The Elephant


Skilling Uganda’s Youth: How a Culture of Begging Is Being Institutionalised

By Mary Serumaga

Skilling Uganda’s Youth: How a Culture of Begging Is Being Institutionalised

Youth unemployment is one of Uganda’s biggest socio-economic challenges, running at 6.5 per cent according to the government, at 2.59 per cent according to the World Bank and at 60 per cent to 84 per cent according to other sources. With about 77 per cent of the population under the age of thirty, the youth are potentially the biggest political power-base. In the wake of the assaults on five members of parliament and their supporters that began in August 2018—and the demonstrations that followed—President Yoweri Museveni has stepped up his courtship of the young to counter the soaring popularity of the predominantly youthful People Power movement and has begun to address their employment needs.

However, the approach to addressing the unemployment problem is, as usual, not structural and offers no long-lasting solutions but is merely a populist move focused on winning votes in the 2021 elections. What began as a campaign-trail shtick, doling out cash in sacks to hastily formed youth groups and visiting the ghetto with yet more cash and gifts of random equipment like the famous milk cooler, has now extended to providing them with skills and equipment for business start-ups.

During the 2018 State of the Nation address, the President interrupted himself (and the budget) to invite the youth to “come to us” for grain milling equipment. Similarly, he has pledged to provide equipment and Sh100 million, amounting to roughly a dollar to each of the 30,000 Seninde Foundation-supported graduates of the over 30 technical schools in Uganda. One may wonder why the head of state is finding it necessary to donate money to the youth. The answer is to be found in the little-noticed facts published in official reports.

Skills training is provided for in the budget and financed by the Skills Development Project, the Higher Education, Science and Technology Project (HEST) and the Global Partnership in Education programme, with loans from the World Bank, the African Development Bank and the Global Partnership Fund, respectively.

Initiated in 2016 to run for four years, the Skills Development Project (SDP) is a $100 million project financed through loans made to the Ministry of Education by the World Bank and the Private Sector Foundation. Implemented by the Ministry of Agriculture, the Ministry of Education and Sports and the Private Sector Foundation, the SDP aims to promote enterprise-based training and to improve the quality and relevance of skills development. To achieve these goals the government plans to establish a new regulatory environment for tertiary institutions and develop standards in skills training under a national Vocational Qualifications Framework. A Skills Development Authority and sector skills councils are to be set up together with four centres of excellence to provide training for artisans, craftsmen and technicians.

Three years later, only 20 per cent of the loan—which expires in August 2020—has been utilised. But World Bank records now show a recent flurry of activity and it is clear that implementation will have to be rushed. Procurement plans were published in August and September 2019 following multiple calls for expressions of interest and bids for consultancy services and training beginning in January. Skills training—such as a highway engineering course at Lira Technical College—is to be funded by this facility while civil works are foreseen both at Bushenyi Technical College and Bukalasa Agricultural College. The latter was founded in the 1920s to breed cotton and is the only remaining public college training extension workers. In 2012 the college survived an attempted takeover by the army under Gen. Katumba Wamala and there have also been failed attempts to convert it into a satellite town of the Luweero district. The usual risks apply; relatives and friends will occupy positions at the new Skills Development Authority and, this being the beginning of the election cycle for 2021, the Sector Skills Councils will provide lucrative sinecures for National Resistance Movement (NRM) mobilisers.

The HEST project had similar objectives. Under it, six universities and two degree-awarding institutions were to be supported in improving “equitable access, quality and relevance of skills training and research leading to job creation and self-employment.” But by the time the project ended in June 2019, only 53 per cent of the loan had been used. The reason given to the Auditor General for the delays is that the government had been unable to provide the required matching grants and also that there had been delays in signing the financing agreements.

Of course, the youth need to complete primary school before attending institutions for skills training. However, only about 40 per cent of those enrolled complete public-funded primary education. At a recent discussion organised by Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, a government official stated that the 60 per cent who do not complete primary education are not drop-outs—“we can’t find them”—but are assumed to be in gainful employment­.

Finally, the Global Partnership for Education Project was aimed at ensuring that more children complete primary school. It too aimed to promote equitable access to technical and vocational training, and tertiary education. Only 54 per cent of the US$100 million budget was utilised before the facility expired in June 2018.

It is therefore not surprising that the government is now seeking to borrow US$45 million for vocational schools in May 2019. Nor is it new that Parliament has found the justification weak and the interest rates of the Islamic Development Bank too high. The debate has been deferred—presumably until enough members can be individually persuaded to vote in favour of the proposal. It is not the first time the government has squandered or failed to properly utilise loans obtained at concessional rates only to borrow again at higher rates.

“Hon. Susan Amero (NRM, Amuria District) was discontent with the government request saying that Parliament has been approving so many non-operational loans. ‘Most of these loans are not doing anything; many of the institutions under this program were poorly constructed and the some are poorly equipped” she said. Amero said that it is common for Ministries to request for the approval of loans from Parliament and fail to implement them.”

Source: Report of the Auditor-General Parliament for the Financial Year Ended 30th June 2018

From the point of view of the youth, it makes perfect sense to line up by the roadside and wait for money to be distributed. And it is a minor thing to wear yellow and parrot the praises of the National Resistance Movement in return. It doesn’t even matter that, owing to a lack of entrepreneurial, management and technical skills, the money will soon be lost (Uganda tops rankings both for SME start-ups and for closures of new businesses) because it is a grant. There will be more. Maybe.


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Skilling Uganda’s Youth: How a Culture of Begging Is Being Institutionalised

By Mary Serumaga

Skilling Uganda’s Youth: How a Culture of Begging Is Being Institutionalised

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni came to power in January 1986, at the head of a victorious National Resistance Army rebel movement that had won a bitter five-year guerrilla war.

30 years later, with nearly an equal number of constitutional amendments to extend his stay in power, including lifting presidential term and age limits, he is a man who looks determined to put in another 32 years, if his body allows it. His spirit is certainly very willing.

He has scattered and broken the spirits of his challengers with beatings, harassment, jail and even exile. Until 2005, his grip on power was largely aided by the fact that Uganda was a single-party state, ruled by what Museveni’s government elegantly called the “no-party system”.

Everyone was assumed by default to be included in his ruling National Resistance Movement. It thus followed that there were no ideological differences among them. Therefore, candidates could run for office on the only thing they could conceivably have differences on – “individual merit” (do the people consider you a good or bad woman?).

All that was upended in the late 1990s when Museveni’s former physician in the bush and later party ideologue, Kizza Besigye, broke ranks with the NRM in one of the most audacious political moves of the time in Uganda, and challenged him in the 2001 elections. For Museveni to triumph, it took a muscular vote-rigging effort, and the raising of a militia led by a vexatious colonel to suppress the wave of support that greeted Besigye.

However, Besigye had tasted the forbidden political fruit, and there would be no going back. The country’s rejection of the “no-party” system, and the opposition to Museveni’s 15-year rule couldn’t be denied. Four years later, multiparty politics was restored, but there was a caveat to it: the referendum that introduced pluralism was accompanied by a proposal to scrap presidential term limits.

In late 2005, a senior Museveni aide sat across my editorial conference desk at the Monitor media offices in Kampala, where I was editor. With just the two of us, there was no need to play to the gallery, so we could speak reasonably about the election. He said he had studied the election outcome in some detail, and his conclusion was that Museveni was unlikely to be unseated in the long term by a conventional opposition candidate.

The force that would bring him, and other African strongmen, down, he said, was urbanisation. Even at that point when Museveni had a stranglehold on the country, urban areas, especially Kampala, eluded him. Despite the ruling NRM deploying the most lethal weapons in its vote-cheating arsenal, they had failed to wrestle the capital’s mayorship and the majority of the parliamentary seats around the capital, from the opposition. The bulk of the opposition gains in recent years have all been largely in urban areas.

In late 2005, a senior Museveni aide sat across my editorial conference desk at The Monitor, where I was editor. With just the two of us, there was no need to play to the gallery…He had studied the election outcome in some detail, and his conclusion was that Museveni was unlikely to be unseated in the long term by a conventional opposition candidate.

They were cosmopolitan, more expensive to bribe, more knowledgeable, more demanding of higher value public goods (jobs and housing, not maize seeds like the rural voters might), he noted. Most African governments, he said, either don’t have the financial and policy resources to assuage these urban demands, and where they do, they face entrenched opposition by vested interests, some regime-linked, for them to be effective.

Today, looking at the rising wave of protests over service delivery, cost of living and jobs across the continent from the Cape to Tunis, and Mombasa to Lagos, he could not have been more prescient.

The conventional wisdom goes that Africa has too many young people who are poorly educated, and economies that don’t offer them anything gainful to do so they are angry – especially because the politicians and bureaucrats are stealing the resources that would have gone to creating opportunities. Or they are educated, but still have no opportunities, and so are frustrated and therefore inclined to take down establishments that aren’t working for them.

Indeed Africa’s population has been on the rise over the past 50 years, and over 60 percent of its current 1.3 billion population is below the age of 25. The continent’s youth account for 60 percent of all Africa’s unemployed. This has led to sometimes-apocalyptic declarations of the continent’s youth bulge being a “ticking time bomb”.

If that were the only driver of current unrest in Africa, it would be relatively easy for scrupulous and effective governments to fix. However, it is not.

Rather than just protesting at poor economic conditions, and a bleak future, Africa’s youth are doing much more, and have many in the world frightened. For example, Europeans are afraid of the wave of African migrants, and people of colour in general, driven from their homes by lack of economic opportunities overrunning their cities and taking over their countries, given their declining populations. That fear is rocking the European Union, feeding the rise of anti-immigrant forces.

Rather than just protesting at poor economic conditions, and a bleak future, Africa’s youth are doing much more, and have many in the world frightened.

To be sure, young Africans are on the move. The majority don’t try to negotiate treacherous Mediterranean waters to get to Europe, or trudge through war-ravaged Yemen to get to the Gulf. More than 80 percent of African migration occurs within the continent.

But that is not the only movement they are making. They are also moving from the rural to urban areas, with Africa’s urban population projected to reach 60 percent of the total population by 2050.

They are moving from the analogue to the digital world. By 2017 there were 419 million Africans connected to the internet via mobile broadband, and that number is estimated to hit 1.07 billion by the end of 2020.

They are moving from consuming culture in the real world, to doing so online, with its artists beginning to ride the viral wave in a big way. Davido’s “Fall” in January 2019 became the longest charting Nigerian single in Billboard history, and the first video by an African musician to rack up more than 100 million views on YouTube in December. He was closely followed a few weeks later by Yemi Alade whose hit single “Johnny” pulled her across the line to make her the first female African artist to reach the 100 million views milestone on YouTube.

They long ago moved from watching local to global football. They are abandoning the old hierarchical Catholic and Protestant churches, and signing up to the range of Pentecostal and other independent churches, a few led by charlatan pastors, hawking instant miracles, and direct tickets to paradise. At base, however, they are looking for real life solutions, not to go to heaven.

Davido’s “Fall” in January 2019 became the longest charting Nigerian single in Billboard history, and the first video by an African musician to rack up more than 100 million views on YouTube… A few weeks later Yemi Alade’s “Johnny” pulled her across the line to make her the first female African artist to reach the 100 million views milestone on YouTube.

And, yes, in all African countries except a handful, opinion polls tell us as high as 50 percent to 75 percent of them would like to move as far away from Africa or their home countries as they can.

These actions, aspirations, and shifts are challenging the status quo, borders, and power in non-traditional ways, and they are panicking.

Understandably. If you have millions of your young people speaking their minds freely on social media, without passing through conventional channels such as mainstream media, schools, and churches curated by grown ups who are considered trustworthy guardians, the national project can be imperilled. If you have young people ogling skimpily dressed men and women, or watching pornography, going against longstanding moral codes and the rules about when and how you see the opposite sex naked, it threatens the soul of the republic.

They are listening to all sorts of music, some of it with cuss words, twerking dancers, and simulated sex online.

The establishment is striking back. In Uganda, you have an anti-pornography commission, and a social media access tax that is a sin tax. A similar digital sin tax has been slapped in Zambia, and put on hold after a backlash in Benin. In Tanzania, the joys of blogging will set you back a stiff $900 in fees. In Egypt, social media users with more than 5,000 followers are considered publishers, and are subject to state regulation.

If you have millions of your young people speaking their minds freely on social media, without passing through conventional channels such as mainstream media, schools, and churches curated by grown ups who are considered trustworthy guardians, the national project can be imperilled.

Music is being banned around Africa in record numbers, and musicians like Diamond Platinumz in Tanzania are not even allowed to travel and perform their banned music in more liberal jurisdictions. Countries like Uganda are now considering new rules to censor lyrics, plays, and movie scripts.

Music is being banned around Africa in record numbers.

In other words, an old elite that wants to keep them in the structures that constitute the current states is blocking young people’s movement to alternative political, cultural, aspirational, and virtual worlds. Some of the protests are informed by youth resistance against these attempts by power to control or kill off shifts to their “new world”, as it were.

This mass migration across many aspects of life on the continent represents an old phenomenon in some respects. Like elsewhere, every generation has tried not just to remake their environment to conform to their worldview, but also to claim their share of the national goods.

A time always comes when every national cohort seeks a round of redistribution of the nation’s wealth. It can take different forms, including a chance to unlock natural resources through policy, direct handouts, or a place at the political table.

For the first 40 years of Africa’s post-independence period, it was fairly straightforward. There was independence, and the political and economic freedoms that came with it. Most African countries had relatively small populations, and the prices of the primary commodities they sold in the world market were fairly stable.

A time always comes when every national cohort seeks a round of redistribution of the nation’s wealth.

There was an expansion of education, health, jobs new and old as the colonial officials vacated, the generation that fought for independence and their children were, on the whole, well rewarded. The bar was low.

There were European settler farms, businesses, and Asian stores to parcel out among the new African elite, as in Kenya and Zimbabwe, in the flood of“Africanisation” and nationalization actions in their various forms.

Today, these have run their course. There is little left to steal or expropriate for the current generation. Aid has slowed down, and cheap post-financial crisis capital is no longer flowing.

Chinese money doesn’t travel far to the private sector, largely fattening state bureaucrats and regime affiliated business people.

Post Cold War economic liberalisation either recapitalised a few bankrupt state enterprises, or privatised them to the new elite spawned from the second and third liberation wave. The rest were buried in the graveyard of structural adjustment.

Meanwhile Chinese goods, cheaper and wider in range than the stuff that flowed in from Dubai after 1990, have ravaged artisanal industries, once thought to be immune to globalisation, as has happened in Sudan, compounding strongman Omar al-Bashir troubles.

Post Cold War economic liberalisation either recapitalised a few bankrupt state enterprises, or privatised them to the new elite spawned from the second and third liberation wave.

Besides increasing urbanisation, even in rural areas more and more Africans are moving to live a short distance away from main roads and highways. Just seeing the shiny cars, and the movement on pick-ups and lorries full of goods they cannot afford (mattresses, furniture, beer) radicalises them.

As Zimbabwe has proved, there’s little political capital to be gained from land redistribution. Most people don’t have the capital to work the land profitably. In many cases the soil is tired, trashed by either abuse of fertiliser in the past, or population pressure, and environmental ravages of recent decades that have ravaged its fertility.

On the whole, the cost of expropriation and nationalisation, once popular tools, is too high, because you are no longer grabbing from European settlers or an Asian minority that is afraid to fight back, but your own. You risk a civil war when you do.

The longest period of peace and democracy on the continent has bequeathed us an Africa where the likelihood of dying in a traffic accident is much higher than being killed by a bullet in conflict.

But it also means that it is harder now to get rid of leaders or ruling parties that have entrenched themselves and often rig elections as in Uganda, Togo, Gabon, Cameroon, Republic of Congo, Equatorial Guinea, Djibouti, to name a few.

The longest period of peace and democracy on the continent has bequeathed us an Africa where the likelihood of dying in a traffic accident is much higher than being killed by a bullet in conflict.

The five-to-seven year cycle in and out of power that happened in the coup era is now harder to achieve if you find a determined strongman dedicated to hanging on. Media liberalisation has actually helped dictators, because you cannot seize the state broadcaster and declare yourself the new junta leader. There are dozens, even hundreds of private radio and TV stations, some controlled by regime supporters, who will foil you, as happened in Burundi in 2015 and Gabon earlier in the year.

So we have a war fought on so many fronts. Offering people jobs and money cannot end it, because some of the demands are born of sharp cultural cleavages.

It is complex, because some of it stems from progress: expanded democracy, health, and technology. In turn, the young are threatening the old states in new ways. Previously, the worst was a guerrilla insurgency, and maybe a deadly famine; now it’s urbanisation, digital secession by the youth, and a different kind of imperialism we quite don’t know how to confront – China’s global market communist imperialism. The novelty of it all is exciting and even mildly intoxicating – if you are not a Big Man in an African State House.


Published by the good folks at The Elephant.

The Elephant is a platform for engaging citizens to reflect, re-member and re-envision their society by interrogating the past, the present, to fashion a future.

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Skilling Uganda’s Youth: How a Culture of Begging Is Being Institutionalised

By Mary Serumaga

Skilling Uganda’s Youth: How a Culture of Begging Is Being Institutionalised

*This reflection is dedicated to my spiritual son, Jesse Masai, and several others like him who constantly wrestle with the question of their responsibility to the Republic in this season.

An old proverb says, “We have not inherited this land from our forebears, we have borrowed it from our children.” Here, we are debtors and owe our children a prosperous future.

The extent to which we develop our democratic institutions, entrench the rule of law and build a prosperous economy shows our obligation towards them. The dream of a land of freedom, where individual rights are guaranteed and where all prosper is fast turning into a frightening nightmare. The once-abhorred Nyayo era, marked with authoritarianism, state terror, press censorship and violation of human rights is back with a vengeance.

Throughout my writings, I have strenuously been trying to be non-partisan on party politics. This then is the article I thought I would never write: a candid assertion that a certain form of partisanship is now a moral necessity. The Jubilee government, as an institution, has become a danger to the rule of law and to the integrity of our democracy. The problem is not just President Uhuru Kenyatta; it’s the larger political apparatus, including Parliament, that made a conscious decision to enable him.

In a multi-party system, non-partisanship works only if all players are consistent democratic actors and subject to independent institutions that safeguard democracy.  If one of them is not predictably so, the space for non-partisanship evaporates. I am thus driven to believe that the best hope of defending the country from Uhuru’s Jubilee enablers and saving the nation is to stage a public protest as Muthoni Nyanjiru and Nobel Laurent Professor Wangari Maathai did in 1922 and 1992, respectively. Protest against the government and Parliament until they get it right or implode!

The Jubilee government, as an institution, has become a danger to the rule of law and to the integrity of our democracy.

How can a prosperous future for our children be realised under these conditions? This is not how we pay the debt we owe our children. Today’s youth must not allow us to squander that future. There is an urgent voice calling for action now: “Wade in the waters, children…” Can’t we hear it?

The legendary Harriet Tubman, also known as “Moses” (who once had a US$40,000 price tag on her head for “slave stealing”), sung this song to alert the runaway slaves she guided to freedom. The song signaled to runaways: “Use the river so the hounds can’t trace you. Tonight is the moment for flight; move swiftly; the reaction will be fierce.” Harriet speaks to us today: Now is the time: stop this backsliding, “wade into the waters”, free our children from slavery. Wade into the waters, children!

This advice does not seem smart at first. Why would one want to jump into waters that God stirred up (described in the Bible as troubled)? For many Kenyans, the failure of the opposition NASA to guide them to Canaan is troubled waters. Under persistent attacks – many of them seemingly minor – democratic institutions in Kenya have been eroded gradually until they have failed. The undermining of the independence of the electoral commission, the police service and the free press has rendered our democratic process useless. Our waters are troubled in at least two possible ways.

Lately, we have come to regard the government as a danger to the Constitution of Kenya 2010. It has proved unable or unwilling to block assaults on the rule of law. If these assaults are normalised, they will pose an existential threat to Kenya’s future.

Secondly, our economy is being shackled with foreign debt. This act makes a mockery of the 2000 Jubilee campaign that pushed Western countries to forgive crippling foreign debts of the world’s poorest countries, including Kenya. It is irresponsible to deliberately and unnecessarily enslave our children’s future in debt, erasing their future ability to compete in this world.

There is an urgent voice calling for action now: “Wade in the waters, children…” Can’t we hear it?

Francis A. Schaeffer, warning in his book How Should We Then Live? is instructive to us in Kenya: “If we…do not speak out as authoritarian governments grow from within or come from outside, eventually we or our children will be the enemy of society and the state. No truly authoritarian government can tolerate those who have real absolute by which to judge its arbitrary absolutes and who speak out and act upon that absolute.”

A similar situation is playing out in a Kenya that negates the government’s claim to construct a prosperous future for our children. Instead of addressing these challenges, the government elects to shut down media channels that expose its incompetency and locks up critics who question its legitimacy. This is a perfect recipe for national rebellion.

Fredrick Douglas warned: “The thing that is worse than rebellion is the thing that causes rebellion.” Failure to address the causes of disquiet – and instead opting to use unconstitutional means to silence people – will be the Achilles heel of this government. This may have a tragic ending.

When Laius, the King of Thebes, is told by the Oracle of Delphi that his son will kill him and sleep with his mother Jocasta, the king pierces his baby son’s ankles and leaves him on a mountainside to die. This becomes the first of a sequence of events that leads to the Oracle’s prophesy being fulfilled. For a shepherd finds the baby and takes him to King Polybus and Queen Merope of Corinth, who name him Oedipus and raise him as their own.

Failure to address the causes of disquiet – and instead opting to use unconstitutional means to silence people – will be the Achilles heel of this government. This may have a tragic ending.

Later, Oedipus seeks the help of the Oracle of Delphi to know his parentage. The Oracle tells him that he’s destined to kill his father and sleep with his mother. Oedipus tries to run from this fate, but ends up running right into it. He kills Laius in a scuffle at a crossroads, not knowing he’s his real father. Later, he wins the throne of Thebes and unknowingly marries his mother, Jocasta, after answering the riddle of the Sphinx. When they figure out the truth, Jocasta hangs herself and Oedipus stabs out his own eyes. The Greek story ends in tragedy.

In the spiritual song – Wade in the Waters – those who will be blessed are urged to step into the waters first, before the angel of God comes. The song stresses meeting hardships with courage and “steady” faith; gather now and get ready, the healing is promised. Gather now, so that all will be among the first received and delivered by the gifts of grace that spring forth in dark times. While addressing young Germans in Stuttgart on the need to stand for human dignity, former United Nations Secretary-General Dr. Kofi Annan said: “You are not too young to lead, for to lead means to take responsibility and set example.” He explained, “When leaders fail to lead, the people can lead and make leaders follow.” For this very reason, youth in this country must wade in the waters and assume leadership to save their future.

But can we rely on the youth to deliver?

Harris Okongo Arara went to Chianda High School in Uyoma, Siaya County, the same school I attended. He was the best footballer and hockey player that the school ever produced. Upon completing his studies, Arara joined the Kenya Air Force. When he was in his 20s, he became an activist for change and courageously led the fight to end one-party dictatorship in Kenya. What he told a Nairobi court about to sentence him to jail for sedition on September 24, 1988, expressed the values he stood for and the vision he had for Kenya. He declined to plead for leniency or mercy. With confidence, he dismissed the courts’ right to judge him. Arara questioned why he should seek personal mercy while millions of Kenyans lived in misery. He was proud to join the company of those he called apostles, who attempted to rescue justice but found themselves in detention, prison or exile. He said:

The people of this nation are simply demanding their fundamental rights and freedoms. They are simply demanding their rights to a decent living, right to education, right to proper medical care, right to housing. In short, the right to be human beings. If that is sedition, so be it. These are the goals for which I have always fought, and for which I am prepared to die.

Arara was sentenced to a five-year jail term. This was his second stint in jail, having been in detention without trial for six years following the 1982 coup attempt. Arara had only been free for eight months at the time of this sentencing.  He was wading into the troubled waters of the Nyayo era.

We learn history because through it we understand the sacrifices that were made before, so that when we make sacrifices we understand we’re doing it on behalf of future generations. It is possible to resist oppressive laws enacted by Parliament that undermine the Constitution and degrade human dignity.

In 1922, for instance, 27-years old Harry Thuku, the leader of the East African Association, was arrested for acting and speaking against “forced labour of women on the roads”. Officials of the nationalist association rallied African workers in Nairobi to go on strike. On March 15, transport workers, domestic workers and government employees deserted their workplaces and gathered in front of the police station where Thuku was being held. Makhan Singh, in History of Kenya’s Trade Union Movement to 1952, wrote: “As the crowd grew, a deputation of the East African Association, including Jomo Kenyatta, held a meeting with Acting Governor Sir Charles Bowring in his office.”

According to Audrey Wipper, who wrote the chapter “Kikuyu Women and the Harry Thuku Disturbances: Some Uniformities of Female Militancy in the Africa” in the Journal of the International African Institute,  Nyanjiru and her stepdaughter, Elizabeth Waruiru, were among the city’s female workers who came out to demonstrate. Nyanjiru was a Kikuyu woman who had moved from the village of Weithaga in the native reserves to Nairobi.  Addressing the strikers, Jomo Kenyatta announced the deal the East African Association deputies had reached with the governor: Thuku could not be released, but the governor had promised him a fair trial. He then urged the demonstrators to disperse.

It is possible to resist oppressive laws enacted by Parliament that undermine the Constitution and degrade human dignity.

Nyanjiru stood in the front of the crowd near Kenyatta as the demonstrators began leaving. She threw her dress over her shoulders and exposed her naked body, taunting the cowardice of the men and challenging them to stand up to Kenyatta. (In Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s A Grain of Wheat, Nyanjiru is presented as a woman who is incensed by men’s impotency against colonial oppression. She challenges men to swap their trousers for women’s skirts.) Nyanjiru threatened to lead the demand for Harry Thuku’s release if the men were too cowardly to do it.

The 300 women present ululated loudly. The strikers were galvanised by Nyanjiru’s actions and the women’s call to battle. Men who were beginning to disperse returned. A large section of the crowd rushed forward towards the armed guards. Nyanjiru stood only a few feet away from the guards, who had been on duty for 18 continuous hours. The guards kneeled and engaged their rifles at the command of the superintendent of police, Captain Carey.

In the end, 200 Kenyans died. Thuku was exiled, first to Kismayu, then to Marsabit, Witu and Lamu.  But as Bryan Ngartia observed in The Ageless Defiance of Muthoni Nyanjiru, “the sacrifice wasn’t all in futility. The tax was reduced from 16 shillings to 12 shillings and was never again raised for the sole purpose of filling labour needs. African grievances were given serious consideration.” This was the seed of struggle that matured in the later independence of Kenya.

Where Are Those Songs?  Micere Githae Mugo pleads with our mothers today:

Where are those songs / my mother and yours / always sang / fitting rhythms / to the whole / vast span of life/? […]  Sing Daughter sing […] sing/simple songs/for the people/for all to hear/and learn/and sing/with you.
In 1992, Prof. Maathai led mothers of political prisoners detained by the Moi regime to occupy Freedom Corner in Nairobi’s Uhuru Park. The government, in now familiar style, dispatched armed police to evict the women, who stripped naked in protest and defiance. Prof. Maathai was beaten unconscious and hospitalised, but the women of Freedom Corner eventually won. Prof. Maathai and her group of women also stopped President Daniel Toroitich arap Moi – at the zenith of his power – from building what would have been Times Tower, a complex associated with the ruling party, at Uhuru Park.

Women must wade in the waters and refuse to be silenced; they must fight for their children’s future. In her contribution published in The Inquiry in 2013, titled “Silence is a Woman”, Wambui wa Mwangi opposed the exclusionary, false, Gikuyu-centric narrative and ideological erasure of many other ethnic communities in the Kenyan story as told by Gikuyu men. She stresses: “Here, I also want to insist on the strong tradition within Gikuyu women’s culture of resisting tyranny, oppression, domination, and hubristic upumbafuness by the men.” Wambui is right to point us to the fact that authoritarianism has no ethnicity. We all sink under bad leadership.

Wambui is right to point us to the fact that authoritarianism has no ethnicity. We all sink under bad leadership.

In shorthand, the song “wade in the waters” admonished the community not to be like the paralysed man, who seemed unable to seize the opportunity and betrayed to the authorities the one who saved him. The song pairs those who made it to safety with the victims who fell trying. For those who made it through: who that dressed in blue?

And in the description of baptism, a hinted memory of those lost in the middle passage:

Chilled body but not my soul… 

We remember that their sacrifices have given us our freedom, made the rule of law possible and set us on the path of prosperity.

I am suggesting that in today’s situation, we all should mount powerful public protest despite our party affiliation or policy position. Our demand should be: The rule of law as a threshold in Kenyan politics. Any party that endangers this value must disqualify itself. We must insist on unadulterated implementation of Chapter 6 of the Constitution of Kenya 2010. Period. Then, perhaps, we too would be wading in the waters.

Going forward, it is likely that public protest will be dealt with ruthlessly and may even be fatal for some, but there is gain for all that we strive for. In the face of brutality against dreams, let us consider the story of Joseph in the Bible. The brothers said, ” Come, let us kill him and throw him into one of these wells…Then we’ll see what comes of his dreams.” (Gen. 37:20) Here the irony could not be more explicit. The very act intended to frustrate dreams by killing the dreamer becomes the beginning of a sequence of events that make the dreams come true. Joseph went on a winding journey from slavery, to Potiphar’s house, to prison and finally to leadership in Egypt.

Let us demand the dreams of our children.

 

Cited works:

Carl Rosberg and John Nottingham, 1966: The Myth of ‘Mau Mau’: nationalism in Kenya. New York: Praeger.

Ngugi wa Thiong’o, 2012: A Grain of Wheat. Penguin African Writers Series, New York: USA.

Schaeffer, Francis A., 1976: How Should We Then Live? The rise and decline of Western thought. Crossway books Wheaton IL. USA

Singh, Makhan, 1969: History of Kenya’s Trade Union Movement to 1952. Nairobi: East Africa African Publishing House.

Wipper, Audrey, 1989: “Kikuyu Women and the Harry Thuku Disturbances: Some Uniformities of Female Militancy, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, 59.3: 300–337


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