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Rhetoric and Injustice: An Easter Reflection on Jesus Criminalised

9 min read. Re-reading the passion narrative of Jesus allows us to be suspicious of how criminality is constructed today. The divine sharing of criminality exposes unjust systems that prosecute innocent people everyday, who are forced to plead guilty or are prematurely declared guilty.

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Rhetoric and Injustice: An Easter Reflection on Jesus Criminalised
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“The cross places God in the midst of crucified people, in the midst of people who are hung, shot, burned, and tortured.” ~James Cone, ‘The Cross and the Lynching Tree’

How important is the cause of Jesus’ death for our celebration of Easter this weekend? Those familiar with the Easter story may find the question of the utmost importance. They may even explain the cause along the lines that “Jesus died for our sins.” But it is much more complicated than that.

Theologians through the ages have grappled with this central question of the Christian faith. The Apostle Paul argued that Jesus’ death led to reconciliation between divinity and humanity, while Origen of Alexandria, a third-century scholar, believed that Jesus was a ransom payment for Satan. The most common theory we might be familiar with today was articulated by Anselm, a twelfth-century theologian and philosopher. Anselm’s view of Jesus was that of substitutionary atonement, where God is depicted akin to a feudal lord whose honour had been offended by the sins of humanity. Christ then acts as a stand-in for humanity, suffering crucifixion for human sin and satisfying God’s just wrath against humankind’s transgression due to Christ’s blamelessness.

In their interpretations, these theologians are less concerned with the finer details of the historical circumstances that led Jesus to Calvary, as reported by the gospel writers. This is not to say that they are not interested in history, because the death of Jesus is a material fact that grounds its subsequent spiritual and allegorical interpretations.

The gospel writers more directly describe accounts of concrete reasons why Jesus received a death sentence; why and how a Judean peasant is sentenced to lethal punishment by a Roman procurator. They present narratives of arrest, trials, sentencing, and execution in order to articulate the causes of Jesus’ death – and to underscore that he was innocent, unfairly tried, quickly sentenced, and disproportionately punished.

Jesus’ death is not the consequence of well-distributed justice. Instead, it is the lynching of a man who through rhetoric, coercion, and popular opinion was criminalised. Although the gospel accounts differ in many regards, one place in which they are consistent is that portray Jesus as innocent. Jesus is depicted in the gospel accounts as one who has not done anything that deserves death; however, the people determine his guiltiness independently of both his actions and the charges levied against him. The charges actually function rhetorically to portray Jesus as a criminal.

Luke’s gospel is particularly useful for seeing how Jesus is criminalised. Luke is clear in illustrating how Pilate finds no reason to charge Jesus; however, the accusations of the Jerusalem temple leadership inspire the people to seek Jesus’ crucifixion. The people deem Jesus guilty without any evidence.

I see parallels with contemporary discourses that employ similar rhetoric and criminalise certain groups in today’s society. Khalil G. Muhammad, in his seminal work The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Urban America describes how criminal rhetoric and racial logic in America have gone hand in hand, to the point where statistics were manipulated to “prove” that African Americans were more prone to crime than their white counterparts. Muhammad’s work underscores the fact that criminality is not about committing crimes, but it is about systems of power. These systems create and perpetuate discourses that present people marked by status, class, gender, and race, as prone to and even guilty of crime prior to gathering evidence.

The same kind of rhetoric is at work in the gospel accounts of the crucifixion. The text in Luke 23:1-25 suggest that the accusations against Jesus, and his subsequent sentencing to death, mark how Jesus is classed as a criminal and how he is thus punished, although the allegations are unfounded or at least deemed by Pilate to be inconsequential and certainly not worthy of death.

In the accounts, Jesus is accused of three offences.

Charge 1: Stirring up our people

In the gospel of Luke, the Jerusalem temple leadership – comprising the priests and teachers of the law – present Jesus as an outsider “stirring up our people”. He is not outside of Jewishness or Judean identities, but he is from the outside of the axis of power in Jerusalem. In their ‘charge sheet’ the temple leaders emphasise that Jesus began teaching in Galilee, another part of Judea on the other side of Samaria. He began spreading his message amongst peasants, fishermen, and farmers in rural Galilee and had now brought his message all the way to the metropolis of Jerusalem. This implies that they consider Jesus either an outside agitator for Jews in Jerusalem, or an insider disrupting technologies of the temple leadership’s power from within.

The gospels all agree that Jesus was teaching in the temple publically during the busiest festival of the Jewish calendar. There would have been extra Roman police surveillance, which the presence of Pilate in the city epitomises. Therefore, Jesus’s broadcasting of “outsider” ideas would be dangerous, especially if those ideas appeared antagonistic to the power of the temple leadership or to Rome. The temple leaders’ arguments here could sound like a “Make Judea Great Again” campaign that needed scapegoats to legitimise the power of the elite and to quell any challenges to their power.

This charge of stirring up the people that the temple leadership raised against Jesus to Pilate does not explain how he stirred up the people and what he stirred them up for, but the connection of this charge to insurrection could depict Jesus as a threat that needed to be neutralised. Hence, when Jesus asks at his arrest, “Why do you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit (insurrectionist)?” he identifies that he is being criminalised as the type of troublemaker that the ancient imaginaire would anticipate to receive crucifixion for seditious activity.

Charge 2: Forbidding people to pay taxes

The Jerusalem temple leadership accused Jesus of forbidding people to pay taxes to Caesar. This at best is an overstatement, because the people did not actually pay taxes directly to Caesar. In Roman-controlled Judea, peasants were not only employed to work on land that they could never own, they were also taxed. This taxation went to the ruling aristocracy (for whom they worked) who in turn paid taxes to Rome and were thus considered a part of the extended Roman imperial family. The taxation, tax collectors, and tax recipients were hated by the underclass.

The relationship between the peasant class and the ruling priestly class explains why the temple leadership, and particularly the priests, would see this charge against Jesus as particularly insidious. The priests, appointed by the Roman procurator, were given a measure of autonomy to run Jerusalem on behalf of the Romans. They were in effect the brokers of the fiduciary relationship between Rome and Judea – like homeguards or paramount chiefs in the African colonial context – and this arrangement during this time was particularly successful for the ruling elite. Pilate had an uncharacteristically stable relationship with the Jerusalem priests and did not have to exchange the high priests as frequently as his predecessor or successor. This relative stability was desirable in Judea in particular, an area that was prone to turbulence and tense relationships with the Romans. Forbidding people to pay taxes would jeopardise this proximate tranquility, which impacted the priests’ economic and political position as well as the people’s safety from Roman aggression.

Charge 3: Claiming to be a Messiah king

The last charge that the Jerusalem temple leadership raise against Jesus is that he says that he is a Messiah king. This charge is important, because it is the only one that Pilate asks Jesus about. This charge most clearly demonstrates the appeal to portray Jesus as an insurrectionist. Both messiah and king are politically loaded terms in the Roman imperial context, and for one to claim either was often linked with being an insurrectionist. The majority of the times this term is used it is in reference to a criminal involved in seditious activity.

Messianism was rampant in first century Judea. The historian Josephus acknowledges a number of figures that considered themselves to be messiahs, who felt they were anointed to bring back the Kingdom of David, or to reestablish Judean independence as had been the Hasmonean period. The activism of many of these messiahs earned them the death penalty on the cross. Even the book of Acts notes how some figures “claimed to be somebody” and had led many people in ineffective movements.

Pilate does not ask about the messiah part of the charge, instead he focuses, as he should, on the charge about Jesus claiming kingship. This charge is both laughable and serious. It is laughable that a Galilean peasant’s claim to regal authority would be taken seriously and given due process by a Roman procurator. It is a serious charge though, because this charge would claim that Jesus is pitting the “basileia tou Iēsou/Theou”- kingdom of Jesus/God against the “basileia tēs Roma” – the Roman Empire. If that was the case, then regardless of status the individual would be guilty of treason and that was a crime punishable by death, even for citizens. With this charge, the Jerusalem temple leadership is seeking the highest penalty that they can for Jesus by portraying him as the most abominable of criminals.

The Sentencing

The gospel of Luke never presents any Roman or Jewish official as deeming Jesus worthy of death until the moment that Jerusalem temple leadership and people exclaim, “Crucify him!” This even shocks Pilate, because he had not found him guilty of any of the charges. But the rhetoric of the elders, priests, and scholars had prevailed, because when Jesus returns from being interrogated by Herod, the gospel writer Luke adds that Pilate addresses not only the Jerusalem temple leadership but the people as well. They unanimously ask for Barabbas’ freedom and Jesus’ crucifixion.

In the account, Barabbas is an insurrectionist who has committed murder and the people prefer him over Jesus. This suggests that the crowd views Jesus as more of threat or more hated than a murderer. This disdain for Jesus from Luke’s narrative is unwarranted and unfounded. However, Jesus is categorically placed beside an insurrectionist and is determined guilty by the people. It is not clear what he is guilty of but it is safe to assume that the people presume that he is more deserving of punishment than one who committed murder and insurrection.

The same rhetorical technique is used when we contrast Jesus with the two criminals who are also crucified that day. One of the criminals suggests that these two have done something worthy of such a heinous death. Although such a speech is unlikely, it rhetorically serves the purpose of illustrating the type of criminal that Jesus is portrayed as. This exposes the vicious nature of criminality, because it legitimates and justifies lethal state power.

Jesus is classed with people who are considered to deserve such a despicable form of punishment. He shares their criminality, because the judiciary process landed them all with the same sentence. Another way to read this portion of the narrative is that if the criminals’ guiltiness is brought about by the same means by which Jesus is criminalised, Jesus’ crucifixion with them could potentially allude to the criminals also being innocent, despite their execution.

This is not justice.

Pilate would have certainly been concerned about suppressing any attempt to supplant Roman power. However, his non-guilty verdict, and its multiple attestations of this across the gospels, is noteworthy. Pilate says that he did not find Jesus guilty of anything worthy of a death sentence, which is not the same as saying that he did not find him guilty of anything. And Pilate’s suggestion to have Jesus flogged exposes how Jesus’ body is marked and understood.

Flogging was reserved for the lowest status of person. It means that Pilate’s suggestion is still humiliation, and recognition that Jesus’ status suggests that he is guilty of some crime even if there is no evidence, and even if the charges brought forth are unfounded. After engaging with the judicial system at this level, Jesus could not go free without being taught a lesson. That is why the word for flog here is so interesting, because it can also mean “to teach.” Pilate’s mercy punishment is framed as diminutive and educative. It serves to remind Jesus and others who were like him of their status in regards to Rome. Nonetheless, Pilate does not get to follow that course of action and is instead prompted by the crowd to sentence Jesus to die on a cross.

Although Pilate issues the sentence, it is the people who make the judgment. The mass of people described in the text is not an unreasoning horde of people, but is part lynch mob and part democratic assembly. They judge what prisoner is let free, even though Pilate does not offer to let one go. They judge that Jesus should be crucified, even though Pilate suggests a milder punishment. By the time the people speak in the narrative, it is clear that the facts of the case are irrelevant and that the people have made a decision. The Jerusalem temple leadership’s role, then, was not to convince Pilate that Jesus deserved death, but it was to convince the people at the praetorium in the presence of Pilate. This is not without historical precedence that public opinion influenced Roman officials’ distribution of justice, especially if the stability of city depended on the people’s response to a verdict. In effect, Jesus is sentenced to death by a state-sanctioned lynch mob.

In the end, I am not convinced that Jesus deserved to die. I see him as caught up in a system that veils its logic of criminality by justifying imprisonment, torture, and execution as legal necessities for the good of society. But this does not critically reflect on how people who may receive the punishments of criminals may not necessarily be lawbreakers or crime committers. If one is classed as a criminal, then one’s body is perpetually in danger of arrest and punishment.

Criminality, therefore, is not about crime. Some scholars suggest that the Roman government would not have been concerned with a Judean peasant unless he had posed some type of serious threat, but that logic assumes that imperial governments are always guided by logic, compassion, and justice.

We can look at our own contemporary (in)justice systems and recognise that that is not always, and for some people it is never, the case. Most justification for criminal rhetoric tends to side with those in power, with the voices that benefit from criminalising lower classes. Then, their criminal status is used as the basis for their continued legal and social oppression.

So, re-reading narratives like the passion accounts of Jesus in light of that observation allows us to be suspicious of how criminals, even today, are constructed by the powerful to maintain oppressors’ authority and distinct identity.

But the passion accounts don’t end there. They end with the resurrection, where the God of Jesus does not allow people falsely imprisoned and criminalised to remain there. This God follows his people through prisons built by criminalised logic and even beyond the grave, guiding them to liberation and resurrection. The divine sharing of criminality exposes unjust systems that prosecute innocent people everyday, who are forced to plead guilty or are prematurely declared guilty.

And if I could just preach for a moment, I would quote Cone again when he says, “The real scandal of the gospel is this: humanity’s salvation is revealed in the cross of the condemned criminal Jesus, and humanity’s salvation is available only through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst.” This recognition illustrates how the strange fruit of the prison industrial system is linked to the strange fruit hung on southern U.S. trees, which must be linked to the strange fruit Romans hung on the cross at Golgotha. May we strive to not find ourselves like the Roman centurion at the foot of the cross who declares too late, “Surely this was an innocent person.”

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Jeremy L. Williams is a writer, speaker, scholar and ordained C.M.E. minister. He holds a B.A. from Vanderbilt University, M.Div. from Yale Divinity School, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University.

Reflections

They Call it Shalom

7 min read. BETTY GUCHU visits a cluster of IDP villages in Laikipia West where the ghosts of the post-election violence are still very much alive and where families struggle to survive.

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They Call it Shalom
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They call it Shalom. Peace. A vast plain in Laikipia West dotted with United Nations-blue corrugated iron roofing. The people who live here used to live elsewhere until the somnolent demons of tribalism woke up in December 2007. They had lived in Burnt Forest, Kipkelion, Kuresoi, Kitale, Kapsabet, Koibatek, Mogotio, Nakuru, Eldoret, Molo, Subukia, Nandi Hills, Kaptembwa, Eldama Ravine, Timboroa, Koru, Mau Narok . . . places with beautiful, evocative names. They had made their homes there over decades, generations even, raising children and farming their own land. Or renting housing and working for others. Running businesses.

Then, suddenly, they were not welcome any more, chased away by marauding gangs of their once friendly neighbours, escaping with only their lives (when they could), and the shirts on their backs. Their names are Wangari, Barasa, Wanjiru, Kwamboka, Wangui, Mugo, Muigai, Wagichohi, Rioba, Kariuki, Kombo, Nyaboke, Robi, Twethaithia, Karema, M’bwii, Otsiro . . .

They endured the hell that was the Nakuru showground, where many had sought refuge, and survived the punishing cold at Mawingu, high up in the clouds over the Aberdares, where the piece of land they tried to settle on proved to be too small to contain them. Years went by, children became young adults and parents died of illness or despair. Yet they endured, organised, lobbied, and finally—after years of homelessness—found themselves resettled at the Makutano Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camp on land purchased by the government from a family of wealthy landowners.

A bunch of bureaucrats well ensconced in their important offices had taken the executive decision to organise the IDP families into four villages, creatively naming them Villages A, B, C and D. Each family in each village (there are around 1,500 families in the whole of Shalom) was given a quarter of an acre of land on which to establish a homestead. To this end, each family was provided with building materials in the form of 20 UN-blue corrugated iron sheets, wood for the trusses and 25 poles to hold the whole thing up.

The IDPs had to use their own resources to finish building the houses: for the external walls, they used the plastic tarps under which they had been living in Nakuru and at Mawingu, or whatever bits of carton, wood and sacking they could salvage. The government also brought electricity right up to every homestead—which is presumably why the families had been organised into villages in the first place—but, alas, the vast majority couldn’t afford to properly finish their homes, let alone pay for the luxury of having electricity to light them.

Each family also received two acres of land on which to farm. These two acres are not situated next to the homestead but somewhere else on that vast expanse of grassland, making it that much harder to fructify the land. Something as simple as keeping backyard animals and using the manure for fertiliser became impossible; finding fencing material was a challenge in this treeless landscape; and keeping animals – both domestic and wild – away from the crops was a constant fight.

Not that there is much agricultural activity taking place at Shalom. Finishing the family home was always going to be the priority and, having arrived with nothing in the pocket, money must be found to keep the family fed and, eventually, properly housed. Yet there is little work to be found here, your neighbours being in the same situation as yourself. Going further afield means walking for miles and earning Sh200 at the end of six hours of work if you are lucky, enough to buy some maize meal and a handful of greens.

You could always start a kitchen garden – and many do – but the rains are erratic here and the water from the two boreholes that feed the four water points in the four villages is saline. A well-meaning NGO did finance the digging of small water pans in some of the homesteads but these have not been of much use. The pond liners were not suitable and started leaking. Besides, the pans were a hazard to small children often left alone at home while parents went looking for their daily bread. And so they have been drained and abandoned.

Yet the resettled at Shalom are not completely forgotten. Indeed, they are every so often remembered when it is politically expedient.

A slow death

I was running an errand for Isaac in Village C when I was waved down by Wa-Lillian, a grandmother of three orphaned girls. She thanked providence for sending me along just as she was about to give up trying to walk all the way to Makutano, a motley assortment of small businesses on the Nyeri-Nyahururu road, a couple of kilometres up a gentle slope. Wa-Lillian had been poorly of late and it would have taken her the better part of an hour to get there. As we drove up to Makutano, she told me that, together with other elderly women living in Shalom, she had had her name put down to receive a Meko, a combination gas burner and cylinder of the type one might take on a camping trip. Deputy President William Ruto was the eagerly awaited benefactor.

Shalom is in my neck of the woods, a few kilometres down the road and over the Nyandarua-Laikipia West border. I would have known nothing of it, would have had no reason to go there, were it not for Isaac. They used to call him Karaka because of the clothes he wore – a medley of rags that he had learned to stitch together with needle and thread from a young age to avoid going altogether naked. His father, under whose care he had been left when his mother returned to her people, was already an old man when Isaac was born, an old man whose only conversation were the stories he told about the Mau Mau and the war for Kenya’s independence, and whose parenting was limited to ensuring that Karaka never went hungry. Somehow, despite the grinding poverty, Isaac went through high school and left home to make a life for himself and, many years later, we met when I moved to Ndaragwa where he was now the project manager at a children’s home.

But even as he was going up in the world, leaving behind the poverty and want of his childhood and finally finding a steady, salaried job, Isaac also took up his true calling as a missionary among the people of Shalom. He would solicit material donations from well-wishers that he would then distribute to the neediest of the needy at the Makutano settlement, all the while offering them words of comfort from his Christian faith. And so it was that I once went along to help him ferry foodstuffs and clothing and came face to face with the grim reality of the lives of the victims of the 2007/2008 post-election violence.

Kariuki, whom we call Karis, is a tall, gangly fellow somewhere in his late thirties or early forties. When I first met him, Karis was living in a one-room hovel built with the government-issue UN-blue corrugated iron sheets and wooden poles, with black plastic sheeting for the walls. He slept in there with his one goat, his few straggly chickens and the ghosts of his wife and children who were murdered in the post-election chaos. Karis has a green thumb and, despite the water challenges, he had planted a promising kitchen garden from which he gifted me a handful of soybeans when Isaac and I passed by with some maize meal and porridge flour.

Much further down the road from Karis, at the furthest end of Village C, lives an elderly gentleman. Guka is small and slight, barely five feet tall, and walks with a cane. He turned out in an ancient suit and tie, his hat at a jaunty angle. Isaac was alerted to Guka’s circumstances by a village elder; hunger had been driving the old man literally insane and he would walk around the village weeping and wailing and talking to himself. He lived in his unfinished hovel on his own, his wife having long passed away and his grown-up children living elsewhere and unable to provide for him.

Njeri I met more recently, when, together with a foreign couple that was visiting me, I went to Shalom to deliver some building materials at Isaac’s request. We found her sitting on the ground outside her shack, listlessly sorting through a meagre portion of maize kernels. Hovering around her were two very young boys who should have been in school but, for want of Sh30, were not.

Njeri was very thin, almost skeletal, and I thought then that she must be suffering from some serious illness. She couldn’t fend for herself and if her equally food-poor neighbours did not share what little they had with her, then she and her two orphaned grandchildren went without. On seeing that Njeri had visitors, her neighbour came over, greeted us and asked me in Gĩkũyũ, “Woka kũmonia njaga itũ?” Have you come to show [these foreigners] our nakedness? I felt deeply ashamed. Njeri died last August; the neighbours tell me no cause was given but she may well have died a slow death from years of hunger and malnutrition.

Kwamboka’s mother died an internal refugee at Mawingu, leaving a teenage Kwamboka and her two younger brothers to fend for themselves. The relationship with the father of her children – two boys and a set of fraternal twins – did not survive the hardship and Kwamboka was left to raise her children singlehandedly in an unfinished shack with plastic walls through which the biting winds of the Laikipia plains blew relentlessly, giving the children snotty noses and permanent coughs.

These are just some of the many residents of Shalom whose lives have been made slightly easier because Isaac did not forget where he came from, and that he was once called Karaka—he who wears rags. With the help of self-effacing well-wishers, Isaac has over the last five years found the wherewithal to finish the houses for Karis, Njeri, Kwamboka, Guka and the many, many others who simply were never going to be able to do so on their own. The houses are nothing fancy, just corrugated iron sheet walls lined with plywood on the inside to keep out the cold, and a covered toilet outside. (There were families that used to have to ask to use their neighbour’s toilet.) Isaac has also found the wherewithal to provide tanks for rainwater harvesting, and solar lights for the homes with school-going children. The elderly also receive a monthly food parcel and this past Christmas a warm blanket was thrown in.

As for Wa-Lillian, she was one of twenty elderly women who each received a small gas cylinder, not from Deputy President William Ruto (who only delivered a political speech) but from Laikipia Women’s Representative Catherine Waruguru. Alas, it did not come with a burner or indeed the stand on which to place a cooking pot but Ms. Waruguru did promise that those would follow. Still, Wa-Lillian might only ever use the Meko until the gas runs out, after which she “will wait upon the Lord”, as she told me. A refill costs Sh900, and she is too old and sick to work. The family survives on the wages that her three school-going teenage granddaughters earn every Saturday and during the school holidays, and on Isaac’s monthly food parcels.

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Reflections

A Diary of a Young African Man

6 min read. To be young is to have hope. So all these hinderances did not deter Kagwa from pursuing his interests. He was a keen member of the very local soccer league, replete with its own legends, and of their occasional jogging gang. He also knew where to buy the most lethal strains of moonshine, which was to be his undoing.

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A Diary of a Young African Man
Photo: Unsplash/Random Institute
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The details are getting hazy now, much to my annoyance. I know I have them somewhere in my many notebooks. But even then, I wrote them down unwillingly, as it meant beginning that process of converting a person I knew into a mere story, or statistic. As any writer will tell you, it is an alienating experience, the last thing you want to do when remembering someone after their death.

My August trip to Ethiopia was marred by the sudden death of one Kagwa. Within the details of the life of someone not yet twenty-five years old, was the story of the crisis of the upper end of Uganda’s youth population bulge, of what also happens when a government abandons its people to the ravages of an economy over which it long lost command.

The actual circumstances seemed clear enough: he was one of the many—estimated to be perhaps three hundred to four hundred thousand—mainly young, mainly male motorcycle taxi operators that have come to wholly dominate the road transportation spaces of Uganda, as in many other African cities.

They have very bad PR: they are seen as lawless, unscrupulous, and often chaotic, especially should one have the misfortune of a traffic entanglement with them. The expected modus operandi is for every other passing rider to stop and engage the motorist in a rapidly escalating war of violent words, and physical threats, usually ending in some type of extortion in which even those that arrived last, and certainly did not witness the accident leave with some form of “compensatory” payment. The issue of who was actually in the wrong is often irrelevant.

Kagwa was as similar to, and as different from, all the others, which is a normal thing with a stereotype—you would be hard-pressed to find any person who wholly conforms to one.

What I certainly do remember is that, like many of his colleagues, Kagwa was not as he wished to be seen. He was in fact a plumber by training, who had found little employment in his chosen trade. Much like the cliché of the restaurants of Los Angeles being staffed by waiting staff who see themselves as actors, many of these gentlemen seem to be at a remove from themselves.

Of the five or six I use regularly, one is also a land broker, another an electrician, there is a lawn cutter and even a police informant. Two others—brothers, no less—are also both grass cutters, and yet another two are chauffeurs who do the school run using the parents’ cars before joining their fellow bikers at the “stage”.

Like with all trades, their skills have deteriorated through lack of frequent use (the electrician once made some positively hazardous “repairs” for me), and so the skill that paid them was ferrying people through the grinding traffic to which they are a contributing factor.

As is to be expected with such a system, the oversupply has created a crisis.

On the one hand, the formal economy has simply not trickled down. There is little formal employment, skilled or otherwise, into which these youth can be absorbed. On the other, two decades of a government policy of dismantling the public institutions—such as cooperatives and agricultural banks—that facilitated a viable interface between traditional agriculture and the modern food commodities market, has progressively collapsed the informal economy, principally rural agriculture.

This has broken a previously frugal but stable rural family-based employment system, and left the youth streaming into urban spaces, or even just urbanising rural spaces in search of new occupations. Often, they have bought a one-way ticket out of the extended family network, cashing in their birthright to make a down payment on their first bike.

This essentially lumpenised economy is the pool into which the human resource from all the other failing sectors drains. It survives because it must.

Having said that, incidents of boda boda riders being killed or suffering serious, often permanent injuries are legion. These young men are heavily over-represented in the orthopaedic wards. Kagwa was in fact the second fatality in our neighbourhood in the space of a few months after one Jjemba was flung helmetless over the bonnet of an SUV that had made a sudden turn, never regaining consciousness after his unprotected head hit the tarmac. The driver—a Chinese expatriate—was forced by a small mob to drive the man to a nearby hospital, but he refused to pay for the cost of a head scan despite having a substantial amount of cash on him, as was later found out at the police station he was then dragged to. The cash may have been more useful to him there, as he was later released without charge after a couple of days’ detention.

And so boda boda riders have acquired a reputation as violent and quarrelsome, a reputation complicated by the interests that then latch onto their predicament, like the constant inducements to work as informers while, ironically, being robbed by thugs pretending to be customers.

To be young is to have hope. So all these hinderances did not deter Kagwa from pursuing his interests. He was a keen member of the very local soccer league, replete with its own legends, and of their occasional jogging gang. He also knew where to buy the most lethal strains of moonshine, which was to be his undoing.

Among those hopes was Kagwa’s desire to become a grown man by starting his own family. This is where the youth crisis bites: at that point of attempted transition into full adulthood, or some semblance of it, through the struggle to secure three things: a permanent home, a family, and a steady income.

Looking back, I can see now that that was the point at which all the situations in Kagwa’s life—born of the crisis in our city and economy-—became unsustainable, and may have indirectly led to his death.

After over a year of knowing him, Kagwa proudly showed me the logbook to his bike. He had finally paid off the last outstanding installments of the loan he had taken out to acquire the bike, which then died the very next morning.

The credit regime is quite burdensome. On taking the loan, one must pay a monthly installment which includes interest and administrative fees. Defaulting makes one vulnerable to repossession, no matter how long you have been making repayments, and then one has to pay off the defaulted amount, the equivalent of two months going forward, as well as a penalty fine to get their ride back.

With some companies, I am told, repayment terms are enforced by means of a hidden tracking device. I am not sure if one had been planted on Kagwa, as his usual ruse of parking the bike in the nearby churchyard and then skulking nearby until the heat was off, usually worked. I learned this from the occasions when Kagwa had apologetically declined to pick me up because he was in hiding from the loan company enforcers.

Once, to my surprise, less than a month after he had fixed his bike, he collected me on a brand new motorcycle, of which he was very proud. I became curious because it was me that had gifted him the money to get his old one back on the road.

I asked him what had happened: was he hiring out the old one (as some operators owning more than one would)? He said no and told me that he had sold it off. I asked him whether he had used the money from the sale to make a down payment on this new one. No. I asked if he had saved the money somewhere. Again no, he had had to spend it. I asked him what he had used to buy his new bike, and he told me that he had taken out another loan, from another company.

This was a life of pressure.

I do recall late one night before Christmas receiving a phone call from Kagwa. He was in desperate search of a chicken, but could not afford the seasonal prices. His wife had made it clear that she expected there to be chicken for dinner, and was not interested in excuses. He knew that I raised hens in the backyard because I often hired him to deliver the chickenfeed.

Kagwa’s wife later left him. Her replacement came with other demands, foremost amongst which was that he begin formalising their union starting with a first customary visit to her parents. This is where the money from the sale of his original fully paid for motorbike went.

Then came the demands for an actual wedding ceremony. All this left him deeply in debt and under such pressure that, according to his colleagues at the stage, it led to him drinking heavily and then riding ever longer hours with hardly a break.

Part of me is left wondering just how much of an accident his crash was. We shall never know. Some witnesses report that he seemed to head straight into the path of the large oncoming car. His chest was crushed and he died on his way to hospital.

Kagwa’s burial took place deep in the countryside, on a piece of land so recently acquired by his estranged father, that his was the first grave in it. The stories that emerged from his colleagues, framed by his modest wake through to his internment, painted a picture of pressure and crisis. And it is from them that I pieced together this picture of an unfolding crisis of unrealisable and imposed expectations.

On my return from Addis, I thought to pay the customary visit to Kagwa’s home, but was discouraged by his resentful workmates, angry with the lady now technically his widow, with whom he had one child to add to the one he had had with his previous wife who had already taken up with another man.

And there we have it: hope and youthful energy preyed on from afar and at very close quarters. A life that begun already foreclosed.

And him nowhere near thirty.

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Reflections

How to Write About Northern Kenya

6 min read. In your article, talk about the vastness of the landscapes. Say that it looks like a forgotten country, but don’t ask why that is so. Talk about the empty terrain you have to cover, the harshness of the abandoned lands. Mention that the land has been abandoned because of banditry.

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Always use the word ‘Rustler’ or ‘War’ or ‘Wilderness’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Somali’, ‘Bandit’, ‘Shifta’, ‘Survival’, ‘Ahmed the Elephant’, ‘Drought’, ‘Resilience’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Spear’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Rudimentary’. Also useful are words such as ‘Warlord’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’. Note that ‘Bandit’ and ‘Shifta’ are both words that can be used to mean person from Northern Kenya.

Never have a picture of a well-adjusted person on the cover of your article or in it, unless that person has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, two AK-47s, a child holding three AK-47s: use these. If you must include a person from the area, make sure you get one holding four, or better still, five AK-47s.

Everyone is a bandit. The carjacker is a bandit. The fast-talking man who cons you out of your money is a bandit. The mathe at the market who refuses to bargain is a bandit. The people chilling in the barbershops are bandits. The old man lounging in the sun in his shuka is a bandit. The child playing football at the corner and glancing at you warily is a bandit. Even the newly-born baby is a bandit, given a gun as soon as it can hold its neck up.

In your text, treat Northern Kenya as if it is one unified whole. Wajir, Laisamis, Loiyangalani, Garissa, none of these places exist in themselves; it’s all Northern Kenya. It is hot and dusty with kilometre after kilometre of desert and huge herds of camels and tall, thin people who are starving, but for the sticks of khat they chew. Or it is hot and dry with people who are war-torn. Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions. Northern Kenya is big: too many counties, and too many people who are too busy starving and dying and being bandits to read your article. The region is full of deserts, mountains, lakes, highlands, savannahs and many other things, but your reader doesn’t care about all that, so keep your descriptions wild and evocative and violent and unparticular.

Be vague about where Northern Kenya is. Northern Kenya might be Marsabit or Wajir or Sudan or Somalia. It might be Turkana or Baringo or Meru or Tana River. We are beyond boundaries. A better guide of where Northern Kenya is to follow where the bandits are. A bandit is in Northern Kenya, automatically. In your report, list the places in Northern Kenya where bandits have raided in 2019. Northern Kenya is Baringo North, and West Pokot and Samburu. Bandit area. Northern Kenya is South Gem in Siaya, and Bahati in Nakuru and Meru, where bandits have been banditing. Sometimes, make these suspected bandits, because the only way one is not a bandit is if one is a suspected bandit. Good synonyms here are ‘rustler’ and ‘Al-Shabaab’ and ‘secessionist group.’ But bandit works best. List them all, the bandits. In Lodwar and in Pokot Central and in Nyandarua. Northern Kenya. To bandit is to Northern Kenya. For ease of vividity, the bandits, have them spray bullets.

Make sure you mention that, despite it all, people are showing resilience in the face of it all. Wake up, survive bandit attack, be resilient, sleep. Mention Lake Paradise, and Ewaso Ng’iro and all the other oases in this den of banditry. Mention Ahmed. Ahmed the elephant with his mighty tusks. Ahmed who was protected only by the good graces of our dear founding father, God bless him, the first president. Don’t forget Koobi Fora. The cradle of mankind. And the oil underneath the ground that will bring development to this godforsaken region.

Taboo subjects: ordinary domestic scenes, love between the people (unless a death from banditry is involved), references to writers or musicians or intellectuals from the area, mention of school-going children who are not suffering from banditry or famine or having to be bandits or forced early marriages or female genital mutilation.

Throughout the article, adopt a sotto voice, in conspiracy with the reader, and a sad I-expected-so-much tone. Establish early on that your liberalism is impeccable, and mention near the beginning how much you love Northern Kenya, how you fell in love with the place and can’t live without her. Northern Kenya is the only part of Kenya you can love—take advantage of this. If you are a man, thrust yourself into her beautiful sun duned landscapes forests. If you are a woman, treat Northern Kenya as a man with huge tusks and disappears off into the sunset. Northern Kenya is to be pitied, worshipped or gifted with development. Whichever angle you take, be sure to leave the strong impression that without your intervention and your important article, Northern Kenya is doomed.

In your memoir, write about the Somali man, the waria. Describe them, these waria, with their “…strange scripts in Arabic, or wrong bottles in the wrong box, or a slightly off-kilter brand name. Porchi. Poisone. Sold by thin thin men from Somalia. Dominos of nations tumble around Kenya and Somali work about, overstimulated, and thrust their faces into yours, dribbling chewed khat, eyes bleary, jacket open and say…Kssss, Kssss…Rolexxx…Xss…xxxsss…Seyko.” Don’t forget to mention that they walk around with their shirts untucked, these waria. After all, you wrote the satirical guide ‘How To Write About Africa’ and so you must be as accurate as possible.

Names are interchangeable, remember that. When you have to name a local politician, don’t be bothered by accuracy and such mundane concerns as truth. Bonaya Godana is Bonaya Godana, but he can also be Boyana Godana or Boyana Gonada or Bonaya Gonada or Bonada Goyana or Bonana Godaya or Boyada Gonana or Bodaye Gonaria or Bodana Gonaya or Bodana Goyana or Bonada Gonaya or Bonaiia Goyada. Bonavecture Godana is acceptable too, as is Abdi Godana. Everybody in Northern Kenya is called Abdi, after all.

Don’t forget to talk about the wild animals too. Ahmed the Elephant, first, but also the lions and the giraffes and the lions and hippopotami. The animals are complex characters. They whisper (or grunt while tossing their manes proudly) and have names, dreams and flights of intellectualism. Elephants are caring, and are good feminists or dignified patriarchs. Hippos are dignified proud gentlemen. Never, ever say anything negative about an elephant or a Hippo. Big cats drink wine with their caviar. Hyenas are fair game and talk like warias. Give a shout out to the people doing the labour of saving the animals from all the banditry around them. Mention them, these conservancies. The conservancies are great because they are remote and away from civilisation. Mention them, these heroes who fell in love with the terrains of Africa and are now there to save them. Mention them, the heroes with the OBEs given to them by Her Majesty the Queen of the Colony for “services to conservation and security to communities in Kenya.” Decry the bandits who dare to enact violence upon the private landowners fighting to save the animals. Remember, conservation is good, and pastoralist, which is just another word for uncivilised bandit, is bad.

Don’t forget the camel. The camel is noble and patient, decking it out with all the banditry around it. Each of the bandits in this bandit-infested area owns a camel, or several, and they probably chew khat with their camels too. Make the camel a metaphor. Maybe a metaphor for the resistance of the soul. Maybe a metaphor for persistence in the face of hardship. It doesn’t matter, as long as it is a metaphor.

In your article, talk about the vastness of the landscapes. Say that it looks like a forgotten country, but don’t ask why that is so. Talk about the empty terrain you have to cover, the harshness of the abandoned lands. Mention that the land has been abandoned because of banditry. Don’t forget to add that here, even stray dogs look out of place. Announce to your readers the good news, that development is underway. The oil rigs, the mines, the wind power projects, the development that is coming to Northern Kenya. All the years of the residents failing to utilise their high-potential lands because their attentions are occupied by banditry is at an end: Development is here to save them.

Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the bandits laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate something about survival in the badlands of Northern Kenya. Mention that the land is chaotic and fractured, and that the bandits walk proudly with their guns, as one would with a pen in civilised Kenya. Make powerful statements with vague generalized statistics to the effect of everyone having guns, good numbers of livestock being carried away by the bandits, and most of the children being bandits on the sly. The guns, of course, are nothing more than rudimentary firearms. The bandits should be colourful, exotic, larger than life—but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause. Remember, at the heart of it all, these people are bandits. Six or seven AK-47s on the cover of your article is an excellent choice.

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