“Ok, Generation Uhuru!” We are tired of waiting; we are tired of you insisting that you can still do this.
The current economic, pandemic and social mess we are in is an indictment of the Uhuru generation. In many ways, the current holders of the political and economic, and therefore social power have not delivered on their inherent promise as the generation to pursue the independence project to battle disease, poverty and ignorance.
We are in the midst of a pandemic.
To be fair to them, no one could have predicted just how much the world would change in the decades following independence. The very essence of society is shifting faster than the structures within can adapt—as it always has—and there are so many ideas in the public sphere but not one stands out.
Passion, and opportunity, marked a similar growth point in the Uhuru generation’s 20s and 30s. That generation grew up in a radically optimistic world, where the traumas of the Second World War and the liberation struggle that their parents were forced to participate in—either directly or indirectly—had led them to want to build a better world for their children, even as they themselves were trying to figure it out. In that space, the priorities of the preceding generation, acquisition by all means, dimmed as societies moved back into their own internal generational wars.
While our history of the 60s and 70s and 80s might appear grim, because of the assassinations and the many other political and economic blunders, they were, in reality, a time of widespread positive change. To be young then was to experiment with the world, with its TV and global culture, a new world where being black, for example, was a positive thing. Public provision of social goods and services was fairly accessible to all and that service which was not free was dirt cheap. Economic opportunities were in plenty.
But by the 80s, with the Uhuru generation now in their 20s and 30s, and more learned than those that held power at the time, and with the passion of youth, it was time for the start of its claim to determine the course of the country. They watched their counterparts—now closer than ever before—bring down empires. So they demanded more political space, before taking away the throne itself. This generational switch was negotiated between the pre-independence generation of the Mois and Kibakis, and the post-independence generation that started rising through the ranks in the 70s and 80s. Just like the political negotiations of the late ‘50s, men and women in their mid-20s and 30s got high-ranking jobs, the social status that came with them, and the support they needed.
While the post-independence generation was in its infancy, the generation in power was walking the tightrope of trying to keep it together while navigating a new world with a governing structure of sorts. They tried everything, from trying not to choose a side to trying to be on each side’s payroll. While understanding the need to play the global tug of war, they also tried to police the kids who were also experiencing this new world. Google miniskirt and hippie hair bans in 60s and 70s and see how far down a wormhole you will go of the things that they banned. In many African countries, young men with guns got rid of old men, before descending into their own wars, coups and counter-coups.
When they crossed into adulthood and became young parents suddenly aware about how the world works, Generation Uhuru began demanding, and taking over, the tools of power. They took over, for example, religious power by simply speaking directly to the people themselves, without going through the traditional, inherited structures. They did the same with political power, forcing Moi to co-opt them into political power and expand the political space for those who were left out or could not be convinced to join his negotiated reality. To not do so at the time would have been to declare a generational war.
To keep society running, Moi and his age-mates had to give in to the independence generation. They did this while also affirming their belief that the Uhuru generation would mess up; telling them that calling for many political platforms would lead to tribalism and a break-up the country they had built. In the ways in which each generation mythologises its wars with the succeeding ones, it might appear as if all Moi and his cronies did was harass them for being young and radical. But the independence generation liberalised the economy and politics in the ways they thought Kenya should work (and that the new global order demanded), and became rich and powerful while at it. Yes, people died, but in the larger scheme of things, Moi lost the generational war, and it was a good and inevitable thing.
Liberalising the economy and politics helped the independence generation directly, by opening up enough chances for them to get jobs now that they had mounting bills to pay, and to live in a society where they did not need to have gray hair to sit on the boards of government institutions. They had the qualifications because their parents had encouraged them to get the education that they themselves hadn’t received, to thrive in a world where education mattered.
But it was the liberalisation of telecoms—as in the rest of the world—that really did it for Generation Uhuru.
Just as their parents had, the independence generation encouraged its children to go to school so that they could get jobs in this brave new world it had created. Like the generations before, the independence generation forgot that it would need to give up the things it had fought for in order to nurture a generation that would understand what this world now needed. As it aged, its pointed criticisms of everything millennials were doing led it to miss a critical learning curve that would have allowed it to know when it was time to go. It still tried to police everything based on the lessons it had learnt from its predecessor, and to maintain the power structures it had inherited and built upon.
With one foot firmly in one century and the other in a new one, Generation Uhuru failed to recognise its own obsolescence and mortality. Even with their successors —the millennials- popping kids and carving out their own paths and demanding a kinder world, the independence generation joined its global peers in trying to make the millennials feel that what they had done back in the 80s and 90s was enough for the world. That there was enough, for example, for them to continue stealing and holding onto the reins of power. To continue, for example, defining how millennials should determine their own course, or even understand how the world actually works. To insist to them that what was good or bad in 1980 was still good or bad, even when it was evidently stupid.
What the independence generation failed to realise is that while it had arrived at a critical moment where it was still living in the same world as its successors, they were both experiencing two very different existential crises.
In 2010, an aunt of mine called my mother incessantly to tell her I was a devil worshipper because of the memes I shared on Facebook. She lives in the States, which makes the entire thing even more hilarious when I think about it now. But all I had to do then was unfriend her, and she was as good as dead to me. Not emotionally, at least not in the way the independence generation understands the word, but because I could simply go to her profile and unfriend her. It would save me uncomfortable conversations, with me trying to placate my parents’ generation’s sensibilities, even when I didn’t need to. It is for the same reason that I do not talk with them about my atheism, my radical world view, my refusal to vote, my work, my hair, or my life choices . . . all of which appears alien to them. And I don’t need their approval any more. I do not even feel the need, at this point in this story, to assure you that I love them. That goes without saying.
A few months ago, my father asked me to cosign a loan with him. The bank had told him that he was too old to get one, and he needed someone younger, a lot younger (he is in his 70s) to partner with him. He asked this while I was sitting with him together with one of my siblings, and for a second, we both went quiet. I wasn’t sure which question to answer first, because he had actually asked two questions, one of them unspoken. The first was whether I could. I couldn’t. I’ve been listed with a credit reference bureau for years because of my erratic payment of my student loans. I’ve wanted to pay them for years, but the immediacy of doing so has faded over time, because I’ve never used the degree for the obtention of which I had taken the loans; and if the loans were an investment in a better future, then it was an absolute waste of time.
The second question was harder to answer though, because I wanted to navigate his sensibilities about it. It was the question of why a man with a near-perfect credit record stretching back more than five decades could not get a loan by himself. There were many ways to explain this, but I chose the one he would understand best. The refusal of his generation to give up power progressively had mixed things up, as its ideas were coming up against a world that was on a different path. While I only used the example of the 2016 interest rate cap because he would understand it (he is a Kiambu voter; it is the Kiambu MP who sponsored the law), I could have pushed the timeline back by a decade and found a link to that decision, a point in time where his generation, implicitly or complicitly, had built a world where a social safety net like a cap on the interest rate would eventually hurt them. Had he pointed out that it is not his specific generation that is in power today—he was born in the ’40s —my rebuttal would have been simple; it is, because he voted for Uhuru Kenyatta in 2002, and every time since. He consented to what Uhuru Kenyatta’s generation, his younger siblings, would do even before they did it.
2016 would not be the first time our elite class has tried to tame runaway interest on credit to protect their interests. But this time the tables turned on them because, while they had the power to pass the law, they are at the tail end of the working-age population, and it was always going to hurt them first. And then it would become a cycle because the generation that holds power could not pay their employees, who were mostly millennials, and would have to fire them and still try to grow old in a world where their successors were now old enough, qualified enough, and still young and radical enough to do something about it. A similar scenario played out a few years ago when the desire by the Uhuru generation to take care of their parents by giving them money, ruined rural economies in Kenya because old people no longer needed to work and those who were young enough to take on the jobs wanted to do other things.
The refusal of the independence generation to give up the reins of power, or even actually acknowledge that their watch is ended, means that we actually can’t afford, and nor do we have the emotional or physical space to take care of them when they age. And more importantly for them and for us right now, we can’t afford it.
For millennials, the 2010s were a fast-paced journey that will define this next decade in ways we do not yet realise. Now parents to a younger generation looking to us for direction, elder siblings to a Generation Z that is walking out into a broken world, and with an ageing generation of parents that we now realise doesn’t actually know or have the capacity to deal with what we need, there is a glitch in the matrix.
In the last decade and a half, we the millennial generation have built a new world by our sheer numbers and we are constantly aware of what is good or bad for us. While our joining Facebook, for example, was mainly due to the fear of missing out that is probably experienced by every generation, our use of it has made us acutely aware of just how creaky the world the independence generation built actually is. Since they can no longer afford to pay us, because their priorities are not ours, nor their dreams nor language, we are now seeking for direction among ourselves. We are also realising that the words that drove them, such as “development” and “corruption” and even “economy” have a different meaning for us because they are impacting our pockets in real time. And they are words from a different time and context.
One good thing about how nature works is that while it abhors a vacuum, and will fill it to maintain the balance, it does so slowly such that it only makes sense in retrospect. Where we have allowed the independence generation to continue beating the “corruption” drum, for example, our sense of fatigue and individual economic awareness, have blunted the fangs of the war on corruption. It is not our war, because we do not even have the opportunity to join in. Our war is different. And it is one rooted in a context we are slowly understanding; that we are in fact the adults now, and we need to determine which war is ours and go into it without apologies to our parents.
For previous generations identity was still rooted within geographical borders, which could be claimed, fought over, and even cut off from the world. To us, identity is increasingly physically individual, such that we can actually run our entire lives, from the social to the economic, without ever having to breathe the same air with more people than we want to. And for a time, we were made to feel like we were doing this life thing wrong, that we do not read newspapers, that we spend too much time on our phones and laptops (which the independence generation gave us, in many ways) not connecting with actual blood-and-bone humans. But to us, a person in our physical space is no different from someone a world away, and literacy, the ability to read and write, is no longer novel or even attractive. It is part of our language, from love to fights to work to our very existence. We do not need to suffer uncomfortable spaces because we can afford, both economically and socially, to work with each other without actually wanting or needing to meet and shake hands. Even banks, brick-and-mortar businesses that thrived in Kenya under the independence generation, no longer need to actually exist in a physical space. Coronavirus will teach this generation hard lessons that they gleefully ignored.
And geographical borders no longer mean what they once did, because the world they built has made protecting them a dying idea especially with regards to their cultural significance. Not only can you take a virtual tour of practically any place in the world, but you can also learn about where people are thriving without it being a class thing. Anyone can Google whether there is (still) work and racism in the West or the UAE, or we know someone we can trust to do it. You can apply for a passport even while checking whether whatever little money you’ve saved can pay for a flight, all without moving from your bed. These things are no longer novel, they are part of our world, and they are not what is wrong with the world. The independence generation understands, for example, that to switch off the internet in Kenya today is far riskier to their idea of national security than stealing money or jailing and killing people. It would not even be those of us who have been on Twitter for a decade who would form the core of the ensuing revolt, but literally everyone because now everything depends on our ability to be online. The internet might as well be the fifth element at this point.
Many of the decisions the Kenyan elites have made in the last two decades and especially now—BBI included—are simply outdated for the country and trying to steal ideas from their forebears and also learn from the generation they have to hand over power to eventually isn’t working. So they are experimenting, grappling to balance between sticking to their decisions and their waning ability to keep up with young men and women who are on a completely different plane. They are understandably afraid of the fact that millennials are now not only old enough to vote and drink, but they are parents themselves and can actually decide things for themselves with none of the consequences parents threaten their kids with. And millennials are realising that none of what they have been told is true; what they say about tribes is actually about identity, and our generation’s tribes need new names that do not weaponise a history we haven’t lived.
The looming generational change will not be kind, or polite, or even decent. It was once supposed to be a “youth revolt”, a point in time where young Kenyans born after the 80s would rise up and protest. But we are now adults, with bills and kids, so a decision to go out into the streets is existential. Our revolt may not even be physical, because it does not need to happen there for it to matter for the generation. Revolutions are fundamentally about language, and we can speak a language using a single hashtag the same way Generation Uhuru built their revolts around gathering in a common physical space. At the time, the world allowed them not to have to gather in the bushes with guns, as their parents had, because they spoke a language that only they understood. We are at that point in time too, where they have sullied the joys of existing in a common physical space by threatening to kill, maim and jail, and actually doing so. We do not even need to take the risk of working together simply because we exist in the same spaces and speak our own language in so many spaces online, since to know what we are doing online, independently and together, you must be part of the generational in-group.
It is impossible to predict the 2020s, because to imagine what a generation will do when it realises its predecessor/parents are just normal people who don’t know as much as they claim to, is impossible. Will we vote for whoever we decide, and support them with the skills they so generously made sure that we obtained, in such significant ways that the power of money and land the independence generation has been so obsessed with stealing and acquiring will be blunted by the same sheer force of numbers and skills with which we have defined our lives so far. Or will we simply decide to relook at everything we know about business and life, and build our own structures if the independence generation insists on imagining that it has the time to wait and rectify its mistakes.
With millennials, the independence generation needs to know that it is no longer dealing with compliant children or young adults who still need them, or their approval, to exist. It is dealing with fully-fledged adults who are slowly realising they have everything they need to demand their space, and feel a glitch in the matrix so profound that we need to explain what’s happening to each other in a language and on platforms that we understand.
This looming generational change will not even be defined by the rules that Generation Uhuru has demanded the millennials live by because we no longer care much for those rules. We have stopped trying to separate how we live online and how we live offline, because both are part of who we are, and we have grown weary of being shamed for it, and coronavirus has affirmed our point of view. We’ve lived online long enough to see our younger siblings and kids join in, and it is scary to think of any subsequent generation trying to make sense of the world as it is now. This world needs us to claim our space, loudly and unashamedly, and to take it by force if necessary. The independence generation, both the elites and the others, doesn’t know what it’s doing anymore, as it tries to shout across the generational negotiating table in a language only it understands. Millennials are progressively realising that their inheritance is not negotiable, and the independence generation is not ready for what’s coming.
As the current “owners” of nearly all that matters to keep a society together—Generation Uhuru—has a choice, either to give up the reins of power in the same way they themselves demanded and got them, progressively and for each other, or they can watch the world they built burn, as we build city-states by our rules. Negotiating only works if each side gives the other all, or some, of what they want. So far, we have given them time. They have given us stasis and a society that is now dealing with a looming food crisis because of locusts among other things, a global pandemic, a place in time where it is cheaper to die than to be sick, and nothing of value in the future that we are staring at.
Our goal as millennials is to build a kinder world so that our younger siblings and our kids can build a better one. And we have to start from there, looking at everything as it is now, and bringing down anything that is unkind to us and others; because the Uhuru generation forgot the basics of a working society that they learnt from its parents. They wanted to build a new one, only tapping into the old ways when it suited them (such as weaponising ethnicity).
But they inherited the trauma properly, and have since tried to force-feed it—together with the fears such individual and collective traumas carry—to us. And now, as they feel the walls closing in on them, they would rather not ask for help from us but continue shuffling among themselves and those of their parents that are still alive, looking for solutions. What they should be doing is progressively handing over everything they fought for, bought, and stole, to the people who need them now.
We will build them retirement homes they can afford to die in, and for some, better prisons than the ones they inherited and never improved, so that we can focus on the job of bringing this world back to its senses. The alternatives to negotiating this transition are simple, not just in Kenya but the world over. I doubt that the post-World War II generation wants to be known as the generation that inherited a world traumatised by war, racism, pandemic and colonialism, and bequeathed that same inheritance after enjoying one of the most peaceful periods in recorded history.
But what do I know about how the world works? I am a millennial, after all. An eternal child.
When We Lose Our Fear: A Saba Saba Day Reflection
On the 30th anniversary of the Saba Saba day, grassroots human rights defenders and allies held a protest and appeared in way that was not sanctioned by the authorities to confront state power and exercise their right to be seen and heard.
On the thirtieth anniversary of the massive pro-democracy Saba Saba day ( 7th July) demonstrations in Kenya, Tuesday’s People’s March began in the very places where state violence is still laid bare: Mathare, Kayole, Dandora, Kibera, and other informal settlements in Nairobi. From as early as 7AM that grey cold-season morning, human rights defenders at the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) and allies from the community began preparing for their march. They lined posters and banners along the front of the centre. They raised up large flags, one in each hand, and spun, watching the fabric billow. They tested loudspeakers. They sang and danced to protest music together.
Thirty years ago, hundreds of demonstrators flooded the city centre, led by a coalition of pro-democracy political leaders, to demand multi-party democracy and the end of authoritarian rule under President Daniel arap Moi. On Tuesday, grassroots human rights defenders organised a People’s March—a leaderless event that was, on principle, neither branded and sponsored by any organisation, nor “approved” beforehand by authorities—to demand a set of basic human rights necessary to live a dignified life.
Ironically, in 1990, the first Saba Saba demonstration under Moi’s dictatorship was able to at least get within the vicinity of the Kamukunji grounds, though it was eventually met with lethal police force. This time in 2020, before demonstrators were able to even leave Mathare, Dandora, Kibera, Kayole, and other meeting places, clots of police officers had already begun blocking their passage and arresting leading organisers. Only minutes after demonstrators at the Mathare Social Justice Centre began singing, police shot tear gas at them.
After the inaugural plumes of tear gas cleared from the front of MSJC, Mama Victor walked up to me, gave me a long embrace, looked to where the police were gathered, and abruptly said, “I’m going there to take tea.”
Mama Victor has a face like calm waters, smooth and serene like one of Picasso’s monumental women. Like the other members of the Network of Mothers and Widows of Victims and Survivors who had gathered at MSJC to participate in the march, she wore a white gown over her clothes, like those for baptisms. Written on the front of all of the gowns were the names of loved ones killed by police. She clenched in her hand the poster she had intended to march with: a large photograph of a young man, with the words “Victor Okoth Obondo. 1994-2017.”
Three years ago, Mama Victor lost both of her sons on the same day. It was August 9, 2017, when post-election unrest led to violent police crackdowns in informal settlements across the country. Victor, 22, and Bernard, 25—the son of her deceased sister, whom she raised as her own—were on their way home to Mathare when they were caught up in protests contesting election results. Police shot live bullets. Bernard was shot in the head and died instantly; Victor was shot in the stomach and died before he reached the hospital.
At the time, Mama Victor’s shock and grief was forced into the confines of a politically charged election. Victor and Bernard’s burials had to be rushed, but, in her account to journalist Isaac Otidi Amuke, she says she was “fortunate” to even have that. Other mothers, grandmothers, widows, and relatives, are often denied the “privilege to mourn,” as people can be arrested for even holding vigil for those killed by police.
“In the beginning, I would just wake up, see the photo of my sons, and cry,” she says. But as the once-searing pain subsided with time, she realized that it was only people like her who could sit with other mothers of victims and “share the pain we feel.” So she and a few other core members formed the Network of Mothers and Widows of Victims and Survivors.
The word “activist,” and the cynicism around it, often obscures the fact that some like Mama Victor never chose to be activists. Rather, it was the decision of some police officers sent to control “riots” on August 9, 2017 to pull the trigger—and Mama Victor’s refusal to accept impunity as an answer—that has landed her here. Taking tea in front of police officers on Saba Saba day.
Right off of the main road where over a dozen police officers were gathered, behind a kiosk selling medicinal herbs, was a breakfast kibanda. Mama Victor sat down on the mbao-bench to take chai and chapati. On the bench next to her, she set down the poster of Victor and another poster of Yassin Moyo, the 13-year-old boy who was shot in Kiamaiko on March 30 by police enforcing curfew, while he stood on the balcony of his family’s house.
Almost immediately, two policeman approach Mama Victor. They ask her what she is doing, and she says drily that she is taking tea. One orders her to get up and leave. “I can’t,” she says, “because I am taking tea.” They say no “gatherings” are allowed here—referring to the protest songs that had just been silenced by tear gas—and once again she says she is not gathering anything, she is just taking tea.
The humiliating interrogation continues. One officer asks her why she is wearing white, to which she responds that those are her clothes. He sees her facemask, draped loose on her neck, and with his wooden baton, prods at the human rights logo printed on it: “What is this?” Even with his stick pointed at her neck, Mama Victor didn’t let her chin drop. She raises her voice and reaffirms that she is not doing anything wrong by wearing her own clothes and drinking tea. She takes two cups and pours the hot, milky tea from one cup into the other, in a long, white cascade, to cool it.
Mama Victor is not naive about dealing with the police. As a human rights defender at MSJC, she collects evidence to document police brutality in Mathare, which means that, like other grassroots organizers unprotected by international institutions, in the past, she has received threats from anonymous callers and been followed for days by strange men. If she talks back to police, it is not because she believes she is untouchable.
One police officer orders Mama Victor to remove the white robe and throw away the posters of Victor and Yassin. A crowd gathers around this image of a thousand words: a policeman with his stick, standing above a woman seated on a wooden bench, trying to take her breakfast. Mama Victor refuses to throw away the posters and, her shouts reaching a fever pitch, she points to the poster of Victor on the bench next to her and asks the wrenching, simple question: “Can I not even take tea here with my child?”
Despite the fact that the state has already heaped layers of violence on this woman—murdering her sons, denying her justice, leaving her to solve her own children’s murders, plus the baseline systemic neglect that Mathare and other informal settlements suffer—the state has denied Mama Victor the dignity of even appearing before the Kenyan public by choking the Saba Saba day demonstration before it started.
They cannot, however, strip away the eternal truth that she is—and always will be—Mama Victor. Victor Okoth Obondo, frozen forever in that crouch, his arm resting on his knee, with a cool, easy smile. Her baby.
Mama Victor grabs the poster and, breaking into a flow of Dholuo, speaks straight to Victor. “Victor, you were so handsome, everyone said. You were kind, hard-working. We shouldn’t have come to Nairobi. Perhaps if we were home….” Another woman in the back begins to wail, and the police slink away.
In The Appearance of Black Lives Matter, visual activist Nicholas Mirzoeff writes that for Black people in 2014’s BLM protests to show up in the way they did was for them to “appear as Black in a way that is not codified by white supremacy.” To “appear,” he writes, is to confront state power that says, “Move along, nothing to see here,” and to demand to be seen. To “appear” is to be grievable, worth grieving, and to force others to look.
All of the grassroots human rights defenders and allies who weren’t already arrested by 10AM and furtively hopped onto matatus into town, knowing that scores of police would be waiting for them there too, understood this. They rejected the idea that a demonstration could possibly be first approved by the government, and they claimed—as victims of structural violence themselves—their right to “appear.”
Human rights defenders on Tuesday’s Saba Saba day, knew that Kenya’s comfortable class is not ignorant of plight of the poor but, rather, chooses to ignore it. Like Black civil rights activists of the U.S. in the 1960s, they knew that the most powerful message would have to be communicated through the medium of their own bodies: kneeling together, unfazed and fists up, within a storm of tear gas, or proclaiming “Whatever happens, I am not afraid” while being dragged by officers into the boot of a car.
It worked. Photographs and videos from Tuesday show the full, militarized force of the state concentrated onto the unarmed, vulnerable bodies of the city’s poorest, bodies which already bear the violence of living in districts with no water, going to bed hungry, loving people who were murdered by serial killer cops.
Mama Victor says that, when she reached the city centre, she was followed closely by several police officers—so closely that other organizers arranged for a cab to take her directly home. That is how much the state fears a middle-aged woman wearing white and holding a poster of her son, whose smile can never fade anymore. Even though the state had stripped Mama Victor of every other opportunity to express her grief and demand justice, the one they could not take away—her own self, the mother of two men they killed—is indeed the most powerful.
At first, this particular kind of protest seems like a paradox: how can leaning into one’s vulnerability possibly be an expression of power? But if you think about it a bit more, it makes intuitive sense. In a widely shared video from Tuesday afternoon, MSJC co-founder Juliet Wanjiru Wanjira is cornered between two parked cars, surrounded by several armed police officers attempting to arrest her. Without flinching, she says she will not cooperate and asks them, “Why are you arresting me?”
One officer asks back, “Why are you protesting?”
“Because you’re killing us!”
“Who is killing you?”
“You! Police!” The officer begins to walk away, and she continues: “You are killing us in our communities! Poor communities!” Both Wanjira and Mama Victor display no fear, and they lean into her identity as the victims of police violence in the face of police themselves.
The police leave Wanjira alone. She turns to those around her, throws her fist in the air, and shouts, “When we lose our fear, they lose their power!” Her courage doesn’t come from the security of privilege, but rather defiance even in the face of her own vulnerability, as someone who faces the real risk of being disappeared or executed, a tragic fate that has met many other Kenyan human rights defenders.
Those with a lived experience of state violence have the most powerful things to say to the government. Indeed, even if they marched silently in town, their bodies would speak volumes. Perhaps that is what the state fears most—people who see not only their own scars but also see clearly who inflicted them. Perhaps that is why police coordinated so thoroughly to block demonstrators from even stepping foot on the road to the city centre.
This completely counters how certain newspapers reported the day’s events: that the Saba Saba demonstrations were shut down, somehow failed, or didn’t happen at all. Ultimately, the entire country witnessed the physical violence that police officers inflicted on peaceful protestors. But, more than that, they witnessed how this violence was doled out on people who already bore state violence within their own bodies.
People like Mama Victor, a living testament to the bloodied hands of the state. Her survival is resistance. Her dogged commitment to documenting extrajudicial killings is resistance. Her sitting down to take tea with her son in front of those who killed him—that, above all, is resistance.
Confronting Racism in the Shackles of a Miseducation
I cannot claim to have been a victim of the odious, brutal racism of the kind daily suffered by – predominantly – African American men in the United States. The racism I encountered during my time abroad was of the insidious kind, the kind that lets you in through the door and feigns to accept you as an equal while reminding you that “the hand that receives is always beneath the hand that gives.”
Paysage avec homme nu dans la neige.
That was the title of the book and the subject of the exam.
Landscape with a naked man in the snow.
I cannot now remember the title of the course but I have kept the book and clearly remember the lecturer who taught it; a small, pasty-faced man with a balding pate and shifty black eyes. There we were, in his office on the second floor of the Faculty of Letters, Monsieur le Professeur behind his desk and me on the opposite side facing him, nervously ready to sit this oral exam. It started off well enough, my confidence growing as I responded to the lecturer’s questions.
Then out of nowhere, like a violent slap across the face, his beady eyes boring into mine, came this: “Tell me Mademoiselle, naked white men fascinate you, don’t they? Do you like the title of the book? What does it make you think of? You black people are really fascinated by us whites, aren’t you?” I sat there utterly gobsmacked, unable to conjure up any sort of response, in outrage or even in pretense at a smart literary comeback. Then Monsieur le Professeur seemed to snap out of it, dismissing me with a peremptory Vous pouvez disposer!
I left his office and stopped to stare out through the large bay windows that overlooked the square below, too stunned to immediately leave the building and join the throngs of students lazing about in the summer sunshine. I felt sad, mad, sullied, impotent. I knew I could lodge a complaint but how would I frame it? With what words? There had only been the two of us in that office so it would be his word against mine. Also, I was the only black female student in my faculty that year so I had no one to compare notes with. And besides, I knew I had passed the exam; otherwise, as was the custom, Monsieur le Professeur would have informed me that I would be taking a re-sit come September. Why then would I start a fight I wasn’t sure I could win?
Yet now I believe that this acquiescence, this doubting of self, this not fighting back, had been inculcated in me, and that I had internalised it well. I remember being in secondary school and the Mother Superior informing us that Africans were required to attend national celebrations at Uhuru Park. Africans. Not the Asians or the Europeans that were in class with me, many of whom were, at least from a citizenship point of view, as Kenyan as I am. Africans. Black. Everyone else stayed behind as we Black Africans made our way to Uhuru Park that day. We did not complain. I did not complain.
An Irish nun given to long digressions into her distant childhood in County Cork taught us African history. Apartheid and Bantustans came up, a map showing the various desolate locations to which black South Africans had been relegated pinned to the classroom wall. Yet I do not remember any sense of outrage on the part of the teacher. Or on the part of us students. Kenya’s colonial history, with its native reserves, its racism and its violence, was certainly not taught. It was a time to forgive but never forget, we were constantly reminded, the not forgetting bit invoked as an after-thought, sotto voce.
And nor was Kenya’s painful history invoked at home; we were not a political family by any measure. The parents worked and the children went to school and did what was expected of them. Only much later did it occur to me to wonder what it might mean for my family that my grandfather had been a chief in colonial times.
We learned to recite Shakespeare, and became intimate with the Mayor of Casterbridge; the English classics held no secrets for us. I fell in love with the language of love, taught to me by one Mrs Kiprono (why on earth would anyone study Swahili?) and flew off to take a degree in Romance Languages the minute I could. And thus did I come face to face with my miseducation.
I had been on campus a year, struggling to dominate the language of Molière, when the time came to renew my student residency permit, having done well enough to progress to second year. Of I went to the immigration desk of our local authority one October morning, joining a line of foreigners there for the same reason when, suddenly, up at the top of the queue, a young black man lost it. “What?! I am exploiting the Belgian taxpayer?! Do you know how long we Congolese suffered under your rule? Do you know that we built this country? Do you know what King Leopold did to us? Do you? Well, if you think I’m profiting from you I haven’t even started yet Madame! I have come to repatriate what you took from me!”. Apparently, the prim madam attending to the queue had questioned his motivation to remain in Belgium since he had failed his year but the young Congolese man was having none of it; he threw a monumental, show-stopping fit and got his residency renewed there and then. I had never witnessed anything of the sort before. I realised there was another whole history out there I knew nothing about.
That young man made me feel emboldened and when, some time later, a couple of cops jumped dramatically out of their patrol car in that neighbourhood of Brussels known as Matongé—on account of its numerous Congolese businesses—and barked, “papiers!”, at Jean and I, clearly hoping that we were undocumented illegals, we laughed in their faces as we handed over our student IDs. A young female lecturer of African descent recently arrived at the department of history had me transfixed when she took on a white professor at an international students event. In his cravat, floppy hat and carefully cultivated air of the worldly dandy, the prof had been waxing lyrical about his time at the Université Lovanium in Congo-Kinshasa, practically working himself into a state of ecstasy at the recall of the beauty of Congolese women dancers during faculty parties. Her “je danse, donc je suis?”, I dance, therefore I am?, abruptly put paid to that self-indulgent, paternalistic, walk down memory lane.
The scales had fallen from my eyes and I had come to the painful realisation that I had been lied to and that things were not as they seemed. I started reading properly, discovering the works of Cheikh Anta Diop and promoting them with the zeal of a recent convert, once eliciting the comment of a white friend that he would henceforth have to regard me in a totally different light, now that he was having to contemplate the notion that Africans had entire civilisations behind them. I was astounded.
A first full-time job after graduation brought me into the world of trade unions, a world where I expected that the rallying call—“Workers of the world, unite!”—excluded racists from the ranks of its diverse membership. That is until I found myself sitting between two Italian delegates to whom I was providing consecutive interpretation when a white speaker, referring to Namibians, ejaculated: “But these people are animals! You can’t do anything with them!”. (The man had a contract to undertake trade union education among the said “animals”.) I could not translate that statement, did not know what to do with it even as the two Italians kept asking me, “What did he say? What did he say?”. The meeting broke up in pandemonium.
I moved jobs a while later and found myself working under a Belgian director who liked to advance his reputation as a friend of Africa and Africans, holding court in his office through the doors of which hopeful African immigrés would flow, many met in the African nightclubs Monsieur le Directeur liked to frequent. Which did not dissuade him from treating very ill a young man to whom he had offered a job as his PR man, holding him by the contractual balls and giving them a squeeze every so often, just because he could. That young man eventually lost his job. And his mind. He was Congolese.
I cannot claim to have been a victim of the odious, brutal racism of the kind daily suffered by – predominantly – African American men in the United States. The racism I encountered during my time abroad was of the insidious kind, the kind that lets you in through the door and feigns to accept you as an equal while reminding you that “the hand that receives is always beneath the hand that gives”, as one senior manager, a Frenchman, put it to staff to justify why African beneficiaries of international development cooperation largesse needn’t expect to have their views taken into serious consideration in the execution of a project.
In the meantime, other books were published. Like King Leopold’s Ghost, a quick primer on the brutality of the agents of King Leopold II in the Congo Free State. My heart went out to the Congolese after that one. Or the horrifyingly detailed Britain’s Gulag, which at first I was unable to read to the end; the torture casually perpetrated in the Kenyan concentration camps by the colonists and their local collaborators was beyond anything I could bear to know. It took ten years for me to go back to that book, and to start asking questions about that time. I was shocked to learn from an aunt now in her early 70s that she knew of women who never did get married, could find no one to marry them, because they were daughters of known Ngati, the Kikuyu Home Guards that did the colonial government’s dirty work.
There was still the question of my grandfather who had been a chief in those times. I loved and revered that man, and did not want to have to contemplate that he might have been a party to the suffering visited upon Kenyans by the colonial government and its craven collaborators. And so I did not probe. Then, quite by chance, I fell upon The Swords of Kĩrĩnyaga: the fight for land and freedom, a book written by H.K. Wachanga, a former freedom fighter and, in those pages, I learnt something about my grandfather that freed me from the fear that my family had been on the wrong side of Kenya’s history.
[W]e met the Muhĩto Location Chief, Jeremiah Kĩnyua s/o Kĩru. He was a most unusual chief, because he had taken the second Mau Mau oath. He warned us that the government was searching for Kĩmathi, Mathenge and myself. He said Kimathĩ and Mathenge were to be tried for murder and that I was to be detained. He implored me to escape to Nairobi and hide there.
I learnt very recently from a contemporary of my grandfather’s that his chieftaincy was short-lived. Jeremiah Kĩnyua son of Kiru would not commit exactions against his people, and eschewed violence and corruption. And so he was quietly removed, never again to hold public office, living a dignified life and dying an honourable death four years shy of his 100th birthday.
Covid Organics: Towards an African Renaissance
Following the outbreak of a pandemic in the city of Wuhan during a Chinese winter that will forever remain etched in the annals of history, Madagascar has been dramatically thrust to the fore on the international stage with its announcement of the development of a herbal remedy for COVID-19.
Unlike other former French colonies in Africa such as Benin, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Senegal and Mali that have been acclaimed for placing the continent on the world map musically, Madagascar is not known for its musical prowess. The country pales in comparison to Cape Verde, that tiny island in the Atlantic Ocean that produced the gifted voice of Cesária Évora, and gave birth to Amilcar Cabral, the anti-colonial revolutionary and theoretician. But with the outbreak of a pandemic in the city of Wuhan during a Chinese winter that will forever remain etched in the annals of history, Madagascar has been dramatically thrust to the fore on the international stage.
Madagascar caught the world’s attention in April 2020 after announcing that it had made an extraordinary breakthrough in the field of (indigenous African) medicine. The Madagascar Institute of Applied Research (IMRA), which describes itself as “dedicated to biodiversity conservation and the discovery of drugs from natural products”, announced the development of Covid Organics (CVO) from the artemisia plant. Promoted as an herbal remedy that prevents and cures those who have tested positive for COVID-19, the drug has caused a sensation in a continent that has been marginalised by an international scientific community that views Africa as a spectator rather than as a player. But let me put a few things into perspective.
Long before CVO, the island nation’s flourishing plant life had been used for medicinal purposes, a tradition dating back to its pre-colonial days. The colonial epoch, however, disrupted this practice in order to introduce conventional medicine just like in other colonised African countries. In Madagascar, the practice was revived through the establishment of IMRA and deliberate emphasis was placed on the “value of plants in healing”, confirmed by the scientific tradition of investigating their chemical compounds to improve their efficacy. Remarkably, this revival began in the late 1950s when most African countries were on the cusp of independence and self-rule, with Ghana taking the lead (in 1957), and Madagascar and others following from 1960 onwards.
Political independence and self-rule coincided with the need to reclaim old practices and traditions that had been suppressed in the colonial era. The COVID-19 herbal remedy which continues to elicit excitement is, therefore, part of a long and rich African tradition that has resisted erasure.
Covid Organics comes against the backdrop of other encouraging and bold African interventions to combat various diseases that have plagued the world in recent decades. Before COVID-19, another viral disease stalked parts of West and Central Africa, resulting in more than 10,000 deaths. First reported in the DRC and in present-day South Sudan in 1976, the fight against Ebola has over the decades underscored the importance of the active involvement of local populations in deploying indigenous knowledge and remedies. Not many Africans are aware of the indescribable bravery of Sheik Umar Khan, a Sierra Leonean virologist who helped scores of Ebola patients before succumbing to the virus. Very few have heard of Dr Matthew Lukwiya, a Ugandan doctor who generated a substantial body of knowledge in the fight against Ebola before falling victim to the disease.
These few examples arguably contest the pervasive idea that conventional medicine and, to a large extent, western intervention are the only antidotes to African problems. The paradox in all this is the economic impoverishment of Madagascar, Sierra Leone and Uganda where a majority of citizens still live below the poverty line as compared to, say, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Egypt. There are, of course, other factors that explain the economic differences, but the most important point here is that innovation tends to occur where the need is greatest.
No one epitomises this innovative spirit more than IMRA founder, Prof Albert Rakoto, whose earlier studies on the artemisia plant have contributed immensely to the development of Covid Organics. (The research on Covid Organics has been falsely credited to Jérôme Munyangi, a Congolese researcher.) Rakoto’s insistence on blending indigenous and conventional medicine is vital because it is likely to solve two problems with a single solution, retaining traditional medicine practices that are readily available within most African communities while adapting modern scientific trends to improve the effectiveness of plants such as artemisia in order to complement the strained healthcare infrastructure.
It is safe to say that so far Madagascar is reaping the benefits of its discovery if the coronavirus figures in the island nation are anything to go by. At the time of writing this article, the country had recorded 1,724 confirmed positive cases with only 15 deaths, and 732 recovered and discharged. The figures nearly mirror those of other former French colonies like Guinea Bissau and Equatorial Guinea which have reported under 20 deaths each so far, and are also the beneficiaries of the Covid Organics. Therefore, as the global pandemic continues to evolve, it will become increasingly foolhardy for the international scientific community to ignore this very interesting trend.
Recently, there have been thinly veiled attempts—mainly by western mainstream media outlets—to cast aspersions on the drug. Reuters described the herbal remedy as a “cure” , the quotation marks serving to cast doubts on the claims made by Madagascar about Covid Organics, while FRANCE24 brazenly and without batting an eyelid went ahead to call it “The president’s controversial ‘miracle cure’” in one of their news stories. Some of these problematic media framings go beyond the often false premise that nothing good can come out of Africa. Instead, they are part of a deliberate, but subtle ideological battle that persistently discredits anything African that might be of benefit to the world.
The use of the word “miracle” by FRANCE24 captures this vividly because it implies superstition – some irrational belief in the healing powers of the drug – instead of the deployment of homegrown science and logic in responding to a virus that has ravaged western countries more than any other part of the world. Some Africans have joined the fray in ridiculing the wonder drug, provoking a déjà vu moment reminiscent of Ocol’s infamous lamentations to Lawino:
We will round up
All these priests
[…] And herbalists,
[…] Dealers in poisons
Extracted from plants
The leading proponent of the drug is Andry Rajoelina, the wiry-looking Malagasy president with his signature toothy smile. Before he ascended to power, the 46-year old was an event organiser. He has progressively become the poster boy for the drug, and more importantly, for the shaping and reimagining the course of the African Renaissance. Through various interviews granted to media platforms, Rajoelina continues to insist that nothing will stop the continent from devising homegrown solutions to respond to local and even global problems. His memorable rallying cry was expressed during a television session with FRANCE24 when he asked: “What if this remedy had been discovered by a European country, instead of Madagascar? Would people doubt it so much?”
Rajoelina is not the first African to challenge the institutionalised racism that has plagued people of colour the world over since the advent of European imperialism. Pioneer pan-African thinkers and philosophers like Marcus Garvey, W.E.B Dubois, Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon dedicated their lives to fighting racism in a world that had been designed to minimise the contributions of non-white peoples. Accordingly, how did one reconcile with the nightmare that Dubois called “double consciousness”? The “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” that currently informs the discourse on Covid Organics? Lately, Julius Malema, who leads South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, has been at the forefront in challenging and questioning inherited ideas of self-doubt and inferiority complex that Rajoelina also now contends with. Malema, like Rajoelina today, has been a fierce proponent of Africa and has even called for the dismantling of colonial borders that prevent ease of movement and trade among Africans.
Despite not being geographically located on the African continent, Madagascar identifies as African, not just because of its significant Bantu population, but because of a growing continental pride, especially among the younger generation. In the last few years, the rise and rise of African music like afrobeats (West Africa), kizomba music (in lusophone countries), rumba (in Central Africa), bongo (in Tanzania) and gqom and amapiano (in South Africa) has galvanized young Africans to new forms of negotiating and asserting their racial and geographical identities within a globalised world.
Madagascar’s development of a herbal remedy for COVID-19 has become an extension of this ongoing negotiation with identity that constantly invokes the slogans Africa Unite and I am proud to be African. Therefore, its location several kilometres further into the Indian Ocean has not dissuaded the Malagasy people from identifying with the pan-African goal of a strong, unified continent ready to determine her own destiny.
There are, of course, those who may voice criticism that Rajoelina’s COVID-19 remedy is not enough to catalyse the important conversation of the African Renaissance, and that it is a passing fad that will soon be forgotten as long as COVID-19 continues to mutate. While this argument is valid, the critics fail to acknowledge that indigenous strategies of confronting diseases, particularly those that are viral, including HIV/AIDS, remain instrumental in instilling optimism and hope in a continent that has been battered by persistent narratives of despair and Afro-pessimism. Madagascar essentially provides the continent with a new incentive to sustain, for example, the debate around patents and intellectual property rights that have received scant attention from African governments. The island nation further acts as a symbolic incubation centre for creative, radical and innovative ideas that are not afraid to confront mainstream thinking (on matters medicine) in the 21st century.
Madagascar’s story has just begun and it will continue to follow the same trajectory as long as the beneficiaries of the herbal remedy recover from COVID-19. Western media stations will have to rethink their reporting on African issues because the old ways will no longer work. African sounds, not just music in the sonic sense, but the capacity to speak and be heard will increasingly become the norm rather than the exception. A deepening African consciousness, that in the past was considered an anathema, will progressively influence new ways of engagement between fellow Africans within and outside the continent and between Africans and non-Africans. It is highly probable that the engagement—time is on Africa’s side (considering the youthful population)—will always be of equals and not that of a master and subordinate. With Rajoelina and Malema and Bobi Wine and many countless others accelerating these pan-African conversations through music, art, speeches, and most importantly, home-grown science, Africa’s voice is set to soar.
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