I Accuse the Press
By Wyban Mwangi
On the 21st of July 2019, Citizen TV aired an investigative news feature, described as the “heart-rending” story of a young Kenyan man who, despite years of hard work and an excellent academic record in some of the country’s best schools, ended up homeless in the rough streets of Nairobi. The young man, Kelvin Ochieng’, is a 24-year-old who scored straight As at the famous Maranda High School before proceeding to the University of Nairobi where he studied Actuarial Science and graduated with a 1st class honours off the back of a Higher Education Loan and a scholarship.
Prior to the exposé, it had been reported that Kelvin resided in the Kosovo area of Mathare, where he was being hosted by a friend—Christopher Oloo—who had rescued him from the streets and taken him into the refuge of his tiny single room which he also shared with three other men. Kelvin had sought employment with several companies without success despite his impressive academic qualifications. Returning home to his rural home where he grew up was not an option. He remained acutely aware of the grinding poverty of village life and he bore the burden of the shining star of the family who was destined to change their fortunes thanks to his academic success. His failure to meet his family’s expectations weighed heavily on Kelvin and he confessed to having contemplated suicide on more than one occasion. Kelvin could not even afford the four thousand shillings needed for his graduation, let alone attend the ceremony.
Kelvin’s story is shared by hundreds of thousands of the unemployed youth who place all future prospects on the value of their academic qualifications. Kelvin was among the top-ranked in Maranda High School class of 2011, when the school topped the country in the KCSE exam school rankings and seemed assured of a spot in the university and on the path to secure employment. When the television cameras found Kelvin, he was one among the many young men who scramble for cars to clean at a car wash in Nairobi city. The television report ignited an engaging public response on social media and a lengthy debate on how the education system fails Kenyan youth.
The trend of knee-jerk public reactions of sympathy to heart-wrenching stories in the media, where ordinary members of the public rally in support of the highlighted case, masks a deeper problem. On the one hand is the troubling pattern of media profiling of the suffering poor to gain high audience ratings and, on the other, the exclusion of millions of others whose stories never get heard and hence receive no attention or assistance. What is the plight of those young people with a fraction of Kelvin’s level of education who are forced to grapple with harsh daily realities? The ones living in Mathare, like the selfless Christopher Oloo? Like myself? It is worth noting that the altruistic benevolence of Kelvin’s graceful host was mentioned only in passing, that his story was easily shunted aside as a normalcy to be used to draw greater attention to the “special” case of an unemployed graduate. Which is why I dare state, without fear of contradiction, that the report was insulting.
Allow me to put this into context. The general analysis of how degrading it is to live in a filthy environment with no proper sanitation and to endure the heavy stench of raw sewage was valid. But they were wrong to continue perpetuating on national television the single story of Mathare Valley as one of the most dangerous slums in Nairobi, and that you’ve got to watch your back because armed men live here. They had very quickly forgotten that what had brought them all the way down into the valley was indeed an act of great kindness.
What the news report was insinuating is that people with first-class degrees don’t deserve to be homeless or without income and that the insecurity and stench of Mathare is the preserve of the “less educated”. Mwalimu Wandia Njoya boldly refers to it as an “education-based discrimination” perpetrated by a kleptocracy. I couldn’t agree more. Nobody deserves to be poor, educated or not. Every person should be economically empowered regardless of his or her level of education. But as bad governance, impunity and class betrayal prevail, tolerated dehumanisation will only continue to escalate. Today I purpose to not only tell the story of Kelvin Ochieng, but also that of Christopher Oloo, who represents an infinite number of untold narratives of young Kenyans whose future is being greedily swallowed up by grand corruption which is stealing the resources that should go to development and potential job creation. Christopher’s story is my story. And I am neither on the outside looking in, nor am I on the inside looking out; I’m in the dead center, living the experience.
Mathare is rarely understood from a resident-centered perspective. Specifically, youth in Mathare are construed as being central to a critical urban problem of criminality and idleness, which constitutes the crime of which I accuse our mainstream media: that through their misguided reports they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives either through ignorance or through an established culture of bias. The media has a profit-driven mentality that has put the kibosh on its ability to assume the role of ally to the marginalised urban youth in speaking truth to power. It appears that the news agenda is solely to retain and expand the horizons of viewership. For many youth from urban ghettos, the media owners are seen as the authors of devastation who use media stations as propaganda machines to manipulate and exploit ethnic animosity among the working poor during election cycles.
Kenya is a country that sends its youth to the slaughter like innocent lambs. Most of us in Mathare did not choose to be born here and we face the odds that we face in life because we are poor and for no other reason. The limits of our ambitions seem forever set and we continue to be stereotyped as “dirty”, “crime-driven” people who are a threat to public security. The police operate in the valley as if it is the only place they need to control in order to tackle the problem of drugs and weapons.
Here, an encounter with the police is to be avoided at all costs. These wakubwa are the epitome of legitimised robbers. They stop any young man in sight on a whim and vigorously search them for clues of illegal possession, or so they make you think, while in reality this is just a strategy to check how much cash you have on you, giving them enough leverage to start building a case against you. Next, they sniff your fingers and in some cases ask you to spit on the ground to check the state of your throat and ascertain if you are a marijuana smoker. It is always important to remember that you are guilty until proven innocent. Everything has a price, too. Should the smell of marijuana be detected on you, negotiations about the purchase of your freedom begin at a thousand shillings, with an actual blunt costing you about two to three thousand shillings more. Think of this what you may, but failure to grease the palm of the mkubwa in question could earn you a painful whack on the back of the head: “Nyinyi ndio mnatemebea bila pesa mkisumbua watu hapa!” You are the type that walks around without money while causing disturbance here! Follows the threat to push you into the trunk of a nondescript car. You dupe yourself if you imagine your situation to be different and make the blunder of claiming that you know your rights. The only time you ever hear a change of tone and the words “Kijana, rudi hapa”, come back here young man, is when you have parted with “something small”.
People like to say, “If the poor don’t like the ghetto, why can’t they just leave?” and I wonder where one can really go when this is all the life they have known, where they have raised their children and have invested their little capital, if any. Go where? The few lucky enough to “make it out” of Mathare often only end up in another immiserated part of Eastlands, where the home will usually be a more spacious and solid structure, but with the same level of limited access to basic amenities, or worse. Following a fire at our house about two years ago, I helped my mother move to Githurai where I was convinced she would not have to worry about her belongings going up in flames, but less than three months later I was informed that she had moved back to the Kosovo area of Mathare. It took me a while to understand and make peace with her decision, and finally accept that she ached for a more familiar environment where she knew and could trust people, where she knew all the life hacks needed for survival. You know how they say that an old broom knows the room’s corners all too well?
The 2019 International Youth Day was themed “Transforming Education”, highlighting the efforts of the Sustainable Development Goals agenda to make education more relevant, equitable and inclusive for all youth. As kids, we were taught that in order to lead a good life, we needed to work extremely hard in school. I am more informed and mature now, more persuaded that education is meant to help you understand the world and its systems, that it should lead to effective learning outcomes, with the content of school curricula and pedagogy being fit for purpose not only for the future of work and life, but also for the opportunities and challenges brought by rapidly changing social contexts. More profoundly, it is supposed to provide the basics of a subject, then you decide on what you are going to do with the knowledge. However, Kelvin’s story is a sad commentary and a serious indictment of the state of the education system in this country. Students are not being equipped with skills that can help them survive after school. While it is a good thing to complete the education cycle and acquire some qualifications, graduating with stellar grades is not enough to set you up for success in the real world. Degree holders should also graduate in the school of life, to venture beyond the theory of the classroom and design solutions for the everyday problems facing the common man.
Less than twelve hours after Kelvin’s news story, some 1,000 job vacancies suddenly sprouted within a great number of companies around Kenya. I couldn’t for the life of me fathom why the offers for employment had not been made before. I bet a multitude of those corporations had already received Kelvin’s CV in the past. What had changed so drastically as to avail all those positions in such a short time baffles me. I now like to think of ours as governance by acts of magic. To make meaning of one’s life, therefore, youth have been left to rely completely on the beneficence of unfair advantage: family fortune and connections. The rest of us have been condemned to lower our expectations in the system, be patient and hope that things will get better eventually. Again, Kelvin was singled out when his story should have been used as a case study from which tangible solutions to youth unemployment can be derived. I mean, Kelvin is sorted out; then what? And this is the sad reality of youth only being presented with opportunities when it is expedient for institutions to exploit the situation. In the end, there are never really any sustainable solutions to young people’s issues. We wind up tied to short-term fixes that have more to do with harvesting cheap labour through catchy words like “platform”, “stipend”, “youth inclusion” and so forth.
Worse still, youth agendas are largely discussed in their absence, through cosmetic symposiums and panel discussions. Important decisions are often made without their invaluable input and perspectives being taken into consideration. This in turn strips young people of the power to determine their own futures, thus perpetuating generational sabotage. In Mathare, young people are putting away their imposed differences of religion, tribe and education to rely on themselves and organise around economic empowerment with the little in their pockets, whether this means registering a youth group to formally operate a car wash, boda boda business or go into urban farming. It is a step forward towards economic liberation, a rebellion against the status quo that dictates that we should be blindly patient and hopeful that opportunities will be thrown our way one day. For until the youth are allowed to own their spaces and shape their own futures, nothing substantial will ever emanate from these conversations.