This social distancing reminds me of hamna and Dar es Salaam, where I lived when I worked for the United Nations in 1978. Independence Avenue was awash with Mao Tse-tung’s Little Red Book, but basic commodities were scarce. The local duka, Urafiki, stocked tins of Chinese frog legs and jam but not much else. The owner’s response to most requests was “hamna”, “there isn’t any”.
Social distancing or keeping physically apart from others arrived here in March to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and keep patients from overwhelming hospitals. It was all that remained given hamna—early denials about the severity of the virus and a lack of planning leading to limited or no testing and contact tracing, coupled with shortages of swabs, test kits and the chemicals to process them, masks, ventilators, and personal protective equipment for healthcare workers. Hamna. Not in Tanzania, but in the United States. What to do?
With no vaccine or treatment and no widespread testing, contact tracing, and mandatory wearing of masks—all of which might have slowed the spread of the virus early on—officials fell back on isolation, the medieval response to plagues. In Massachusetts and elsewhere the result was a lockdown of all but essential services. The message was to isolate and stay at home except for necessary trips to the grocery store, the pharmacy, or for walks, and to keep at least six feet apart from anyone else.
The not so hidden message was that we were mostly on our own, a terrifying thought in the face of a deadly virus.
I called a world-class teaching hospital in Boston preemptively, wanting to know what the testing protocol was, just in case. I was horrified to learn that the hospital was using outdated criteria from the US Center for Disease Control (CDC): having travelled to China, Italy and Iran (even though there were already known hot spots in the U.S. including in California, Washington state, and in Boston where a “super spreader” event, a Biogen conference, had ignited contagion); having been in contact with someone who had the virus (as if that were any more likely than knowing how one had got a cold, especially given the reality of asymptomatic carriers); having serious symptoms (even though that might mean delaying until it was too late for life saving care).
The criteria were just plain wrong, but I later gathered they were also the hospital’s desperate response to hamna; it needed to restrict and “triage” testing because of a lack of supplies, to cancel elective surgery and non-essential appointments in order to contain the spread of the virus, and to make room for its victims. We were caught up not only in the reality of hamna but of questionable information. So many whys, so few acceptable answers, and so much distancing from the truth.
Why was CDC issuing such ill-informed and outdated guidelines? Why could the richest country in the world not test widely or produce nasal swabs and other essentials even given the disinformation, attacks on science and lack of support coming from the top? Was all this really happening and how could we effectively respond to COVID-19 in ignorance of its prevalence and etiology or quarantine its victims if we did not even know who most of them were? The term “fourth world country” came to mind: rich and cutting edge in so many ways, painfully incompetent and embarrassingly inept in so many others.
Also, why did the CDC recently suddenly instruct us to wear masks when earlier they and other medics—not even politicians—claimed that it was unnecessary? Plus, masks were not exactly readily available.
Given to questioning received authority that defies common sense, I bought a mask at the beginning of March, long before the information ying changed to yang, as I did not believe a word of it. I figured the advice stemmed from hamna rather than from science, and concluded that, while not fully protective, wearing a mask was a bit like locking the door: necessary, inadequate, but the best one can do. On one’s own again as truth itself seemed to evolve or self-destruct. Was this another form of distancing?
As the gravity of the situation increased and cases mushroomed, choices concerning social distancing loomed. Exactly what did this entail?
Initially, I was in a partial state of cognitive dissonance. I always thought I was a cool cookie who never got flustered, even in super crises. After all, had I not survived the 1982 coup in Kenya where looters ran straight past my place as I tried to figure out if there was any part of my flat where I would not be opposite a window even as gunshots echoed? Had I not coped admirably with health emergencies in Tanzania and Malawi? And did I not continue to write the truth as I was being harassed?
That is what I thought until I realised that this was different. In those situations, there were clear consequential choices and decisions to take. But here there was and is nothing we can do but engage in social distancing. There is no action we can take to change the reality. Once we stop social distancing and end the shutdown the virus will still be out there waiting for us. That is the most daunting realisation, that there is little else to do, the situation is out of control, we are vulnerable and mostly in the hands of the fates until science comes up with a vaccine. And this is the twenty-first century.
I understood this intellectually, but my body rebelled. With no objective changes in my life or any real reason, I seized up, my chest tightened, and I felt physically anxious. I did not see why this was happening and was annoyed at myself. After all, I was not sick or super vulnerable compared to individuals who were on the frontline, or poor and living in overcrowded hotspot neighborhoods like Chelsea in Boston, where social distancing is not even possible. Nor did I have a relative in long-term care, the shocking source of 60 per cent of Massachusetts’ deaths from the virus. I was ok, but I was not. I felt guilty and awful and scared until a former colleague from Rome called and said everyone there felt the same; horrid, fearful, lacking control, and stuck.
The sense of vulnerability worsened when a friend in New York told me a colleague of hers had died in hospital from the virus. He was a fifty-one-year-old fit marathoner who was improving and then unexpectedly died. A few days later, another friend here said her twenty-three-year-old daughter had all the symptoms of COVID-19, with increasing difficulty in breathing. Even then, her doctor only followed her remotely, and never saw her in person. No x-ray, no oxygen, no contingency plans. Yet more distancing, but this time from clinical care. How frightening.
To cope better, I injected a strict routine into my day. Instead of ending up in my nightgown in front of the computer at 4 p.m., as once happened, I got up, made my bed, dressed, and ate breakfast. Then, and only then, would I allow myself to use the computer. And I continued to take long walks to reduce the stress of isolation and the daunting reality that this will continue for a very long time.
I also switched from doing research and writing to mundane tasks. I wanted to keep my mind occupied but did not want to think about the unthinkable. I was having a hard time focusing on anything serious just as my friends in Rome were. I cleaned my apartment and went through lots of stuff. So far, I have tossed out seven grocery bags of papers and journals and gone through a backlog of Economist and New Yorker magazines.
None of this changes the reality of a fundamentally altered world where everything that made it normal and interesting is evaporating. We have been reduced to hunting and gathering at the grocery store as a chance to see other human beings. I even long for the traffic I once disliked, but apart from shopping for food, I am here trying to normalise the abnormal.
I didn’t have internet access at home because I used a computer at the university, where I had excellent IT support. It also suited me to turn off the computer, go home and have a clear end to my day. But then with the shutdown, including the closure of universities, I realised that I needed to connect or I would be not just socially isolated but isolated from everything else: news, information, concerts, lectures, and no email. So, I finally bit the bullet and called up a provider. They said they could not come for ten days.
As I waited, my neighbor allowed me access to his server. By 30 March, the installation date, the COVID-19 situation had worsened. To allow installation or not to allow installation, that was the question. I thought about postponing but then asked myself, until when? I knew things could only get worse and thought that the company might halt installations altogether, leaving me totally cut off. Yet, in this time of hamna and social isolation, I also realised that it would be very unwise to have the technician come into my place, as he would also arrive with his daisy chain of contacts from work and family, and possibly with the virus. I was still debating the matter when he appeared at 8 a.m. sharp. I greeted him at the door with a mask and gloves on, and opened all my windows, even though it was freezing. The installation took five hours.
Scientists say that the virus can live on surfaces for up to three days and hang around in the air for up to three hours just from people breathing and talking. Yet even though I knew all that, I removed my mask an hour after the technician left because it hurt. I realised that if I was unlucky, I could get the virus from the droplets in the room. I knew this because when government scientists advised us to wear masks they also said that these droplets could transmit the virus. Earlier, they had said it was not airborne and only could be transmitted from person to person. So, I spent the next fourteen days wondering if I would come down with COVID-19.
I go to the grocery store, but a lot of friends are ordering in from Whole Foods and Amazon, which are part of the same Bezos conglomerate. I prefer to choose my own food and don’t understand why I would be more exposed in a grocery store since the same employees are picking up and packing the items to be delivered. Furthermore, Amazon employees have already complained about a lack of protective gear and the presence of COVID-19 in the company’s warehouses.
Some people obsess about whether they should leave their mail unopened for a day as the virus can live on paper even though experts say this would be a highly unlikely mode of transmission. Others take their shoes off when returning home. Out on walks, people are increasingly covering their faces. The New York Times recently noted that the downwind from runners could necessitate staying twenty to thirty feet behind each other to avoid contagion.
Everybody draws their line somewhere. I don’t do any of this fine-tuning, but I am not using the subway or going to my favorite outdoor market downtown either.
No one really knows how much social distancing is enough. One reason is the absence of solid information. The other is a lack of trust because of so much false and inadequate information. Because of hamna we don’t even know how many cases we have as there is still so little testing and contact tracing being done and so many barriers to doing both.
I try not to dwell on this too much. I think about Nairobi when so many buildings popped up as if there was no tomorrow. So many suburbs destroyed, so many regulations ignored when so much kitu kidogo greased corrupt palms. Then, over time, some of those buildings just collapsed.
Here, the hamna that brought us social distancing, incorrect information, and remote medical care also reminds me of those Nairobi buildings. Covid-19 has revealed hollow edifices and laid bare systemic failures just as Nairobi’s shoddy construction did. And it is the overtaxed doctors, the nurses, state governors and ordinary people that have been left to pick up the pieces.
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Marseille 2021: The 2nd Scramble for Africa
I come back home a worried man, even more perturbed than I was before, about the march of colonialism under the guise of conservation.
Dear Natives, do you know any conservationist who was in Marseille, France, in the last couple of weeks? If you’re a conscious African citizen, you need to ask them exactly what they were doing there and what they discussed at the IUCN World Conservation Congress. Personally, I was there as part of a group organizing resistance against the relentless advance of colonialism throughout the global south under the guise of conservation. Like most conservation conferences today, this meeting was full of backslapping and self-congratulatory nonsense exchanged between celebrities, politicians and business people. This is the ultimate irony because this is the group of people most responsible for the consumption patterns that have landed the world in the climate predicament we’re in today.
They created the most effective filter to keep out people from the global south (where most biodiversity exists), the students who may be learning new scientific lessons on conservation, and the independent-minded practitioners who would be there to share their views, rather than show their faces, flaunt their status and prostitute their credentials for the benefit of their benefactors. This filter was the registration fee. The cheapest rate was the “special members fee” which was 780 Euros (slightly over KShs100,000).
While most of the Kenyan conservationists are now back from Marseille gushing about the beauty of the South of France (which is true), I come back home a worried man, even more perturbed than I was before, about the march of colonialism under the guise of conservation.
For any African proud of their heritage, this worry is heightened by the unending queue of Home Guards and Uncle Toms lining up to sing for the crumbs and leftovers from Massa’s table, the small jobs, big cars and trips to conferences where the only thing prominent about them is their dark complexion and not the intellectual content of their contributions. These heritage salesmen and saleswomen give themselves all sorts of fancy titles, but their brains are of no consequence to the European colonizers. They are as much props as the obviously (physically, mentally, both?) uncomfortable woman unfortunate (or foolish?) enough to have her ridiculous image carrying a pangolin used on the blueprint for the new scramble for Africa.
The biggest thing out of Marseille was the European Union’s grand plan to capture Africa’s natural heritage through a programme called NaturAfrica. Since they know that they have selected partners in Africa to whom prostitution comes easily, they drowned the announcement in noise about doubling of funding for conservation on Twitter.
In the first photo above, you can see the EU’s Philippe Mayaux presenting the audacious grand plan. He expressly stated that they are going to use the “Northern Rangelands Trust model” which has served them well thus far. I’ve been saying for the last 5 years that NRT is a model for colonialism and some invertebrates here have been breaking wind in consternation at my disrespect for their cult. The financiers have now said that it is a pilot for their planned acquisition of Africa’s natural heritage. What say you now? Who’s in charge of the plantation? Do the naïve majority now understand the violence in northern Kenya? Do the naïve majority now understand why foreign special forces are training armed personnel (outside our state security organs) to guard the so-called conservancies?
Following this extravagant declaration by Mayaux, the CEO of the NRT, Tom Lalampaa, barely containing his joy, took to the podium and gushed that “NaturAfrica will be welcomed by all Africans.” Only the irrational excitement brought on by Massa’s praises can cause a mere NGO director to purport to speak for the 1.3 billion inhabitants of the world’s second largest continent. Kwenda huko! Get out of here! We can see through the scheme!
On the map presented by Mayeux, you can see the takeover plan (the dark green areas); Tsavo, Amboseli and Mkomazi in northern Tanzania is a colony of the WWF “Unganisha” programme. To the west is The Nature Conservancy colony consisting of the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association in Kenya, and the Northern Tanzania Rangelands Initiative. The rest are the NRT colony (including the Rift Valley, which is clearly marked) and the oil fields in northern Kenya. East Africa’s entire Indian Ocean seascape is marked for acquisition; spare a thought for the Island nations therein, because they have been swallowed whole. The plan has already been implemented around the Seychelles and documented.
I will repeat this as often as necessary: the biggest threat to the rights and sovereignty of African peoples in the 21st century is not military conflict, terrorism, disease, hunger, etc. It is conservation organizations and governments that seek to dominate us through conservation. They will bring their expatriates, their militaries, and their policies. If you look at the map, the relatively “free” countries—like Nigeria, Congo, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, etc.—are those where international conservation NGOs haven’t been able to get a foothold. Here in Kenya, our state agency, the Kenya Wildlife Services, is busy counting animals, not knowing that it is well on the way to becoming an irrelevant spectator in our conservation arena. If you think this is far-fetched, ask someone there why there are radioactive materials dumped by the Naro Moru gate to Mt. Kenya National Park. Or why the Kenya Forest Service is standing by without any policy position while the Rhino Ark goes about fencing Mt. Kenya Forest, a UNESCO world heritage site.
Has anyone asked the EU why this grand plan isn’t global, but only focused on Africa? Are there no conservation concerns in Europe, Asia, or the Americas? Ours is the land of opportunity and this is why they want it. The funding will facilitate immigration and pay to employ the expatriates that will look after their interests in our homelands. Their militias will keep us out of our lands which they need for “carbon credits” so their industries can continue to produce and pollute unabated. Lastly, they need our land for export dumping of their household rubbish, toxic waste and, most of all, radioactive material. This is obviously a continental initiative, but addressing my compatriots (Kenyans), can you now see what I have been talking about for years, even as the European colonists tell Maasais, Samburus and other pastoralist communities that they shouldn’t listen to me because I am Luo? Can you now see how miniscule that school of thought is, how easily your attention has been diverted to discussing irrelevant minutiae in the face of the scale of their grand scheme?
As I said in the beginning, my mission, together with colleagues in Survival International, is the de-colonization of conservation in Africa and the global south. The routine violation of indigenous people’s rights, and the violence constantly meted against them, is the most visible symptom that brought this problem to our notice, but we must understand that the violence isn’t just for sport, as much as these organizations revel in it. Like 18th and 19th century colonialism, it is a commercial venture where political interests follow in its wake because it is too big to remain private. When Leopold’s Belgians massacred people in Congo, it wasn’t just for sport (although at some point it looked like that)—they were there to collect rubber and other resources. The conservation militias don’t just kill indigenous Africans for sport. They are here to protect colonies on behalf of capital interests. It is not about the wildlife—that is just the window dressing. After all, the people and the wildlife were here for thousands of years before their militias came.
This is why we cannot afford to give up. It’s not just about biodiversity. It’s also about our identity, our resources and our children. This is why we must fight intellectually to develop our own conservation philosophy and reject this violent and elitist Tarzanesque Western model. In order to restore the rights of indigenous peoples, we must tackle the reason why they are being oppressed, tortured and sometimes killed. It is commerce. Conservation is just the attire in which it is clothed.
Find an African who was in Marseille and ask him or her what they were doing there. If they cannot demonstrate that they spoke against this colonial project, they had better show you a lot of photos of them shopping and spending a wonderful holiday in the south of France. If they can do neither, then be sure they were in France selling or facilitating the sale of our heritage to corporate pirates.
Surviving the Hood: A Walk Through Nairobi’s Iconic Neighbourhoods
For us hood folk – no matter where we land – especially if we survive the hood – then it is forever home
What you up to I asked.
I’m going back home to take some pictures for my foundation was the answer.
For us hood folk – no matter where we land – especially if we survive the hood – then it is forever home. Because we remember how far we have gone.
And no matter what trauma and hardships we suffered – we remember this time through rose tinted glasses.
What? Going back home, home I said
Yes, won’t be there for long but we can meet after. No way! I am coming with you. I am going home too. And so, we set off.
First stop Kaloleni – Ololo – for a walk and picture taking.
You see for them Americans to give their hard-earned cash – we have to reaffirm our poverty and massage their saviour ego.
But today I am not on that soapbox.
I am 7 years old, visiting a relative in Kaloleni – eating peanuts that Nyaredo (my uncle) has bought us.
I am 7 years old – waiting for the medicine man to bring a variety of roots that need to be boiled and me washed with it. You see at age 7 I have terrible eczema and the many trips to Aga Khan courtesy of the KQ medical cover has not helped.
Dana knows the cure – and so off we go to Kaloleni.
We say hi to Mama. She is shocked to see me. I am happy to see her.
And of course, I come bearing gifts. I know she loves flowers – and these are bright orange. My Mama loved orange.
Mothers are precious and I do miss my own Mama, so I channel that love to any mother I come across – especially my friends Mums.
These houses looked much bigger when I was 7. They seem shrunken – but we have grown. This takes me back to the sights and sounds of our homes growing up.
Wow – it must have been loud – with laughter, joy, tears and hopes.
We walk around the old neighbourhood.
There is a beautiful old building that was the maternity clinic back in the day. A safe place. Walking distance from any home for mothers to welcome new life.
The library is next – open – recently renovated.
The social hall still stands …and there is a handball pitch too.
Hmmm – handball I inquire – yes, it has been here since our childhood.
This estate was planned.
Every common space has a tree.
The wooden shutters – painted green and that city council sky blue are still present. I am 7 years old, eating peanuts as I wait for the medicine man.
Next stop is my hood. Jericho.
Jogoo Road has changed but it is still the same.
Barma market – where we bought live kukus for those special Sundays still stands. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
We exit Jogoo Road as we remember the number 7 and 8B bus routes. Long live Kenya Bus Service!
Bahati estate is still the same. Jennifer would get off here.
She was beautiful – Arab looking Kamba gal – Evelyn Tei’s cousin. Next
Evelyn and Davi would get off at Kimathi.
These were the it houses! 3-bedroom stand-alone homes – yo!
I was then in the bus by myself or with Agnes till Jeri.
Funny – no one lived in Jerusalem or Ofafa Jericho…maybe they did, and we just didn’t take the same bus…
Welcome to Trench Town
The sign greeted me as the bus turned into my road. Then I knew I was home safe!
Oduko so – the big shops – the main shopping centre – our Mall
I ate mtura there and ferried metal birikas of soup from there to neighbours’ homes. I got my shoes mended there at the cobbler outside the bar.
My feet grew like weeds – no new shoes, mended shoes for me.
My Mum’s local – drinking those small Tuskers with my Godmother and various aunties. Laughing.
The field next to the dukas was where the monthly open-air movies were screened. To this day I wonder who was behind that…
Bringing a screen and projector and showing a free movie to the masses.
Then the clinic…
The clinic where you had to buy an empty small bottle for your cough medicine. In the hood, Actifed came in 5 litre jerricans.
The clinic where Starehe Boys volunteered during the holidays.
Them in their very colourful uniforms – ever so smart. Patrick Shaw smart. The clinic that I ran to when I broke my toe…
Which was not set properly – and has given me wahala ever since.
I remember the day clearly because my uncle Cliff was there volunteering that day… The game was tapo…or blada…or cha mkebe…
I ended up with a broken toe that healed funny.
St. Joseph’s …my nursery and local catholic church. Weird place, looking back.
Lots of light skinned kids …pointies…running around. The only white jamaas were the…. yeap! ‘nuff said!
We drive to the parking lot and I am 12. I loved a boy from that house.
He smelled sooo good – Old Spice I remember.
First place I ever heard Tracy Chapman.
His brother was playing his guitar to ‘Fast car’. But alas, he was smelling good for someone else…
Her mother told her not to talk to me because ‘I knew too much’. Celestine got pregnant in Standard 8…
Clearly, I knew nothing!
Wiki’s house – Wycliff – his full name was too long for us kids. First boy and last male who ever slapped me.
Heard my brother defended me by giving him a thorough beating! The joys of big bros in the hood.
Now that was an anomaly…
Hilary lived there with his Mum. The end.
Just him and his Mum…in that huge 2 bedroomed house! My family of 5 kids was the smallest…the average was 8 kids We had a cousin and house help living with us…
We slept in one room.
So, you see the thought of just Hilary – alone – in the room – solo…that was mind boggling!
Owanjo so…the big field Looks so small now.
Walking to church along the bougainvillea fence…
Wondering why the boys are allowed to watch football whilst I have to go to church.
Oti Papa – towering tall. The coach. Superstar Someone scores, the crowd goes wild…
I walk to church…
I am 10.
Walking across the field after school to the far far corner to buy deep fried mhogo… Laughing with my two mates – Pauline and Mamie
Them Mushrooms are having a jam/rehearsal session. The drums sound good, I fall in love with the guitar We eat and listen…
First real rejection. I am 15 going on 16
Standing in the kitchen – the gally kitchens of Jeri… Gathered courage to go in for a kiss.
Dude jumped back as if I was about to stab him…
Note to self – do not make any sudden movements towards the male species. They are somewhat fragile when not in control.
Years later – we are back in the kitchen. Him from Sweden, me from my new hood. He has lost his Dad; I am saying pole.
And I remind him …ai ai ai…wacha hiyo story Posh (my hood nickname). We laugh and he goes – lakini you are free ku jaribu tena.
The car park.
With the Maasai watchie wrapped in his Raymond’s blanket, armed with his bow and arrow. It must have been a good year for Peugeot…everyone seemed to own one…or so it seemed. There was the occasional Datsun, Nissan and my Mama’s VW – KGG 908.
My street. Our house.
Laughter – it is a Saturday and Mama is having her bura – she is laughing, my aunties are laughing, gossiping, listening, helping, soothing, accounting for the monthly contributions. They are drinking and laughing, and Franco plays in the background.
Sisterhood – this is what it looks like.
Joy – Earth, Wind and Fire – blasts from the record player. I am mesmerised by the sparkly cover.
Fear – people running, horses…what? horses in Jericho? Screams… the 82 coup has arrived. Tears – loud wailing – my Uncle’s death – HIV – early days…he makes it into Newsweek… Violence – mwizi comes the rallying call. We all pour out of our homes…
Nyerere with a panga, blood everywhere, leta mafuta…
Later on I wonder how witnessing that affected us kids…
Domes – the wall shook…my neighbour battering his wife. Her head made contact with the wall.
The late-night knocks, the crying, black eye, broken bone – letting in a weeping female who needs to make it to hospital…
Clear thought goes through my child mind – never marry a Kisii or a Luo for that matter…
The big easy – remembering the lazy Sunday afternoons, the footballers walking home, Leonard Mambo Mbotela asking us je, huu ni ungwana.
The only time I think Luo men my Dad’s age attempted to understand Swahili.
The Bus Stop
My stop – 3 steps and I am home.
The bus stop where Mwangi gathered courage and gave me a love letter via Freddie.
In their Martini uniform. Martini which I later realised was Martin Luther King Primary School. Go figure!
Mwangi from Ziwani.
As I got off the 8B – he got on. At times he didn’t.
He sat there with a clear view of our kitchen and veranda. Young love.
I turned him down gently…he swore to love me fore…
The Obembo tree.
Weeping Willow – I discovered years later in my adulthood.
Dhi kel kedi – go bring a stick. God help you if you got a dry one!
It had to be flexible…so as it came down on you, you were dead just from the swishing sound it made.
I am 9.
In standard 3…
I have a toothache.
I take a nap after lunch and I miss my afternoon classes. The maid reports me to my Dad with glee!
Dhi om kedi. I die a thousand deaths. I am sick, in pain, my tooth!
All my Dad hears is that I skipped school…like that is my fucking nature!
I pick a nice flexible one because even in my misery, I want to be good and obedient and get a good kedi.
I have seen this guy cane my brother.
Watched my brother cry – my defender, my hero against the hood boys… I can’t imagine that wrath reigning down on me.
My Dad is speaking… I can’t hear him…
I am dying – can’t he see? I am crying – I am the good one. I am screaming – I am not lying! He raises his arm…
I pee…right there where I stand. He looks at me in shock…
I look at him in shock… He tells me to go shower.
He never raised his hands again…to me. But everyone else got it…sadly.
That is why only one boy has ever slapped me. One. Once. The end.
We connected at a basic level
No pretence. No explaining. No pity. No judgement Just simple memories…
The medicine man The bus ride Sunday football Them Mushrooms
The Weeping Willow – which caused a lot of weeping Love – young unrequited love
Friends – rest in peace Mamie Tracy Chapman
I am 45.
Standing in an empty car park Facing owanjo so
The bougainvillea is long gone
There is a stone wall instead – protecting the space from land grabbers…Kenya! The grass and red soil are now gone…
It is astro turf
Kids play in their bright yellow jerseys…dreaming… Oti Papa would be proud.
I wonder about Celestine, Wiki and Hillary…
Me at 45
Standing in the car park Old spice in my memory
But now not quite Old Spice but an expensive scent Tracy in my memory…
Nvirri the Storyteller on my mind
Football in the background
And in front of me… Home.
Die Kijana Die: The Crime of Being a Young Poor Man in Kenya
Growing up in Mathare, we all start out with beautiful dreams. A dream of becoming a doctor, police, engineer, professor, pilot, and so many more. Teachers used to tell us these dreams will only become true if you work hard. Maybe that’s why Motiso worked so hard to achieve his dream—to be a dancer.
If you want to see colonialism alive and well in 2021, one of the first places you should look is Mathare, or any of Nairobi’s informal settlements. These are places where people are still not treated as full citizens, but rather, as sources of cheap labor. Citizens deserve publicly provided or accessible water, electricity, healthcare, education, roads, etc. But the people of Mathare are not treated as citizens. They are treated as disposable.
One of the ways that disposability is made most clear are police killings. In August, there was one week when police gunned down seven uncharged, unconvicted young men. But, while criminal suspects in other parts of the city are arrested and jailed, police kills the “disposable” young men of the ghetto because society, in its complicit silence, has agreed that it is more efficient this way.
We know that Kenyan civil society has long spoken up against police killings. The recent murders of Benson Njiru Ndwiga and Emmanuel Mutura Ndwiga while in police custody in Embu have rightfully incited public outrage. But what about the seven young men who were shot dead by police in Mathare within that one bloody week in August?
On 9 August, 2021, a young man called Ian Motiso sat down to take a late lunch at a kibanda in Mlango Kubwa, Mathare when a killer cop called Blacky passed by. Blacky took out his gun and shot Motiso down then and there. Just like that, Motiso is no longer with us. He was 21 years old.
Another extrajudicial execution. Another life cut short.
Even though police killings continue throughout Kenya, people are speaking up about it now more than ever. A couple weeks ago, the Ndwiga brothers were detained in Embu by police. While in police custody, police beat them to death. The public responded with anger. National news covered it widely. Lawyers have taken up the brothers’ cases.
But what about Motiso? What about the other six young men killed in Mathare within that week? Almost silence.
People say that the young men police kill in the ghetto are “thugs.” People say that those who speak out against police killings simply do not understand what it is like to be a victim of crime in informal settlements. I was born and raised in Mathare. I have been a victim of crime. I know the pain of being robbed of valuable property. I know the pain of beatings from heartless young men. I know the pain of losing loved ones to “boys” who stab with knives.
Motiso committed crimes. Motiso personally attacked me. And Motiso did not deserve to be extrajudicially executed. I believe this, even though I still have a wound behind my right ear from when he bashed my head.
Two months ago, Smater Zagadat and I had just arrived at the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) to lead rehearsals for the MSJC Kids Club as usual. MSJC Kids Club is an initiative that uses dance and community theatre to advocate for social justice. Smater and I are the coordinators. That afternoon, I was wearing a black T-shirt with the logo “Dance with Zagadat”—Smater’s brand—so Smater took our her phone to take a picture of it. Within seconds, three teenagers swooped in and snatched the phone. We ran after them down towards the river and managed to catch the guy who grabbed the phone. Some kids from MSJC Kids Club followed behind.
We grabbed the thief and dragged him back up to the office so he could return Smater’s phone. But, suddenly, a group of young men came out of nowhere and attacked me. I only remember feeling their punches coming from all directions. Their fingers were covered with heavy coated rings. My teeth almost came out. I could not see what was happening, but I could see blood coming out of my mouth. All of this happened in the early evening on Mau Mau Road, between the bridge that connects Kambi Safi Road to Kosovo Hospital Ward, a very busy area—yet no one came to my rescue, except for the MSJC kids who shouted and cursed the attackers.
I recognized one of the attackers. Even though he recognized me back, he didn’t stop beating me. He felt no shame attacking someone he knew. He was Motiso.
Let me take you back, because I want you to understand something important. Motiso was born and raised in Mathare. He knew all six wards of Mathare very well, from the elderly to children. By the time he was 16 years old, he was already a very talented dancer and was a part of the Billian Music Family (BMF), together with Smater herself. The community loved these dance groups, and in return, the groups inspired many kids in Mathare, including myself.
The first time I saw BMF’s Dance group, I was just out of primary school. The dancers were performing “Vigelegele” by Willy Paul along Mau Mau Road. That was the first time I heard the name Motiso. The kids, yelling above the booming speakers, cheered for him as he danced.
“Umecheki vile Motiso amedo hiyo Stingo?!”
“Atakua dancer mgori!”
He was just that good, and I guess that’s why he easily became famous.
Growing up in Mathare, we all start out with beautiful dreams. A dream of becoming a doctor, police, engineer, professor, pilot, and so many more. Teachers used to tell us these dreams will only become true if you work hard. Maybe that’s why Motiso worked so hard to achieve his dream—to be a dancer.
Maybe if he wasn’t born into a poor family, his hard work would have turned his dream true. But Motiso was born into a place that reeks of all sorts of human rights violations, of poverty, of ecological injustice. His dream was shut down because of the environment he was brought up in. So, did he give up? Yes, Motiso gave up.
Imagine the struggle he passed through. First, he was unemployed. Motiso, like many of us in Mathare, was trapped in a cycle of wage slavery. You wake up, go to job, get a salary, barely make food and rent, sleep, repeat until you die. But your work never turns into a dignified life. You’re just trapped.
Second, Motiso was in the danger zone of being a man in his twenties living in the ghetto. As young men in Mathare, when we reach this age, we automatically become an enemy of the state. The ghetto is a place where a child grows up innocent, then later on becomes a victim of predators who target, hunt, and prey on them.
So Motiso went ahead and jumped on a bad bandwagon. He left dancing and got involved in crime like petty theft. The reason why he chose crime over a path of straightness is simple: He needed to survive.
Some people criticize his decision, asking why he should commit crime when the government has offered plenty of job opportunities to the youth, like one program called Kazi Mtaani. But, if those people understood that Mutiso was a victim of structural violence created by the system that we are born into, they would understand that they are demanding a young man to make “good” decisions while he chokes inside a system that has never treated him as a human.
Mutiso did try to join Kazi Mtaani, actually. A few months ago in Mathare, a group of young men went to the administration to register for Kazi Mtaani. But they were surprised to find that, in order to participate, they would first have to bribe the Area Chief 1,000 KES ($10). How can you look a young unemployed man in the eye, when you know he has no job, and ask him for money? Maybe the thieves who snatched Smater’s phone wanted to sell it in order to bribe the Chief and get a job.
Motiso will always be remembered as a thief. He robbed many. Many are still crying because of what he did.
But remember—he was also a friend. He was a family member.
He never deserved to be born into a system that does not care for poor people.
He never deserved to live in a world that kept poor people powerless in order to exploit them and, when they did what they wanted to survive, killed them off.
He did not deserve to be killed by the people whom we expect to protect us.
He never deserved that.
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