Kondele and Kimwa Grand: A Tango of Destruction and Death

Kondele neighbourhood in Kisumu is famous and infamous. It is a place torn between its cultural richness and vibrancy, as well the lurking darkness of violence. You can almost feel it. “Kondele inachomeka” (Kondele is burning) are two words that have been communicated in texts and calls amongst the residents of Kisumu more than any other during election cycles. These words have ominous foreshadowing of blood loss, violence, death and destruction. And news of riots in Kondele with accompanying images of tyres burning and riot police chasing demonstrating youths, always delivered in a matter of fact way, has been one of Kisumu’s greatest infamies.

I have received quite a number of “Kondele inachomeka” messages on my phone. I have become accustomed to the weight of meaning in these messages. When I receive these messages, I know to prepare. I know it will take me longer to travel between Kisumu central business district and my house on the other side of town. I also know that people travelling between Kisumu and Kakamega will not make it home on time. I also know that “Kondele inachomeka” triggers panic in the hearts of my non-Luo colleagues. Their relatives will call worried about their safety. Especially those who come from communities with political leaders who are in opposition to Raila Odinga or involved in some political tussle with him. And sadly, a few moments after “Kondele inachomeka” text messages, “Urgent request for blood donation” texts with images of victims of violence, fresh like a scene of a massacre, would follow. This will be a confirmation of the expected – that demonstrations have descended into chaos, and Kenya Police have excelled at the sport they are best at, that is quelling demonstrations with brutal and deadly force. As expected, Kondele and its youth will bear the brunt of this political contest.

Kondele is also a place of ironies. One of the biggest ironies is that the regional blood bank is located within two hundred meters from the heart of Kondele. It is almost a perfect design. That one area of Kenya that has experienced most bloodshed during political contests between opposition and government sits within a few hundred of meters from a regional blood transfusion center. Makes a lot sense. People will lose a lot of blood; why not lose it within the vicinity of a transfusion center? On tragic days, such as during the post-election violence of 2007, the regional transfusion center would completely run out of blood. Most of it had been soaked up by the red dust of Kondele where young men lay in pain, bleeding in the hot afternoon sun from bullet wounds from Kenya Police. Some lucky ones made it to the hospital where they lay down, in pools of their own blood on floors of then Nyanza Provincial Referral Hospital. Kondele had quickly transformed into a war zone akin to Baghdad or Mogadishu with disturbing statistics. Some reports showed that during the 2007 post-election violence, as many as 40 people were getting shot dead in a day.

But before post-election violence, there was Kimwa Grand Club. As the name suggests, it was indeed grand. It was a one-stop shop for entertainment, food and accommodation at the heart of Kondele. Kimwa was loved when politics was good. And loathed when politics was bad. And politics being the thread that holds the fabrics of the Kenyan society together, would also sneak into Kimwa, into people’s drinking tables, into their drinks and soon into their conversations. Kimwa was a happy place most of the time. One only needed to visit it on a good night to appreciate the spirit of Kondele, of Kisumu.

Kimwa defined this spirit, absorbed it and embodied it. Apart from Kimwa Grand Club, there were really no landmarks commensurate to the behemoth name of Kondele. Club Dona across the road from Kimwa tried but couldn’t keep up. Hotel Cassanova down the road had long lost its glory. There was nothing really comparable, beyond the roads that split the Kondele into two. Sometimes it looked like the chaos present where the Kibos road met the Kisumu-Kakamega road defined life in Kisumu during elections. Everyone in a car, matatu, boda boda or on foot wanted to move forward, but there was nowhere to go as people got in each other’s way on the small, congested and neglected tarmac roads. Vehicles traveling towards Mamboleo, or Kibos or Kisumu CBD would negotiate for space through high-pitched horns and curses from their drivers. If you were sitting at the top of Kimwa’s balcony, one would watch the full display of this negotiation in daily life. When the night would fall, some of these men and women would end up at Kimwa, to close their day in dance and merriment of sorts. It is like Kimwa would lure them in the evening with their pockets full, and expel them the next morning with their pockets empty, to go look for more.

Kondele is notoriously cosmopolitan. The most famous shops in this place have historically been owned by people not native to the region. There is always a “Kwa Karanja” with the best nyama choma, or a “Kwa Njoroge” selling all types of goods. These places could be destroyed and razed to the ground in one week of political madness. The following week, when normalcy would return, they would be up, rebuilt with the same hands that destroyed them.“Kwa Karanja” is like the local phoenix that rises from the ashes to remind people that life must move on, in the peculiar Kenyan way.

Then there was Kimwa. To think that a random Kenyan, Miriti Mbui from Meru, could come to Kisumu and set up Kimwa Grand, a successful club worthy of hosting international superstars, is indeed a testament of the Kenyan dream. This was proof that one could make it anywhere. To also think that this same man would lose everything in 24 hours of madness; that the same people that danced to the stars at Kimwa, would set upon her and dismantle her block by block, before setting her on fire, is also a testament that the Kenyan dream rests on political quicksand. It could sink at any moment.

My fascination with Kondele began in the mid 1990s. I was traveling with my mother in a matatu towards Kisumu when a man as old as my mother, without any warning, vomited all over the floor of the matatu. My natural conclusion was that the man was sick and needed help. The matatu tout and driver held a contrary opinion. When this man was done vomiting, the conductor informed him in an ominous voice that he would drive to Kondele where the man would be taught a lesson. When he stopped in Kondele, the tout left and came back with a gang of young men who took great pride is slapping this man around. I remember him pleading for mercy, saying he had malaria. No one cared. Out of nowhere, a bucket full of water arrived. The bewildered man got on his knees and washed that spot of the matatu, picking pieces of vomit from the floor. He also paid 100 shillings for “wasting people’s time”. I did not understand why the tout and his driver felt that Kondele would the best place for this man to get a taste of street justice. But then again, there are places like Kondele all over Kenya. Places where the violent services of men can be outsourced cheaply, for a drink, and the men dispensing these crude forms of justice neither have remorse nor subject themselves to any law.

While I was at Kenyatta University, this place was Githurai 45. When university students would refuse to bow to the forces of extortion through arbitrary doubling of fares from Nairobi CBD to Kenyatta University, the matatus would take a detour into Githurai 45, and drive to some shady, nondescript place. The vehicle would stop, the driver would switch off the car and the tout would approach a band of young men. After a few exchanges, the tout would walk back with the young men in tow. One could tell that these men were adept in the act of exerting fear into the hearts of men and women. And just like bloodhounds, their sense of smell for fear was so sharp that when they walked to the matatu, they knew that the job was already completed. Everyone would rush to pay the exorbitant fares.

After this extortion ritual had been finalised, the touts would taunt us, “Mbona hamukulipa mapema”, (Why didn’t you pay before) as if blaming us for not allowing ourselves to be extorted promptly. How could we not know that there was a parallel world out there that had grown and thrived in the rich medium of corruption? Thriving as a result of the government’s penchant for disappearing without official leave of absence? This is the world that had created the angry youth gangs of Kondele, the Mungiki, Chinkororo, among others. They knew that with the absence of government involvement in social welfare, political players would use these gangs to leverage their anger and disenfranchisement for political gain, as a cheap source violence against their opposition. Or destroy them when it felt threatened.

I first visited Kimwa in the year 2000, while waiting to join campus as I worked at the law firm of my late cousin, Grace Awino. The corridors of justice were littered with stories of past night parties at Kimwa. I was very curious and wanted to visit this club and feel its spirit, which as I had been told, was reflective of the spirit of Kisumu. It was rich, dark, powerful and very expressive, just like Kondele, I was told. During my visit, we mostly spent time at the basement, which was a full-blown discotheque. The first floor was an open-air club where older people enjoyed live benga and rhumba from famous bands. The entrance was manned by muscled men acting as bouncers. These were young men who spent long days in backyard gyms building muscles for lack of anything else to do. Employment in Kisumu was hard to come by. Most of industries had withered slowly before shutting down. The remnants of Kenya Breweries depot and Kisumu Cotton Mills (Kicomi) stood in shame as reminders of what a mixture of mismanagement, corruption and being on the cold side of Kenyan politics could accomplish. Men and women who had lost their jobs in these places would wake up when the sun was over Lake Victoria, wear their threadbare shirts and shoes with paper thin soles, and head to jua kali, a stone throw from these once vibrant industries. They would engage in political and philosophical talk before splitting whatever little they had made through menial work or small deals. At sunset, they would take a final look at Kicomi and the Breweries, before walking slowly towards their residences in the shanties on the fringes of Kisumu’s CBD. Kimwa kept some of these young men out of trouble. It provided a place where young men and women from slums surrounding Kondele could earn a living as cleaners, waitresses or bouncers.

Kimwa was also a cultural hub where Luo benga music was curated. Musicians such as Okach Biggy, Musa Juma and D.O. Misiani were common names on the roster of musicians playing at Kimwa. They were not only assured of a good crowd but of good earnings. During the day, one could see these musicians basking in the sun at Kondele like brightly colored iguanas, seeking the strength of sun before turning into entertainment powerhouses at night. At the height of Kimwa’s glory, Awilo Longomba, the 1997 Kora Awards winner in the “Best New Artist” category for his chart-buster, Dibala bala, visited Kisumu. No international artist of this repute since Franco in 1988 had visited Kisumu since. This was partly because despite Kisumu being a town where the local people were lovers of a good life, no investor had put up facilities that were capable of playing host to an artist of Awilo’s stature. So when Miriti Mbui, an ambitious entrepreneur would come and build an audacious club and hotel at the heart of Kondele, Kimwa and Kondele became a match made in heaven.

Awilo Longomba performed to a delirious crowd. He was wild. They were wilder. They asked for more and he gave them more. My late cousin, Grace, was in that crowd. She would later tell me of how ecstatic Kisumu was. How Kimwa had put the city on the map and that there were plans for bigger artists. Seven years later, Kimwa would be caught up in a violent political struggle between Raila and Mwai Kibaki. The youth in Kondele, and across Kisumu, felt that Kibaki’s government had carried out unforgivable injustices with the disputed presidential elections of 2007. They decided to rebel violently and attack everything that had any semblance to imagined or real enemies. Kimwa would be one of the casualties.

It was evident that the fate of Kondele and Kimwa were tied together like that of a mother to her child. Kondele gave birth to Kimwa, nurtured and made her whole, big and powerful. Kimwa opened Kondele to the world, made it more cosmopolitan and a true representation of Kenya. The day Kondele started burning, we were locked in the house, following the violence through news bulletins and text messages. The air outside was thick with burning tyres and screams punctuated with burst of gunfire from Kalashnikovs. We heard a knock at the door and saw a man standing there with his eyes wide with news. “Niko na TV kubwa, 60 inches yenye nauza aluf tano” (I have a big TV, 60 inches, I’m selling it for five thousand shillings). He said this hurriedly while glancing from side to side. We were talking to him through the window as the city was under curfew. When he sensed our hesitation, he took off and disappeared in the mixture of the afternoon sun and death. The smoke from Kimwa quickly engulfed the whole of Kondele. All its memories wafted slowly away to the sky, as looters carried whatever they could.

Thinking about it now, the anger against Kimwa must have been personal. In those preceding few weeks, thousands of youths had been killed in Kondele, yet Kimwa Grand stood there in its majesty, as if daring the angry youth to challenge it. Kibaki’s government was a dominating violent presence, yet Kimwa stood there, looking at these people who gave it life, offering no help. This indifference was too much to take. Kimwa must have also been symbolic of economic dominance and marginalisation of the Luo community stemming from the political fallout between Jomo Kenyatta and Oginga Odinga in the late 1960s. How can they be killing us, yet they want our money? They must have asked this as the body count in Kondele kept climbing. The violence and determination with which Kimwa was destroyed reflected how deep and painful political losses are. That people were willing to risk their lives to destroy such a magnificent property shows how Kenyan politics precipitates dark, deep-seated political grievances. When the spirit of Kimwa had been broken down by fire and stone, hundreds of youth could be seen with chisels and hammers, breaking through mortars, pulling out twisted metal like vultures scavenging on the meat from a dead buffalo. At the end of the post-election violence season, only memories were left where Kimwa once stood.




Am I Going Mad: A Reflection on Mental Health in Kenya

Monday, 17th December 2018 was a normal day that stubbornly refused to conform to my expectations. An impulsive decision made at 3:30 PM in a 46 Matatu heading to the Nairobi city centre dramatically altered the direction of my life.

I was on my way from Inuka Kenya offices, when a gut feeling nudged me towards the Doctor’s plaza at Nairobi Hospital. I wanted to see a psychiatrist who could recommend some sleeping pills.

When I arrived at the Nairobi Hospital, the two psychiatric consultants had both closed their offices for the Christmas holidays. Feeling unsettled, I decide to seek help at the adjacent Upper Hill Medical Centre where I quickly scanned the directory board on the first floor desperately trying to locate a psychiatrist before closing time.

Too impatient to wait for the lift, I bolted up the staircase, arrived at the reception on the third floor, and to my relief, I found other patients waiting in turn.

I walked up to the receptionist who would not accept my Jubilee Medical Insurance card: “Your insurer hasn’t installed glade which should be used to raise a claim for your card. Sorry we can’t serve you,” she said bluntly while handing it over.

I was adamant and decided to press on. “Is there any other way? Can you call the insurance company so that I can be treated and you deal with the claims later?” My persistence paid off. A few minutes later, as if fate was moving mountains, I was on the phone with my insurer who found a way to resolve the challenge.

I had seen celebrated psychiatrist Dr Frank Njenga on TV. His analysis fascinated me. Only this day, I was not arriving in my capacity as a journalist to get expert opinion on a story. I was a patient.

My sleep patterns had gradually deteriorated to their worst state as far as I could recall. It had been weeks of violent nightmares. Bad people with crude weapons wanting to kill me and rogue Ikolomani Bulls chasing me through the night.

I could not outrun death and when I tried to scream for help, I found my voice frozen. I felt helpless and trapped in the nightmares. I would wake up in panic, breathless and sweaty. I wanted to see a psychiatrist who could recommend some sleeping pills just like one had done in 2014 when I had a similar experience.

Frank Njenga was wearing a clean white shirt with a blue-stripped tie. His smile and calm demeanor disarmed me on the spot. “Tell me more about yourself,” he asked after exchanging a few pleasantries.

I went on and on about my family’s history, and myself while his head was glued on my file taking notes. Sometimes he would lift his head when I said something that sounded like a trigger. “Tell me more about incident, what happened?” he would ask when I explained some of the darkest seasons I had gone through recently.

He gave me a piece of paper, which had about 30 questions and told me to tick statements that closely represented how I had lived my life. While he had hoped that I would only tick about 10 when he looked at the paper, I had ticked 25 out of 30 and that’s how he partly discovered what had been eating me. To ascertain his preliminary findings, he sent me for a cognitive test to corroborate what he was suspecting.

What I thought was just a simple sleep issue turned out to a symptom of something deeper.

“I’m glad you came here, we are going to help you,” he reassured me as we chatted for about an hour, the longest I have been in a doctor’s office.

“Odongo, we may need to take you to a place so that we can monitor your sleep and find out if there are other underlying issues,” he advised as there was sufficient evidence that I needed to be monitored.

I knew the weight of inadequate sleep and was desperate for a solution. I accepted his suggestion.

“Mental health is like an onion, we peel it from the outer layer as we dig in. That’s the only way we can find out the core of the problem,” he added.

When we arrived at the gate of Chiromo Lane Medical Centre in Lavington, I saw a disturbing sign: Visiting hours is between 9-11 am and 3-6 PM. My panic buttons went off. I was not suicidal and I did not have the urge to harm other people. I just had migraines, nightmares and an anxious mind. Why was I being admitted into a restrictive hospital?

Begrudgingly, I agreed to check in for a night. The bungalow house that sat on a lush green serene environment complimented by the friendly staff all disarmed me.

In hindsight, this was one of the best decisions, I made in my life. For the next six days, I would go through an overwhelming journey of self discovery that I was hardly prepared for.

At the end of the first day, I was diagnosed with clinical depression, mild Attention Deficiency Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and trauma. Though I was predisposed to some of the disorders, a toxic work environment for five years, an emotionally abusive relationship and front row coverage of the 2017 traumatic elections as a reporter played a key role in triggering the sleeping demons that landed me in a hospital.

After I was done with a two-hour therapy session, I slowly dragged my exhausted body back to my admission room. As I sat on my bed while listening to music, a wave of emotions descended and I broke down and wept. I slowly moved from the bed and sat on the floor with my back against the wall and legs straightened. For the next three hours, I wept until I felt weak.

Kenya Mental Health Policy (2015-2030) indicates that mental disorder cases have risen exponentially in Kenya. Estimates point that 20-25 percent of outpatients seeking primary healthcare present symptoms of mental illness at any one time. There are no sufficient qualified medical personnel and facilities to take care of this lot of patients.

A 2015 performance audit report from the Office of the Auditor General (OAG) on the state of mental health paints a grim picture. As at 2015, there were only 92 psychiatrists in the country instead of the 1,533 required. 327 psychiatrist nurses instead of 7,666. The report stated that “While it’s expected that a psychiatrist should serve 30,000 citizens, currently a psychiatrist is serving about half a million citizens”.

I still count myself privileged to have gotten medical attention. The ability to afford private insurance cover, know where to go when symptoms arise and get treated by Dr. Njenga is privilege.

Millions of Kenyans who struggle to meet basic needs are exposed to mental disorder triggers stemming from their environment and cannot afford this privilege. For the poor masses in Kenya, quality primary health care is a mirage. Add the lack of specialized mental healthcare and you condemn a whole section of the population to destitution.

Mathari Hospital, which is an affordable public facility and the only hospital in the country offering specialized psychiatric services and training is in a sorry state according to the OAG. For the three financial years, 2013/14, 2014/15 and 2015/16 Mathari hospital was provided only about 30% of the funds allocated under the recurrent expenditure and nothing under the development expenditure.

As government policy, all mentally ill law offenders who require in-patient services can only be admitted in Mathari Hospital under the Maximum Security Unit regardless of severity of their condition. They make up 35 percent of the inpatients in the hospital yet there is no cost sharing to take care of them thereby straining the already limited resources.

Low funding means that apart from inadequate equipments, the wards are also insufficient with the hospital being reported to have an average bed occupancy rate of 115 percent. The low stock of critical drugs, inadequate skilled and qualified personnel to handle the patients are some of the issues plaguing Mathari as raised by the OAG report.

On the receiving end are the patients who are dependent on the hospital receive poor services including delayed diagnosis that can make the condition worse. While National referral hospitals should provide specialized healthcare services and should operate with a defined level of autonomy including a Board and a Chief Executive Officer, Mathari hospital is the only psychiatric hospital of its caliber in Kenya that operates under a department in the Ministry of Health.

The national statistics do not offer any reprieve either. County managed hospitals where the bulk of the nation relies on for mental health care is stuff of horror.

In the 47 counties, only 25 have psychiatric units. Even in the 25 counties where the services are available, they are pledged with the challenge of outdated equipment, inadequate stocks for essential drugs and insufficient personnel to treat mentally ill patients.

According to the OAG, besides Mathari national referral hospital, mental healthcare services are only available at 29 of the 284 hospitals in Level 4 and above of the referral chain. “This represents just 10% of the total facilities in Level 4 and above and 0.7% of the 3,956 government-owned health facilities,” notes the report.

A month before I walked into the hospital, I hardly thought that my relationship challenges could compound my psychological well-being. The revelations from a text message that came from my ex took me to the brink. That night, the thought of going to bed haunted me. I stayed on my couch writing until 4 am. I tried to pray but I could not. My heart was heavy.

My head was never the same after that night. It started to sound like the world’s busiest construction site. Constant hammering, grinders cutting through metal, welding machines and all sorts of construction chaos formed an unholy symphony in my head.

During the day, migraines became the norm and at night, insomnia took over. When I closed my eyes, I was battling anxiety unable to focus my attention on anything. I experienced anger, bitterness and a heavy dark cloud hovered above. I had never felt like this before.

While the public debate on mental health is welcome, as a person recovering from a mental disorder, there is need to push a wholesome discussion on the reality of the state of mental health in Kenya beyond depression.

We need to broaden the discussion to talk about different conditions and their symptoms, different medication and management of disorders. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there are over 10 mental health disorders affecting human beings including borderline personality disorder, anxiety and panic attacks, bipolar disorder attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) among others. Depression is just one of them.

We also need to talk about inadequate mental health facilities and the few stretched mental health professionals. By solely pushing the message of depression, we downplay the reality of mental health challenges in Kenya and the manifest consequences.

Stigma and lack of accurate information continues to cost the global economy about $1 trillion every year in productivity due to depression and anxiety. WHO data, reveals that mental illness accounts for 30 percent of non-fatal disease burden worldwide and 10 percent of overall disease burden, including death and disability.

In 2016, the grim reality necessitated the World Bank Group (WBG), the World Health Organization (WHO) and other partners to kick start a call to action to governments, international partners, health professionals among others to find solutions to what is fast becoming a global mental health problem.

Leaving the hospital on 24th December, I was informed that Jubilee Insurance Company had rejected my claim for two reasons: The condition I was diagnosed with is not covered in my policy I was holding (Never mind that ADHD predisposes one to other mental illnesses like depression which they claim to cover).

For trauma and depression, which is covered under the policy, they said I needed a one-year waiting period (I took the cover in September 2018 after leaving formal employment) despite the fact that I was a previous policyholder with the same company for three years and my claim history was generally low and it didn’t have any mental illness.

I was furious because while signing the form, nobody informed me that I was entitled to a waiver. While I took time (2 weeks) to read the policy document, I didn’t notice that ADHD (I knew this condition when I was diagnosed in December) was not covered. The agent who signed me on was either too concerned with the commission or the corporate culture of the organization encourages ambiguity for profit gain.

My review of the mental health policy and the relevant laws including the Mental Health Act of 1978 and the Mental Health (Amendment) Act 2018, showed that the same clause they used to decline my claim is potentially discriminatory. The policy states in part “Ensuring that the health insurance system does not discriminate against persons with Mental, Neurological and Substance use (MNS) disorders in accessing insurance policies,”

Though not yet enacted, clause 3D(3) of the Mental health amendment bill of 2018 amplifies the 1978 Act more expressly: “A person with mental illness shall have the right of access to medical Insurance for the treatment from public or private health insurance providers. An insurance company or person providing health insurance services shall not discriminate against a person with mental illness or subject a person with mental illness to unfair treatment in obtaining the necessary insurance cover.”

As a good citizen, I appealed their decision using internal mechanism but I still hit a dead wall. I am now preparing to take the dispute before the Insurance Regulatory Authority (IRA) with a view to not only settle my bills but also to amend the discriminatory clause for personal policy holders.

Kenya grapples with a low insurance penetration rate at 2.68 percent. The 2017’s Insurance Industry Annual Report 2017 by IRA flags mistrust among the reasons listed for the cause of low rate of insurance penetration in Kenya.

As I began to investigate the nature of insurance claims for mental health cases, I have encountered numerous patients who have suffered mental health challenges and the stories are similar: A clever refusal to pay claims using technicality.

In developing countries like Kenya, the mental health landscape is often plagued with insufficient data to show the economic impact of mental illnesses. However, the effects are wide-ranging and long-lasting including the impact on the families’ and care-givers’ resources; the expenses related to crimes caused by the mental disorders; the productivity losses due to debility, morbidity and premature death; and the psychological pain borne by the patients and their family members.

There is also a correlation between the state of mental health and rise of the Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV). Evidence shows that mental health has a crucial role in the primary prevention of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) even though most standard practice has focused on the role of mental health post-violence, and primary prevention relying on public health models that do not explicitly include mental health.

For example, research shows that empathy, self-esteem, compassion, emotional regulation and resilience, stress management, relationship building, and challenging problematic social norms are crucial for primary prevention of SGBV.

A 2016 report by the National Gender and Equality Commission estimated that the cost of GBV stood at KES 46 billion, which translated to about 1.1 percent of Kenya’s GDP due to medical related expenses, litigation costs, productivity losses among others.

More needs to be done to create awareness about mental health and its economic cost. Also, there is need for an immediate taskforce to collect data about mental health in Kenya to advise policy decisions.

In the words of Owen Arthur, former Prime Minister of Barbados: “For he who has health has hope; and he who has hope, has everything.”




Brazen II: Coming Home a Feminist

I first encountered feminism as a graduate student in the US, and I didn’t take to it. The women who were feminists around me seemed irrational, angry and easily triggered. I still remember my first feminist moment. A male student walked up to me and a fellow female student and with a smile on his face complimented us on how good we looked. I did look good and I was in the middle of thanking him for the compliment when I became aware of my friends’ angry retort that went something like this, “…Focus on our minds and not on our bodies.” I don’t know who was more mortified, me or the young man. As he slinked off in confusion I was left with many questions. How was he supposed to see the state of our minds? Why had we put in so much effort to look good if we apparently did not want to be complimented?

My initial aversion to feminism was reinforced by some of my professors, especially the older men, who counseled me to keep away from feminists to avoid becoming angry and bitter, which according to them was the inevitable lot of a feminist. My fellow African students especially, not only the men, asserted that feminism was simply un-African. For a while there I agreed with all of them. But approximately six months into my graduate studies, I discovered politics and not just any politics, but one that had me leaning more and more to the left. By the end of my graduate studies, I was fully-fledged and radicalised, identifying as a Marxist – Feminist.

What happened to cause my radicalisation? We love nice neat stories in which there is “the moment” that changes everything. But this is never the case and my radicalisation has its roots in what I will call milestone moments that left me questioning life and its meaning, long before I came to America. One of the earliest milestone moments happened in Kenya as I watched Prof. Wangari Maathai fight to prevent her divorce.

Wangari and her husband, Mwangi Mathai, separated in 1977. After a two year separation, Mwangi filed for divorce in 1979. Mwangi was said to have believed Wangari was “too strong-minded for a woman” and that he was “unable to control her”. In addition to naming her as “cruel” in court filings, he publicly accused her of adultery with another Member of Parliament, which in turn was thought to cause his high blood pressure and the judge ruled in Mwangi’s favor. Shortly after the trial, in an interview with Viva magazine, Wangari referred to the judge as either incompetent or corrupt. The interview later led the judge to charge Wangari with contempt of court. She was found guilty and sentenced to six months in jail. After three days in Lang’ata Women’s Prison in Nairobi, her lawyer was able to get her released. Shortly after the divorce, her former husband sent a letter via his lawyer demanding that Wangari drop his surname. She chose to add an extra “a” instead of changing her name, and that’s why we know her as Wangari Maathai.

I watched as her reputation was torn apart by her husband, and all around me grown men and women gossiped, castigated and scandalised Wangari with a vicious glee, which shocked me. I had attended an all girls’ school (Loreto Convent Valley Road) and grown up in a home that rewarded achievement. But it turned out that this background had insulated me and given me an entirely false picture of my country. In the Wangari Maathai moment, I discovered my country’s hard core patriarchy and misogynistic nature and it gave me pause. I realised I was a woman and saw what I was up against, me with my many ambitions.

The next milestone moment took place at the University of Nairobi and reinforced the lessons learnt in the Wangari Maathai moment. It was my first week at university and through a series of accidents I ended up taking Botany and Zoology instead of the sociology that I had signed up for. One day as I walked to class I was joined by a male student who looked innocent enough until I told him what I was studying.

“Oh it must be very hard for you to study science, being a female.” He looked at me with a woiye look of concern on his face. I was shocked and ripped into him for his nonsensical ideas. What was he studying? The very Sociology I should have been studying if I didn’t have “A” levels in both the arts and sciences.

Soon after becoming a feminist, I started to look for fellow African feminists and African feminist writing. I was looking for myself and my world. Although women all over the world have much in common, the detail in our disparate worlds makes each community of women unique. And there is nothing more nurturing than finding yourself described, analysed and understood by your own.

My experienced playing hockey in Kenya and in the US will illustrate. When I went to graduate school in America I gleefully joined the women’s hockey team. But I found the American idea of women’s hockey did not match mine. In Kenya there is no distinction between women and men’s hockey, we play full out with equal skill, strength and speed. Hockey is a dangerous game and that is one of the reasons I loved it so much. And to improve my game, I had often played on men’s teams. In the US women played hockey as if they were delicate greenhouse flowers, they pushed the ball, ran gently and played slowly. The coach reprimanded me on several occasions when I brought my thundering Kenyan style to the pitch. It clearly terrified the American girls. I soon quit because I could not confine myself to the narrow version of the game played by American women.

My search for African versions of feminism finally bore fruit when to my delight I discovered Dr. Achola Pala Okeyo one of the leading Kenyan women who obtained a PHD from Harvard University in the 1970s. Her research on Kenyan women filled me with joy and helped me navigate the terrain of feminism on my own terms.

Research on African women revealed that one of the most important contributions that African women have made to feminism has much in common with the way in which hockey is played in Kenya. African women were acknowledged to have physical strength which was seen as a positive attribute. It was in Africa that women were farmers, a situation which had flummoxed the colonials coming from western European countries, Britain, France, Portugal, Spain, where it was men who were the farmers. On the hockey pitch in Kenya I played full out knowing that I had the strength to play. However, I found the idea of a delicate American woman permeating most aspects of their culture, with the consequence of preventing American women from exploring and expanding the limits of their physical abilities. Ironically it was Africa’s idea of a woman which helped the feminist movement understand that gender was a social construct and was not a biological determinant.

You always remember your first feminist conference; mine was entitled, “Common Differences: Third World Women and Feminist Perspective”. It was held in April 1983 at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. In addition to being my first feminist conference, this conference was also one of the first occasions for women of colour and white women in the USA and women from third world countries to come together around their common differences. The conference had 150 presenters and an audience of 2,000 people and was organised around three themes namely; Colonization and Resistance, Images and Reality and International Women’s Movements. I remember a few things about the conference. First I remember listening in awe to Nawal El Sadaawi, Egyptian feminist writer, activist, physician, and psychiatrist. In the session I attended she was telling the western feminists that they too had been circumcised psychologically and not to look at African women as the only ones whose sexuality had been compromised through Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).

My most enduring memory was being on the receiving end of the feminist hierarchy which apparently made me invisible and my opinions inconsequential in a conference about third world women – precisely because I was the real deal, a third world woman. This is how it happened. I was in a session. I contributed. I was ignored. I shrunk into confused despondency. Fortunately for me there was another woman of colour, she was Chinese American and knew her people well. After three white women spoke ignoring my rather scintillating contribution, she staged a disruption. She stood up, banged a table and brought the proceedings to a halt. But first she asked me to stand up. Then she turned the room’s attention on me. Her exact words are lost to memory. But they were something like this. “Look at her, all of you stop and take a look at her, did any of you hear what she said? This young woman who is a real Third Worlder has just made an excellent contribution and all of you ignored her as if she was invisible. Now to see if any of you bothered to listen to her I want you to repeat what she said.” The Chinese American woman proceeded to point at people randomly making them repeat what I had said. I was surprised, most of them were able to repeat my words even if they had ignored me. That disruption realigned not just that session but the whole conference, with western feminists realising that they had to listen and engage with feminist women of colour and third world feminist women. And that we were experts in our own worlds and not the Africanist feminists. What I learned from that encounter is that I was not safe even in feminist spaces.

Resistance and rebellion often comes with severe consequences. Even celebrated women like Prof. Wangari Maathai did not escape the consequences of her achievements. And sometimes women pay with their lives. The late Ivy Wangechi, a young doctor on the cusp of her new life, paid with her life in April 2019. She was murdered by Naftali Njahi Kinuthia who traveled from Thika to Eldoret where she was in the final weeks of studying for her medical degree and hacked Ivy to death, with an axe and knife he had bought for the job. Ivy’s father and mother had to endure the ridiculous and unfounded reasons given by Kinuthia for murdering Ivy, which were given credence and prominence in media reports. I am a feminist because of the way in which society treated the murdered young woman by shaming her in death and giving credibility to the nonsense stories told by a clearly deranged killer. It is clear that even a mad man has higher and more credible status than a woman who had almost completed 6 years of training which would lead her to become a doctor, a saver of lives.

But let me end with a quote from a man I so admire, Thomas Sankara.

“Posing the question of women in Burkinabè society today means posing the abolition of the system of slavery to which they have been subjected for millennia. The first step is to try to understand how this system works, to grasp its real nature in all its subtlety, in order then to work out a line of action that can lead to women’s total emancipation. In other words, in order to win this battle that men and women have in common, we must be familiar with all aspects of the woman question on a world scale and here in Burkina. We must understand how the struggle of the Burkinabè woman is part of a worldwide struggle of all women and, beyond that, part of the struggle for the full rehabilitation of our continent. Thus, women’s emancipation is at the heart of the question of humanity itself, here and everywhere. The question is thus universal in character.”

And in case that Sankara quote is not enough, here is one that brings us all closer home.

“Women’s fate is bound up with that of an exploited male. However, this solidarity must not blind us in looking at the specific situation faced by womenfolk in our society. It is true that the woman worker and simple man are exploited economically, but the worker wife is also condemned further to silence by her worker husband. This is the same method used by men to dominate other men! The idea was crafted that certain men, by virtue of their family origin and birth, or by ‘divine rights’, were superior to others.”

Many years later I am still a feminist and I understand the animosity and insults leveled at feminists. Women’s oppression is the original human sin and has been normalised by most societies. For many centuries, in true Stockholm syndrome fashion, women have complied, playing their crucial role in keeping themselves and other women in “their place”. But even for women, change had to come. Now more and more women are refusing to stay in the place assigned to them, the shamba, the margins of society, the kitchen or whatever place their societies deemed fit them.




Brazen II: I Am Not Your Cow

Women have for a long time existed within communities that spell out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that they are not worthy of being heard. They are, more often than not, condemned to silence through the intersectionality of oppressive societal divisions. The following captures the account of a profound conversation with Rahma Wako, a woman who is by far the single most hopeful person I have ever met; it is the perspective of resistance from a woman living in Kiamaiko, Mathare, an informal settlement in Nairobi’s Eastlands – her beliefs, her feelings, her struggles and triumphs in her fight for dignity.

“My younger years were filled with joy and plenty of positive energy. When my parents moved to Mathare, I was six years old and had the whole world before me. At the time, Kiamaiko was an area largely occupied by the Borana and Burji communities and as fate would have it, I became among thousands of other young Muslim girls who were deliberately being denied access to school. In fact, it wasn’t until a Christian missionary by the name Father Glory came to Kiamaiko and took us in, that most of us were able to access not only basic education but also some food, clothes and shoes.

For once in my life, I began to have dreams for my future. I wanted to be a lawyer. That probably stemmed from the fact that I had an insatiable urge to stand up for my friends wherever I felt there was an injustice. However, my dad was of the opinion that books have no tangible benefit for the girl child, but instead, they encouraged hardheadedness and lack of respect for her male counterparts. My father was a staunch traditionally conservative man who would later force me out of school using the flimsy excuse of my personal security, claiming that I would be consumed by Father Glory’s beliefs and become like those spoilt educated Christian girls he severely detested.

I was hardly thirteen when I was hurriedly married off to a 50-year-old man. I do not remember feeling more betrayed in my life. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by being betrayed: that whole week our home had been busy. Family members came from far and wide, so our home was abuzz with activity. All this while, my cousins, siblings and I were all in the dark on what the ceremony was about. After all, it was no place for kids to poke their noses into older people’s business. That we were gearing up for a large and beautiful ceremony was all we cared about. On the day, my parents brought me new clothes and sat me down for a quick pep talk. I did not understand what was going on. My father, his brothers and a few uncles from the larger extended family held two fingers to my face, as if making a peace sign. They asked me to choose one of either, for they represented a blessing and a curse. I picked the two finger sign. This is how the naive little me sealed her fate! I had unwittingly become the bride of a man whose children I played together with. A man who had been in three marriages already. Since we were in the city, they were not going to bring cows and goats but rather they paid a lot of money to my father as dowry for my hand in marriage. I was being sold out and it was not in my place to say no. Customarily, they say that when ‘cows’ go to a family, they should not be returned back to sender. That would be an abomination.

Now I had to say goodbye to my newly found passion for school as well as my dream of becoming a lawyer. My whole world was caving in. I am not sure how capable I was then of falling in love or knowing what love feels like, but I can still remember literally feeling my dreams being brutally snatched out from my clenched fists. Worse still, I knew there was no one to rescue me. Father Glory’s Messiah, about whom he always told us great stories, was too far away from me. People in our family said that when a girl attains twelve years, she is grown enough and should (whether or not a man has shown up to court her) be married off before she grows older. Apparently, the older she got, the easier it would be for the world to corrupt her morals. I was to accept my fate and immediately embark on my new role as a wife. Not even my mother could protest or say no.

A woman is to be seen, not heard. She is the neck, and a man, well, a man is the head!

When I got pregnant, I gave birth to twins but my mother-in-law took them away from me. They said I was way too young to raise children. Again, I struggled to completely fathom what all this meant. My husband beat me every day. He had developed a habit of physically assaulting me and demanding babies. That, I gave to him religiously. Still, I never got to be with my children. After every delivery, my mother-in-law would come and pick the babies, and the cycle would repeat itself with my husband returning to continue with the demands. And the beating persisted even after I bore hin three sets of twins. However, after they took away my second set of twins, I could not take it anymore.

It was never going to sit well with my soul. Even I had limits. My back had been pushed against the wall so I decided to finally speak up for myself. I became an outcast among my own kin for deciding to take my abusive husband to the Makadara law courts, demanding custody of my children. Father Glory’s Messiah must have arrived during this period. He had been very late but at least I won the case and reunited with my kids. Nothing else mattered. I demanded to be divorced immediately. After that demand, I ended up on my own, with all sorts of unprintable names being hurled at me. No one wanted to be associated with Rahma.

My father and mother disowned me, and my sisters would not stand the sight of my face. I had betrayed the ways of my people. How despicable? I was only capable of bringing misfortune. Should I go and die, no one was going to bury me! That was how I began to sell the illicit chang’aa brew, something that was completely unheard of, given my religious background. But I was ready to do whatever it took to feed my children.

Everyone made sure to remind me that I would not manage to raise my babies without a man in the picture and I was determined to prove them wrong. All of them. Yes, I got to that point and for once in my life I had become the lawyer I always desired to be as a little girl, standing up for myself against the whole world, thus feeling more alive than I had ever been before.

Very often, it crosses my mind what life would have been like had I chosen the path to be a meek, obedient subdued wife who is unconditionally in love with a monster, who unconditionally submits to the contradictions without question of one’s birth tradition and religion. No, forget that. The one thing most people never saw beyond my husband’s imposing sense of masculinity was how readily he would abuse his physical power with any chance he got, how ruthlessly he would beat me, and how deep he would scar me both within and without.

I still bear gruesome scars of old knife wounds all over my arms, head and thighs owing up to the daily assault that either came with the insecurity of losing me to younger boys or as a stern warning that I should keep away from them. Every time I would run away and make him have to come looking for me, I could tell how it was going to end. I knew that script all too well. The trauma was overwhelming.

I felt that the time had come to be bold and to declare from the rooftops what I had been hiding deep in the recesses of my brain. There were more vulnerable girls and women in Kiamaiko vulnerable destined to go down the same path I had been subjected to. Having been through the Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), I was dismayed at how many girls in my community were still put through it. I also knew so many women, like me, who were grappling with domestic violence. The problem was bigger than me. It was a social crisis affecting women of my community. I was done with dwelling in my own sense of self-pity and felt the urgent need to speak out about many difficult but important issues that perhaps people needed to hear, but I was not certain I would do it well. I needed to stay attached to my people, and addressing too many ‘controversial’ topics made that difficult, if not impossible.

I was doing this with the hope of helping many and of angering as few as possible. My great fear was that in so doing I would end up only helping a few and turning the majority to anger. But even if the latter was going to be the case, I honestly felt that the conversations were worth having. The angry would eventually get over their anger and, in the end, would think less only of me. And I strongly believed that their displeasure with my person or opinions was a small price to pay if I helped even a few and liberated them from the suffering they were enduring.

This how I began my journey of visiting local schools mentoring young girls and teaching them alternative values. I taught them that it is not okay even when tradition or religion says it is, to be married at a young age, to someone you do not love or who does not respect you, or to be forcibly married to a man old enough to be your father. I taught them the true value of their choice and that they should always demand for their voices to be heard. I spoke to about the challenges of FGM. Here in Kiamaiko, we once lost a girl to it. She was poorly operated on by this old lady who could not see very well but had somehow been the one mandated to perform the cut. My people again blamed the poor girl’s death on fate. They said that it was for God to decide; that her day had come and nothing could have been done to dodge it. Can you imagine this?

Later, I would start a local women’s parliament, Bunge La Wamama Mashinani, ( The Parliament of Grassroots Women) with four friends, which sought to identify the excesses of patriarchal power as a fundamental source of injustice and inequality, and sought to challenge socially sanctioned gender power relations in all domains through organising women in the community and generating conversations around these issues. To my surprise, so many women joined the movement. We rose to something slightly above 300 women from across the 9 villages of Kiamaiko aiming to challenge the system of sexist oppression, that is deeply entrenched in many societies and into which we had all been born.

The power that the attracted this mass of women to the movement was their lived experience. Each one had born witness to the oppression inflicted on our girls but no one felt like they had a space, safe enough to speak their hearts out. Bunge La Wamama Mashinani became the sanctuary that allowed us to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women in Kiamaiko, including those related to sex, class, ethnicity, ability and other forms of social exclusion. We were often met with violence, stigmatisation and condemnation but then again, that was not going to distract us from our quest for transforming an oppressive power structure.

Now more women were having genuine and frank conversations around abuse and cases of FGM slowly began to reduce. My community, having pushed me away for what they regarded as sheer heresy, would later accept me back upon my recognition within the Human Rights activism community and my growing influence as community justice advocate. I had fought hard for values I believed in and had helped bring important discussions back home. All this effort had made me a stronger Rahma. Now I am part of a male-dominated elders’ council in my village as the first woman ever, and I am still not able to tell how on earth that even happened.

The presence of a poor woman in a committee of men has been a mystery to date but it is a clear manifestation of humanity’s potential to change. How it all happened? I still wonder.

Until now, the father of my children has never gone to the Kadhi courts to cancel marriage documents and finally make peace with our divorce. He arrogantly claims that I am still his wife. His clan, the Dhigalu, still holds my clan, the Warjidha, accountable and indebted of the dowry paid for my early marriage. They insist on calling me their ‘cow’, and I don’t know what to make of that. I surely don’t.”

Rahma Wako, is a fierce human rights defender passionately involved in the rights of women and children since 1986. Mama Rahma is a member of Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC), based in Mathare, Nairobi where she continues her fight for social justice rights against all forms of oppression.




Millennials II: Violence, Silence and Reflections of a Kenyan Childhood

I come from a family of five siblings. I have four sisters and I am the only boy. My family is a closely-knit one. From the outside, it was perfect and ideal kind associated with happiness and love.

But behind closed doors, it was a different story. Even as we indeed did have love for each other, my childhood was marked by intense violence and emotional neglect; the kind of upbringing that would end up denying me the ability to stand up and speak for myself when I needed to. And the kind of upbringing that would set me off on the journey of my search for identity later in my adult life.

For most people, the closeness that we enjoyed as a family ought to have translated to a more fulfilling childhood, and in effect, an upright, confident young adult. But nothing could be further from the truth.

If it was not the corporal punishment and constant criticism that came from my father, whose approval I had lived fighting for, then it was the isolation and emotional distance. My father was frequently away from home, either at work, or busy doing one of two gigs to eke out a living for his family. I never enjoyed much time with him.

In my family, nobody’s opinion mattered other than that of my father, who was always right, irrespective of the actions he took to “correct” my sisters and I, and even my mother.

I cannot remember the number of times that we became a victim of his mood swings and violent nature, most of which led to physical fights either with my mother, or a beating for me or one of my sisters.

Most of these fights were about my mother’s love for church meetings, most of which would see her come back home late in the evening. Sometimes they were about simpler things like why she had put too much oil put in food.

I remember one day, sometime in 2003, one of my classmates, perhaps envious of me, reported to my father how I had become an overnight celebrity in school, “splashing money to buy mandazis” for my classmates during tea breaks. He also added that I would occasionally loan out my bicycle to classmates after school. This wasn’t true, and I honestly don’t understand why one would make up a story like this.

And my father, being the disciplinarian, and the kind not to argue with, let alone listen to your side of the story, took the report he had been given as gospel truth, before whipping me ruthlessly in the presence of my sisters and mother. He caned me while I was half naked. All I remember about that experience is that all my fingers became sore and swollen from the cane and some were fractured.

At that time, my sisters and I interpreted his actions as part of love and the discipline he was instilling in us. Who would have blamed us anyway? We were just kids, growing up in a family being led by a disciplinarian father, and we were all victims of the violence.

But it is later in life I would end up paying for not speaking up against the many punishments, and violence. The result of this past traumas, is I ended up unable to defend myself, especially in the presence of authority or someone in leadership. Because I knew in the back of my mind, that speaking up for myself, speaking my truth, would lead to punishment.

Back to the relationship between my father and mother. Of all the memories I have of my parents, both of who are still alive, few can be described as peaceful ones.

I remember one day, I am not sure of the year or month. It was one of those days that our local church had organized an open-air meeting popular in the day. The open-air meetings were the typical church services taken to a public area, where the church would preach to the masses in a crusade format.

My mother’s dedication to church had been undeniable. And during such meetings, she would either be involved in preparing meals for visiting speakers, or going to different homes, with other church members to share the gospel. This particular day was no different, and during these meetings she would occasionally come home late. And so on this day, she came late, not knowing that my father was lying in wait for her. I have never been able to forget her cries and pleas for help.

There was another day my mother allowed my younger sister to go sell some overripe bananas that were going bad in our house. My sister, then in lower primary school and being the entrepreneurial one, took up the opportunity and went set a tent just behind out home.

This daring act, both by my mother and sister, would become their worst mistake, ever. My father, on returning from his visits in the city center and learning about the events, went straight to my mother. Again, her cries and pleas for mercy, did not yield much.

At that time, my father reasoned that it was immoral to allow a young girl of my sister’s age to “trade wares to strangers” and that by allowing her to do so, my mother had acted irresponsibly. I did not understand the logic then, and whether it warranted the beating that my mother endured then. I still do not understand the logic to this day.

The irony in all these fights, is that they would extend to us as children, either verbally, or through the cane. We were supposed to stay calm, look at our mother as the one on the wrong, and our father as the disciplinarian who was only interested in the good of his family.

Matters got worse for me because my mother had always been my solace, whenever I felt insecure, unsure of something or in need of help. And so, watching what she went through at his hands and being expected to look on calmly affected me the most.

The irony of all these is that unlike most families in our neighbourhood, we never lacked in terms of provision. My father, despite his outbursts and violent nature, worked hard enough to provide for us as a family. To most folks, we were well taken care of. Not once had any of my sisters or me sent away from school for lack of fees, either in primary, secondary school or even college.

We grew up knowing that we were loved, but deep down, I longed for an opportunity to be heard, at least to be noticed, and given the freedom to express my thoughts and opinions freely.

That never happened.

I cannot count the number of times I was caned for speaking up against my father, or for behaving in a way that my father thought was “ungodly”, or even speaking in Sheng, which he loathed and viewed as a language spoken by young people who had no sense of direction.

I remember every time family friends and relatives visited our home, a greeting of sasa, ought to have been replied to with mzuri. We were never allowed to respond to such greetings as fiti or poa, unless you wanted to be scolded in the presence of visitors. He would berate you publicly in a way that would just tear apart your self-esteem.

But what were young minds like ours supposed to think, other than grow up confined, and robbed of the freedom to be ourselves, especially me. We never had the freedom to make mistakes as children; learn from them or be adventurous.

I have since grown up struggling with identity and the fight to be comfortable in my difference, to know that my opinion also matters. I must admit that to this day, I still struggle trying to please others and to fit in.

And to fill the void of a low esteem, I occasionally overindulged in alcohol, and heavy partying with the hope that I would retrace my lost self again and enjoy the freedom to be and unbound. The problem with this kind of behaviour is that it is always temporary and escapist.

Once the party was over, the reality always dawned on me, that I had a closet full of skeletons that was not going away. It was my sole responsibility to pave the path that I wanted my life to follow.

For the record, I am not saying my father was always wrong as the disciplinarian that he was, or that either my mother, my sisters or me were always on the right. My issue is the manner in which the infractions were treated. Many times, the price of “discipline” was too heavy for me to bear.

I have paid for some of these sins in ways that cost me relationships. In ways that ruined some of the friendships that would have blossomed had I been patient enough, and kind enough to empathise with others situations.

I am learning, albeit the hard way, that always agreeing with the popular vote, will never make people like or love you. That sometimes, it is those who live up or ascribe to their grounded convictions and beliefs that earn the respect of others.

I am learning that no matter how many relationships you try to create, you will not succeed until you deal with the demons that are holding you back. I still blame my father for socialising me in ways that broke me, for robbing me of the freedom to always be myself.

But then I also realise that I am a grown man now, and who has the responsibility to shape his life and identity.

I am finding my words and learning to speak up.

My relationship with my father is still not a very strong one. We occasionally fight over issues, mostly ideological, but it is getting better, albeit slowly. Maybe it will be good one day, maybe not.

I still struggle trying to find love. I struggle to find the sort of companionship that I hope will fill the void of warmth and affection that I never received as a child.

But for now, and most of all, I am still in search of the man that I was meant to be. I have not found him yet. But I hope one day I will. And when I do, I am never let him go.




Easter in the Holy Land, and Tracing The Modern ‘Way of The Cross’ in Palestine

For Christians in the Holy Land, Easter is the most important of the Christian holy days. In fact, Palestinians refer to it as al-Eid al-Kabir (the Big Feast) while Christmas is known as al-Eid al-Saghir (the Little Feast).

The Saturday before Easter Sunday is the climax of the Holy Week in occupied Palestine. Sabt Al-Nur (Saturday of Light) is an Orthodox tradition that marks the end of the Easter fast. Tradition holds that every year on the Saturday prior to Easter, a flame arises from the tomb of Christ at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

The miracle of the flame is celebrated by lighting candles from this flame in Jerusalem and carrying it from one town and village to another in Palestine.

Although Sabt al-Nur is an Orthodox tradition, Christians of all denominations have attended the ceremony in Jerusalem for generations, in what has always been a major community event for Christians in Palestine.

But last year, only a few hundred Palestinians made it to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the ceremony of the Holy Fire. Most Palestinian Christians have never seen the miraculous flame – not because we don’t care about the tradition – but because Israel restricts us, especially our young people, from entering Jerusalem. Jerusalem: the sacred city of Christians all over the world; the place of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, the birthplace of Christianity itself, the site of its first churches.

As a little boy, I remember travelling to Jerusalem from our village of BeitSahour. BeitSahour is located just outside of Bethlehem, and is less than 15 km from Jerusalem. Yet it is a trip that took several hours due to the “no-man’s zone” imposed on us when Israel was created in 1948. This forced us to go through a route nearly three times longer than the normal way.

Now, I can no longer visit Jerusalem at all. I am a former political prisoner, and have been placed on an Israeli “security” list. The Israeli authorities will not grant me a permit to visit Jerusalem. My 35-year-old son has travelled widely and seen almost half the world, but he too is barred from Jerusalem.

Our story is not unique. Palestinians – indigenous to the Holy Land and who live a few kilometres away from Jerusalem – must beg for permission to visit, endure humiliating searches and pass through walls and checkpoints, while pilgrims from Germany, the United States or Peru can fly in for Easter.

For most Palestinians – whether Christian or Muslim – Jerusalem is the city we love the most and visit the least.

As an Easter “goodwill” gesture, Israel says it has issued approximately 10,000 permits to Palestinians from the occupied West Bank and 500 permits to Christians in the besieged Gaza Strip, where several thousand live. Is it really goodwill to force people to apply for permits to visit and worship in their most sacred city during their most sacred time? Is it goodwill to turn the sacred city into a military zone?

During Easter, barriers are set up in the early hours of the morning in the courtyard at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Its aim is to keep people out of the Church: a site central to Jesus’s death, crucifixion and resurrection.

Israeli army officers are present around the gates of the Old City and passages that lead to the Holy Sepulchre, as well as inside the Church itself and on its roof. These measures restrict freedom of movement for Palestinians, preventing Palestinian Christians from worshipping at the Church during this auspicious period. Even priests are not allowed to move freely. Is this what freedom of worship looks like?

Today, Palestinians feel that not only are our religious, cultural, and spiritual celebrations under attack but our whole existence as well. In fact, many Palestinians refer to our experience of living under Israeli occupation and the suffering we endure as “walking the Via Dolorosa” or the Way of the Cross.

However, this Way of the Cross is not confined to Easter week, but has been going for 70 years. The stations of suffering that are visited include: checkpoints, permits, refugee camps, blockade, home demolitions, detention without trial, and bombing.

Today, Palestinians are still walking the Way of the Cross, and anxiously awaiting the Day of Resurrection – the day the stone that blocks the tomb of occupation is rolled away.

The message of Easter and the Resurrection is that those liberated by God cannot be made slaves by anyone. But this is what is exactly what is happening today in occupied Palestine. Israel is asking the Palestinian people to let their freedom die, so that the Israeli people can live.

In the Holy Land – the land of the Resurrection – we see one group of people committed to security, justice and peace for themselves, only that is built on injustice and occupation for another set of people. We see one human being living at the expense of another human being. Christians believe Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead to give life for all, to enable everyone to triumph over death. His resurrection gave life, justice and peace for oneself; their people; and all the peoples of the earth.

Freedom for one group cannot come through the oppression of another.

Israeli security and peace cannot be built at the expense of Palestinian security, dignity and peace. The occupation of Palestinian life must end, so that both Israelis and Palestinians may live as equal human beings.




Rhetoric and Injustice: An Easter Reflection on Jesus Criminalised

“The cross places God in the midst of crucified people, in the midst of people who are hung, shot, burned, and tortured.” ~James Cone, ‘The Cross and the Lynching Tree’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In the accounts, Jesus is accused of three offences.

Charge 1: Stirring up our people

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

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

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

Charge 2: Forbidding people to pay taxes

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

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

Charge 3: Claiming to be a Messiah king

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

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

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

The Sentencing

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

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

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

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

This is not justice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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




We Need New Words: A Reflection on the “War on Terror”

7th August 1998.

Friday, 10am: Parents, students and teachers are all seated in the school hall, and prize-giving day is about to begin. I had obtained the highest grade in GHC (Geography, History and Civics) and I was to receive a prize. I was elated, because it was the last day of the school term. At home, good grades were a pass to indulge in activities forbidden during the school term.

At 10.34am: The headmistress walks to the podium to give her opening remarks when we hear a blast in the distance. Moments later, the crowd starts murmuring, and the few pagers in the room start beeping. Parents anxiously take custody of their children and a state of anxiety descends on the gathering. Vehicles begin to speed off and the prize-giving day comes to an abrupt end.

A terrorist attack targeting the US Embassy in downtown Nairobi has just happened. The neighbouring building, Ufundi Co-operative House was reduced to debris. 213 people die and more than 5,000 get injured. At the age of nine in Standard Four, I felt the fear and anxiety.

Before August 7th 1998, Kenya had never witnessed a terror attack of such magnitude. The Al Qaeda terror group led by Osama bin Laden took responsibility for the attack professing it was retaliation for US presence in Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The national psyche was bruised. President, Daniel Arap Moi regretted that peaceful Kenya had suffered the tragedy of a geopolitical dispute.

My holidays were never the same again. At home, strict curfews were introduced; my mother would call every other day to check on the whereabouts of my siblings and I. My parents introduced holiday tuition as a means, I suspect, of surveillance to protect and curate our movements. “The fear of the public space” had been cemented in my parents’ minds. From then on, I heard my parents add a new phrase in their lingua: “Terrorism” which after the September 9/11 attacks in the United States morphed into the “The War on Terror”. It sounded like they pronounced it in capital letters to imitate the manner the subject of terrorism was broadcast in the news.

********

Over a decade later, in 2009, my brother and I were walking home from an eatery at the Oil Libya petrol station along Mombasa road on a Thursday at 9:17 pm. We lived in South C, a middle-class suburb in Nairobi that had in the last decade bourgeoned into a cosmopolitan neighbourhood with the influx of nationals from Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. South C transformed into a place of refuge for nationals fleeing conflict in their home countries.

On this fateful day, a police patrol unit accosted, threatened us with arrest and threw us into a police vehicle on the suspicion as terror suspects.

Mnaranda randa usiku, kwani nyinyi ni Al Shabaab?” barked a policeman. (Why are you loitering about, are you Al Shabaab?)

Hapana boss, tumetoka kwa duka, tunaelekea nyumbani.” (No sir, we are just headed home from the shops), replied my elder brother,

Unadhani mimi ni mjinga? Wale wa kutoka kwa duka ndiyo hutembea na bomb. Ingia hapa nyuma haraka sana.” (Do you think I’m a fool? In fact those who are ‘just from the shops’ are the ones who walk around with bombs. Get into the back of the vehicle!)

In the patrol vehicle, I noticed that my brother and I were the only suspects who did not bear the physical resemblance of Somali people. The state-led counter-terrorism operations had led to the profiling of Kenyans Muslims, particularly from the Somali community. Members of the community were subjected to police harassment, arrests and human rights violations while publicly scorned as associates of Al Shabaab terrorists.

In the patrol vehicle, one of the police officers remarks that were effectively Al Shabaab terrorists under arrest and our freedom rested on our ability to ‘speak’. This was a new experience for my brother and I. Our fellow “felons” seemed to get the drift and reached into their pockets. Each one parted with a bribe as they alighted from the vehicle and we followed suit. There was little choice to make. The “War on Terror” had robbed us of our moral agency.

*********

I met Leila through a mutual friend. We struck a rapport immediately, and shared many intellectual interests. We would often meet up after class, and walk down from the University of Nairobi, talking as we meandered through the maze of Nairobi’s central business district. She was tall, beautiful. Muslim and Somali. Despite coming from different worlds, religiously, culturally socially and politically, our friendship grew. We created our own little universe where we could share our feelings, ideas, grief, hopes and dreams.

My mother was impressed when she met Leila. By her poise, respect for elders (important for my mother), her confidence and emotional intelligence. In spite of all these good attributes, my mother harboured some cultural prejudices towards Leila. A few days later, she sat me down and told me: “You are now in fourth year and about to finish university and start life. As your mother, I want you to get a good Christian wife and succeed in life.”

I didn’t have a response. It was one of those things that parents ostensibly say with love but cut you deeply. We never talked about the incident again but I was affected by her words even as I tried to understand my mother’s prejudice. I finished campus a few months later and my friendship with Leila drifted apart. We soon lost touch.

After the 1998 terror attack, the bombings in New York during 911 and the emergence of Al Shabaab, it seemed that my mother, like many, needed an image to embody the angst, fear and anger that “terror” had brought into her life. Perhaps the need to put a face to the enemy influenced her prejudice and denied Leila her individual autonomy and humanity.

I partly understood it. This was her way of defending herself, a coping mechanism. The “War on Terror” had erased her ability to recognise the humanity of Leila and her story. It simplified her view to labels: brown, Somali, Muslim and danger.

********

4:10 pm: #DusitAttack is trending on my Twitter feed.

4:12 pm: I check my Twitter news feed for a reliable source. I find one, Africa Uncensored’s Twitter handle: “Terrorist attack at DusitD2 hotel, 14 Riverside underway”

4:15 pm: I call my wife. “Babe, are you okay?” “Yes, I am” she responds. “Okay, I’m leaving the office now. Be safe.” I hung up.

4:20 pm: I send out a generic message, “I’m safe,” to my WhatsApp groups to calm my friends and family.

4:28 pm: I packed my bags and I leave the office.

On the afternoon of Tuesday, 15 January 2019, armed gunmen stormed into 14 Riverside, an office complex in Westlands, Nairobi that hosts offices of various organisations, a restaurant and a hotel, DusitD2. The attack began at 2:30pm and was concluded a few minutes before 10:00am the following day. Initial reports were of gunfire and two explosions at the hotel. The attackers, estimated to number between four and six arrived in two vehicles. One of the attackers went in discreetly and blew himself up next to the Secret Garden restaurant. After the blast, the remaining terrorists fired on the guards at the gates of 14 Riverside Drive and lobbed grenades setting some vehicles parked in the parking bay ablaze. The attack left more than 20 people dead.

On my way home, I scribble on my notebook the words. DUSIT ATTACK AND WHAT IT MEANS FOR THE WAR ON TERROR! This is an opening line to an editorial brief I think of writing so that I can commission a few think pieces to shed light on this issue. I would spend the next couple of days thinking about this, until it dawned on me that I had only viewed the Dusit attack as a function of my job: A story to be written, an analysis to be done and a conversation to be had. Not what it really was: pain, death, trauma and dysfunction.

As far as terror goes, I had been alienated from my humanity and myself.

*******

Political vernaculars, writes Keguro Macharia, “are the words and phrases that assemble something experienced as the political and gather different groups around something marked as the political. They create attachments to the political, and they also distance us from something known as the political. They create possibilities for different ways of coming together—from short-lived experiments to long-term institution building—and they also impede how we form ourselves as we from formations, across the past, the present, the future, and all the in-between times marked by slow violence and prolonged dying. Vernaculars are ways of claiming and shaping space.”

Keguro goes on to say that vernaculars are a discipline producing habits, dispositions, behaviour, feeling and thinking. Most of Kenya’s official political vernaculars—corruption, impunity, national security, for instance—are disciplinary. They name real issues, but they also manage how those issues are handled. They shape the possibilities for what is thinkable. They flatten thinking into habits, repetitions, and negations…they create frames on how we see each other, the world and what possibilities we can conceive.

The “War on Terror” is one of Kenya’s political vernaculars. It is the go-to word to arouse fear, anger, racism and religious hatred; to justify bombing, invasion and illegal detentions; to call for major new investments in military capabilities; to justify dependency on the western nations and to muzzle and curtail freedoms.

The implications for African governments governed by despots, warlords or even democrats is an incentive for tyrannical rule. The War on Terror serves the interests of retaining political power and justifies terrorizing of disenfranchised citizens. To the citizens, the word represents disruption, a normalising of an absurd reality, a privation of humanity, a shape-shifting enemy that yearns for innocent lives and souls; the menacing colonial state with new fangs.

We are in need of another lexicon to explain us to ourselves, to frame our sensibilities, our histories and our humanity, in the mists of absurd political vernaculars. We need words that can help us imagine what kind of world we want to build together.

We need new words untethered to the state that can help us imagine how we want to live with each other. Now, more than ever we need the strength to love and dream.




Millennials II: Speaking up in the Silences

“Kenya’s official languages are English, Kiswahili, and Silence.” ~ Yvonne Owuor

It is always interesting to see the confusion in our parents and older generations with Millennials. It is a clash of cultural values. They may have raised us, but we occupy a place in a global and information culture that they never imagined possible. I see them struggling to understand.

I was born in the 1980s, when the attempted coup was still fresh in people’s minds, and the screws of repression were increasingly tightening. I was too young to know about the agitation for multi-party elections and only later read about it from my grandfather’s collection of The Weekly Review magazine, one of the few publications at the time that was consistently speaking truth to power.

In the 1990s came the liberalisation of the airwaves, and my generation was exposed to much more music, television programmes and movies than our parents were aware of. I remember for the longest time wanting an FM radio so I could listen to Capital FM and later Kiss FM. My evenings from school were often spent shifting between doing homework, and dancing to the music on Rastrut, Jam-a-delic and other weekly music shows. This was a time when African American culture had a kind of golden age on TV. The shows we watched were everything from Sesame Street to In Living Color, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters, Renegade, Sarafina, The Bold and Beautiful and so many more. Today, if someone my age who grew up in the urban spaces that I did starts a discussion on our childhood, we have many common memories and attachments through these experiences, even though we might have disparate upbringings in other ways. Even from many miles away, we were part of that collective cultural moment, and social media now unites us with our peers across the world, over both the mundane and serious. While we too have many points of differences there is a unique connection to each other from the global and local exposure we have.

It was a time when Kenyan art, and especially music, was starting to find its identity. Hip-hop, comedy and poetry were on the forefront of this shift. A strong emphasis of the art being created at the time was questioning of the status quo, extra judicial killings, and the dysfunction of the political state. It created a healthy skepticism in authority and authority figures. Some of my earliest ideas and understanding of another Kenyan narrative from the streets and the grassroots came from hip hop artists like Ukoo Flani, Kalamashaka, Mashifta and others. The comedy trio Reddykyulas was hugely influential too, allowing us to see ourselves, and critique who we had become as a people, without fear.

On the other hand, our parents grew up in a fractured culture straddling the traditional cultures and the colonial ethnocentrism that despised and looked down on traditional culture. Kenya is 55 years old and still grappling with what colonialists did to us, whether we realise it or not. The colonisers subscribed to notion of Social Darwinism that believed that the closer a culture was to European (and in our case British) culture, the more advanced it was. Given that African culture was completely different, we were seen as uncivilised, despite the fact that we had lived and thrived for centuries before.

Colonialism systematically destroyed our families and destabilised all aspects of society that had functioned until then. Colonial tax obligations pushed people into the cash economy, creating a migrant labour market, and thus separating families. They confiscated land, leading to a large, landless class of laborers who traveled from place to place in search of work. Breaking communities up like this was certainly an easier and more secure way of obtaining money for taxes and for selling goods to them. This economic subjugation still continues in various forms today, with insecure land tenure systems, and families still vulnerable to eviction, land grabbing, and cartels.

The colonisers employed violence against grown men and women if they were not only obedient but also sufficiently deferential. Alyse Simpson recalled whites in1920’s Kenya: “They boxed their own and their neighbours’ servants’ ears if they failed to be servile enough, which in their childlike simplicity they sometimes forgot to be.” That notion of Africans having ‘childlike simplicity’ was not a benign one. It means that we were assumed to be incompetent in our own governance. It upended the structure of society where adults were adults, and were worthy of making decisions. It is highly likely that the violence visited on them resulted in powerless frustration that was then transferred onto the next generation.

Despite being supposedly ‘independent’ since 1963, we never really sat to examine what had happened to our society and technically just exchanged one ruler for another. You see it in the way we casually infantilise grown men and women by assuming the state will make better decisions than they ever could for themselves. We do it too in our families to our poorer relatives or those who dare deviate from the norm.

I sense that our parents were brought up to obey unquestioningly, a result of the kind of violence and censure that defiance would bring upon them. My generation however learned to ask questions, perhaps as a result of the global culture we were exposed to, and so we do. Even though we may not have been as inquisitive in the open as we were in private – we are still our parents’ children, after all, and we were taught to behave in public – the Internet and social media have recreated a quasi-private space that allowed us to continue to question the status quo.

Traditionally Africans had structures for bringing up children and teaching them how to handle themselves as adults. We would learn to cook, herd animals, care for children, find herbs that could cure diseases, prepare for seasons, and so on. This all happened within a certain social context, where an older person would teach a younger one. With colonisation, and especially the disrupted social ties that urbanisation brought, these teaching moments fell away. Those lucky enough to live around aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents learned a lot from the community. Those who didn’t have these structures simply ended up learning from older siblings who may not have always had the right information. More than that we learned from each other, from our neighbours, our classmates and other peers around us.

Teaching requires a voice. But many of our parents had lost their voice and hope, perhaps without knowing. Maybe it was the difficult economic conditions, the secret police and the threat of torture chambers that hung ominously over their heads. Confronting their own situations and the loss of their dreams at the hands of a powerful and corrupt government that killed many who stood up to it must have been an impossible task then. With time I believe the silence grew to encompass even more of their lives and who they were. I wonder if we will ever truly understand what they went through. Facing up to this anguish and loss was avoided by just forging ahead in some ways and at other times acting out in the private family arenas. It has become the ‘norm’ of Kenyan social conditioning for people to turn social media as a space for confessions and on FM station talk shows. Those who could leave Kenya emigrated to Western capitals, those who chose to stay and fight became pariahs, and the rest kept their head down to avoid trouble in a sense of learned helplessness. For those who accepted the status quo it meant a constant adjusting to the changes, a constant policing of their own behaviour and of those they loved to save them from the state sanctions of the day.

Many of our Kenyan notions of respectability can be traced to British colonialism. As long as the orange is waxed, shiny and orange on the outside it does not matter if the inside is rotten and full of worms. In Kenya a person’s importance is often based on what they do, which family they come from or which influential person they are close to, who their spouse is and finally how wealthy or famous they are. It often does not matter what vileness they have been part of, the wealth and fame become like a sanctifying agent. No wonder folks say pesa ni sabuni (Money is like soap).

The breakdown of traditional African society and the public accountability that came with it was replaced with a desire to be respected according to colonial values. For many of our parents a sense of worth was built on how others saw them and spoke of them. Their children were often extensions of this. Many times our own personal choices, even as adults, were not seen in the light of the people we are but as active antagonistic choices against them and the reputations they hold so dearly. Our personhood is not known to them no matter how hard we try to show them.

This is a journey I see many of my peers going through. We are still trying to understand who we are and how our society got here, and in doing so we reject the mantra of ‘accept and move on’ or ‘don’t rock the boat’ like many of our parents embodied. There will be a generational clash, but maybe it is necessary, so we can redefine ourselves, redefine family, and redefine Kenya.

When many of my peers sit and talk to recall our childhood very few of us had good childhoods or teenage years. The truth that our parents did not want to face was that one can only keep up appearances for so long – it always happened that glass of respectability shattered at one point, destroying everything in its vicinity. It would be in the discovery of infidelity in one or both parents, or that there were other entire families who called your father dad. It was in finding out about a secret child your mother had before but kept hidden. It was financial ruin, domestic abuse, rumours of witchcraft in families, evil in-laws, or unexplained absences of parents for years, all hidden under a veneer of respectability.

Discovering any of these for a child or a teenager is traumatic; it’s even worse so if there is no reliable adult to help them talk through these things and make sense of them. But it’s impossible to talk about anything when respectability is the constant demand. What will people think is the first, and the most powerful reprimand. Many times we were told that voicing these concerns is tantamount to publicly humiliating your family. Very often the child/teenager/young adult attempting to talk will be castigated even more than the adult who caused the incident or trauma. Instead of protecting our children from the trauma of past actions, we force them to pretend all is well, never bothering about their emotional and psychological state. All these affect the adult this child grows up to become. Many times the alcoholism, drug and sex addictions are ways of dealing with internal pain, not to mention depression, anxiety and panic attacks and other mental health illnesses.

Growing up without my primary parent for 20 years nearly destroyed me. I went through depression, abandonment, homelessness and a myriad of other situations before I finally was able to find my way out. My larger extended family still does not understand why I am this way because I went to “good schools”. But a boarding school does not make child or create a home for them. Neither is it a place to show you that you are loved and worthy, that’s what a family is for. There are those who definitely did try, but the truth is, parenting is a constant effort and not a peek-a-boo performance where one appears and disappears at will. The unfortunate bit is as a society we have been unable to diagnose, discuss and fix the political and economic issues that create these conditionings. We often don’t see the larger governance issues causing them. Why did so many of our fathers have secret families? Why were we constantly battling financial ruin? Why the silence, why the abuse, why the trauma? What was going on in Kenya to make our lives so painful?

The person I credit most for helping me find my way out and holding my hand and parenting is an aunt who I only got to know well after high school. She truly listened to me and asked me questions, offered advice and even when I didn’t heed it she would still be there for me. Her acceptance was total. That was what made the difference and helped set me off on a long journey of self-searching, healing and forging a new path for myself. It has not been easy but it has led me to a path of peace and a better life than I could have imagined for myself.

I see my peers talking about their trauma, depression and discontent both anonymously and publicly, on Facebook groups and Twitter, finding in each other kindred souls to encourage and advice. I see an increased acceptance of therapy and pychological counseling. The ability to be vulnerable or see someone you admire be vulnerable is what gives us the courage to keep going. The culture of silence is slowly being dealt with in many spaces. Still, there are many who are unable to process things, and drown in various addictions like alcoholism and drugs. They need to understand that what we are facing is not a result of individual failure but as a result of a collective failing to deal with our problems in a holistic way, which will continue to claim our people in different ways. Others who haven’t faced the same trauma and pressure do not easily understand the weight of the burden Millennials carry. The only way we move forward is if we start being honest about what is going on with us.

My peers are incredibly resilient in difficult situations. They are also incredibly creative, hardworking and daring. Not a week goes by when I don’t see someone trying to do something amazing. We are our own people. We dare to dream and we dare to live our dreams and over ‘respectable’ professions such as law, engineering and others. We forge ahead, fuelled by a heady mix of invincibility, fear, daring, anxiety and hope. We own our decisions the good, the bad and the sometimes stupid. We realise you can live an entire life trying to please people and still fail spectacularly.

What has failed us are the systems, society, and the continual bashing because we refuse to fall in line. Our parents’ formula of silence and moving on doesn’t work in our world at all. Just being educated doesn’t guarantee you a job. Having a job doesn’t mean you can afford to be sick. Being an entrepreneur isn’t always the path to a comfortable life. Being on a salary doesn’t always mean you can afford a mortgage. Being wealthy doesn’t mean you are protected.

We will continue asking questions, we will continue pushing the dial, we will continue creating, we will continue until we find our personal and collective freedom.




Unseen and Unremarkable: The Invisibility of Women’s Labour

Lwanda Magere is a famed folk tale that many Kenyan children know. He was the man of stone, a great warrior of the Luo, whose skin could not be pierced, and who could not be defeated even by the fiercest enemy. The Nandi people, who neighboured the Luo and fought with them over territory, pasture, livestock and water, were tired of being defeated by the Luo. So they sent the most beautiful girl in their village over to the Luo to extract information. Her only task was to find out how to pierce the skin of the man of stone. Against the advice of his first wife and the community elders, Lwanda married this beautiful Nandi girl as a second wife. One day, when his first wife was away, he fell ill and the Nandi girl had to take care of him. After much soothing and coaxing, she found out that his shadow was the vulnerable spot, and sent word back to her people. In the next great battle between the Nandi and the Luo, Lwanda was sure to win the battle for his people, but one man remembered the story of the shadow. He threw a spear into the shadow and blood started to spurt out of the ground. Lwanda was killed, and the Luo were overcome.

In Lwanda Magere’s story, we don’t know the name of the Nandi girl.

***

Women are erased. Constantly.

It doesn’t matter how great you are.

You could be Fatima al-Fihri, an Arab Muslim woman, founder of the oldest existing university in the world. Or Emmy Noether (officially Amalie Emmy), the mathematician behind Noether’s Theorem, and whose work was so consequential that Einstein himself wrote an obituary for her. You could be a distinguished scientist or a renowned artist, you can map the ocean, uncover the secrets of the stars or the secret behind life itself, but, if you are a woman, you have to fight to be remembered.

It happens even in daily interactions. It happens every time a man repeats exactly what a woman said in a meeting, to great applause. Every time a man echoes sentiments and language women have been articulating for years, he is celebrated for being “so progressive”, “so woke”.

When we – my fellow writers Laura Ekumbo and Aleya Kassam and I – wrote our theatrical production ‘Too Early For Birds – The Brazen Edition’, we wanted to name the women. Our task from the beginning of the writing processes was to ‘uninvisible invisible women’. Kenyan playwright and author Micere Mugo once asked, ‘Where are those songs/ my mother and yours / always sang / fitting rhythms to the whole vast span of life?’ Virginia Woolf said, “Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” The anonymous is often a woman and, now, we refuse to be anonymised. Women have been calling out to each other, remembering that in the silence there is a forgotten woman’s song, that in ‘Anon’ there is a forgotten woman’s name, that in the invisible there is a woman made invisible. Remembering women, is in many ways remembering yourself.

In the famed fable of Lwanda Magere, what struck us was the existence of a girl, in one of our country’s most famous folktales, who was reduced to nothing but a plot point. This girl went into enemy territory as a spy, leaving her life and home behind. This girl won the war for the Nandi. This girl betrayed the Luo. This girl was as dangerous and powerful as Delilah. This girl was a badass.

No one knows her name. In our research, we did not find her name recorded by either community. At least we could not find any proof of her name, not in the way Lwanda is Lwanda, or Mumbi is Mumbi. The name we could find, “Nyalang’o” literally means ‘Nandi girl’ in Dholuo. As far as we could tell, she was just the most beautiful girl in the village.

This girl remains unnamed.

***

The truth of a story is always determined by the teller. We knew we wanted to speak to her, with her, bring her perspective to light. Of course, you can tell the story from the perspective of the men (Lwanda, the elders from both communities, the warrior who threw the spear) but we were writing about women.

We could have told the story of his first wife. In her, we saw an intelligent, loyal woman who saw a spy come into her home, and did everything she could to protect not just her husband, but her community. She made sure that this strange woman was never alone with her husband, especially when he was ill. By some twist of fate, she had to travel and while she was away, her husband fell sick and let his secret out. The first wife returns home to find the truth is out and dreads someone would destroy him one day.

So why Nandi?

The truth and fact is I didn’t know much about the women we wrote about before we did. Yes I had heard of a few – Chelagat Mutai, Mekatilili wa Menza, Wangu wa Makeri – but vaguely, imprecisely. I didn’t know about Field Marshall Muthoni wa Kirima or Zarina Patel at all, and they are both alive and well. The latter two are not just in the annals of history: they are here, and I didn’t know about them.

The Nandi Girl captured exactly why we didn’t know about them. It doesn’t matter how pivotal you are, if the stories are about men and their battles, as a woman, you will be relegated to a footnote. Her name was lost and instead she became an archetype: A Delilah figure. A seductive woman who takes down a man using her feminine wiles. And not even that, she just got the information and disappeared, seemingly never to be heard from again.

But make no mistake: this erasure is deliberate.

Erasure confines the work women do into a box which has nothing more than ‘women’s work’. Women freedom fighters become unthinkable in a country where parliamentary debates to meet the constitutionally required two-thirds gender rule are presented as a periodic annoyance, rather than a necessity.

Erasure makes us forget the Kenyan women who explicitly used their nakedness to shame the government into releasing their sons held as political prisoners in 1992. It makes us oblivious of Field Marshall Muthoni, a woman ranking equal to our most famous freedom fighter, Dedan Kimathi, a woman revered by him not just as a fighter but as a strategist and thinker. It erases that Field Marshall Muthoni fought her whole life, starting by supplying food and information to fighters in the forest as a young girl, and when she went to the forest herself, she rose up the ranks and was known as “The Weaver Bird” for her ability to navigate the forest. It erases that she continues to be in resistance, refusing to cut her hair until we find true freedom as a nation. It erases the fact that we have not found true freedom.

Erasure reduces women to ‘political flower girls’ – the media actually uses this phrase – and we cannot fathom women as a fundamental part of revolutions. Mekatilili wa Menza is often depicted as young girl because we erase the fact that she was in her 70’s when she led the Giriama uprising. Erasure knows that a feisty young girl fighting a common enemy is tolerable – one can always blame the folly of youth – an enraged, mature woman pushing back against an unjust system is not.

We forget Chelagat Mutai was part of a core group of parliamentarians that stood up to the government during one-party rule, when most of the other men in the House were very silent. We forget that Zarina Patel continues to fight for our freedoms, our right to public spaces and did so against not just the government, but her own family. We don’t even know, or want to know, that sex workers were among the first African property owners in colonial Nairobi. We erase how women, these women, were revolutionary in spirit because they stepped outside of the bounds restraining them. It does not do to have women who use their rage, name their abusers, name the problem, name themselves.

It does not do to have examples of women of power, because then maybe every woman will feel like she has power too.

If they must be named, if there is no way to erase them entirely, Erasure sanitises them. It makes them fit the mould of the patriarchy, and reconfigures them into a good and comfortable woman who fought just hard enough, but not too hard. Wangari Mathaai is today remembered as the woman of peace and trees, not the divorcee who was described as a ‘mad woman’ with ‘insects in her head’; who was under constant threat, whose kindness was iron-hearted. From Winnie Madikizela-Mandela to Rosa Parks, women’s work is reduced to a form that can be footnoted in men’s; the great man’s wife, the woman who just sat down.

This, by the way, only happens if you are ‘important’ enough to be reduced. Erasure is built into our every day reality.

One of the most insidious ways women are kept out of the history books is because so much of the work women do, or relegated to do, is considered ‘insignificant’ or ‘inevitable’. Of course the most beautiful girl in the village became the seductress. What’s special about that?

This bracketing of ‘women’s’ roles minimises the labour women do. The labour you do turns out to be your responsibility as a mother, sister, wife. Women’s labour does not make it into the record. The emotional labour you put in caring for others, the domestic labour that keeps men running the world, the innovations of womanhood like weaving, cooking, sewing, are all unremarkable because they were supposed to happen.

In 2013, during the terror attack on Westgate mall, I remember the then-unnamed woman who made tea, and served the police, soldiers and volunteers who were working to end the siege. I saw her do what every Kenyan mother is expected to do as if born doing it; make pots of tea. She was praised, rightfully, for going out of her way to support the men and women working to end the terrorist attack.

Yet, when I saw that image in the newspapers and on television I was filled with rage and sadness. I couldn’t stop seeing how early she must have gotten up in the morning, how long it had taken to brew that much tea, how much money it had cost, how much help she would need. I was filled with rage at a country where we know that tea, sustenance for people fighting in that situation, wasn’t guaranteed. I was angry that in such a moment, we couldn’t be sure that everyone was being well fed and taken care of. I was sad that only a woman, Grace Wambui Odongo, who must do such labour everyday, would even think to do this basic act of care. I was sad at how many women labour, make lots and lots of tea, because they do not have time for mourning.

Women need to be remembered, not just for big, but for the small. For the cups of tea.