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Reflections

In the Shadow of a Liberation War: Ethiopia, Kenya and the Oromo Quest

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The Oromo Liberation Front leadership views Kenya as an important player and believes that peace will come sooner if Kenya steers the talks between the Oromo and Ethiopia.

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In the Shadow of a Liberation War: Ethiopia, Kenya and the Oromo Quest
Photo: Unsplash/Nemuel Sereti
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A Kenyan Journalist was arrested in Addis Ababa in the wake of the assassination of Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, a popular Oromo musician. Yassin Juma was arrested alongside prominent Oromo opposition political figures like Jawar Mohammed, the founder of the Oromo Media Network. Juma was later charged with “incitement and involvement in violence, plotting to create ethnic violence and plotting to kill senior Ethiopian officials”.

A court freed him but the police continued to hold him.

Yassin Juma is perhaps the only Kenyan journalist to show interest in the Oromo liberation movement. In Kenya, both the media and government functionaries view the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) as a security threat, with journalists rehashing half-baked arguments about what the OLF means in the region’s conflict.

It was Yassin Juma who introduced the Oromo cause to a larger Kenyan audience with his TV documentary, Inside Rebel Territory, 10 years ago. In it we follow Yassin as he goes in search of OLF fighters: “It was a journey that finally yielded [the] faces of one of Africa’s longest albeit low-key rebellions . . . the OLF was for decades a mystery”.

Inside Rebel Territory earned him the respect of the Oromo and the ire of Meles Zenawi’s regime. Five months ago he was invited to Finfinnee Radio’s 5nan Show where he spoke about the state of the media and reflected on his coverage of the Oromo movement.

My reason for being here is to make a follow-up documentary to [. . .] Inside Rebel Territory . . . I am doing a documentary about the rebels I met then, their life now, after Dr Abiy took over [as Ethiopia’s prime minister] . . . how they find life and so forth.

We can already guess what the new Ethiopia looks like. Guracho, who featured in Yassin’s documentary, is now in jail. Falimatu, a woman he had interviewed, may have been killed two or three years ago. He was in Addis Ababa when Haacaaluu Hundeessaa was killed and the country erupted into violence. Ethiopia prefers to hide its face from the roving cameras of the likes of Yassin Juma.

On Finfinne Radio Yassin reveals who he is, how the story he had done on the OLF was almost killed. How he was offered $150,000 by the Zenawi regime to kill it. How he had received threats. How the owners of Nation Media Group had not been happy with that coverage. How it had caused a diplomatic row between Kenya and Ethiopia. How it triggered a series of events that eventually led to his leaving NTV. How since then his life and that of his family has not been very secure: “In 2009 I was almost shot dead twice in front of my house . . . In 2016 I had to move to Uganda for three months for helping to organise Oromo protests in Kenya”. He was officially banned from entering Ethiopia.

Yassin Juma had covered the Oromo Liberation Front at a time when the movement badly needed the coverage. Ethiopia’s notorious media laws, stemming from the US-backed antiterrorism law, had forced its outspoken journalists into prison. That coverage was important on many counts; it came out at a time when the Oromo cause was transitioning from armed rebellion to an ideological youth- and artists-led movement at around the same time that Haacaaluu was breaking onto the music scene. A scroll through Yassin Juma’s Facebook page shows how important a player he had become in the Oromo cause; he is seen posing with Jawar and Haacaaluu and appears in most Oromo events held in post-revolution Ethiopia.

Kenya, Ethiopia and the Oromo question

For Kenya, Ethiopia is a landlocked market of 100 million people, a destination for goods from its ports and, more recently, a partner in the LAPSSET (Lamu Port, South Sudan, Ethiopia Transport) corridor project. In this context, complex stories such as Yassin Juma sought to tell were to Kenya an unwelcome initiative, going against sixty years of close cooperation built around keeping Somalia’s aggression in check. For their part, both the OLF and successive Ethiopian regimes have recognised the strategic importance of Kenya.

As an immediate neighbour, Kenya was important for the Oromo cause—as a refuge for thousands of fleeing Oromos and as transit territory for Oromos escaping oppression at home. Kenya’s importance in the Horn’s geo-politics, it’s appeal as a regional “bastion of peace” and as the regional capital for all manner of international media outlets and posh western think tanks, as well as Kenya’s role in Somalia’s pacification efforts and its shuttle diplomacy in South Sudan’s independence, have fuelled the Oromos’ desire to secure Kenya as an important ally. But how Kenya perceived and portrayed the Oromo struggle spoke volumes about the liberation movement’s international image.

In Kenya, the roots of the OLF rebellion were whitewashed and a truncated history was often told, the Oromo liberation struggle being portrayed as a threat to regional peace. The Kenyan media has reduced the OLF in the Kenyan mindset to illegitimate militias out to destabilise the region. Ethiopian ambassadors have reinforced the local political and media narrative that the Oromo cause is a quest to establish an Oromo super-state stretching all the way to Tana River, a narrative intertwined with other stories about the skirmishes between the Gabra and Borana in Marsabit. The OLF thus became the regional insecurity scapegoat, blamed for the October 1998 Bagalla Massacre in which 140 people were killed in Wajir and the July 2005 Turbi Massacre in Marsabit in which almost 90 people perished, and for the proliferation of arms in the north, for banditry, and even for livestock rustling.

Yet, this conclusion glossed over the complexities at play; the Ethiopian army’s harassment of Kenyans at the border was either ignored or the frequent abductions, killings and harassment of Kenyans by the Ethiopian military were dismissed as being the work of locals.

Following the Turbi Massacre, the OLF’s Dr Fido Ebba said that the OLF’s image was wrongly tainted and that the problem in Marsabit is two-fold, some of the raids are purely tribal. They pit civilian communities against each other over scarce resources and cattle. The rest are diversionary tactics by militias engaged by authorities within Ethiopia’s ruling class. They aim at inciting communities on the Kenyan side and possibly the government into fighting the OLF back.

Ethiopia also issued a similar counter-argument, for example in April 2006, when the OLF was blamed for the killing of two herders in Dukana. Ethiopia’s then acting ambassador to Kenya, Mr Ajebe Ligaba Wolde, insisted that it is the OLF that provokes and incites people along the border with Kenya. “They [OLF] put on Ethiopian soldiers’ uniforms to defame Ethiopia . . . OLF is not only a threat to peace in Ethiopia, but also to Kenya and the whole region. They want to destabilise the region”, said Mr Wolde.

Oromo Liberation Front ideologues and leadership view Kenya as an important player to whom they look with hope, believing that peace will come sooner if Kenya steers the talks between the Oromo and Ethiopia. “If Kenyans mediated between the Ethiopian government and the Oromo they would understand the problems better, just like they did with Sudan and Somalia”, said Dr Fido Ebba.

Ethiopia, which contributed to the liberation of Kenya’s struggle for independence (and was gifted an embassy in appreciation), has enjoyed a long, peaceful diplomatic relationship with Kenya, having signed a defense pact and a treaty of friendship and cooperation in the 1980s. Dr Fido Ebba wishes that the OLF could have its administrative base in Kenya, and not in the US (Washington) as is currently the case. “Our push for liberation would then be coordinated from close proximity”, he says.

Incursions into Kenyan territory by the Ethiopian army in search of the OLF are very common. In 2015 the Ethiopian army crossed into Kenya six times, once even taking over a police station in Illeret, Marsabit. Cross-border massacres—like the March 1997 Kokai Massacre in which 80 people including 19 police officers were killed—have been raised with the Ethiopian regime.

The OLF pointed an accusing finger at the Kenyan government and army, claiming that the Kenyan army has supported the Ethiopian army to wage war against the OLF, that Kenya had broken with several international protocols to abduct and repatriate legitimate Oromo refugees and that Oromo activists have been assassinated by Ethiopian security agents on Kenyan soil.

The decades-long struggle and the fraught relationship between Kenya, the OLF and Ethiopia seemed for a brief moment to be water under the bridge when the Oromo Media Network (OMN) was launched in Nairobi in the wake of the Qeerroo revolution. During the launch, Jawar Mohammed said:

I have come to this place many times before. I had to change my name and look. I am happy that we now can reveal our names and faces to each other. We didn’t plead for this . . . We fought for it . . . We threw those who made us hide our faces in a hole and came out . . . It’s not play that brought us here . . . We lost people like Jatani Ali to arrive here . . . I would like to say thank you to the government of Kenya even though they were not open and fully supportive of our struggle . . . There cannot be liberation for Oromos or for Ethiopia without its neighbours.

Mohammed spoke of how the OMN would lead to the establishment of a bridge between the two countries by bringing the Oromos in Kenya together and by connecting the Oromos in Kenya with the Oromos in Ethiopia through listening to the OMN.

In the constructed narrative, this talk could easily be misconstrued as alluding to the establishment of an Oromia republic stretching into Kenya.

The Oromos of northern Kenya

When Dr Abiy Ahmed became the Ethiopian premier, there were celebrations in Nairobi and in the streets of Isiolo, and a commemoration for all the slain Oromo people was held in Marsabit.

The Marsabit County Woman Representative, Safia Sheikh Adan, organised a memorial day for slain Borana heros and waxed lyrical about the Oromo liberation—Bilisumna—weeping as she recited a poem and read the names of leaders slain through political machinations.

But one name was repeated again and again by Governor Mohammed Ali, by Jawar Mohammed and by the Woman Representative. Mebastion Jatani Ali Tandhu, the former Provincial Governor of Borana Province in Southern Oromia who was assassinated by Ethiopian security agents on 2 July 1992 at Tea Zone Hotel in Nairobi. Jatani Ali Tandhu had been in Kenya to seek political asylum from Zenawi’s Ethiopia. Over the past three decades, he has become an Oromo political liberation martyr and cultural icon, his words revisited in songs and Oromo protest poetry. In commemoration, a message was carried in Kenya’s Daily Nation on the 10th anniversary of his death: “Exactly 10 years since you were brutally murdered by the operatives of Tigre Peoples Revolutionary Front (TPLF)/Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary “Democratic” Front (EPRDF). The course for which you died is still alive”. With Abiy in power, his glory was resurrected and an equestrian statue was installed in the centre of his hometown of Yaballo. New songs were composed in his praise. Jatani Ali Tandhu had been buried in Marsabit and when Abiy came to power, his grave at the Marsabit cemetery was repainted.

It was Safia Sheikh Adan who financed the commemoration day. She spoke about Jattani Ali Tandhu’s contributions and mentioned other prisoners like Jatani Kunu who she said was still being held in an underground prison in Ethiopia. “We have lost many brave and strong people . . . Jatani Ali Tandhu, Galo Wolde, Qala Waqo, Sheikh Hassan, Hussein Sora Agole, Mohammed Halakhe Fayo and Hersi Jatani”.

In her overly sentimental tributes, Safia Sheikh Adan mentioned the names of slain former Kenyan parliamentarians like Guyo Halakhe, Philip Galma and Isacko Umuro. Their assassinations, like that of Daudi Dabasso Wabera (the first African Colonial District Commissioner who was assassinated by the Shifta in 1963), were unrelated to anything Oromo.

But the poem Safia Sheikh Adan recited, her tears and her actions were out of sync with the local politics and current feeling. A few understood her but most people watched her and wondered where her emotions were coming from and her efforts were finally without significance or consequence, dismissed as part of the initial euphoric joy that an Oromo was finally the Ethiopian premier.

Marsabit, music and protest poetry

When popular musician Haacaaluu Hundeessaa was killed on 29 June 2020, our hearts were broken and the sense of grief that engulfed us had a familiar weight. As Ethiopia descended into mourning and chaos, in Marsabit I listened to Haacaaluu’s albums anew. My friend and I paused and replayed certain songs to try to decipher what he meant and our sadness was deepened by the raw honesty of the injustice he described. That this was the soundtrack of a now stolen revolution added to the feeling that Ethiopia was a place of great injustice.

I remembered the image of Haacaaluu bursting onto the music scene about 10 years ago, a skinny boy in oversized shirt and trousers. We spoke about his music and his political education, his 5-year jail term when he was just 17 years old. We revisited the words of the Oromo liberation struggle as if we were reminiscing, as if it was about us. And we said aaaayyyiii, expressing the turmoil in our hearts. But at the end of the day, none of the political pathos and calls to action were about us, and nor were they happening on our doorstep. The deep articulation of the injustice that we listened to was in our own language but that struggle was not ours.

The aftermath of Haacaaluu’s death and the blowback in Oromia leads me to thoughts about what the Oromo struggle means to those of us who have come of age under its shadow.

To grow up in a liminal space like Marsabit is to be in an endless interregnum of something not quite yours. The earliest memory of the Oromo liberation struggle for me dates back to when I was six years old in mid-1990s Marsabit. Back then, a tape of a poet would be shared across the town, and we would listen alongside our parents, picking up words that sounded funny and made no sense to us.

It was hard, then, to link those words to concepts like oppression and injustice. But over the years, the OLF became the subject of whispers in Marsabit. OLF stories circulated in the manner of a secret; tales of disappearances were told, of men whose wives were taken in the night, of people whose lips had been cut off for snitching. The whisper was a mix of many fears, of the Kenyan Special Branch, of District Commissioners who had lists of OLF sympathisers, of the OLF itself, of Ethiopian spies. In Marsabit some of the murders in the town were linked to these fears.

In our home, the land of our grandparents’ past, Ethiopia, was the unspoken and unacknowledged thought. But its music was the future we aspired to; our heartbreak, our love, our longing for elusive dreams were in those lyrics.

Once, my dad came home with a small OLF flag, with the tree in the middle and the star above it. He stuck it up one side of our wall. It was the first symbol of the OLF as something good that was forbidden.

Many years later, I asked my Dad what that flag had meant to him and where he got it from. He had been in a car heading to Nairobi when he met a man who had engaged him in talk, telling him how liberation for the Oromo would benefit us all, how my dad in Kenya had to be conscious too, how the war being fought needed him.

My inquiry was short but in my father’s clipped answers I found an explanation I could relate to. I knew what his words meant and I knew what his silences meant. He had, like me, grown up on the poetry of Oromo oppression and on the songs of their hopeful salvation. Yet this long political induction had never called him to any action.

What did the Oromo of Kenya want for Oromia?

Calls for independence have a liberatory romance about them that is inviting to sympathisers. And nowhere is the Oromo call for liberation, and the reason for this call, and the status of this call, as articulated as it is in the music of the Oromo. The Oromo songs we listened to in Moyale, Marsabit, Isiolo and Nairobi arose from the liberation struggle. They were songs and poetry that articulated Oromo suffering and encouraged resistance. Through the songs, the turmoil and suffering of the Oromo was transmitted to us in Kenya. But in Kenya, we seemed to run away from it all, not learning how to speak of the injustice that followed us.

In Marsabit we carried other stories of Ethiopia in our hearts, stories of an unacknowledged past as we forged new Kenyan identities, stories of the Amharas and how the gabbar system had forced our grandparents out of Ethiopia. Stories of slavery and of Abyssinian expansionism into southern Ethiopia.

We followed the Qeerroo protests keenly and vouched for them. But stolen revolutions break the heart even more. Haacaaluu’s murder was testament to a stolen revolution, an encore to the 1974 Derg, when the army through Mengistu stole another revolution. How many of the men in Marsabit escaped conscription in Ethiopia’s many wars with Eritrea and on its own people? How many had had hopes that their suffering would come to an end before the revolution was stolen from them in 1974, in 1991 and again in 2018?

I sit with a local musician in Marsabit and try to understand the influence of Oromo music on the Borana music produced and consumed in Kenya. How devoid of politics the songs in Kenya seem. I ask, “how come Borana musicians from Kenya haven’t contributed to the Oromo protest tradition?”

He says, “birds from different places speak a different tongue”.

It is a common saying about how things that look similar can be unrelated. In his answer, I understood so much. It is the caged bird that sings better of freedom.

A social-cultural state that defied the Westphalia model did exist in a section of northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia. A cultural state called Oromia did exist but, more than political aspirations, it was language, music, traditional political institutions and contiguous populations that marked its boundaries.

Is the Oromo cause over? Is it legitimate? How has their struggle progressed? Which parties speak for the Oromo? Where are they? What’s happening in Ethiopia? Asking Kenyan Borana/Oromo these questions is asking them far too much. None of these questions have been considered before. Yet somehow, a version of the Oromo pain has been inscribed in the psyche of the Kenyan Oromo through the Oromo music and protest tradition. The revolutionary spirit is appealing but there is no substance beneath the thin veneer of solidarity.

It was thus easy to romanticise the struggle itself. To hung posters of Lemma Megersa in khat shops while not knowing which party speaks for who. Yassin Juma had tried to put a story to this romantic idea of a political rebellion.

The Kenyan government’s choice of silence as a strategy and its hush-hush attitude towards the Oromo or the Ethiopian army’s repeated aggression on the border is just a convenient excuse, as is the simplistic idea peddled by security analysts that Kenyan Oromo also desire an Oromia super-state. It is reading too much into a romantic idea.

I know now that sympathy for—or identification with—the Oromo cause became intertwined with local politics as early as the 1990s, and allegations that local politicians had begun enlisting the services of OLF fighters were rife in Marsabit and that that there was some truth to these allegations.

For the states of the East African region there is a need to understand the Oromo cause and what is happening in Ethiopia. The Oromo call and the Ethiopian regime’s response to it should not be considered inconsequential, for the response is an indicator of how oppression, inclusion and participation of the marginalised are viewed in those states.

The old pattern in the region’s attempts at reform has been to gain one kind of political progress and lose another. To allow for the judiciary to be pseudo-independent but to cut it back when it does its work. Extrajudicial killings, mass arrests, clamping down on the freedom of association and freedom of speech, the arbitrary arrest of journalists, torture and detentions without trial, draconian and controversial laws like the social media tax in Uganda, the controversial hate speech law in Ethiopia, Internet shutdowns in Uganda and Ethiopia, declaration of a state of emergency to suppress legal and peaceful protests, all these speak of identical regional infirmities. For activists, pseudo-revolutionaries and politicians there are lessons here on the pitfalls of revolutionary nationalism in mainstream politics.

For the people of northern Kenya, whether viewed as potential citizens of a future “Oromia” or as relatives of disenfranchised, broken OLF fighters, or as the inhabitants of places invoked in Oromo songs, the sooner Ethiopia addresses the Oromo plight the better for the region. But even as Ethiopia sorts out its politics, the region also needs to formulate the ways in which the armed fighters are going to fit back into the community and not become a security threat by being enlisted to serve Marsabit politics.

In August 2017, four days after Ethiopia lifted its 10-month state of emergency, and as Kenya was in the throes of post-electoral violence, I crossed the border into Ethiopia at Moyale. In southern Ethiopia, in towns like Mega, Yaballo and Soyama, I counted a few T-Shirts adorned with the portraits of gubernatorial contestants in Marsabit. My grand-aunt was very worried that Kenya would burn with her daughter in it. After 10 days of drinking copious amounts of Ethiopian bunna in many towns and even in a restaurant at Akaki Kaliti, a sub-city of Addis Ababa, I returned to Kenya. On the way to Yaballo, political campaign songs about Marsabit’s politics played on the matatu’s stereo.

Back to Yassin Juma

It is in this larger context that Yassin Juma found himself in a prison in Ethiopia. He has since been released and is back in Kenya and we are waiting for his documentary about what Ethiopia is doing to its youth.

Parallels can be drawn between the struggles in Ethiopia and the situation in Kenya, how a minority wields economic and political power, keeping out the majority of citizens by means of elaborate political machinations. Keeping Kenyan youth in check with guns is not any different from the Ethiopian government’s incarceration of its youth and its heavy-handed reaction to dissent.

But there is something markedly different in the civil response in Ethiopia; 10-year-olds are active in the streets of Ambo.

It was important to observe Kenya’s reaction to Yassin Juma’s arrest and his release as this could be a signal to northern Kenya of a change in the government’s attitude towards the killings and assassinations that have been perpetrated in the name of the OLF in Kenya, and that the border regions will finally be treated with the seriousness they deserve.

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The author is a writer based in Marsabit, Kenya.

Reflections

Kenya’s Social Justice Movement: Remembering Our Unsung Heroes

Gathanga Ndung’u commemorates activists whose lives were snatched away by Kenya’s brutal capitalism. Activists who launched a war against a system of impunity, a world one hundred times larger, mightier, and older than them, but, Ndung’u explains, that each of them mounted a defence to protect and defend their comrades and communities.

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Kenya’s Social Justice Movement: Remembering Our Unsung Heroes
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The independence struggle of 1920 to 1963 against the colonial government was followed by the second liberation struggle from 1982 to 1992 against the dictatorship of the President Daniel Arap Moi. This was a fight for democracy, a just constitution and a fight for civic space. This culminated with repealing of Section 2A of the constitution in December 1991 which had made Kenya a one-party state for almost a decade. The new, or third wave of liberation has been carried out by social justice movements in Kenya together with a multitude of organisations.

This reflection focuses on three committed activists whose lives were cut short by the same system that took our independence heroes. They dedicated their lives in the new wave of struggle which has been characterised by extra-judicial executions and enforced disappearances by the police, the shrinking of democratic space, high level corruption, the ever-widening gap between the poor and rich and the privatisation of basic services.

The Social Justice Centres’ Working Group (SJCWG) is an umbrella body of more than sixty social justice centres based in the communities across the country. It was formed early in 2018 when individual grassroots human rights centres decided to come together to tackle the many injustices in the country and more so in the poor urban areas. The Social Justice Centres Movement has also suffered losses in its five years of existence with the lives of three human rights defender (HRD’s) ending in tragic ways. The richness of life is not through material accumulation, but rather through the impact we make on others.

In this post I celebrate the lives and activism of our fallen comrades as a testament to their work and in the hope that they did not die in vain, and they can inspire others.

Carol ‘Mtetezi’ Mwatha

Carol Mwatha was a mother of two and was a vibrant and committed human rights defender who dedicated her life to serving the community. She worked to ensure that the streets were safe for the youths who had been a target of police killings, arbitrary arrests, extortion and harassments. She started her activism long before the formation of Dandora Community Justice Centre (DCJC) and she had created an elaborate network with other community organisers, activists and organisations fighting for the same cause.

The truth about her tragic end will probably never be known due to the manner in which the state agents hastily created what seemed like an obvious cover up and disseminated the story to media houses without reaching out to the family first, as protocol would have demanded. This was a deliberate move to control the narrative. Carol went missing on 6 February 2019 only to be found at the city morgue on 12 February registered under a wrong name. Her family and friends had been at the same facility on the 8 and 9 February and didn’t find her among those that had been brought to the facility from the day she went missing.

The police story lacked credence from the very beginning. The mortuary attendants failed to disclose the officer in charge on the day she was purportedly brought to the morgue. The post-mortem was delayed, and even then, the wrong name was suspiciously entered – Carolyn Mbeki – and the police went ahead and informed the media of her ‘discovery’ on 12 February even before informing the family.

Carol was a visionary leader with excellent organisational and mobilisation talents. The idea of forming a centre in the community was taken in her house at an informal meeting with her comrades. She saw the need to have a community centre to bring different community organisers into Dandora under one umbrella and speak in one voice. She sat down together with her comrades from DCJC and committed to organising and mobilising her community against the many social injustices they experienced daily.

As a mother, Carol rejected the idea of bringing-up her children in a context where injustices are normalised. To this end, she committed to fight extra-judicial killings, police extortion, arbitrary arrests and harassment of youths which were and still are a common trend in Dandora and other high-density and poor neighbourhoods. She knew what she was standing against but her zeal for a safe Dandora superseded her fears. Alaman James, a long-time friend of Carol notes she was a frequent visitor to Kwa Mbao Police Post and other police stations in Dandora as she tried to secure the freedom of community members who had been arbitrarily arrested. Alaman recounts how Carol – his church friend turned activist – spent countless hours going late at the night to police stations and from one organisation to another trying to help victims. Her resolve to follow-up police killings set her against powerful forces which were used to acting with complete impunity. The establishment of DCJC in the community definitely sent a strong a message which made these forces feel threatened.

Faith Kasina, another close friend of Carol and a coordinator of Kayole Community Justice Centre, described her as a mother figure to most of her comrades. Despite her lean frame, she had wide shoulders for her comrades to lean on when they needed her. She was an elder sister, a mother figure to some, and a close confidant to many. Faith talks of a comrade who would frequently reach out to her friends and comrades just to make sure they were well. Through her friends’ accounts, I learnt about a leading comrade who stood against overwhelming odds no matter the outcome.

Carol Mwatha launched a war against a system of impunity, a system one hundred times larger than her, mightier than her, older than her, but she mounted a defence to protect her children and the community where she lived.

Henry Ekal Lober “Turu”

On 21 February 2021, we lost another committed comrade. Members of the social justice movement learnt of his death after a six-day search ended with the tragic revelation. Ekal had lost consciousness and was taken to Kenyatta National Hospital. Members of his social justice centre had spent days looking for him without help from the hospital administration. With the lethargy and negligence in our public hospitals and because he was not accompanied by anyone to the hospital, he was left to the mercy of fate. He succumbed to his condition and died.

Ekal or Turu as he was known by many, hailed from Loki in Turkana hence his alias. Just like many in Mathare, Ekal found a second home there and he would spend the rest of his years in the community. He came to Nairobi looking for a promising life after leaving his pastoralist family hundreds of kilometres from the capital. Mathare welcomed him with open arms, and he ‘fell in love’ with the place, never to return home.

Ekal had slurred speech, a limp and wound that had become septic overtime, and he struggled with both alcoholism and the institutionalised poverty in the ghettos of the city. Despite these problems, he was a forever jovial, brutally honest with everyone and coherent when it came to articulating issues of injustices caused by the system. For this, some referred to him as professor.

Mary Njeri, one of the administrators at Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC), recalls her moments with Ekal with nostalgia: “Even though he struggled with alcoholism, he was smart and very clear when it came to articulating his thoughts and what he envisioned for the community. He always carried a pen and a book for jotting down ideas and reflections and a magazine to read in his free time. I sometimes wondered what he would be scribbling and one day out of curiosity, I decided to have a look in one of his notebooks …I was shocked to learn that Ekal was conducting one-man research on Water Accessibility in Kosovo, an area of Mathare where he lived. He did all this with zero budget. Despite his failing health, he would criss-cross the narrow alleys to interview residents on his topic.”

On this particular day, he came straight to Njeri. She wrote and translated the conversation that ensued:

Ekal: Hello Njeri

Njeri: I’m fine, what about you?

Ekal: I’m fine. Are you still in college? Do you know how to use a computer?

Njeri: Yeah, I know how to.

Ekal: (Unfolding his research papers), I would like you type up my research report on water.

Njeri was left speechless after going through the content of his research. It was written in a very clear manner capturing most aspects of the water crisis. Ekal was proactive when it came to action and chose to do what was needed without waiting for donors to fund his work. This is the true spirit of an organic community organiser. Apart from this, he always wrote articles which he would ask comrades to type for him. Yet he was an intellectual that got smothered by the system, slowly sucking his dreams out of him, leaving him hollow and broken.

Ekal was a committed member of Bunge La Mwananchi (People’s Parliament). It is from this space where he became friends with Gacheke Gachihi one of the founder members of MSJC. Ekal floated the idea of forming a JM Kariuki Social Justice Centre named after Josiah Mwangi ‘JM’ Kariuki, who was an activist and politician assassinated during Jomo Kenyatta’s regime. MSJC would later be formed in 2014 to document and fight extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances and other social injustices.

I came to know Ekal in 2020 at various functions organised by MSJC. In all these meetings, he always created ‘beautiful trouble’, the kind of trouble I call, ‘necessary trouble’. He would not let the meetings proceed without following protocol. He would speak his mind and oppose anything that he deemed not to be in the spirit of true and radical justice.

According to Njeri, Ekal wouldn’t hide his disappointments and offer his unsolicited criticism and would repeat it over and over until his counsel was heeded. And of course, it was always positive criticism. Through this approach, he was instrumental in MSJC’s growth and helped to ensure that the centre did not veer off from its core and founding mandates.

Oyunga Pala, a Kenyan journalist, columnist and an editor, teamed up with Ekal and became a committed member of the Mathare Green Movement where, with Ekal, he embarked on an ambitious project to clean and green Mathare. Hailing from the arid areas of Turkana in Northwest Kenya, Ekal understood very well the role trees play in our ecology. He invested his time in increasing the tree cover of Mathare knowing very well that most of the trees wouldn’t benefit him personally but would serve the generations to come.

The Mathare Green Movement went ahead and transformed garbage sites and polluted areas into small parks. These small parks serve as oases of hope in Mathare giving us a sneak preview of the Mathare dream that Ekal believed in. In his final tribute to Ekal, Oyunga Pala describes the futuristic dream that Ekal saw for Mathare; the future where youths could craft their destinies by being proactive in shaping and charting a new path full of hope. Ekal was one of the few comrades who was proactive, pragmatic, brutally honest, and committed to the struggle with a jovial soul. He always strived to rise above the system’s dragnets stifling his spirit.

This is my ode to Ekal:

May the homeless birds from the wilderness find a tree to perch on in Mathare,

from a restless journey may they find home, an oasis of peace and comfort.

May your trees be home to thousands of homeless birds,

ejected from their ancestral homes due to ecological disruption.

May your trees clean the foul air in Mathare,

the foul air of ethnicity, crime, despair and hopelessness

 and breathe out fresh air rich in hope, a brighter future and common goal of prosperity.

May the roots of your trees hold together the soil of Mathare,

the soil with the blood of Mau Mau and many slain youths.

May that rich history be held together by the roots of your trees.

May that soil never be eroded or washed away.

Let your trees hold the rich history for us and for the future generations.

Alphonce Genga

On 4 February 2022, the Social Justice Centres’ Movement was thrown into yet another deep mourning after the sudden death of Comrade Alphonse Genga. Alphonse was a 21-year old comrade of Githurai Social Justice Centre (GSJC) whose demise occurred four days to from his 22nd birthday.

Brian Mathenge, a close friend, and a colleague of Alphonse paints a picture of a young, vibrant comrade fresh from school, who decided to make an impact in his community. He chose the unfamiliar route, to commit his life to protect the weak, the marginalised, the voiceless and the poor in Kenya. Within a year, Alphonse was a powerhouse in activist circles due to his sincere commitment. He used art to reach out to more community members and to educate, organise and mobilise.

Alphonse would later join the Mau Mau study cell organised in Githurai. Through the ideological grounding classes he attended, he joined the Communist Party of Kenya (CPK) where he dedicated his time to reading and understanding Marxist theory. This sharpened him politically and he would later use the same knowledge to reach more people from his area of residence in Roysambu. He preached and practiced socialism.

Alphonse wore many hats, but if there is one aspect that defined him it was his commitment to ecological justice. He took part in the annual climate strike, he had joined several ecological justice groups such as Eco-Vista, Ecological Justice League, Kasarani Ecological League, Green Jewel Movement and Githurai Green Movement among others.

During the posthumous birthday and celebration of his life, one of his friends confessed that Alphonse had quit football, giving up a talent that he had nurtured since childhood so that he could spend more time in the fight for his community in Githurai.

On 2 February, he was involved in a road accident. He suffered an internal head injury and a broken arm. He was rushed to Kenyatta National Hospital (KNH) where he was left unattended for more than ten hours, yet he was a critical condition. Alphonse was in acute pain; his centre members were in panic in the hospital compound. It was only after a confrontation between his friends and the hospital staff that the doctors attended to him although with great lethargy. At the time of his death, his broken arm had not been attended to, more than 36 hours after admission. It was this kind of neglect in a system dominated by privatised healthcare that gradually and painfully squeezed the life out of Alphonse. The same healthcare system he was fighting to improve cut his life abruptly short.

It is an agonising fact which makes one reel with pain to learn that a public hospital such as KNH has a private wing to attend to their well-to-do clientele while the general populace is segregated in general wards without enough medics, nurses, drugs and beds for patients. Only the rich get services as they can afford to pay for them while the poor daily die in droves. Privatisation of the healthcare system in the country has turned the entire system into a for-profit venture.

To give a befitting tribute to our fallen comrade, it is the responsibility of every comrade to demand a total overhaul of the cartel-ridden healthcare system and replace it with a service that serves the people.

In the spirit of Alphonse Genga, it’s NOT YET UHURU until our healthcare is liberated. Let’s ensure we fight for justice, dignified lives, and a better healthcare system as comrade Genga lived doing.

This article was first published by ROAPE.

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Reflections

The Nairobi We Want: Re-Imagining the City Through a Public Commuter Train System

In designing my map of Kenya Railways, I was fascinated by the history of the meter-gauge network and the new Standard Gauge Railroad. But what stood out to me was that the lines of the Nairobi Commuter Rail network were short, had only a few stops, and only operated a few times a day.

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The Nairobi We Want: Re-Imagining the City Through a Public Commuter Train System
Photo: Guss B on Unsplash
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My name is Kara Fischer! I currently live in New York City, and I’m 24 years old. I’ve loved trains for as long as I can remember, and I’ve been making fantasy maps ever since I was eleven years old, when I visited Europe and saw trains absolutely everywhere—it was nothing like the almost-nonexistent train system at home in the United States. I wanted to imagine what it would be like if the United States had just as many trains as Europe, and so I started sketching maps with pencil and paper, one state at a time.

A few years later, I discovered Cameron Booth’s blog transitmap.net, which collected and reviewed maps from all over the world. Seeing all the wonderful maps on that blog inspired me to start mapping existing systems as well as imaginary ones, and I decided to make my own blog, at https://thetransitgirl.tumblr.com/. While my maps did land me one brief summer job with my state’s Department of Transportation, for most of my life my mapmaking has just been a hobby, where I’d make maps in my spare time while working towards my dream career of writing stories for animated film and television.

Until recently, most of the maps I made were focused on the United States, with a few maps of European cities mixed in. However, that changed at the start of 2022 when I saw a news article about Morocco’s Al Boraq high-speed rail line. I’d had no idea that Morocco actually had high-speed rail at all, and when I looked into it I found that Morocco had a fascinating network of high-speed, intercity, and local trains, with a level of service far greater than what we have in the US. But what I couldn’t find was a map clearly showing the service patterns—and so I decided to make one myself, piecing together all the information I could find online. I’m certain there are errors, including a few missing stations, but I was still quite proud of the map I created.

Since Morocco’s network had wound up being an unexpected joy, I started researching railway networks around the world to try to find other countries to map. Many countries had networks far too large to permit showing all stations in a single map, while many more countries only had one or two train routes, if any. And of the countries that did have networks of the size I was looking for, most didn’t post their timetables online, or had websites that weren’t viewable from the United States. But I did end up finding two national networks that I wanted to map—Estonia and Kenya.

In designing my map of Kenya Railways, I was fascinated by the history of the meter-gauge network and the new Standard Gauge Railroad. But what stood out to me was that the lines of the Nairobi Commuter Rail network were short, had only a few stops, and only operated a few times a day. This was different from most of the systems I’d seen elsewhere in the world: usually, lines with infrequent service and spread-out stops would go considerably further from the city center, while short lines that stayed mostly within a city would have frequent service and lots of stops close together. So the way I saw it, Nairobi was using commuter rail to do a metro’s job, and its current network wasn’t serving the needs of the citizens. This was remarkable to me since I knew most people in Nairobi didn’t have cars.

Nairobi Metro Schematic Map

And that’s what raised the question: what if Nairobi had an actual metro, with frequent stops and frequent service? Where would the lines go? Almost on a whim, I decided to try making a fantasy map, just like the maps I’d made since I was eleven.

I started with the existing commuter rail lines as a template, and the first change I made was to add more frequent stations. I looked at both Apple Maps and Google Maps to try to spot the major roads and population centers along the train lines, and I started adding stations in locations designed to be easy to get to, mostly along major roads. Outside the city center, I tried to have stations be approximately one kilometer apart: that way, the entire path of the route would have stations within walking distance, but there wouldn’t be so many stations that the trains would be slowed down by all the stops they’d have to make. Within the city center, however, I spaced stations closer together, since there would be more popular destinations—this would reduce walking distances for many passengers, and it’d also prevent individual stations from becoming too crowded. This method of spacing stations is quite common around the world—a good example is the rail network in Chicago, where I lived for five years.

With more stations added along the existing commuter rail routes, the next question was how to bring service to the parts of the city that weren’t already next to the commuter rail. I decided to mostly follow existing major roads, which is a common approach in cities around the world. Major roads tend to already go to major destinations, after all, and there are multiple options for how the tracks can be built: within the road sharing lanes with cars, in the median at the center of the road, elevated above the road, or in tunnels underneath. Waiyaki Way, Thika Rd, and Mombasa Rd were obvious choices, and I decided to also add an additional downtown route that could go along either Moi Ave or Tom Mboya St. At the outskirts of the city, I tried to connect some of the larger suburbs, but I completely missed both Rongai and Ngong due to a visual quirk in Apple Maps.

In putting together the route segments to determine where each line would go, I made sure every line would serve the downtown area, and I also made sure that every line intersected with every other, so that passengers wouldn’t need to make more than one transfer. The current commuter rail network has the route from Central Station to Makadara as its busiest segment, and so I kept that in my map, sending three lines along that corridor. Since this was the core of the map, I decided to color the three lines to make the flag of Kenya, to tie together the map’s aesthetic design.

When I posted the first version of the map to Tumblr, I expected just a few people to see it—that’s what had happened with all my previous maps, after all. Since I didn’t know anyone from Kenya, I didn’t expect I’d actually get any feedback from locals on how well I’d understood the city’s geography. But after a few days, my map was shared on Twitter by Mbithi Masya, and suddenly I was getting a flood of responses to it from Nairobians. None of my maps had ever gone viral before, and so this was incredibly exciting—and I definitely wanted to take the opportunity to use this feedback to improve the map!

And so, a few hours after the map went viral, I started working on a second version. The most common criticism I’d seen was that the map didn’t serve Rongai or Ngong—both of which I was able to connect to the network by extending the Purple and Green Lines. One person from Githurai convinced me to send the Purple Line there rather than sending it out to Ruai and Mihango, while another person brought up the lack of service to Kitengela. This highlighted the lack of actual commuter rail in my map, and so I added several commuter rail lines out of Nairobi Terminus—some following existing tracks, while others would follow new alignments to connect additional suburbs. (This included Ruai and Mihango, so that they wouldn’t have to lose service due to the rerouted Purple Line.)

When I posted the second version of the map later that evening, it started spreading just as quickly as the first one had—and this time, the feedback was overwhelmingly positive, where even people who had taken issue with the original map were thrilled about how I’d addressed their concerns in the second version. This was unexpected—I’d never been to Nairobi, and so I’d never fathomed that I’d be able to make a map that would actually appeal to locals. And before I knew it, my map was getting noticed by public figures such as Sakaja Johnson and Charles Kabaiku, the latter of whom expressed interest in inviting me out to Nairobi. I don’t actually know whether or not he was joking, but if he wasn’t, I’d certainly love to visit for a few weeks to gain an on-the-ground understanding of the city’s infrastructure!

All that being said, though, this map’s ultimately a pipe dream—or a Tube dream, I suppose. In planning the routes, I deliberately avoided questions like how hard the network would be to build, or how much it would cost, or the impacts the train lines would have on the surrounding areas. The map’s aspirational, but not realistic—I’m not the person to go to for actual solutions to Nairobi’s current transportation needs. One Twitter user called me “mzungu”, and while I hadn’t heard the term before, it’s definitely accurate: I’m a foreigner, and I certainly don’t know the city even remotely as well as Nairobians do. And there are people on the ground in Nairobi who’ve been working for years to find practical and feasible ways to breathe new life into the city’s transportation—as an example, the Digital Matatus project is a wonderful visualization of the current network. Guiding Nairobi into the future is a job for Nairobians, not for me.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a purpose to fantasy maps like mine. Even if my map doesn’t show a vision that’s feasible to build, it’s gotten people talking—Twitter says the second version of my map has been seen over a hundred thousand times, and that number keeps going up. Countless Nairobians have taken this map as a call to action—when people see how good the future of transit can be, people realize that the future of transit is worth fighting for. And so while my map may have sparked a widespread passion for transit in Nairobi, my greatest hope is that everyone who’s been inspired by my map will follow that inspiration to find the practical ways people are working on to improve transit—because if those projects gain more awareness, then that’s the next step towards building a better Nairobi.

And as for me, well…I’ll keep on making maps as I continue to pursue my screenwriting career! People who’ve seen my Nairobi map have asked me to make similar fantasy maps for other cities, such as Mombasa, Lusaka, Kampala, and Kigali, and I’m hoping to get at least a few of those done within the coming days. I’m incredibly honored to have made an impact in Nairobi, and I’ll definitely be very excited to see what happens next from here.

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Reflections

The Woman in a Leso

Every village has one. They may be disparaged as social misfits, openly loathed but secretly, they are admired because they are no longer afraid to be themselves in a society where people prefer to hide behind facades of good behaviour

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The Woman in a Leso
Photo: Shirley de Jong/Wikimedia Commons
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The Amstelveen bus station is located under a large parking lot serving the Stadshart shopping mall where several luxury brands have stores. It is not the kind of bus station that I am used to and I find it quite sterile. The passenger platforms are wide and mostly empty and the walls on one end are a dull grey in a way that emphasises the often lugubrious weather in Amsterdam. There are two lanes where the buses enter and exit smoothly and on time. The drivers never honk their horns, or leave the engine running as they go off to look for a toilet. There are no touts jostling for customers or hawkers trying to catch the eyes of passengers through the windows. I have never seen a queue for the bus even in the rush hour. The efficiency of public transport in this new country can feel robotic and it does not encourage idling.

But today, I find myself idling because I did not bother to consult my transport app to time my departure to precision. The electronic bus schedule screen tells me that I have a twelve minute wait time for Bus 348 that takes me to Amsterdam South station where I can catch a train to the North.

From where I stand, I spot a motherly figure about 20 metres away walking calmly towards my direction. She stops in front of a pay point. The Netherlands uses a cashless system and you have to buy a ticket to use a bus, tram or train. She starts ruffling through her bag. I find myself staring at her unusual presence and instinctively straighten up as one does in the presence of a woman deemed to be in the age group of one’s mother. I have this sudden need to be helpful but all I do is stare at her.

Where has she come from? Did her son or daughter, probably an African expatriate send their old lady off to catch the bus on her own and now she had lost her way? Did she even know how  to navigate the foreignness of this place?

I jump to all these conclusions based on her appearance. She is wrapped in patterned and coloured Swahili lesos (a shawl), one wrapped around her waist falling all the way down to her ankles, another over her woollen sweater and tied in a knot just over her chest. Her head is wrapped in a headscarf of the same pattern and colour design as the lesos. In a country where the default fashion style is dark and dull hooded jackets and boots, she stands out like a peacock fanning its tail feathers.

She is now standing in front of the pay point about 10 metres away from me. She has a branded shopping bag strapped on her shoulder and she reaches under her armpit to fetch items from its depths. I recognise the Nairobi-blue brand colors of the Albert Heijn supermarket chain. Her manner is nonchalant which leaves me conflicted. I am trying to be culturally appropriate and to ascertain that this elderly African woman is not having any challenge finding her way to the next destination.  Yet, I am restrained because this is the Netherlands, the land of mind-your-own-business and don’t look me in the eye. Overly polite gestures are thought of as insincere and put on.

Her stout short build, her firm belly bulge and dark wry face is a familiar presence. One that I had met throughout my life, in rural market places in the early morning spreading out their  fresh vegetables by the roadside or at funeral wakes, singing gospel hymns with the choir under a tarpaulin tent cover, facing a coffin on a chilly night, in the village.

The leso, also known as the khanga is a traditional rectangular shaped textile that is worn by women in East Africa. They come in an assortment of intricately patterned and colourful designs, and sometimes with a cautionary message, a Swahili proverb, written on one of its sides. The leso is a ridiculously versatile garment. It can function as a ground cover for sitting outside on the grass, a baby carrier for a working mother, a pouch to store valuables, a towel and a blanket. Only that I never imagined its function as a shawl for the cold in the early winter weather.

Kenyan oraturist and artist Mshai Mwangola, once called it, the cloth that speaks, and these lesos were speaking to me, transporting me back in time and place, to a world that was thousands of miles away from here.

The woman in a leso seems to be struggling with the pay station where one tops up the balance on their bus card. Maybe she needs the language of instruction changed? I begin to summon fresh courage to approach and politely ask whether she needs any assistance.

Then I notice that someone else had beaten me to it and I find myself getting possessive.  Everything about this individual looks disheveled. He has on a layered faded green khaki jacket with deformed pockets.

I had seen this man earlier, squatting with his back against the wall and I thought that was an odd position to be in, on a Saturday afternoon in this upmarket location. There is an air of despondency around him and I get an even stronger urge to intervene.  But he is already assisting her and fiddling with the pay point.

I notice his height. He must be Dutch, for they are a tall people who I think of as the Dinka of Europe. He is also gangly and he towers over the woman in a leso. I also notice that he has a lit cigarette in his free hand and that only serves to trouble me further.

Didn’t he know that this is a cultural faux pas? You never smoke in front of an elderly woman? Jesus Christ!!! Where are your manners?

This conversation is all going on in my head and I make no attempt to move in their direction, sparing only the occasional glance in order not to appear overly interested in the affairs of the woman in a leso.

She continues to speak to him as he fiddles with the machine and after a short while, it appears the problem has been resolved. Then, I see the tall man hand the old lady a lighter and she proceeds to extract a half smoked cigarette, that she lights up, taking a long drag like a smoker who just got off a 10 hour flight from Perth to Johannesburg.

The tall man resumes his earlier posture by the pay point.

The woman in a leso continues puffing away without a hurry in the world. Three young Asian women walking past her, frown disapprovingly. One even makes an attempt to sweep away with her hand, the cigarette smoke wafting up their path.

Two buses arrive in tandem. The 347 and the 348. As I wait for the passengers to disembark, I notice the woman in the leso talking to the driver as if seeking clarification. I think she has a firm authoritative voice but since I am out of earshot, I cannot make out what is said or catch her accent. After a minute, I see her walking back and she enters the 348, the same bus I am in.

The long red bus takes off, riding low and snaking smoothly around the roundabouts. At every next bus stop, the automatic doors open with a hissing sound and cold air from outside drifts into the bus. The passengers are subjected to routine recorded health safety announcements in both Dutch and English, “Please wear your face masks properly’’.

The woman in a leso has her mask under her nose and she is standing even though there are two empty seats next to her. One hand grips the railing firmly and she appears to be familiar with the rhythms of the bus, her feet steady and swaying with a fluidity I was not expecting.

The next stop is a narrow street lined with old trees with knotted trunks. The electronic signboard in the bus reads Kalfjeslaan. The bus stops for some time as the driver has to put out a ramp for an elderly lady in a wheelchair to disembark, so I take a moment to look at my surroundings.  On the right side of the bus stop there is an aged church building in red brick with a tall bell tower next to it. On the opposite side across the road, I see a brown bar, a corner liquor store and next to it, a coffee shop named the Border. There is a motley mix of people standing in the queue facing the bold green signage of the coffee shop.

Then the woman in a leso appears in my view walking to join the queue with the same calmness as when I first set my eyes on her. I find myself chuckling under my face mask because I would never have guessed that the woman in a leso, the old lady I desperately wanted to assist, was a disciple of cannabis.

I wish I had caught her eye, standing at ease in that queue to the coffee shop. I would have told her…I know you are a complete stranger but I know you. You are my aunty from the village, the defiant one. The one who rolls her own cigarettes, smokes laced tobacco, drinks the local gin and the men, do not walk on her wrong side. You have probably refused to accept Christ as your personal saviour and do not have a single bone of affectation in your body. You are from the league of badly behaved women who were shunned by society because they were not demure and avoided because they only speak the truth.

Every village has one. They may be disparaged as social misfits, openly loathed but secretly, they are admired because they are no longer afraid to be themselves in a society where people prefer to hide behind facades of good behaviour.

This piece was first published on oyungapala.com

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