense massive euphoric relief when Raila walked out of detention alive. My grandfather regaled me with tales of how Raila’s magical powers saved him. How he could turn into a fly on a wall in State House and listen to plans to assassinate him. They said he would then fly back to prison and surprise his killers with his knowledge of their plans beforehand, throwing them into total confusion.
Then there was the swearing-in ceremony of 2018, and the lack of charges against Raila when others like Miguna Miguna continue to be forcefully exiled. Was this also due to Raila’s magical powers? Or was it a result of a savvy politician levering fanatical support from the community as insurance and a bargaining chip for personal political ambitions? This is where the lines get blurred. When we cannot clearly delineate the boundaries of communal ambitions and individual ambitions, it is hard to tell what we are giving our lives for.
And at the end of the road, when we weigh all the losses – both physical and emotional – and place them on a scale, and then measure them against the recent handshake and the public display of brotherly love between Raila and Uhuru, do we see a perfect balance? No, there is no balance. And there will be no restitution. Not even an apology or acceptance of blame for all these deaths.
The weight of communal loss is always borne privately, silently and sometimes in shame by the poor. There are no monuments that can adequately capture all the losses the Luo community have experienced in the last fifty years.
And what if the community would have known that the path to this political and economic utopia could be forged by a handshake? Would the community have protected their youth better? Would they have stopped them from the suicidal choices of fighting with memory, anger and stones on sisal slings? Standing bare-chested before barrels of Kalashnikovs held by government-sponsored killers?
But then again, what options did we as a community have? At the end of the day, we are all Kenyans, burdened by our peculiarities, such as the ability to accept anything and move on to the next tragedy.
That is what happened after the handshake – everyone put a bandage on old and fresh wounds. The magical mantra “accept and move on” is being repeated again and again until everything looks like a distant memory.
But I can’t stop knowing what I know.
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Of Chapati, Identity and Migrant Politics in Europe
The common narrative is that imperialism, colonialism and Western staples have influenced the non-Western world. But the Global South too is impacting the West, one plate at a time.
In the mid-90s, my mother paid a visit to an aunt who had emigrated to Scandinavia and settled in Stockholm, Sweden, for over two decades. Of the many memories she held on to from that trip abroad, her most notable was the culture shock she suffered at a lunch that my aunt’s neighbour had hosted in honour of the guest from Africa.
Swedish staples were laid out: cinnamon buns, pancakes, pea soup, mashed potatoes, pickled cucumbers, cheese and lots of bread. After sampling foods that did not appeal to her palate, my mother turned to my aunt and whispered in Dholuo, a touch of concern in her voice, “Gikelo chiemo saa adi?” What time are they bringing out the food?
We are what we eat and food is a social identifier; being thousands of kilometres from home, my mother was simply looking for the familiar in a foreign place. The food choices that one makes are a significant indicator of one’s cultural identity in a foreign country. When significant numbers of Kenyans started seeking economic and educational opportunities in the West in the early 80s and 90s, the essential items that they would request to receive from home were largely food items.
Some of the most popular choices were maize flour, chapatis, Farmer’s Choice sausages, local flavours such as the Royco brand of food seasoning and indigenous green vegetables. Things have of course drastically changed. Foods from Asian, Mediterranean and African cultures that were once considered exotic are now readily available in the supermarkets of many European capitals.
Nothing says home like the taste of food. In fact, finding authentic African food becomes a way of finding one’s grounding and establishing social solidarity. When I moved from Kenya to a Dutch suburb just outside Amsterdam, one of the first things I went out in search of was our food.
Family members would call from home and ask with great concern whether I was able to find food. On one occasion, I turned on the video on my cell phone to show them the boiled corn I was chomping on that I had bought in an African market in Amsterdam; they were duly reassured.
The villager in Europe
My first Kenyan contacts in the Netherlands spent a great deal of time pointing out to me where in Amsterdam I could get “our food”. I was shown the Kenyan-owned restaurant where I could get a taste of home. I discovered the Biljmermeer neighbourhood in Zuidoost, the South-East of Amsterdam, known for its African presence drawn from Suriname, the former Dutch colony in South America, and the significant constituency of West African immigrants.
I was pointed to the Moroccan neighbourhoods in Nieuw-West for authentic shawarma, and for rotis and chapatis, to the Asian supermarkets dotting the Amstelveen suburbs that cater to a growing South-Asian expatriate community.
As a conscious pan-Africanist raising young children in a European capital, my food choices have become something of a political statement. I am reminded of assassinated Burkinabé revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara’s enduring statement:
“Where is imperialism? Look at your plates when you eat. These imported grains of rice, corn and millet — that is imperialism’’.
The common narrative is how, largely through imperialism, colonialism and the now dominant neo-liberal agricultural policies, and Western staples, particularly wheat, have influenced the non-Western world. What is not talked about enough is how the Global South is impacting the West, one plate at a time.
In a sense, Europe’s multicultural dynamics are best illustrated by the food on your plate. Besides the politics of identity that has set me off in search of flavourful sweet potatoes, cassava, indigenous vegetables, plantains and tilapia in pop-up African markets in Amsterdam, food has also become a big pointer of my multicultural influences. As an East African, my food choices are heavily influenced by South Asian and Middle-Eastern cuisines.
I remember the first Asian supermarket I spotted in the upmarket Amstelveen suburb of Amsterdam. When I walked in, I struck an immediate rapport with the storekeeper, establishing his country of origin, greeting him in Hindi and asking about the varieties of dhaal, dengu, beans, basmati rice, spices and, of course, chapati available. When I crossed over to a Middle-Eastern grocery store, I switched to an Arabic salutation to express the joy of finding familiar foods. An Ethiopian woman I met at a pop-up market remarked about Kenyan love of Indian food and my response turned into a historical lesson on the centuries of exchange between the East Coast of Africa and the Indian sub-continent via the Indian Ocean.
While African food is still limited to African hubs, with the occasional sighting of an Ethiopian or Eritrean restaurant, Asian-inspired cuisine is widespread. I can find chapatis in many places in Amsterdam and this points to how the humble chapati and pishori or basmati rice are perhaps the herald of the Asian century. Every European city now has a sampling of Asian fine dining restaurants, from Japanese, to Chinese, Indian, Korean, Indonesian and Thai cuisine.
Chapo lives matter
It is almost impossible to talk about culinary influences without encountering imperialism and resistance and the chapati movement serves as a great illustration of culinary globalisation. I have been thinking about the rapid rise of the chapati and the socio-political history of this popular South-Asian flat bread.
About a century ago, way before the arrival of British imperialism in Kenya, a curious incident occurred in India in 1857. Mark Thornhill, a British magistrate serving in the town of Muttra, now Mathura, discovered after some investigations that chapatis were travelling up to 300 kilometres across India. This bizarre distribution of chapatis set off the panic buttons in the British ranks.
The rapid movement of chapatis from hand to hand, village to village had all the markings of a conspiracy and a rebellion. Police runners would bake and hand over the chapatis to their colleagues who in turn would keep the chain going. The chapatis were unmarked and those who accepted the offering would make more batches and pass them along, sometimes moving them up to 300 kilometres in one night.
The chapati moved from village to village with the sort of efficiency that would today be described as viral. It did not help matters that the police were the conduits of this underground chapati railroad and a deep sense of unease spread across the British ranks. A revolt did eventually break out later that year and the movement of chapati was seen as part of the campaign of mobilisation.
While a century ago the chapati served as a symbol of agitation, and was the inspiration for a mutiny against British occupation, in the East African colony where the South-Asian labourers brought in to construct a railway from Mombasa in Kenya to Uganda had stayed on and built an influential minority community, the chapati would a century later emerge as a social leveller in Kenya.
In my formative years in the 70s and 80s, chapati was an exotic dish and a status food. Maize, the Kenyan staple, had been demoted to common fare and those wives who demonstrated the ability to make chapatis improved their social standing. Chapatis were a delicacy, only served during important feasts like Christmas and at highbrow weddings. In Nairobi today, the chapati is about the easiest food to find and consistent in its production across the board.
From the highbrow restaurants to the simple street food stalls, the chapati is the one common denominator. In a cash-strapped economy, chapati flour offers more value for money because of its versatility. It is easy to store, transport and can be consumed with a variety of accompaniments or on its own. Ugali, the dominant by-product of maize flour, lacks that kind of culinary diversity. Chapati is adaptable where ugali is not.
The great corn game
From the 1880s to the dawn of independence in the 60s, maize was the status food introduced by the British as a cheap food source for African farm labourers. With urbanisation and the introduction of wage labour and, later, mechanised mills, maize overtook millet and sorghum as the preferred food of the emerging elite who found it finer and more aspirational. It was considered sweeter, and it also doubled up as a cash crop.
In my home county of Siaya, celebrated historian E.S. Atieno Odhiambo argues in his book Siaya: The Historical Anthropology of an African landscape, that the introduction of maize into the texture of Siaya life was a mode of westernisation. Maize meal was known as kuon ongere, the white man’s ugali, eaten by those who had acquired a Western education. In the last 20 years or so, the chapati movement has grown. Presently, it is Kenya’s preferred fast food, more readily available than fried potato chips, and it has overtaken bread as a breakfast staple.
Chapati is made with wheat flour, and if we follow the logic of Yuval Noah Harari’s persuasive argument, in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, that the wheat plant manipulated and domesticated Homo Sapiens to its advantage to become the global staple leading to the westernisation of our diet, we could say that Asia is manipulating the global palate. South-East Asian nations are now the world’s largest wheat-importing regions and consequently we are witnessing an Asianisation of our diets, the most telling sign yet that the future is Asian.
The story of the chapati’s movement across Africa and Europe is also the story of the power of multiculturalism and how the Asian and African diasporas use food to assert their identities and influence the foreign cultures they integrate into. The Japanese took sushi global. Chinese takeaway is a popular cultural marker of the North American fast food culture.
What we cook and eat is more than symbolism. My desire to preserve my culture is manifested through my food choices and culinary practices and this is a trait common to all migrants who find themselves negotiating minority positions in dominant cultures.
Asia and Europe have a long history of trade and the modern Silk Road continues to assert its influence on European culture. The largest supermarket chain in the Netherlands, Albert Heijn, sells a range of products aimed at marking Ramadhan in a country where a far right populist figure and leader of the third largest political party, PVV, Geert Wilders is infamous for his anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant sentiments.
These new flavours from Asia and now Africa challenge dominant narratives in subtle ways. From the street corners of the colonies, they are now to be found on the high streets of Europe. Asia’s population and material prosperity has gained traction in Europe and its cuisine is no longer the stereotypical cheap fast food but is now part of an expanding repertoire of fine dining.
Europe as a globalized pantry
The influx of African foods in the Netherlands, for example, is directly linked to its growing African diaspora. It greatly surprises my mother, living in Kenya and worried that I may be subsisting on bread, ham and cheese, that I eat pretty much the same food I would eat in Kenya.
It might be logistically harder to source coarse maize flour than it is to find chapatis but I no longer have to have a contact in the airlines in order to get a taste of home abroad. The proliferation of other foods in Europe shows the varied pathways of culinary globalisation and the inevitability of change brought about by migration.
In some pockets of Europe, the growing influence of minority food cultures has become a political issue. In 2016, Denmark’s Ministry of Cultural Affairs carried out a poll seeking to identify core Danish values. One revealing pointer from this survey was the prominence of eating consumption in the responses, elevated as a symbol of Danish identity and interpreted as part of a culture war and a stance over migration.
In the Netherlands, the influence of the former Dutch colonies — notably Indonesia and Suriname — on the national cuisine is well established. Nasi Goreng, a rice-based meal introduced by Indo-Dutch people, fries with satay or peanut sauce, Suriname sandwiches locally known as Surinaamse broodjes, now count as national dishes.
Spices from the Dutch East Indies penetrated local cuisines and the Dutch embraced these new flavours from abroad in much the same way that the British love curry and favourite English food choices are South-Asian in character.
With the changing food supply chains in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the questions of food politics and identity are emerging more prominently. There is a growing sentiment of European food nationalism, where eating local is associated with patriotism. European consumers, particularly those from the South, are increasingly interested in where their food comes from in order to support local farmers and preserve their cultures from foreign influences.
Since food is a cultural identifier, Europe’s politics of identity and belonging is bound to continue playing out on your dinner table. The revolution you might be looking for might just start on your plate.
Reflections on Tyranny and Terror in Kenya Then and Now
How do we channel our emotions when the tyrant is this amorphous cold gel of capitalist corporations and totalitarian organisations?
I am over half a century old now, bald, aching in new places everyday, with more and more of my peers signalling the quickening approach of our generation to our graves by their affliction with new health problems every passing day.
Growing up in the Moi era in Kenya, one just grew up. No one I knew had any sense of teleology ; most of us just tried to survive, others endeavoured to prosper if they could.
This is the outcome for a society whose entire existence is premised on kowtowing to the desires of one man. All thought, speech and action — outside of those actions undertaken in the pursuit of fulfilling organic needs — were measured against the risk of offending Moi.
This obviously had the effect of stunting individual and collective thought.
Stunting collective thought regresses a society into superstition and imbecilic reasoning. For those who can remember that era, any tragic motor accident with massive casualties was always explained as some form of “occultic sacrifice”. Such tragic accidents had to be the consequence of some “unseen forces”. Institutional incompetence was never even remotely considered. Who’d have dared blame the Big Man’s government? Moi was “No.1 in everything”: agriculture, engineering, education… there were songs and poems praising the greatness of his genius, culminating in the highpoint of then Education Minister Peter Oloo Aringo’s declaration that Moi was “The Prince of Peace” himself! And this of course served “the Big Man” well. Being bankrupt of thought and vision, “the Big Man” could not tolerate the slightest criticism.
In such an environment, fear is not just an indispensable tool; it is the only tool by which a tyrant can maintain his rule. From the oldest and most infamous tyrant, Firaun (Pharaoh) of polytheistic Egypt, to the land of the brutal Count Drakula, atheistic Romania under Ceausescu in the 80s, belief in sorcery, witchcraft and magic becomes the refrain of the collective mind when dominated by irrational fear. Even elites do not escape it; Elena Ceausescu, the tyrannical wife of Nicolae Ceausescu, was said to retain a personal witch, in spite of the atheism of the state they ruled.
Rule is either by consent or coercion, there is no other method. Consent is acquired by mass adoption of an overpowering vision that encapsulates certain ideas and values. Coercion needs no explanation. Therefore, in a political medium devoid of ideological proselytisation, police are the primary tool of rule.
This creates an environment of paranoia with a vicious feedback loop. Thoughts driven by irrational fear, lead to irrational action. Irrational action heightens paranoia, both in the masses and in the ruling class, which leads to further irrational action by the ruling class, on and on without end until there is a revolution or a coup. Both of which start the process all over again if the elites fail to anchor the society in a rational doctrine with a consistent and transparent system of governance.
This was Moi’s world.
Like any tyranny, everyone was suspicious and relatively fearful of everyone in a political sense, even colleagues and friends. Everyone fears everything in such an environment; even “walls have ears“, an aphorism turned adage.
The police love such a world.
They preyed on us everywhere, no public space was safe, no private space was sacrosanct.
They could strip you naked if they wanted, they would riffle through your pockets like robbers if you claimed you had no money, they would fondle women and even rape them in police cells with absolute impunity. They were hyenas in a sheep enclosure.
A close elder with whom I discuss the politics of the day, one day revealed he was a veteran of the infamous Nyati House torture chambers when, to our consternation, in the middle of the conversation, cracking us up with dark humour, he suddenly started stating bizarre and irrelevant facts, “Mama yangu anaitwa Rebecca Anyango (my mother is called Rebecca Anyango)”, “Alisoma shule inaitwa Busonga Primary (she went to Busonga Primary School)”. He explained that after several rounds of torture one would start answering questions without waiting to be asked. The security agents no longer needed to speak to you, you would volunteer anything and everything you knew, unprompted.
What had been my elder’s crime?
He had denounced Moi while having a drink in a bar, unaware that the next table was occupied by state security agents. To date, he looks around suspiciously before airing his opinion and uses a whispering tone even in private conversation.
This was Moi’s world.
While the fear in the mind of the ruler is largely paranoia born of his own certainty in his illegitimacy, the fear in the mind of the masses is legitimate.
Today I feel the same fear I sensed in my parents.
The difference is that today it is global, it is pervasive and it is not fear of a man; it is the fear of expressing a thought.
For everyone, it started as fear of expressing the idea of political pluralism born of the Cold War. Then the War on Terror was declared, and for Muslims it became fear of expressing the idea of Islamic law, then Islamic Jihad and now Islamic caliphate.
Now, every society has, for want of a better term, it’s “domain of discourse”. In the formal sciences “domain of discourse” is the set of entities over which certain variables of interest in some formal treatment “are allowed to range”. So for instance, in some tribe of valiant horsemen “T”, if the set of entities allowed for dowry are horses “H”, the suitor can include any type of horse in payment of said dowry but cannot present a mule or a car. It is not a question of means of “transport”. Certain “formal rules” determine “the allowed range”.
An alternative definition of “domain of discourse” is a class of objects considered within a given context. Any proposition outside is considered false. If a society believes their queen is a deity, then the proposition that she will one day die isn’t just heresy; it is — in the words of former Attorney General of Kenya Charles Njonjo — “treason”, given the political context. This of course assumes that the definition of god includes immortality as an attribute of god. There can be no social order without an agreed “domain of discourse”. This “domain of discourse” is unfashionably termed as “the officially-sanctioned religion” of the state. This is the nature of society.
The problem in a tyranny is that the “domain of discourse” is calibrated by the whims of the tyrant. Given his paranoia, the boundaries and nature of the domain of discourse keep being shifted by whatever demon or bogeyman plagues his dreams at night or his mind in the present. This has the effect of crippling social functioning and stagnating society.
This is why all absolute tyrannies not only do not progress, but regress into superstition.
Today we have no visible absolute tyrant but we live in the same fear.
The police prey, assault, extort, rob and kill with the same impunity they did under the tyranny of Moi.
The economy is in the same decline, public pilferage has compounded and we have returned to the same sense of hopelessness and fear we experienced during the Moi «error».
We are suffering the same psychological, physiological, economic and political dysfunction.
But who is our tyrant now?
Who are we to blame?
Whose effigy are we to burn?
Now I realise, whether rightly or wrongly, that there was value in knowing the tyrant, in having all our problems represented by one man. We could channel our thoughts and our emotions, or more specifically our curses and our hatred. This not only had a placebo effect, but it also gave us hope that we could surmount our problem; since our problem was a clear, measurable, defined, finite object, it was therefore resolvable, it was a question of time. We could look forward to the tyrant’s death; that was something to hang on to.
So, this gives us a question, a starting point to frame the problem of our time — who is defining and shaping our dystopian reality? And the next logical question is: who shapes a society’s reality?
If the answer is The Sovereign, then our tyrannical sovereign can only be identified by the powers he exhibits.
Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century scholar who first most comprehensively defined the Sovereign in his magnum opus The Leviathan, first published April 1651, goes into great depth in describing the characteristics of the Sovereign, mainly in terms of his rights. But they can be largely grouped or reduced to four broad categories.
The first and most important, is the right to legislate. The Sovereign calibrates all social relationships through legislation. Second, he decides the religion of the commonwealth. This is intrinsically linked to education and culturing on everything from morality, what is right or wrong socially, to ethics, what is right or wrong individually. The third is the right to take life — to kill. This can be defined as the right to punish by death within and the right to declare war without. The fourth in place but no less significant than the rest, is the authority to levy tax – economics.
Applying this criteria, let us look at the most significant phenomena in our time in each of the described elements.
The most significant legislative initiative in the last two decades has been the passing of “terror-related” legislation around the world. It suspended the fundamental values of modern civilisation that have hitherto been taken as completely obvious, that is, Human Rights and even the Geneva Convention. It abrogated legal tenets that are the basis of modern civilisation, such as “The right to trial” and “Habeas Corpus”. It created a secret police force and a prison network around the world, introducing to modern vocabulary the terms “extraordinary rendition”, which is really just supranational kidnap and detention, and “waterboarding”, which is really drowning someone alive. These laws remain in place, and are often used against political dissenters.
Our lives have been defined by the “War on Terror”, the Iraq War, the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and a host of other countries since the assassination of American Imam Anwar Awlaki and Iranian General Qasem Soulemani in absolute contravention of the already torn illusion of international law.
Who is the sovereign capable of waging war unilaterally, kidnapping, detaining and/or killing citizens of disparate nations around the world without fear of consequences?
Our taxation is now directly linked to our level of debt. Our currency is pegged to the dollar. “Our” here is global humanity. Therefore the state of our economic welfare is in a long-winded way determined by the printer at the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Fort Worth Texas, United States of America. Well, at least materially.
Who is the sovereign who dictates our Tax regime through the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank?
Of late, the COVID-19 pandemic has served as the political cover for the largest rollback of political rights of assembly and suppression of political organising and activism. Under the guise of “Public Health” concerns, we have witnessed the most brutal and savage acts of police aggression on even the most innocent crowds; people struggling to get home.
Governments have expediently weaponised the pandemic globally. Even in Europe, where an entire generation has grown up completely unaware of the nature of police brutality, COVID-19 has revealed the imperialist underbelly of the modern Westphalian Nation-State. The brutality of the normally benign police of “civilised Western Europe” has stunned media elites.
Who is the Sovereign shaping COVID-19 policy so consistently across the globe?
It seems that globalisation did not only globalise markets; it globalised the tyranny of the capitalist police-state.
Our tyrant is a supranational system of totalitarian state-funded entities and organisations, unaccountable to anyone and only subservient to capitalist imperialism. Where does one protest against a World Bank loan that has been advanced and signed in the citizens’ name without their consent? How would one hold to account the opaque global Anti-Terror Police deathsquad infrastructure that was created via the terror-related legislation worldwide? How does anyone challenge the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 policy which is the basis for the current political suppression and police brutality around the world?
How do we even channel our emotions when the tyrant is this amorphous cold gel of capitalist corporations and totalitarian organisations? The psyche needs a tangible finite target to focus on, a crisp image; the humour may be macabre, but one misses the ol’ days, when we knew exactly who the bad guy was.
To the Brothers and for the Women in Our Lives
We were made husbands before we became men, and it might benefit us a great deal to restore the trust we once had in the guidance given to us by the women in our lives.
Since childhood, my great aunts, my grandmothers and the older women of my clan have referred to me fondly as their husband. “Nga uyu mundu wange,” here is my man, here is my husband, they would always remark in Maragoli whenever we met, never failing to claim this very unusual relationship to me with the biggest village smile on their faces. This, if you can imagine, was one of the few things that didn’t exactly excite my curiosity as a teenage boy. They were women in whom I had unquestioning trust, but what kind of humour! I could not understand where the grace of a woman that old had gone for her to say such a thing. Why? How? It was something too big for my brain to bother with at that time. Now that that boy is a few years older, the message is decoded from the different words of another group of Maragoli women in a closer space and time.
Highrise Estate Kibera is a special place to me. Apart from being my refuge during times when “the situation” seems unbearable in the adult world, where I retreat to the cradling love and care of my aunt and my cousins, it also happens to be a space where I get to experience the village from my interactions with Maragoli laundry ladies. There are a lot of Maragolis here, and most of them live on the other side of the wall in Soweto Kibera — where the real ghetto is. The lives of the people of Kibera, how they make a living, you will find very interesting.
In the early hours of the day, Mbagathi Way’s pedestrian paths might easily be mistaken for the venue of a serious racewalking event as Kibera residents — Nairobi’s labouring class — race past each other as they trek to Industrial Area. At around mid-morning, the journey becomes shorter for some, those opting to make stops midway as others turn back all the way. While it might seem like a foolish thing for them to do, it is a well-informed decision.
Some of those who woke up earlier are on their way back, they need not say anything about where they’re coming from. Neighbourhoods such as South C, Nairobi West, Madaraka Estate and finally Highrise Estate become their checkpoints; you never know, someone might need a parking lot swept, a house cleaned, some laundry done, some dishes fixed. No functioning human being wants to gamble with energy they lack the resources to replenish. So they change direction, reversing from an industrial vision to a domestic one.
Women are the majority among those changing direction, coming back home, not because their muscle mass will not allow them to finish the race early enough, but because it has made them unsuited for the roles industrial work provides for the labouring class.
So, what is the significance of the relationship between Highrise Estate Kibera, Soweto Kibera and this labouring class? Or, what is left of it in this story? It is more or less the same significance my great aunts, my grandmothers and the older women of my clan share with the laundry ladies of Highrise Estate K. in my life.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit us in early 2020, a lot of women in the employment class just above the labouring class started working from home; a good number of them were sent on compulsory leave without pay. With less cash at their disposal and more time to spend around the house, many of them had to let go their domestic workers. Were they to go back to the ghetto? In Highrise, at my aunt’s and the neighbouring blocks, these women sit outside their sources of employment.
A keen eye will easily lead you to the Maragoli laundry ladies’ base in the area. You will see them seated next to water jerrycans and buckets, stoically bearing the Nairobi heat as they wait for the few opportunities available to them. When the pandemic was at its peak in mid-last year, some of them would go for days without finding a single client, but still, they would not ask for anything from the people they knew. Rather, they hollered out at them like friends and would only insist on us promoting their side-hustles. One such woman is Maggie.
Maggie, a middle-aged woman with a son she recently disclosed to me was in medical school, would shout out to me, “Maragoli!”, caring nothing about whether I was a block away or just on the other side of the road. She would easily convince me and my cousins to buy a few of the avocados she was selling, it mattering not to her whether we had ready cash; we would pay when we had it.
From being her customers, our relationship with Maggie grew over the months to that of neighbours who have no problem commenting about how the other is looking today — not flattery, just raw, honest village banter brought to the city. Recently, Maggie made a personal comment about me; she said, “Sahizi mwili wako unaonekana vizuri, last year ulikuwa unaonekana na wasiwasi sana”, now your body appears alright, you had lots of worries last year. This was weeks after another powerful remark made on the first day of February 2021. Remarks that decoded the message in the words of the women who claim me as their husband back in the village.
“Genye’kana munyo’re zi’gasi mtange’ kuhinzira.” You are supposed to find jobs and start working, functioning, Maggie said to me and my older male cousin late that February afternoon. I had no idea what observations led her to utter such remarks, but they were delivered in a tone so light that we almost laughed. So detached was her position as she made them that it would have been really easy to miss the concern and interest she had for us. And it bugged me, more than the thought of being my grandmothers’ husband bugged me as a young boy. It did not help that both of us had quit our jobs a few months before the pandemic exploded to “focus on our art”. What humour! Why would she say that to me? Now this appealed to my sense of curiosity just as it confounded me. Was she simply asking us to find jobs so that we could in turn provide employment opportunities for her? Was she encouraging us to keep on looking for opportunities and not give up? Or was it a witty rebuke to Maragoli youth walking around the estate in the peak of the afternoon, pretending to be in the same position as her, lacking opportunity?
I remain unable to place these remarks. Nevertheless, if Maggie Maragoli sees me essentially as a Maragoli man then, truly, I am her husband. The women of my clan must have been teasing me with the responsibility that comes with being a man in the community. That as a Maragoli man you are answerable to more than one woman in your life; your functioning does not just benefit the woman you raise a family with, it is essential for the whole community’s prosperity. It might also be that we fit the image of the man Maggie would like the daughters of the community, her daughters, to have, and that she is playing her role in moulding these functional partners. Whatever the meaning of the remarks, they remain a response given in an attempt to show direction.
Only one message is clear.
A deep concern seems to be building up among a group of women from the ghetto. Not about themselves, not about their children, not about anyone really close to them. Just their husbands. A concern that manifests itself as a wound, an old wound, a very visible wound which regenerates into the painful thing it was many years ago when it was first inflicted by our fathers. We, their husbands, are that wound.
In the ghetto, Kibera at least, based on the selective principle industries apply in recruiting workers of the labouring class and the number of women in domestic work, there are more men in meaningful employment than there are women. Is it, then, beyond us to say that when the vision for women is reversed from industrial roles to domestic roles in the labouring classes of capitalist systems — worse in a corrupt country — the people become poorer?
Oftentimes, I find myself promising to give something back to these women in the future. I want to make them happy, these distant but very present wives of mine, these very close but physically distant wives of mine, for the priceless education they have given and continue to give me. But time is limited, and it would break so much to go beyond oneself, I am just one among many men of the community. And what makes me think that I carry the key to their happiness!
The surest thing I could give is my ear.
I get it, I think, I feel as though I have gained understanding. I have to function.
We were made husbands before we became men, and it might benefit us a great deal to restore the trust we once had in the guidance given to us by the women in our lives. Our mathes, our sisters, our senjes, our gukhus. These women whose presence, physically, emotionally and in memory, has never failed to check us at every stage of our growth as human beings. We should trust the women in our lives to give us direction, not answers, on what proper manhood looks like.
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