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Reflections

Campus or Fortress? How Terrorism-inspired Security Checks Killed Public Discourse at Universities

After the Garissa massacre, universities became like military installations. Private security firms were deployed to man the gates and the buildings within universities. Non-students must produce national IDs and explain what they are going to do at the university.

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Campus or Fortress? How Terrorism-inspired Security Checks Killed Public Discourse at Universities
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A few years ago, I was in a matatu along Riverside Drive trying to get to town, but the evening traffic was unrelenting. I decided to get off the matatu and walk through the University of Nairobi’s Chiromo Campus, thinking that this might be a quicker way of making it to town in time for my evening beer.

At the gate, the security guard asked for my ID, which I promptly produced.

“A student ID, I meant,” he told me impatiently.

“I’m a former student, student leader no less. I just want to walk through to avoid this traffic,” I told him politely.

“It is past 5 p.m. Non-students are not allowed in the university compound.”

It was final. Unbelievable that a year earlier, anyone would walk through any public university without security guards demanding their ID and wanting to know which part of the university they were going to. I humbly boarded another matatu with a bad FM radio station on and endured the traffic.

Garissa massacre: The watershed moment

Sometime in 2012, when random terror attacks became the norm, buildings in the central business district, government facilities, shopping malls and other places likely to be targeted by Al Shabaab installed walk-through metal detectors. Those that could not afford the expensive apparatus bought cheap metal detectors and hired young men and women to man their buildings. Nobody knows how the detectors are supposed to stop marauding, gun-wielding murderers. (Having witnessed the Westgate mall attack in 2013 and the Dusit attack in 2019, we now know that they cannot stop terrorists.)

Around that time, there were messages that used to circulate on social media allegedly from Al Shabaab, outlining their targets, predictably the United Nations complex, government buildings, embassies of Western nations, shopping malls favoured by expatriates and the University of Nairobi.

Given the frequency of the attacks and their randomness, even the tough-headed University of Nairobi students grudgingly accepted the intrusive searches in the spirit of forestalling terror attacks. And any students who felt violated by the limitation of their liberties, the Garissa university attacks removed any doubt about the invulnerability of universities.

At dawn on Thursday, April 2, 2015, gunmen descended on Garissa University College and killed 148 students and injured another 79. It was the second deadliest terror attack since the 1998 Al Qaeda bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi that killed more than 200 people. The attack sent chills down our spines for its severity and cruelty.

After the Garissa massacre, universities became like military installations. Private security firm were deployed to man the gates and the buildings within universities. At the universities’ main gates, security guards began searching cars and frisking students. Non-students must produce national IDs and explain what they are going to do at the university. They don’t necessary keep these details, so you can cook up any excuse if you have ulterior motives. But the presence of the guards has definitely limited the foot traffic of the general public at universities.

Buildings that host the most important people within the university are now fortified, and senior university officials have security details that rival those of the President. I recently saw the Vice Chancellor of a top local university walking around the university. He had more than five bodyguards. The building where his office is located has no-nonsense security guards who ensure that they have taken your every detail before giving you the wrong directions to the office you need to go to. The apparatus and the many security guards who replicate their roles can give one a false sense of security.

In a way, the many security guards have made university less fun. Just a decade ago, when I was a student, the university was a free place for both students and the general public. If tired in town, you could walk to the university and rest on the seats or any of beautiful manicured lawns.

At the hostels, those from less fortunate backgrounds would host their relatives in their tiny rooms as they worked or went to college somewhere in Nairobi. Public universities had a comradely camaraderie regardless of the students’ backgrounds; there was an egalitarianism, a sense of belonging. Public universities had a tinge of elitism, but they were equally accessible to the sons and daughters of peasants and of wealthy folk.

Also, the university was a place of ideas. Several public forums used to be held at universities. Thinkers, writers, foreign dignitaries, and local celebrities came and freely interacted with us. There was no payment or the signing of some Google-doc for you to attend an event.

I remember a time when the Ghanaian writer Ayi Kweyi Armah visited the University of Nairobi in the mid-2000s. Barack Obama also came to the university when he was a Senator for Illinois. So did Hillary Clinton when she was US Secretary of State. Joe Biden visited when he was the Vice President of the United States. I remember when Chimamanda Adichie was brought by Kwani? in its hey days in 2008, when her magnum opus, Half of a Yellow Sun, had just been re-published by Kwani? Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Micere Mugo also delivered public lectures at the university. These forums and the resultant public discourses made the university experience all the more exciting.

I remember a time when there were no restrictions to anyone who wanted to attend. But in the last few years, there have been fewer notable public forums at the university. There have hardly been any new or controversial ideas on language, literature, politics, economics or philosophy that have been debated here in recent times. Universities have not provided an environment where we can contextualise what is going on in the country, the continent and the world.

There is no shortage of thinkers, philosophers and scholars whose works students should be exposed to, from Mahmood Mamdani to Achille Mbembe, Wandia Njoya, Stella Nyanzi, Kwame Antony Appiah, Evan Mwangi, Sylvia Tamale and Mshai Mwangola, among others. But you are more likely to encounter their minds in a civil society setting or other forums than at a university. Ironically, private universities that were citadels of the bourgeoisie have fared better in hosting these thinkers, who sometimes can be a thorn in the flesh of the ruling class and the bourgeoisie.

Symbols of segregation

Security guards act as physical gatekeepers of free intercourse of ideas that should take place in universities. Security guards are a symbol of segregation. There is a reason a public university is protected and a public market like Muthurwa is not. And the nature of security searches is so subjective. There are places you can go in if you are driving a big car or wearing a suit. A young man with dreadlocks will have a lot of difficulties going into the same place.

Al Shabaab, like their counterparts Boko Haram, have contempt for Western education, which is why they target educational institutions. However, when these terror attacks began, universities had become commercial enterprises. Since university education became commercialised through self-sponsored programmes, universities began swimming in billions. It was, therefore, in their interest to ensure that Al Shabaab did not disrupt the business side of things. Remember, most self-sponsored students come from middle class or wealthy families. Hence their lives matter more. A visit to the hostels where regular students stay can reveal the amount of neglect and class divide in our institutions of higher learning. The influx of self-sponsored students meant that the already limited resources in universities were stretched beyond the limit.

Politics and corruption also had an impact on public forums that took place at universities. It is hard to host an anti-corruption activist with progressive ideas at a university that is embroiled in mega corruption scandals. It makes the management very uncomfortable. Since the time of Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi, opposition politicians and human rights activists have always been uninvited to universities, as university managements have tended to align themselves with the government. It is not uncommon to see a university Vice Chancellor groveling with a team of tribal leaders at State House. Their presumed intellectual autonomy is at the mercy of the powers that be. Funding can be cut because of any perceived misdeed. This is not fiction; most universities have had their budgets cut because of some misunderstanding with the Ministry of Education. You can’t blame the management at times, since self-preservation is natural. Why host a talk on human rights of young men succumbing daily to extrajudicial killings and risk budget cuts when you can award a political bigwig with a dubious honorary degree to attract funding?

The upshot of this unwillingness on the part of universities to open their spaces for public discourses is that civil society organisations and the embassies of leading Western powers have taken over this role. The Goethe Institute, the Alliance Française and the British Council are doing what universities should be doing. This is not a bad thing in itself, as we need as many of these public forums as possible. However, with universities rarely hosting notable public events – save for entrepreneur forums where phony businessmen are allowed to sell their half-baked ideas anchored on neoliberalism – institutions of higher learning are losing much of their clout.

A local university erected a huge tower recently and the only events sanctioned to take place there are events that can bring money or improve the image of the university to the outside world. Its beautiful theatres cannot host the university’s student travelling theatre group because literature is considered a lesser discipline than commerce (possibly the most useless discipline ever invented by universities, but the most lucrative).

Universities have robbed themselves the agency of owning ideas, and Kenyans now have to rely on Western institutional spaces (embassies or spaces funded by NGOs) to provide forums for the many needed discussions. Young minds in much need of intellectual nourishment beyond what is served in class are poorer for this.

Foreign institutions, for all their accessibility, are viewed by many as elite institutions, and some of us neither feel at home there nor free to express our opinions as we would in a village baraza. You must adjust to certain dialectical expectations of the hosts.

The life of a security guard

Security guards are the best symbol of inequality in Kenya. Kenya is one of the most unequal societies in the world. According to data from Oxfam (often debated upon), 8,300 (less than 0.1%) of the population own more wealth than the bottom 99.9%. The richest 10% earn on average 23 times more than the poorest 10%.

Security guards who work with security companies are among the poorest Kenyans. A casual conversation with them reveals that they mostly walk to work. (Some live in nearby slums that are always near the richer estates and communities.) A simple chat with them will show you how meaningless their job is. They survive on a meal day (usually dinner). The reason they try to strike a conversation and become familiar with the people they frisk daily is so they can get a tip that they can use to buy a packet of milk and a KDF (a pastry favoured by the poor). Most have to moonlight, washing cars parked in spaces they man or running some petty errands for an extra coin to augment their meagre earnings that defy common sense.

What’s worse, the security companies fleece them – not only are they badly paid, the companies even deduct the cost of their own uniforms from their salaries. There is no transport allowance or transport provided by the company; most security guards walk for hours to get to work. Not even Francis Atwoli, the flamboyant Secretary General of the Central Organisation of Trade Unions (COTU), has stood up for their rights.

When you scrutinise their work, you will find that they are a symptom of a badly diseased nation. At universities they symbolise the breakdown of the flow of ideas from the university to the public sphere. Public lectures were called so because the public could attend, but presently the public is not invited to universities. There are other gatekeeping methods, such as email bookings and notices that only students can access. Security guards best represent the barrier that has been erected. And at universities, they exist to remind us whose interests universities now serve. They are there in the pretext of terrorism, but everyone knows they are badly underprepared should a gunman strike.

***

It is the naiveté of the Kenyan elite that baffles me. We are all like the passengers on the Titanic. Privileged ones think they can escape the inefficiency of a government that has failed to provide basic services to the poor, from education to healthcare and security, by securing the services of private firms.

But if there is one thing that the Westgate, Dusit, Mpeketoni, Mandera and Garissa attacks have taught us, it is that a society only functions properly when the poorest and richest share the same privileges when it comes to basic services and public goods. Private schools and private hospitals will not fill the gaps in education and healthcare. Neither will private security companies fill the gaps in policing.

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Silas Nyanchwani is a writer and journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Reflections

We Need New Words: A Reflection on the “War on Terror”

The “War on Terror” is a disruption, that makes normal, absurd reality, a privation of humanity, a shape-shifting enemy that yearns for innocent lives and souls; the menacing colonial state with new fangs.

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We Need New Words: A Reflection on the “War on Terror”
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7th August 1998.

Friday, 10am: Parents, students and teachers are all seated in the school hall, and prize-giving day is about to begin. I had obtained the highest grade in GHC (Geography, History and Civics) and I was to receive a prize. I was elated, because it was the last day of the school term. At home, good grades were a pass to indulge in activities forbidden during the school term.

At 10.34am: The headmistress walks to the podium to give her opening remarks when we hear a blast in the distance. Moments later, the crowd starts murmuring, and the few pagers in the room start beeping. Parents anxiously take custody of their children and a state of anxiety descends on the gathering. Vehicles begin to speed off and the prize-giving day comes to an abrupt end.

A terrorist attack targeting the US Embassy in downtown Nairobi has just happened. The neighbouring building, Ufundi Co-operative House was reduced to debris. 213 people die and more than 5,000 get injured. At the age of nine in Standard Four, I felt the fear and anxiety.

Before August 7th 1998, Kenya had never witnessed a terror attack of such magnitude. The Al Qaeda terror group led by Osama bin Laden took responsibility for the attack professing it was retaliation for US presence in Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The national psyche was bruised. President, Daniel Arap Moi regretted that peaceful Kenya had suffered the tragedy of a geopolitical dispute.

My holidays were never the same again. At home, strict curfews were introduced; my mother would call every other day to check on the whereabouts of my siblings and I. My parents introduced holiday tuition as a means, I suspect, of surveillance to protect and curate our movements. “The fear of the public space” had been cemented in my parents’ minds. From then on, I heard my parents add a new phrase in their lingua: “Terrorism” which after the September 9/11 attacks in the United States morphed into the “The War on Terror”. It sounded like they pronounced it in capital letters to imitate the manner the subject of terrorism was broadcast in the news.

********

Over a decade later, in 2009, my brother and I were walking home from an eatery at the Oil Libya petrol station along Mombasa road on a Thursday at 9:17 pm. We lived in South C, a middle-class suburb in Nairobi that had in the last decade bourgeoned into a cosmopolitan neighbourhood with the influx of nationals from Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. South C transformed into a place of refuge for nationals fleeing conflict in their home countries.

On this fateful day, a police patrol unit accosted, threatened us with arrest and threw us into a police vehicle on the suspicion as terror suspects.

Mnaranda randa usiku, kwani nyinyi ni Al Shabaab?” barked a policeman. (Why are you loitering about, are you Al Shabaab?)

Hapana boss, tumetoka kwa duka, tunaelekea nyumbani.” (No sir, we are just headed home from the shops), replied my elder brother,

Unadhani mimi ni mjinga? Wale wa kutoka kwa duka ndiyo hutembea na bomb. Ingia hapa nyuma haraka sana.” (Do you think I’m a fool? In fact those who are ‘just from the shops’ are the ones who walk around with bombs. Get into the back of the vehicle!)

In the patrol vehicle, I noticed that my brother and I were the only suspects who did not bear the physical resemblance of Somali people. The state-led counter-terrorism operations had led to the profiling of Kenyans Muslims, particularly from the Somali community. Members of the community were subjected to police harassment, arrests and human rights violations while publicly scorned as associates of Al Shabaab terrorists.

In the patrol vehicle, one of the police officers remarks that were effectively Al Shabaab terrorists under arrest and our freedom rested on our ability to ‘speak’. This was a new experience for my brother and I. Our fellow “felons” seemed to get the drift and reached into their pockets. Each one parted with a bribe as they alighted from the vehicle and we followed suit. There was little choice to make. The “War on Terror” had robbed us of our moral agency.

*********

I met Leila through a mutual friend. We struck a rapport immediately, and shared many intellectual interests. We would often meet up after class, and walk down from the University of Nairobi, talking as we meandered through the maze of Nairobi’s central business district. She was tall, beautiful. Muslim and Somali. Despite coming from different worlds, religiously, culturally socially and politically, our friendship grew. We created our own little universe where we could share our feelings, ideas, grief, hopes and dreams.

My mother was impressed when she met Leila. By her poise, respect for elders (important for my mother), her confidence and emotional intelligence. In spite of all these good attributes, my mother harboured some cultural prejudices towards Leila. A few days later, she sat me down and told me: “You are now in fourth year and about to finish university and start life. As your mother, I want you to get a good Christian wife and succeed in life.”

I didn’t have a response. It was one of those things that parents ostensibly say with love but cut you deeply. We never talked about the incident again but I was affected by her words even as I tried to understand my mother’s prejudice. I finished campus a few months later and my friendship with Leila drifted apart. We soon lost touch.

After the 1998 terror attack, the bombings in New York during 911 and the emergence of Al Shabaab, it seemed that my mother, like many, needed an image to embody the angst, fear and anger that “terror” had brought into her life. Perhaps the need to put a face to the enemy influenced her prejudice and denied Leila her individual autonomy and humanity.

I partly understood it. This was her way of defending herself, a coping mechanism. The “War on Terror” had erased her ability to recognise the humanity of Leila and her story. It simplified her view to labels: brown, Somali, Muslim and danger.

********

4:10 pm: #DusitAttack is trending on my Twitter feed.

4:12 pm: I check my Twitter news feed for a reliable source. I find one, Africa Uncensored’s Twitter handle: “Terrorist attack at DusitD2 hotel, 14 Riverside underway”

4:15 pm: I call my wife. “Babe, are you okay?” “Yes, I am” she responds. “Okay, I’m leaving the office now. Be safe.” I hung up.

4:20 pm: I send out a generic message, “I’m safe,” to my WhatsApp groups to calm my friends and family.

4:28 pm: I packed my bags and I leave the office.

On the afternoon of Tuesday, 15 January 2019, armed gunmen stormed into 14 Riverside, an office complex in Westlands, Nairobi that hosts offices of various organisations, a restaurant and a hotel, DusitD2. The attack began at 2:30pm and was concluded a few minutes before 10:00am the following day. Initial reports were of gunfire and two explosions at the hotel. The attackers, estimated to number between four and six arrived in two vehicles. One of the attackers went in discreetly and blew himself up next to the Secret Garden restaurant. After the blast, the remaining terrorists fired on the guards at the gates of 14 Riverside Drive and lobbed grenades setting some vehicles parked in the parking bay ablaze. The attack left more than 20 people dead.

On my way home, I scribble on my notebook the words. DUSIT ATTACK AND WHAT IT MEANS FOR THE WAR ON TERROR! This is an opening line to an editorial brief I think of writing so that I can commission a few think pieces to shed light on this issue. I would spend the next couple of days thinking about this, until it dawned on me that I had only viewed the Dusit attack as a function of my job: A story to be written, an analysis to be done and a conversation to be had. Not what it really was: pain, death, trauma and dysfunction.

As far as terror goes, I had been alienated from my humanity and myself.

*******

Political vernaculars, writes Keguro Macharia, “are the words and phrases that assemble something experienced as the political and gather different groups around something marked as the political. They create attachments to the political, and they also distance us from something known as the political. They create possibilities for different ways of coming together—from short-lived experiments to long-term institution building—and they also impede how we form ourselves as we from formations, across the past, the present, the future, and all the in-between times marked by slow violence and prolonged dying. Vernaculars are ways of claiming and shaping space.”

Keguro goes on to say that vernaculars are a discipline producing habits, dispositions, behaviour, feeling and thinking. Most of Kenya’s official political vernaculars—corruption, impunity, national security, for instance—are disciplinary. They name real issues, but they also manage how those issues are handled. They shape the possibilities for what is thinkable. They flatten thinking into habits, repetitions, and negations…they create frames on how we see each other, the world and what possibilities we can conceive.

The “War on Terror” is one of Kenya’s political vernaculars. It is the go-to word to arouse fear, anger, racism and religious hatred; to justify bombing, invasion and illegal detentions; to call for major new investments in military capabilities; to justify dependency on the western nations and to muzzle and curtail freedoms.

The implications for African governments governed by despots, warlords or even democrats is an incentive for tyrannical rule. The War on Terror serves the interests of retaining political power and justifies terrorizing of disenfranchised citizens. To the citizens, the word represents disruption, a normalising of an absurd reality, a privation of humanity, a shape-shifting enemy that yearns for innocent lives and souls; the menacing colonial state with new fangs.

We are in need of another lexicon to explain us to ourselves, to frame our sensibilities, our histories and our humanity, in the mists of absurd political vernaculars. We need words that can help us imagine what kind of world we want to build together.

We need new words untethered to the state that can help us imagine how we want to live with each other. Now, more than ever we need the strength to love and dream.

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Reflections

Millennials II: Speaking up in the Silences

We are still trying to understand who we are and how our society got here, and in doing so we reject the mantra of ‘accept and move on’ or ‘don’t rock the boat’ like many of our parents embodied. There will be a culture clash, but maybe it is necessary, so we can redefine ourselves, redefine family, and redefine Kenya.

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MILLENNIALS II: Speaking up in the silences
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“Kenya’s official languages are English, Kiswahili, and Silence.” ~ Yvonne Owuor

It is always interesting to see the confusion in our parents and older generations with Millennials. It is a clash of cultural values. They may have raised us, but we occupy a place in a global and information culture that they never imagined possible. I see them struggling to understand.

I was born in the 1980s, when the attempted coup was still fresh in people’s minds, and the screws of repression were increasingly tightening. I was too young to know about the agitation for multi-party elections and only later read about it from my grandfather’s collection of The Weekly Review magazine, one of the few publications at the time that was consistently speaking truth to power.

In the 1990s came the liberalisation of the airwaves, and my generation was exposed to much more music, television programmes and movies than our parents were aware of. I remember for the longest time wanting an FM radio so I could listen to Capital FM and later Kiss FM. My evenings from school were often spent shifting between doing homework, and dancing to the music on Rastrut, Jam-a-delic and other weekly music shows. This was a time when African American culture had a kind of golden age on TV. The shows we watched were everything from Sesame Street to In Living Color, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters, Renegade, Sarafina, The Bold and Beautiful and so many more. Today, if someone my age who grew up in the urban spaces that I did starts a discussion on our childhood, we have many common memories and attachments through these experiences, even though we might have disparate upbringings in other ways. Even from many miles away, we were part of that collective cultural moment, and social media now unites us with our peers across the world, over both the mundane and serious. While we too have many points of differences there is a unique connection to each other from the global and local exposure we have.

It was a time when Kenyan art, and especially music, was starting to find its identity. Hip-hop, comedy and poetry were on the forefront of this shift. A strong emphasis of the art being created at the time was questioning of the status quo, extra judicial killings, and the dysfunction of the political state. It created a healthy skepticism in authority and authority figures. Some of my earliest ideas and understanding of another Kenyan narrative from the streets and the grassroots came from hip hop artists like Ukoo Flani, Kalamashaka, Mashifta and others. The comedy trio Reddykyulas was hugely influential too, allowing us to see ourselves, and critique who we had become as a people, without fear.

On the other hand, our parents grew up in a fractured culture straddling the traditional cultures and the colonial ethnocentrism that despised and looked down on traditional culture. Kenya is 55 years old and still grappling with what colonialists did to us, whether we realise it or not. The colonisers subscribed to notion of Social Darwinism that believed that the closer a culture was to European (and in our case British) culture, the more advanced it was. Given that African culture was completely different, we were seen as uncivilised, despite the fact that we had lived and thrived for centuries before.

Colonialism systematically destroyed our families and destabilised all aspects of society that had functioned until then. Colonial tax obligations pushed people into the cash economy, creating a migrant labour market, and thus separating families. They confiscated land, leading to a large, landless class of laborers who traveled from place to place in search of work. Breaking communities up like this was certainly an easier and more secure way of obtaining money for taxes and for selling goods to them. This economic subjugation still continues in various forms today, with insecure land tenure systems, and families still vulnerable to eviction, land grabbing, and cartels.

The colonisers employed violence against grown men and women if they were not only obedient but also sufficiently deferential. Alyse Simpson recalled whites in1920’s Kenya: “They boxed their own and their neighbours’ servants’ ears if they failed to be servile enough, which in their childlike simplicity they sometimes forgot to be.” That notion of Africans having ‘childlike simplicity’ was not a benign one. It means that we were assumed to be incompetent in our own governance. It upended the structure of society where adults were adults, and were worthy of making decisions. It is highly likely that the violence visited on them resulted in powerless frustration that was then transferred onto the next generation.

Despite being supposedly ‘independent’ since 1963, we never really sat to examine what had happened to our society and technically just exchanged one ruler for another. You see it in the way we casually infantilise grown men and women by assuming the state will make better decisions than they ever could for themselves. We do it too in our families to our poorer relatives or those who dare deviate from the norm.

I sense that our parents were brought up to obey unquestioningly, a result of the kind of violence and censure that defiance would bring upon them. My generation however learned to ask questions, perhaps as a result of the global culture we were exposed to, and so we do. Even though we may not have been as inquisitive in the open as we were in private – we are still our parents’ children, after all, and we were taught to behave in public – the Internet and social media have recreated a quasi-private space that allowed us to continue to question the status quo.

Traditionally Africans had structures for bringing up children and teaching them how to handle themselves as adults. We would learn to cook, herd animals, care for children, find herbs that could cure diseases, prepare for seasons, and so on. This all happened within a certain social context, where an older person would teach a younger one. With colonisation, and especially the disrupted social ties that urbanisation brought, these teaching moments fell away. Those lucky enough to live around aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents learned a lot from the community. Those who didn’t have these structures simply ended up learning from older siblings who may not have always had the right information. More than that we learned from each other, from our neighbours, our classmates and other peers around us.

Teaching requires a voice. But many of our parents had lost their voice and hope, perhaps without knowing. Maybe it was the difficult economic conditions, the secret police and the threat of torture chambers that hung ominously over their heads. Confronting their own situations and the loss of their dreams at the hands of a powerful and corrupt government that killed many who stood up to it must have been an impossible task then. With time I believe the silence grew to encompass even more of their lives and who they were. I wonder if we will ever truly understand what they went through. Facing up to this anguish and loss was avoided by just forging ahead in some ways and at other times acting out in the private family arenas. It has become the ‘norm’ of Kenyan social conditioning for people to turn social media as a space for confessions and on FM station talk shows. Those who could leave Kenya emigrated to Western capitals, those who chose to stay and fight became pariahs, and the rest kept their head down to avoid trouble in a sense of learned helplessness. For those who accepted the status quo it meant a constant adjusting to the changes, a constant policing of their own behaviour and of those they loved to save them from the state sanctions of the day.

Many of our Kenyan notions of respectability can be traced to British colonialism. As long as the orange is waxed, shiny and orange on the outside it does not matter if the inside is rotten and full of worms. In Kenya a person’s importance is often based on what they do, which family they come from or which influential person they are close to, who their spouse is and finally how wealthy or famous they are. It often does not matter what vileness they have been part of, the wealth and fame become like a sanctifying agent. No wonder folks say pesa ni sabuni (Money is like soap).

The breakdown of traditional African society and the public accountability that came with it was replaced with a desire to be respected according to colonial values. For many of our parents a sense of worth was built on how others saw them and spoke of them. Their children were often extensions of this. Many times our own personal choices, even as adults, were not seen in the light of the people we are but as active antagonistic choices against them and the reputations they hold so dearly. Our personhood is not known to them no matter how hard we try to show them.

This is a journey I see many of my peers going through. We are still trying to understand who we are and how our society got here, and in doing so we reject the mantra of ‘accept and move on’ or ‘don’t rock the boat’ like many of our parents embodied. There will be a generational clash, but maybe it is necessary, so we can redefine ourselves, redefine family, and redefine Kenya.

When many of my peers sit and talk to recall our childhood very few of us had good childhoods or teenage years. The truth that our parents did not want to face was that one can only keep up appearances for so long – it always happened that glass of respectability shattered at one point, destroying everything in its vicinity. It would be in the discovery of infidelity in one or both parents, or that there were other entire families who called your father dad. It was in finding out about a secret child your mother had before but kept hidden. It was financial ruin, domestic abuse, rumours of witchcraft in families, evil in-laws, or unexplained absences of parents for years, all hidden under a veneer of respectability.

Discovering any of these for a child or a teenager is traumatic; it’s even worse so if there is no reliable adult to help them talk through these things and make sense of them. But it’s impossible to talk about anything when respectability is the constant demand. What will people think is the first, and the most powerful reprimand. Many times we were told that voicing these concerns is tantamount to publicly humiliating your family. Very often the child/teenager/young adult attempting to talk will be castigated even more than the adult who caused the incident or trauma. Instead of protecting our children from the trauma of past actions, we force them to pretend all is well, never bothering about their emotional and psychological state. All these affect the adult this child grows up to become. Many times the alcoholism, drug and sex addictions are ways of dealing with internal pain, not to mention depression, anxiety and panic attacks and other mental health illnesses.

Growing up without my primary parent for 20 years nearly destroyed me. I went through depression, abandonment, homelessness and a myriad of other situations before I finally was able to find my way out. My larger extended family still does not understand why I am this way because I went to “good schools”. But a boarding school does not make child or create a home for them. Neither is it a place to show you that you are loved and worthy, that’s what a family is for. There are those who definitely did try, but the truth is, parenting is a constant effort and not a peek-a-boo performance where one appears and disappears at will. The unfortunate bit is as a society we have been unable to diagnose, discuss and fix the political and economic issues that create these conditionings. We often don’t see the larger governance issues causing them. Why did so many of our fathers have secret families? Why were we constantly battling financial ruin? Why the silence, why the abuse, why the trauma? What was going on in Kenya to make our lives so painful?

The person I credit most for helping me find my way out and holding my hand and parenting is an aunt who I only got to know well after high school. She truly listened to me and asked me questions, offered advice and even when I didn’t heed it she would still be there for me. Her acceptance was total. That was what made the difference and helped set me off on a long journey of self-searching, healing and forging a new path for myself. It has not been easy but it has led me to a path of peace and a better life than I could have imagined for myself.

I see my peers talking about their trauma, depression and discontent both anonymously and publicly, on Facebook groups and Twitter, finding in each other kindred souls to encourage and advice. I see an increased acceptance of therapy and pychological counseling. The ability to be vulnerable or see someone you admire be vulnerable is what gives us the courage to keep going. The culture of silence is slowly being dealt with in many spaces. Still, there are many who are unable to process things, and drown in various addictions like alcoholism and drugs. They need to understand that what we are facing is not a result of individual failure but as a result of a collective failing to deal with our problems in a holistic way, which will continue to claim our people in different ways. Others who haven’t faced the same trauma and pressure do not easily understand the weight of the burden Millennials carry. The only way we move forward is if we start being honest about what is going on with us.

My peers are incredibly resilient in difficult situations. They are also incredibly creative, hardworking and daring. Not a week goes by when I don’t see someone trying to do something amazing. We are our own people. We dare to dream and we dare to live our dreams and over ‘respectable’ professions such as law, engineering and others. We forge ahead, fuelled by a heady mix of invincibility, fear, daring, anxiety and hope. We own our decisions the good, the bad and the sometimes stupid. We realise you can live an entire life trying to please people and still fail spectacularly.

What has failed us are the systems, society, and the continual bashing because we refuse to fall in line. Our parents’ formula of silence and moving on doesn’t work in our world at all. Just being educated doesn’t guarantee you a job. Having a job doesn’t mean you can afford to be sick. Being an entrepreneur isn’t always the path to a comfortable life. Being on a salary doesn’t always mean you can afford a mortgage. Being wealthy doesn’t mean you are protected.

We will continue asking questions, we will continue pushing the dial, we will continue creating, we will continue until we find our personal and collective freedom.

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Reflections

Unseen and Unremarkable: The Invisibility of Women’s Labour

Erasure confines the work women do into a box which has nothing more than ‘women’s work’. Erasure makes us forget women who explicitly used their nakedness to shame the government into releasing their sons held as political prisoners in 1992. It makes us oblivious of Field Marshall Muthoni, a woman ranking equal to our most famous freedom fighter, Dedan Kimathi.

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Unseen and Unremarkable: The Invisibility of Women’s Labour
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Lwanda Magere is a famed folk tale that many Kenyan children know. He was the man of stone, a great warrior of the Luo, whose skin could not be pierced, and who could not be defeated even by the fiercest enemy. The Nandi people, who neighboured the Luo and fought with them over territory, pasture, livestock and water, were tired of being defeated by the Luo. So they sent the most beautiful girl in their village over to the Luo to extract information. Her only task was to find out how to pierce the skin of the man of stone. Against the advice of his first wife and the community elders, Lwanda married this beautiful Nandi girl as a second wife. One day, when his first wife was away, he fell ill and the Nandi girl had to take care of him. After much soothing and coaxing, she found out that his shadow was the vulnerable spot, and sent word back to her people. In the next great battle between the Nandi and the Luo, Lwanda was sure to win the battle for his people, but one man remembered the story of the shadow. He threw a spear into the shadow and blood started to spurt out of the ground. Lwanda was killed, and the Luo were overcome.

In Lwanda Magere’s story, we don’t know the name of the Nandi girl.

***

Women are erased. Constantly.

It doesn’t matter how great you are.

You could be Fatima al-Fihri, an Arab Muslim woman, founder of the oldest existing university in the world. Or Emmy Noether (officially Amalie Emmy), the mathematician behind Noether’s Theorem, and whose work was so consequential that Einstein himself wrote an obituary for her. You could be a distinguished scientist or a renowned artist, you can map the ocean, uncover the secrets of the stars or the secret behind life itself, but, if you are a woman, you have to fight to be remembered.

It happens even in daily interactions. It happens every time a man repeats exactly what a woman said in a meeting, to great applause. Every time a man echoes sentiments and language women have been articulating for years, he is celebrated for being “so progressive”, “so woke”.

When we – my fellow writers Laura Ekumbo and Aleya Kassam and I – wrote our theatrical production ‘Too Early For Birds – The Brazen Edition’, we wanted to name the women. Our task from the beginning of the writing processes was to ‘uninvisible invisible women’. Kenyan playwright and author Micere Mugo once asked, ‘Where are those songs/ my mother and yours / always sang / fitting rhythms to the whole vast span of life?’ Virginia Woolf said, “Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” The anonymous is often a woman and, now, we refuse to be anonymised. Women have been calling out to each other, remembering that in the silence there is a forgotten woman’s song, that in ‘Anon’ there is a forgotten woman’s name, that in the invisible there is a woman made invisible. Remembering women, is in many ways remembering yourself.

In the famed fable of Lwanda Magere, what struck us was the existence of a girl, in one of our country’s most famous folktales, who was reduced to nothing but a plot point. This girl went into enemy territory as a spy, leaving her life and home behind. This girl won the war for the Nandi. This girl betrayed the Luo. This girl was as dangerous and powerful as Delilah. This girl was a badass.

No one knows her name. In our research, we did not find her name recorded by either community. At least we could not find any proof of her name, not in the way Lwanda is Lwanda, or Mumbi is Mumbi. The name we could find, “Nyalang’o” literally means ‘Nandi girl’ in Dholuo. As far as we could tell, she was just the most beautiful girl in the village.

This girl remains unnamed.

***

The truth of a story is always determined by the teller. We knew we wanted to speak to her, with her, bring her perspective to light. Of course, you can tell the story from the perspective of the men (Lwanda, the elders from both communities, the warrior who threw the spear) but we were writing about women.

We could have told the story of his first wife. In her, we saw an intelligent, loyal woman who saw a spy come into her home, and did everything she could to protect not just her husband, but her community. She made sure that this strange woman was never alone with her husband, especially when he was ill. By some twist of fate, she had to travel and while she was away, her husband fell sick and let his secret out. The first wife returns home to find the truth is out and dreads someone would destroy him one day.

So why Nandi?

The truth and fact is I didn’t know much about the women we wrote about before we did. Yes I had heard of a few – Chelagat Mutai, Mekatilili wa Menza, Wangu wa Makeri – but vaguely, imprecisely. I didn’t know about Field Marshall Muthoni wa Kirima or Zarina Patel at all, and they are both alive and well. The latter two are not just in the annals of history: they are here, and I didn’t know about them.

The Nandi Girl captured exactly why we didn’t know about them. It doesn’t matter how pivotal you are, if the stories are about men and their battles, as a woman, you will be relegated to a footnote. Her name was lost and instead she became an archetype: A Delilah figure. A seductive woman who takes down a man using her feminine wiles. And not even that, she just got the information and disappeared, seemingly never to be heard from again.

But make no mistake: this erasure is deliberate.

Erasure confines the work women do into a box which has nothing more than ‘women’s work’. Women freedom fighters become unthinkable in a country where parliamentary debates to meet the constitutionally required two-thirds gender rule are presented as a periodic annoyance, rather than a necessity.

Erasure makes us forget the Kenyan women who explicitly used their nakedness to shame the government into releasing their sons held as political prisoners in 1992. It makes us oblivious of Field Marshall Muthoni, a woman ranking equal to our most famous freedom fighter, Dedan Kimathi, a woman revered by him not just as a fighter but as a strategist and thinker. It erases that Field Marshall Muthoni fought her whole life, starting by supplying food and information to fighters in the forest as a young girl, and when she went to the forest herself, she rose up the ranks and was known as “The Weaver Bird” for her ability to navigate the forest. It erases that she continues to be in resistance, refusing to cut her hair until we find true freedom as a nation. It erases the fact that we have not found true freedom.

Erasure reduces women to ‘political flower girls’ – the media actually uses this phrase – and we cannot fathom women as a fundamental part of revolutions. Mekatilili wa Menza is often depicted as young girl because we erase the fact that she was in her 70’s when she led the Giriama uprising. Erasure knows that a feisty young girl fighting a common enemy is tolerable – one can always blame the folly of youth – an enraged, mature woman pushing back against an unjust system is not.

We forget Chelagat Mutai was part of a core group of parliamentarians that stood up to the government during one-party rule, when most of the other men in the House were very silent. We forget that Zarina Patel continues to fight for our freedoms, our right to public spaces and did so against not just the government, but her own family. We don’t even know, or want to know, that sex workers were among the first African property owners in colonial Nairobi. We erase how women, these women, were revolutionary in spirit because they stepped outside of the bounds restraining them. It does not do to have women who use their rage, name their abusers, name the problem, name themselves.

It does not do to have examples of women of power, because then maybe every woman will feel like she has power too.

If they must be named, if there is no way to erase them entirely, Erasure sanitises them. It makes them fit the mould of the patriarchy, and reconfigures them into a good and comfortable woman who fought just hard enough, but not too hard. Wangari Mathaai is today remembered as the woman of peace and trees, not the divorcee who was described as a ‘mad woman’ with ‘insects in her head’; who was under constant threat, whose kindness was iron-hearted. From Winnie Madikizela-Mandela to Rosa Parks, women’s work is reduced to a form that can be footnoted in men’s; the great man’s wife, the woman who just sat down.

This, by the way, only happens if you are ‘important’ enough to be reduced. Erasure is built into our every day reality.

One of the most insidious ways women are kept out of the history books is because so much of the work women do, or relegated to do, is considered ‘insignificant’ or ‘inevitable’. Of course the most beautiful girl in the village became the seductress. What’s special about that?

This bracketing of ‘women’s’ roles minimises the labour women do. The labour you do turns out to be your responsibility as a mother, sister, wife. Women’s labour does not make it into the record. The emotional labour you put in caring for others, the domestic labour that keeps men running the world, the innovations of womanhood like weaving, cooking, sewing, are all unremarkable because they were supposed to happen.

In 2013, during the terror attack on Westgate mall, I remember the then-unnamed woman who made tea, and served the police, soldiers and volunteers who were working to end the siege. I saw her do what every Kenyan mother is expected to do as if born doing it; make pots of tea. She was praised, rightfully, for going out of her way to support the men and women working to end the terrorist attack.

Yet, when I saw that image in the newspapers and on television I was filled with rage and sadness. I couldn’t stop seeing how early she must have gotten up in the morning, how long it had taken to brew that much tea, how much money it had cost, how much help she would need. I was filled with rage at a country where we know that tea, sustenance for people fighting in that situation, wasn’t guaranteed. I was angry that in such a moment, we couldn’t be sure that everyone was being well fed and taken care of. I was sad that only a woman, Grace Wambui Odongo, who must do such labour everyday, would even think to do this basic act of care. I was sad at how many women labour, make lots and lots of tea, because they do not have time for mourning.

Women need to be remembered, not just for big, but for the small. For the cups of tea.

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