After nearly five months locked down at home in the small city of Bozeman in southern Montana, my wife and I recently ventured out for a hermetically sealed road trip. Many of our compatriots were still not taking the COVID-19 pandemic seriously enough, and we wondered if there was someplace within a day’s drive where we could avoid unmasked human spillover from local taverns, family reunions, birthday parties, football games, rock concerts, rodeos, political rallies, county fairs, farmers’ markets or protest marches.
Although rich in social activities, Montana is better known for its big sky landscapes, isolated nooks and crannies and local populations that can be counted on the toes of your two feet. Here, a GPS is useless for lack of detail, so we consulted a real, 3-D atlas to find a suitably quiet spot for a picnic, and off we went.
Just over an hour out, we turned from a minor highway onto a dirt road and followed old tree blazes, breadcrumbs, chunks of rusted cast iron and other detritus deep into the mountain forests of the southwest corner of the state. Our excursion came to an abrupt end at the forlorn little hamlet of Elkhorn. (Population:10)
In the 1880s and 1890s, Elkhorn was at the centre of the richest silver mining region in the world. The nearby town of Boulder boasted that it had more millionaires, per capita, than any place on earth. Elkhorn’s population once topped 2,500 and consisted of miners, engineers, shopkeepers, teachers and a sufficient number of doctors, dentists, lawyers, surveyors, assayers, carters, blacksmiths, bartenders and prostitutes. Unusual for a Montana mining town, many of the workers, mostly from Europe, brought their families with them.
The mine and most of the remaining structures are now in ruins, with only a couple of buildings reoccupied by service sector hands dangling trinkets or claiming to be hunting guides. What caught our eye immediately was a rustic sign pointing to the Elkhorn cemetery, which was almost a mile out of town, around the backside of a mountain along a rocky, overgrown, forest track. There we found the perfect day-trip destination in a COVID-infested world. All the residents were practising horizontal and vertical social distancing; they sported full-body covering; and, there was one hundred percent sheltering in place.
My wife and I are tombstone tourists. We like to wander through churchyards and cemeteries, reading gravestone obits and epitaphs. Each odd-angled monument and slab reveals something about the place and its people – even if it’s only a couple of dates and a name. Each is a particle of evidence, waiting for Wikipedia to provide context. It’s a painless way to learn history.
The Elkhorn cemetery occupies the side of a steep hill with perhaps a hundred and fifty graves scattered among the pine trees and boulders. We could identify a few oldsters, but most of the dead seemed to be in their twenties and early thirties. That was strange. More startling was a whole section of the hillside where were buried only children – dozens of them from age zero to about ten. And all had died within the two years between 1888 and 1890. Clearly something awful had happened in Elkhorn.
That awful something was diphtheria, a bacterial disease with symptoms and effects eerily similar to COVID-19. Unlike COVID, which is known to prefer vulnerable elders, diphtheria selects the young. Even though Elkhorn lies isolated high in the mountains, in its heyday, inhabitants moved in and out fluidly without restriction. There was even a narrow-gauge railway with daily service twelve miles down to Boulder city. This measure of mobility exposed nearly everyone to diphtheria. The close environment of the mines created conditions for transmission among many young men. One-room schools, packed with kids, helped to spread the deadly disease among the town’s children. In that pre-vaccine era, the deceased were isolated from the living by locating the cemetery at what may have been thought to be a safe distance from town. This primitive form of zoning was Elkhorn’s only apparent response to a virulent disease.
The diphtheria epidemic was not the direct cause of Elkhorn’s demise. In fact, the high death rate did little to deter the town’s frantic pursuit of profit. Mining persisted for several years after the epidemic peaked. Elkhorn’s downfall was actually the result of a crash in the silver market.
In an attempt to loosen the national money supply, which was backed by the country’s gold reserves, the Silver Purchase Act of 1890 required the U.S. government to buy tonnes of silver. This had the effect of driving up the price of silver, which greatly pleased the miners. An alliance between grassroots populists and the silver mine owners lobbied to place the USA on a bimetallic (gold and silver) currency standard, but the movement eventually lost steam. Gold, not the relatively abundant silver, would continue to back the value of paper money well into the 20th century. Soon there wasn’t enough gold in reserve to secure the amount of paper currency in circulation, and the Panic of 1893, a great depression, hit the whole country like a flash fire in tunnel 13.
The crash of the national silver market left Elkhorn’s remaining residents with no economic reason to stay in their once-thriving community. With no market for its silver, Elkhorn finally withered and became a ghost town. External forces, political and economic, had made planning for Elkhorn’s future impossible and unnecessary. The town became collateral damage in the capital wars among the one-percenters of the Gilded Age.
A Kenyan detour
As we unwrapped our cheese and pickle sandwiches in front of the boarded-up Home for the Feeble Minded (that’s what they used to call people with developmental disabilities), my wife asked, “Why do you suppose they put a mental institution like this in such an out-of-the-way corner of the state?”
We had decided to save lunch until we got back down to Boulder to investigate the grand Italianate Revival red brick edifice that had first opened in 1905.
“It could have been a gift from the state legislature at a time when Boulder was losing its economic base,” I said. “All those millionaires must have had some political influence. Or, it could have been to hide people with embarrassing conditions…embarrassing to their families. The atlas says this area produced 4 million pounds of lead, which is often associated with silver. The toxic waste from that much lead coming out of the mines must have dropped everyone’s IQs lower than squid shit.”
She gave that some thought and asked, “What does this place remind you of? No, not this place. The old mining operations.”
Without waiting for my brain to engage, she answered herself. “It’s like Kenya and the colonial capitalism that was going on when we left. Developers from outside – from the UK, Holland, USA, China – put up the capital, upped the value of their investments with tax holidays, underpaid workers and monopolies given out like royal land grants and carted away the profits. Minus twenty-plus percent for the president’s favourite charity.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, “they even brought their own cart. But there’s been nothing like a diphtheria epidemic in Kenya, where workers and their families would have been forced to endure with little help. Unless you count malaria. Besides, the jobs created by foreign investment paid pretty well didn’t they?”
“I think I said ‘underpaid,’ didn’t I? Certainly not paid enough for decent housing, school fees and retirement. And capitalism has brought its own versions of the plague to Kenya. Think about the conditions in Nairobi’s massive slums. Political corruption. Destruction of fragile ecosystems. Pollution of Lake Naivasha from chemicals and fertilizer. So, what about the flower business, itself?
“I see your point.” I wasn’t going to argue. I had read that weddings and other big flowery events have been cancelled all over the world after COVID jumped the pond. At the time, Kenya was employing something like 150,000 workers in the flower business and shipping US$1 billion worth of geraniums, roses and carnations per year. Forty-two cargo flights every week, just to the Netherlands. Now, all those flowers are going straight into the compost.
“So, the bottom dropped out of the Kenyan ‘silver market’,” she said, shaking her head. “Where did that leave all those workers? Selling trinkets in a ghost town?”
“Luckily, Naivasha isn’t a one trick pony, it’s a town with options. Not 150,000 worth of options, though, and, if the pandemic doesn’t end soon, Kenya may be dealing with more than a few ghost towns. I suspect people are already moving back upcountry.”
“That’s always been the Kenyans’ main safety net, hasn’t it? That’s where Rose’s family went during hard times.” (Shortly after we left Kenya for the US, our Kamba neighbour and good friend, Rose, decided to look for work upcountry and took a job at a clinic in Embu. Nairobi had always been tough on her kids.)
“Wups! We had better get moving.” I could see in the mirror that the sky was filling with black clouds and streaky lightning. “Those clouds look like they’re getting ready to let loose the artillery. This car is too flimsy to hold up in a barrage of Montana ice bombs.” We both were remembering the hailstorm of 2010 that kept the panel beaters happy for a year.
Business, as usual
After returning to Bozeman later that evening, we saw in the day’s newspaper that Montana’s institutionalised elders were being hit hard by the virus – one memory care facility already had fifteen deaths. Nationwide, old folks living in congregate care facilities make up just one per cent of the population but are now close to fifty per cent of all COVID deaths in the US, where elder care is a lucrative and poorly regulated business.
From a sidebar on page one, we learned that President Trump is insisting that all children in the US are to be sent back to school in the autumn despite the danger from forced proximity. The better to hasten their parents’ return to the labour force and, thereby, reduce the unemployment numbers prior to the general election in November. The paper reported that seventy-five per cent of our local parents agreed with the president’s policy of sending their kids daily into a petri dish of potential disease! The need for a basic income with which to purchase the necessities of life was overriding medical science, good policy, common sense and even parental responsibility. Where was our government?
Turning to page two, we found Congress dithering over the allocation of money to temporarily provide a minimum income to families out of work or otherwise in need because of the virus. Service employees were especially hard hit, as restaurants, bars, beauty shops, nail and hair salons and other close-contact businesses shut down for the duration, which might be forever as far as anyone knew.
Further down the page, the governor of Florida was cooking the COVID death statistics so he could justify reopening the state’s economy. Look! Things aren’t so bad! Back to work! On to Disneyworld! Spend! Florida soon had the highest COVID infection rate in the US, the country with the highest infection rate on the planet. Young adults, anxious to get out and party in a state that specialises in partying, took heed of the governor’s fairytale justification, went out, scooped up the virus and generously spread it around. The governors of many states that had already closed down buckled under pressure from their chambers of commerce and allowed or mandated businesses to reopen prematurely.
Businesses at the gateways to nearby Yellowstone National Park applauded the government’s decision to open the park to visitors from around the world, none of whom would be subject to quarantine. Employees of park concessionaires are already testing positive for COVID.
Even our state university, a local money-spinner with 16,000 students, was saying that it will reopen this fall with in-person classes – but no testing! We wouldn’t want to cull the herd too early, before tuition fees have been paid.
To read about it in the news, the whole country was performing a high-wire act without a safety net. For over a century-and-a-half, a limitless array of business deals and their promised billions had hogged the spotlight in America’s economic circus, leaving public health and other social issues with little more than pennies from heaven. The tale of Elkhorn is not one of a town laid low by rampant diphtheria but one of business as usual in spite of that awful disease. It’s happening again today but at a vastly greater scale and with devastatingly widespread consequences.
Hello! Emergency assistance?
Ignorance of biological causation was a contributing factor in earlier epidemics. We can’t say that today. We know that immobilising whole populations, prohibiting all large and most small gatherings, restricting travel to zero, quarantining, face covering, minimising exposure to others, social distancing, testing, contact tracing and frequent sanitising are all necessary to stop the spread of the virus. Modifying social behaviour is the key to successful suppression, even if it requires enforcement of stringent regulatory measures and cutting off sources of income.
With incomes diminished, we also know that greater social security payments, paycheck supplements, universal healthcare, loan forgiveness, rent subsidies, free child care, school fee waivers, home care for the vulnerable and accessible technological surrogates for face-to-face contact are needed before individuals can afford to modify their behaviour. Such an array of social and economic lifelines, normally paid for by progressive taxation and deficit spending, will be required for the country to survive this pandemic. Why, then, are we not organising our resources to do these things?
Hope is on the way
Years ago, I worked with a British ex-air force officer who had had the job of predicting the weather for the Allied invasion of Normandy. In other words, to determine what day would be D-Day. The secret in that era of primitive weather forecasting was what meteorologists called the Persistence Theory. That is, tomorrow’s weather in the English Channel will be much like the weather today. If the weather has been slowly trending toward less rain and wind, the trend should persist for a few more days. Not much hard thinking involved, he said. Just note the trend and work with it.
The same is true of anything riding on capital markets, which is to say almost everything in America. There is a great amount of inertia in waiting for venture capital to turn a profit and for existing assets, like oil wells, to be thoroughly wrung dry. This results in a perverse lack of planning. American cities march to the discombobulated cadence of opportunistic capital investment schemes, both public and private. In a capitalistic environment, order won’t be created by the occasional regulatory device. And, it certainly won’t be commanded by city planners that don’t understand the stakes. Our cities are a farrago of costly investments and will not easily trade their sunk costs for some more organised vision of the future. Disorder, in the service of greater profit, is a dominant trend in our society and we’ll stick with it.
Investors, financiers and other capitalists believe they can tolerate the dead bodies, social disruption and lingering after-effects of a pandemic – or of global warming, for that matter – as long as dividends, interest and other payments arrive on time and in sufficient quantities. And, if profits fall below expectations, the rich are powerful – and corrupt – enough to demand that the government provide a bailout even before it provides personal protective equipment, testing kits and ventilators. And this dystopian state of affairs will persist until the day we realise that health, safety and the general welfare can only be guaranteed within a completely reformed socio-economic system that puts human life ahead of profit – by transforming the greedy frog into a munificent prince.
As we adjust to living with COVID, we may notice trends that signal a growing popular response to social and economic pressure, and we may try to accommodate those trends. We may begin to see that people, seeking healthier environments, are moving from more dense urban to less dense suburban and rural settings, like Kenyans moving upcountry.
Cities and towns may then become aware of a commensurate shift in infrastructure needs. People are already gathering in fewer large public venues much less often and at lower densities. Will these venues – schools, universities, stadiums, arenas, churches, concert halls, theaters – remain viable? If not, will they need some kind of support? Will they convert to virtual venues? Or will they wither away? What about changes in the volume and patterns of our consumption? Our housing? Our mobility? It’s too early to say if we will even be able to adapt to the coming disruptions on our own terms. External factors, like an election, the weather or a pandemic may determine our lives from now on.
On the radio the next morning, we heard that the American economy shrank by over thirty per cent last quarter. This is the greatest downturn ever. Despite all efforts by the business community and its praetorian politicians to reassure Americans that normal is just around the corner, we aren’t buying it. Most of us are too frightened. When we can see the bodies stacked in front of makeshift morgues, we know there is a problem so serious that the usual propaganda and marketing abracadabra won’t work. We’re just not going to do the things that have kept money in circulation. The COVID pandemic is already gnawing at the foundation of our consumptive (pun intended) economy.
But, this is still capitalist America. Before our plutocrats and oligarchs divert their wealth to build a people-friendly, post-pandemic state – a new “city on a hill” – they will first reap the profits that lie along the present path, as rocky as it may be for the rest of us.
Meanwhile, they offer us hope that the old normal will return with the discovery of a vaccine. A very profitable vaccine.
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Of Chapati, Identity and Migrant Politics in Europe
The common narrative is that imperialism, colonialism and Western staples have influenced the non-Western world. But the Global South too is impacting the West, one plate at a time.
In the mid-90s, my mother paid a visit to an aunt who had emigrated to Scandinavia and settled in Stockholm, Sweden, for over two decades. Of the many memories she held on to from that trip abroad, her most notable was the culture shock she suffered at a lunch that my aunt’s neighbour had hosted in honour of the guest from Africa.
Swedish staples were laid out: cinnamon buns, pancakes, pea soup, mashed potatoes, pickled cucumbers, cheese and lots of bread. After sampling foods that did not appeal to her palate, my mother turned to my aunt and whispered in Dholuo, a touch of concern in her voice, “Gikelo chiemo saa adi?” What time are they bringing out the food?
We are what we eat and food is a social identifier; being thousands of kilometres from home, my mother was simply looking for the familiar in a foreign place. The food choices that one makes are a significant indicator of one’s cultural identity in a foreign country. When significant numbers of Kenyans started seeking economic and educational opportunities in the West in the early 80s and 90s, the essential items that they would request to receive from home were largely food items.
Some of the most popular choices were maize flour, chapatis, Farmer’s Choice sausages, local flavours such as the Royco brand of food seasoning and indigenous green vegetables. Things have of course drastically changed. Foods from Asian, Mediterranean and African cultures that were once considered exotic are now readily available in the supermarkets of many European capitals.
Nothing says home like the taste of food. In fact, finding authentic African food becomes a way of finding one’s grounding and establishing social solidarity. When I moved from Kenya to a Dutch suburb just outside Amsterdam, one of the first things I went out in search of was our food.
Family members would call from home and ask with great concern whether I was able to find food. On one occasion, I turned on the video on my cell phone to show them the boiled corn I was chomping on that I had bought in an African market in Amsterdam; they were duly reassured.
The villager in Europe
My first Kenyan contacts in the Netherlands spent a great deal of time pointing out to me where in Amsterdam I could get “our food”. I was shown the Kenyan-owned restaurant where I could get a taste of home. I discovered the Biljmermeer neighbourhood in Zuidoost, the South-East of Amsterdam, known for its African presence drawn from Suriname, the former Dutch colony in South America, and the significant constituency of West African immigrants.
I was pointed to the Moroccan neighbourhoods in Nieuw-West for authentic shawarma, and for rotis and chapatis, to the Asian supermarkets dotting the Amstelveen suburbs that cater to a growing South-Asian expatriate community.
As a conscious pan-Africanist raising young children in a European capital, my food choices have become something of a political statement. I am reminded of assassinated Burkinabé revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara’s enduring statement:
“Where is imperialism? Look at your plates when you eat. These imported grains of rice, corn and millet — that is imperialism’’.
The common narrative is how, largely through imperialism, colonialism and the now dominant neo-liberal agricultural policies, and Western staples, particularly wheat, have influenced the non-Western world. What is not talked about enough is how the Global South is impacting the West, one plate at a time.
In a sense, Europe’s multicultural dynamics are best illustrated by the food on your plate. Besides the politics of identity that has set me off in search of flavourful sweet potatoes, cassava, indigenous vegetables, plantains and tilapia in pop-up African markets in Amsterdam, food has also become a big pointer of my multicultural influences. As an East African, my food choices are heavily influenced by South Asian and Middle-Eastern cuisines.
I remember the first Asian supermarket I spotted in the upmarket Amstelveen suburb of Amsterdam. When I walked in, I struck an immediate rapport with the storekeeper, establishing his country of origin, greeting him in Hindi and asking about the varieties of dhaal, dengu, beans, basmati rice, spices and, of course, chapati available. When I crossed over to a Middle-Eastern grocery store, I switched to an Arabic salutation to express the joy of finding familiar foods. An Ethiopian woman I met at a pop-up market remarked about Kenyan love of Indian food and my response turned into a historical lesson on the centuries of exchange between the East Coast of Africa and the Indian sub-continent via the Indian Ocean.
While African food is still limited to African hubs, with the occasional sighting of an Ethiopian or Eritrean restaurant, Asian-inspired cuisine is widespread. I can find chapatis in many places in Amsterdam and this points to how the humble chapati and pishori or basmati rice are perhaps the herald of the Asian century. Every European city now has a sampling of Asian fine dining restaurants, from Japanese, to Chinese, Indian, Korean, Indonesian and Thai cuisine.
Chapo lives matter
It is almost impossible to talk about culinary influences without encountering imperialism and resistance and the chapati movement serves as a great illustration of culinary globalisation. I have been thinking about the rapid rise of the chapati and the socio-political history of this popular South-Asian flat bread.
About a century ago, way before the arrival of British imperialism in Kenya, a curious incident occurred in India in 1857. Mark Thornhill, a British magistrate serving in the town of Muttra, now Mathura, discovered after some investigations that chapatis were travelling up to 300 kilometres across India. This bizarre distribution of chapatis set off the panic buttons in the British ranks.
The rapid movement of chapatis from hand to hand, village to village had all the markings of a conspiracy and a rebellion. Police runners would bake and hand over the chapatis to their colleagues who in turn would keep the chain going. The chapatis were unmarked and those who accepted the offering would make more batches and pass them along, sometimes moving them up to 300 kilometres in one night.
The chapati moved from village to village with the sort of efficiency that would today be described as viral. It did not help matters that the police were the conduits of this underground chapati railroad and a deep sense of unease spread across the British ranks. A revolt did eventually break out later that year and the movement of chapati was seen as part of the campaign of mobilisation.
While a century ago the chapati served as a symbol of agitation, and was the inspiration for a mutiny against British occupation, in the East African colony where the South-Asian labourers brought in to construct a railway from Mombasa in Kenya to Uganda had stayed on and built an influential minority community, the chapati would a century later emerge as a social leveller in Kenya.
In my formative years in the 70s and 80s, chapati was an exotic dish and a status food. Maize, the Kenyan staple, had been demoted to common fare and those wives who demonstrated the ability to make chapatis improved their social standing. Chapatis were a delicacy, only served during important feasts like Christmas and at highbrow weddings. In Nairobi today, the chapati is about the easiest food to find and consistent in its production across the board.
From the highbrow restaurants to the simple street food stalls, the chapati is the one common denominator. In a cash-strapped economy, chapati flour offers more value for money because of its versatility. It is easy to store, transport and can be consumed with a variety of accompaniments or on its own. Ugali, the dominant by-product of maize flour, lacks that kind of culinary diversity. Chapati is adaptable where ugali is not.
The great corn game
From the 1880s to the dawn of independence in the 60s, maize was the status food introduced by the British as a cheap food source for African farm labourers. With urbanisation and the introduction of wage labour and, later, mechanised mills, maize overtook millet and sorghum as the preferred food of the emerging elite who found it finer and more aspirational. It was considered sweeter, and it also doubled up as a cash crop.
In my home county of Siaya, celebrated historian E.S. Atieno Odhiambo argues in his book Siaya: The Historical Anthropology of an African landscape, that the introduction of maize into the texture of Siaya life was a mode of westernisation. Maize meal was known as kuon ongere, the white man’s ugali, eaten by those who had acquired a Western education. In the last 20 years or so, the chapati movement has grown. Presently, it is Kenya’s preferred fast food, more readily available than fried potato chips, and it has overtaken bread as a breakfast staple.
Chapati is made with wheat flour, and if we follow the logic of Yuval Noah Harari’s persuasive argument, in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, that the wheat plant manipulated and domesticated Homo Sapiens to its advantage to become the global staple leading to the westernisation of our diet, we could say that Asia is manipulating the global palate. South-East Asian nations are now the world’s largest wheat-importing regions and consequently we are witnessing an Asianisation of our diets, the most telling sign yet that the future is Asian.
The story of the chapati’s movement across Africa and Europe is also the story of the power of multiculturalism and how the Asian and African diasporas use food to assert their identities and influence the foreign cultures they integrate into. The Japanese took sushi global. Chinese takeaway is a popular cultural marker of the North American fast food culture.
What we cook and eat is more than symbolism. My desire to preserve my culture is manifested through my food choices and culinary practices and this is a trait common to all migrants who find themselves negotiating minority positions in dominant cultures.
Asia and Europe have a long history of trade and the modern Silk Road continues to assert its influence on European culture. The largest supermarket chain in the Netherlands, Albert Heijn, sells a range of products aimed at marking Ramadhan in a country where a far right populist figure and leader of the third largest political party, PVV, Geert Wilders is infamous for his anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant sentiments.
These new flavours from Asia and now Africa challenge dominant narratives in subtle ways. From the street corners of the colonies, they are now to be found on the high streets of Europe. Asia’s population and material prosperity has gained traction in Europe and its cuisine is no longer the stereotypical cheap fast food but is now part of an expanding repertoire of fine dining.
Europe as a globalized pantry
The influx of African foods in the Netherlands, for example, is directly linked to its growing African diaspora. It greatly surprises my mother, living in Kenya and worried that I may be subsisting on bread, ham and cheese, that I eat pretty much the same food I would eat in Kenya.
It might be logistically harder to source coarse maize flour than it is to find chapatis but I no longer have to have a contact in the airlines in order to get a taste of home abroad. The proliferation of other foods in Europe shows the varied pathways of culinary globalisation and the inevitability of change brought about by migration.
In some pockets of Europe, the growing influence of minority food cultures has become a political issue. In 2016, Denmark’s Ministry of Cultural Affairs carried out a poll seeking to identify core Danish values. One revealing pointer from this survey was the prominence of eating consumption in the responses, elevated as a symbol of Danish identity and interpreted as part of a culture war and a stance over migration.
In the Netherlands, the influence of the former Dutch colonies — notably Indonesia and Suriname — on the national cuisine is well established. Nasi Goreng, a rice-based meal introduced by Indo-Dutch people, fries with satay or peanut sauce, Suriname sandwiches locally known as Surinaamse broodjes, now count as national dishes.
Spices from the Dutch East Indies penetrated local cuisines and the Dutch embraced these new flavours from abroad in much the same way that the British love curry and favourite English food choices are South-Asian in character.
With the changing food supply chains in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the questions of food politics and identity are emerging more prominently. There is a growing sentiment of European food nationalism, where eating local is associated with patriotism. European consumers, particularly those from the South, are increasingly interested in where their food comes from in order to support local farmers and preserve their cultures from foreign influences.
Since food is a cultural identifier, Europe’s politics of identity and belonging is bound to continue playing out on your dinner table. The revolution you might be looking for might just start on your plate.
Reflections on Tyranny and Terror in Kenya Then and Now
How do we channel our emotions when the tyrant is this amorphous cold gel of capitalist corporations and totalitarian organisations?
I am over half a century old now, bald, aching in new places everyday, with more and more of my peers signalling the quickening approach of our generation to our graves by their affliction with new health problems every passing day.
Growing up in the Moi era in Kenya, one just grew up. No one I knew had any sense of teleology ; most of us just tried to survive, others endeavoured to prosper if they could.
This is the outcome for a society whose entire existence is premised on kowtowing to the desires of one man. All thought, speech and action — outside of those actions undertaken in the pursuit of fulfilling organic needs — were measured against the risk of offending Moi.
This obviously had the effect of stunting individual and collective thought.
Stunting collective thought regresses a society into superstition and imbecilic reasoning. For those who can remember that era, any tragic motor accident with massive casualties was always explained as some form of “occultic sacrifice”. Such tragic accidents had to be the consequence of some “unseen forces”. Institutional incompetence was never even remotely considered. Who’d have dared blame the Big Man’s government? Moi was “No.1 in everything”: agriculture, engineering, education… there were songs and poems praising the greatness of his genius, culminating in the highpoint of then Education Minister Peter Oloo Aringo’s declaration that Moi was “The Prince of Peace” himself! And this of course served “the Big Man” well. Being bankrupt of thought and vision, “the Big Man” could not tolerate the slightest criticism.
In such an environment, fear is not just an indispensable tool; it is the only tool by which a tyrant can maintain his rule. From the oldest and most infamous tyrant, Firaun (Pharaoh) of polytheistic Egypt, to the land of the brutal Count Drakula, atheistic Romania under Ceausescu in the 80s, belief in sorcery, witchcraft and magic becomes the refrain of the collective mind when dominated by irrational fear. Even elites do not escape it; Elena Ceausescu, the tyrannical wife of Nicolae Ceausescu, was said to retain a personal witch, in spite of the atheism of the state they ruled.
Rule is either by consent or coercion, there is no other method. Consent is acquired by mass adoption of an overpowering vision that encapsulates certain ideas and values. Coercion needs no explanation. Therefore, in a political medium devoid of ideological proselytisation, police are the primary tool of rule.
This creates an environment of paranoia with a vicious feedback loop. Thoughts driven by irrational fear, lead to irrational action. Irrational action heightens paranoia, both in the masses and in the ruling class, which leads to further irrational action by the ruling class, on and on without end until there is a revolution or a coup. Both of which start the process all over again if the elites fail to anchor the society in a rational doctrine with a consistent and transparent system of governance.
This was Moi’s world.
Like any tyranny, everyone was suspicious and relatively fearful of everyone in a political sense, even colleagues and friends. Everyone fears everything in such an environment; even “walls have ears“, an aphorism turned adage.
The police love such a world.
They preyed on us everywhere, no public space was safe, no private space was sacrosanct.
They could strip you naked if they wanted, they would riffle through your pockets like robbers if you claimed you had no money, they would fondle women and even rape them in police cells with absolute impunity. They were hyenas in a sheep enclosure.
A close elder with whom I discuss the politics of the day, one day revealed he was a veteran of the infamous Nyati House torture chambers when, to our consternation, in the middle of the conversation, cracking us up with dark humour, he suddenly started stating bizarre and irrelevant facts, “Mama yangu anaitwa Rebecca Anyango (my mother is called Rebecca Anyango)”, “Alisoma shule inaitwa Busonga Primary (she went to Busonga Primary School)”. He explained that after several rounds of torture one would start answering questions without waiting to be asked. The security agents no longer needed to speak to you, you would volunteer anything and everything you knew, unprompted.
What had been my elder’s crime?
He had denounced Moi while having a drink in a bar, unaware that the next table was occupied by state security agents. To date, he looks around suspiciously before airing his opinion and uses a whispering tone even in private conversation.
This was Moi’s world.
While the fear in the mind of the ruler is largely paranoia born of his own certainty in his illegitimacy, the fear in the mind of the masses is legitimate.
Today I feel the same fear I sensed in my parents.
The difference is that today it is global, it is pervasive and it is not fear of a man; it is the fear of expressing a thought.
For everyone, it started as fear of expressing the idea of political pluralism born of the Cold War. Then the War on Terror was declared, and for Muslims it became fear of expressing the idea of Islamic law, then Islamic Jihad and now Islamic caliphate.
Now, every society has, for want of a better term, it’s “domain of discourse”. In the formal sciences “domain of discourse” is the set of entities over which certain variables of interest in some formal treatment “are allowed to range”. So for instance, in some tribe of valiant horsemen “T”, if the set of entities allowed for dowry are horses “H”, the suitor can include any type of horse in payment of said dowry but cannot present a mule or a car. It is not a question of means of “transport”. Certain “formal rules” determine “the allowed range”.
An alternative definition of “domain of discourse” is a class of objects considered within a given context. Any proposition outside is considered false. If a society believes their queen is a deity, then the proposition that she will one day die isn’t just heresy; it is — in the words of former Attorney General of Kenya Charles Njonjo — “treason”, given the political context. This of course assumes that the definition of god includes immortality as an attribute of god. There can be no social order without an agreed “domain of discourse”. This “domain of discourse” is unfashionably termed as “the officially-sanctioned religion” of the state. This is the nature of society.
The problem in a tyranny is that the “domain of discourse” is calibrated by the whims of the tyrant. Given his paranoia, the boundaries and nature of the domain of discourse keep being shifted by whatever demon or bogeyman plagues his dreams at night or his mind in the present. This has the effect of crippling social functioning and stagnating society.
This is why all absolute tyrannies not only do not progress, but regress into superstition.
Today we have no visible absolute tyrant but we live in the same fear.
The police prey, assault, extort, rob and kill with the same impunity they did under the tyranny of Moi.
The economy is in the same decline, public pilferage has compounded and we have returned to the same sense of hopelessness and fear we experienced during the Moi «error».
We are suffering the same psychological, physiological, economic and political dysfunction.
But who is our tyrant now?
Who are we to blame?
Whose effigy are we to burn?
Now I realise, whether rightly or wrongly, that there was value in knowing the tyrant, in having all our problems represented by one man. We could channel our thoughts and our emotions, or more specifically our curses and our hatred. This not only had a placebo effect, but it also gave us hope that we could surmount our problem; since our problem was a clear, measurable, defined, finite object, it was therefore resolvable, it was a question of time. We could look forward to the tyrant’s death; that was something to hang on to.
So, this gives us a question, a starting point to frame the problem of our time — who is defining and shaping our dystopian reality? And the next logical question is: who shapes a society’s reality?
If the answer is The Sovereign, then our tyrannical sovereign can only be identified by the powers he exhibits.
Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century scholar who first most comprehensively defined the Sovereign in his magnum opus The Leviathan, first published April 1651, goes into great depth in describing the characteristics of the Sovereign, mainly in terms of his rights. But they can be largely grouped or reduced to four broad categories.
The first and most important, is the right to legislate. The Sovereign calibrates all social relationships through legislation. Second, he decides the religion of the commonwealth. This is intrinsically linked to education and culturing on everything from morality, what is right or wrong socially, to ethics, what is right or wrong individually. The third is the right to take life — to kill. This can be defined as the right to punish by death within and the right to declare war without. The fourth in place but no less significant than the rest, is the authority to levy tax – economics.
Applying this criteria, let us look at the most significant phenomena in our time in each of the described elements.
The most significant legislative initiative in the last two decades has been the passing of “terror-related” legislation around the world. It suspended the fundamental values of modern civilisation that have hitherto been taken as completely obvious, that is, Human Rights and even the Geneva Convention. It abrogated legal tenets that are the basis of modern civilisation, such as “The right to trial” and “Habeas Corpus”. It created a secret police force and a prison network around the world, introducing to modern vocabulary the terms “extraordinary rendition”, which is really just supranational kidnap and detention, and “waterboarding”, which is really drowning someone alive. These laws remain in place, and are often used against political dissenters.
Our lives have been defined by the “War on Terror”, the Iraq War, the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and a host of other countries since the assassination of American Imam Anwar Awlaki and Iranian General Qasem Soulemani in absolute contravention of the already torn illusion of international law.
Who is the sovereign capable of waging war unilaterally, kidnapping, detaining and/or killing citizens of disparate nations around the world without fear of consequences?
Our taxation is now directly linked to our level of debt. Our currency is pegged to the dollar. “Our” here is global humanity. Therefore the state of our economic welfare is in a long-winded way determined by the printer at the US Bureau of Engraving and Printing in Fort Worth Texas, United States of America. Well, at least materially.
Who is the sovereign who dictates our Tax regime through the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank?
Of late, the COVID-19 pandemic has served as the political cover for the largest rollback of political rights of assembly and suppression of political organising and activism. Under the guise of “Public Health” concerns, we have witnessed the most brutal and savage acts of police aggression on even the most innocent crowds; people struggling to get home.
Governments have expediently weaponised the pandemic globally. Even in Europe, where an entire generation has grown up completely unaware of the nature of police brutality, COVID-19 has revealed the imperialist underbelly of the modern Westphalian Nation-State. The brutality of the normally benign police of “civilised Western Europe” has stunned media elites.
Who is the Sovereign shaping COVID-19 policy so consistently across the globe?
It seems that globalisation did not only globalise markets; it globalised the tyranny of the capitalist police-state.
Our tyrant is a supranational system of totalitarian state-funded entities and organisations, unaccountable to anyone and only subservient to capitalist imperialism. Where does one protest against a World Bank loan that has been advanced and signed in the citizens’ name without their consent? How would one hold to account the opaque global Anti-Terror Police deathsquad infrastructure that was created via the terror-related legislation worldwide? How does anyone challenge the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 policy which is the basis for the current political suppression and police brutality around the world?
How do we even channel our emotions when the tyrant is this amorphous cold gel of capitalist corporations and totalitarian organisations? The psyche needs a tangible finite target to focus on, a crisp image; the humour may be macabre, but one misses the ol’ days, when we knew exactly who the bad guy was.
To the Brothers and for the Women in Our Lives
We were made husbands before we became men, and it might benefit us a great deal to restore the trust we once had in the guidance given to us by the women in our lives.
Since childhood, my great aunts, my grandmothers and the older women of my clan have referred to me fondly as their husband. “Nga uyu mundu wange,” here is my man, here is my husband, they would always remark in Maragoli whenever we met, never failing to claim this very unusual relationship to me with the biggest village smile on their faces. This, if you can imagine, was one of the few things that didn’t exactly excite my curiosity as a teenage boy. They were women in whom I had unquestioning trust, but what kind of humour! I could not understand where the grace of a woman that old had gone for her to say such a thing. Why? How? It was something too big for my brain to bother with at that time. Now that that boy is a few years older, the message is decoded from the different words of another group of Maragoli women in a closer space and time.
Highrise Estate Kibera is a special place to me. Apart from being my refuge during times when “the situation” seems unbearable in the adult world, where I retreat to the cradling love and care of my aunt and my cousins, it also happens to be a space where I get to experience the village from my interactions with Maragoli laundry ladies. There are a lot of Maragolis here, and most of them live on the other side of the wall in Soweto Kibera — where the real ghetto is. The lives of the people of Kibera, how they make a living, you will find very interesting.
In the early hours of the day, Mbagathi Way’s pedestrian paths might easily be mistaken for the venue of a serious racewalking event as Kibera residents — Nairobi’s labouring class — race past each other as they trek to Industrial Area. At around mid-morning, the journey becomes shorter for some, those opting to make stops midway as others turn back all the way. While it might seem like a foolish thing for them to do, it is a well-informed decision.
Some of those who woke up earlier are on their way back, they need not say anything about where they’re coming from. Neighbourhoods such as South C, Nairobi West, Madaraka Estate and finally Highrise Estate become their checkpoints; you never know, someone might need a parking lot swept, a house cleaned, some laundry done, some dishes fixed. No functioning human being wants to gamble with energy they lack the resources to replenish. So they change direction, reversing from an industrial vision to a domestic one.
Women are the majority among those changing direction, coming back home, not because their muscle mass will not allow them to finish the race early enough, but because it has made them unsuited for the roles industrial work provides for the labouring class.
So, what is the significance of the relationship between Highrise Estate Kibera, Soweto Kibera and this labouring class? Or, what is left of it in this story? It is more or less the same significance my great aunts, my grandmothers and the older women of my clan share with the laundry ladies of Highrise Estate K. in my life.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit us in early 2020, a lot of women in the employment class just above the labouring class started working from home; a good number of them were sent on compulsory leave without pay. With less cash at their disposal and more time to spend around the house, many of them had to let go their domestic workers. Were they to go back to the ghetto? In Highrise, at my aunt’s and the neighbouring blocks, these women sit outside their sources of employment.
A keen eye will easily lead you to the Maragoli laundry ladies’ base in the area. You will see them seated next to water jerrycans and buckets, stoically bearing the Nairobi heat as they wait for the few opportunities available to them. When the pandemic was at its peak in mid-last year, some of them would go for days without finding a single client, but still, they would not ask for anything from the people they knew. Rather, they hollered out at them like friends and would only insist on us promoting their side-hustles. One such woman is Maggie.
Maggie, a middle-aged woman with a son she recently disclosed to me was in medical school, would shout out to me, “Maragoli!”, caring nothing about whether I was a block away or just on the other side of the road. She would easily convince me and my cousins to buy a few of the avocados she was selling, it mattering not to her whether we had ready cash; we would pay when we had it.
From being her customers, our relationship with Maggie grew over the months to that of neighbours who have no problem commenting about how the other is looking today — not flattery, just raw, honest village banter brought to the city. Recently, Maggie made a personal comment about me; she said, “Sahizi mwili wako unaonekana vizuri, last year ulikuwa unaonekana na wasiwasi sana”, now your body appears alright, you had lots of worries last year. This was weeks after another powerful remark made on the first day of February 2021. Remarks that decoded the message in the words of the women who claim me as their husband back in the village.
“Genye’kana munyo’re zi’gasi mtange’ kuhinzira.” You are supposed to find jobs and start working, functioning, Maggie said to me and my older male cousin late that February afternoon. I had no idea what observations led her to utter such remarks, but they were delivered in a tone so light that we almost laughed. So detached was her position as she made them that it would have been really easy to miss the concern and interest she had for us. And it bugged me, more than the thought of being my grandmothers’ husband bugged me as a young boy. It did not help that both of us had quit our jobs a few months before the pandemic exploded to “focus on our art”. What humour! Why would she say that to me? Now this appealed to my sense of curiosity just as it confounded me. Was she simply asking us to find jobs so that we could in turn provide employment opportunities for her? Was she encouraging us to keep on looking for opportunities and not give up? Or was it a witty rebuke to Maragoli youth walking around the estate in the peak of the afternoon, pretending to be in the same position as her, lacking opportunity?
I remain unable to place these remarks. Nevertheless, if Maggie Maragoli sees me essentially as a Maragoli man then, truly, I am her husband. The women of my clan must have been teasing me with the responsibility that comes with being a man in the community. That as a Maragoli man you are answerable to more than one woman in your life; your functioning does not just benefit the woman you raise a family with, it is essential for the whole community’s prosperity. It might also be that we fit the image of the man Maggie would like the daughters of the community, her daughters, to have, and that she is playing her role in moulding these functional partners. Whatever the meaning of the remarks, they remain a response given in an attempt to show direction.
Only one message is clear.
A deep concern seems to be building up among a group of women from the ghetto. Not about themselves, not about their children, not about anyone really close to them. Just their husbands. A concern that manifests itself as a wound, an old wound, a very visible wound which regenerates into the painful thing it was many years ago when it was first inflicted by our fathers. We, their husbands, are that wound.
In the ghetto, Kibera at least, based on the selective principle industries apply in recruiting workers of the labouring class and the number of women in domestic work, there are more men in meaningful employment than there are women. Is it, then, beyond us to say that when the vision for women is reversed from industrial roles to domestic roles in the labouring classes of capitalist systems — worse in a corrupt country — the people become poorer?
Oftentimes, I find myself promising to give something back to these women in the future. I want to make them happy, these distant but very present wives of mine, these very close but physically distant wives of mine, for the priceless education they have given and continue to give me. But time is limited, and it would break so much to go beyond oneself, I am just one among many men of the community. And what makes me think that I carry the key to their happiness!
The surest thing I could give is my ear.
I get it, I think, I feel as though I have gained understanding. I have to function.
We were made husbands before we became men, and it might benefit us a great deal to restore the trust we once had in the guidance given to us by the women in our lives. Our mathes, our sisters, our senjes, our gukhus. These women whose presence, physically, emotionally and in memory, has never failed to check us at every stage of our growth as human beings. We should trust the women in our lives to give us direction, not answers, on what proper manhood looks like.
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