Category Archives: Africa

A few thoughts on the state of our Nation


I really liked the old judge on Boston Legal who would get into a huff at the antics of Denny Crane and that other guy. This guy:

outrageousTurns out that Denny and his bro crush Alan Shore play up on his insecurities because he is 70 years old, a virgin and still living with his mother. Okay.

Quite often, when I read the papers or listen to the radio, I feel exactly like that. Sometimes I even say it out aloud. There is a lot of outrage in the world right now and I want to throw in my very subjective views on all this anger:

1. On this thing called tribalism: Every time something wrong happens in Kenya, you have all these outraged people on the social media shouting at Kenyans about how we deserve this because we voted on tribal lines. As opposed to what, though? Political ideology? A spotless performance record? Clear vision and the determination to go there? Do we actually, realistically, have a choice? Would we really have been better off under the Opposition, which has been very publicly and very embarrassingly tearing itself into pieces?

Again on tribalism. How exactly are we meant to deal with it? Should we all erase our ethnic names and surnames, ask our grandparents to put their names in a lotto so that they can move from their homes? It would also have to be undertaken on a massive scale: we would have to rename our counties and villages too, and give them bland names like…like what actually?

If we look at how other countries have dealt with tribalism, there are no easy solutions. Rwanda, no-one needs a reminder. India, strong regional government, but still there are fights between the Muslims and the Hindus, not to mention the war on women. Europe? Well, extermination, integration by sheer numbers and force, and of course splitting up countries into smaller and smaller geographical units sort of took care of it over a really, really, really long time. United by language, culture and a shared history. (Also a strong conviction that your people are superior to everyone else.)

Yes…what we are really saying is that we want equality and peace. Shouting down tribalism is a convenient boogey-man. We can’t ‘solve’ it but we can blame all our failures on it.

Will we ever really truly love each other and hold hands under our beautiful flag? I’m not sure. Maybe we don’t need to. We embraced devolution, which is a clear statement that different regions have different needs and they have the right to protect their own interests and do what works for them. (Once all the governors’ mansions have been built and there are a few more billionaires in the country of course.) Again, even if we magically wipe away any trace of diversity/ difference, growing extreme nationalism (also known as stop taking all the jobs we refuse to do and go back to your countries you brown people) tells us that finding differences to unite against is something societies are very good at.

Which brings me to,

2. This thing called Kenya: Some people are of the opinion that calling Kenya a country requires a massive stretch of the imagination. If you live in Nairobi and some of the other towns in the 15% of Kenya that is not a desert or semi- desert, you may not believe this. Even then, there are pockets in the city that are not technically under the rule of government. Instead, this is a world where NGO’s, gangsters and local barons decide what happens. Places where people do not want electricity from KPLC because they have their own connections (that frequently cause devastating fires). And even then…this is a place where you would rather call the Red Cross when a building collapses, despite the fact that a whole department exists to deal with disasters. And the next day, shout about how NGO’s need to leave the country.

3. On fighting corruption: This is another great distraction. Which is often linked back to ‘YOU VOTED ALONG TRIBAL LINES!!!’

many headed hydra

The EACC has to fight this monster with hard hitting reports and PLO’s linguistic flare

I should say one thing though: I am not really sure what Parliament does. They debate a ton of laws, ranging from legally allowed substitutes for breast milk, to enabling Counties to officially have something called the ‘County Printer’ to more serious issues such as security and potato farming.

One of the greatest things that the NARC/ PNU government did was revitalize the public service. While we were following the Nyayo philosophy, the civil service virtually ground to a halt. Literally everything collapsed. Part of the reason was that we had to ‘structurally adjust’ our economies, another way of asking government to just slash the civil service, stop building schools, hospitals and roads and outsource everything to private companies who would obviously do a better job and would absolutely not shred these companies to pieces to make massive profits before making a quick exit. Also Nyayo had to focus on consolidating his power, which meant that a lot of incompetent people suddenly found themselves running the economy.

So now, at least we have a semblance of a functioning public service. We have PHDs and MPhils sitting in little cubicles drafting policies and getting angry at consultants all day. And they do make progress. Slow, boring progress that cannot compete against sensational headlines, and are always under the threat of complete erasure after a roadside declaration from an MP on the campaign trail.

Which brings me back to corruption. We focus on grand corruption because it is something we can talk about in a few paragraphs, exorcise our anger, and feel like we are tackling a problem. Chicken scandal! Counties will cause the financial collapse of the country! (they could be well on their way by the way). More outrage. Again, I am not sure if we can actually solve this. Our whole system, under whatever name, still gives politicians too much temptation. Even Hercules would falter.

On the other hand, systemic corruption  is corruption which is primarily due to the weaknesses of an organization or process. It invades the system, and becomes the system.  It becomes the rule, rather than the exception. It is caused by conflicting incentives, discretionary powers, monopolistic powers, lack of transparency and low pay (i.e all those public servants who are never at work because they are moonlighting for NGOs or busy growing potatoes to send their kids to school).

This is why I think that people who go around saying that ‘corruption starts with you and me!’ are asking a bit much from us. That if we stop paying cops to get off on traffic offences, the system will magically realign itself. Okay…

It would be nice if we focused a little more on what the public service is actually doing. Or not doing. They are the ones who actually move the country forward; stronger institutions means better service, which is what we really want.

4. On understand who we are: we are in the unfortunate position of not being in control of our own story. We get outraged every time our problems are framed in way that implies the reason we are such failures is because we are primitive. What is even worse is that we have internalized this  narrative are have become unable to have honest, critical debates about who we are.

I see this when MPs can ask for exceptions on domestic violence because ‘in our culture, that is how men show they love their wives’. I see this when you have people sighing and saying ‘Only in Kenya!’ and, ‘You voted on tribal lines!’ (as if land, production, wealth and trying to protect legitimate interests has nothing to do with it). I see this when we lash out at development organisations one day, insisting that activists are on their payroll and the next day, we accept loans from our best friends the IMF (architects of the infamous SAPs) I see this when we say bizarre things like ‘What the West needs to do is to help developing governments be empowered to fight corruption’. How can you ask someone to come and empower you? Isn’t there an oxymoron in there somewhere?

We still have not understood that everyone has an agenda, as they should. We don’t quite have a way to protect our own interests, as we should. So we act like the world owes us a favor. This is how we can get away to claiming that there is a secret campaign to sterelise African women. To what end? To bring us down and destroy us? There are perfectly legal ways in which this is happening…and continues to happen.

The world owes us a big apology. They owe us a massive debt. But they won’t pay it. Or even acknowledge that it exists.

I have no solutions because I am part of the system. Like plenty of others, I benefit from the dysfunction build into the system. I have privilege, and if you are reading this, then you probably do too. I can only beg that we think deeper and harder about who we are and what we want, and what is really ailing us. That eventually, one day, it will be normal to attend public hearings on budget and expenditure, instead of lurching from crisis after crisis.

Why African ‘traditionalists’ should be the loudest supporters of feminism (including #mydressmychoice)


If you listen to discussions in the public space for and against all the the poor women who have been stripped, humiliated and molested in Kenya’s public spaces, you will see a strong and predictable thread that blames ‘modernization’ for society’s ills. This basically means that tv and media have transformed our women from the submissive angels they were into scantily dressed part-time prostitutes who’s sole mission in life is to confuse men by tapping into their wild and untamed sexual desires. These women are asking for it, and the problem is modernization.

Except it is not.

When we talk about traditional African values, we fall into this little happy place where we can fantasize about what it meant to be African. For the loudest and most ignorant, it simply means a society where women were passive, subjugated and at the mercy of their men. It was a world where male power went unchecked, and half of the society lived in misery. For others, it is not so clear- hence the comments about Africans being barbarians and the civilizing influence of Jesus. In this space, fantasy rules and everyone can find arguments to justify their half baked ideas.

I remember reading Koigi Wamwere’s autobiography and I was very surprised at his explanation of his childhood. I paraphrase but he said: Violence in society came from the top and filtered to the bottom. The man of the house would spend the entire day, humiliated by his colonial masters and unable to fight back. His masculinity was challenged every single day. He would go home and take out his anger on his wife,beating her senseless for perceived wrong doing. The wife, unable to fight against her husband, would take her anger and frustration out on her children, punishing them for petty things that children do in the most brutal ways. And the kids, they would kick the dog. 

Then I read Wangari Maathai’s autobiography and she had a little paragraph were she describes the perils of her childhood: We always had to be careful when going to the river to fetch water or coming back home in the dark. There were boys from the village who would lie in wait and force us to have sex with them.

I asked my own mother about this: she is not as old as Koigi and the late Wangari. This is what she said:

YES!! We learnt how to fight from a very early age. Those boys would try force themselves on us and you had to kick and scream and run away. Growing up in the village was tough. 

She also has scars on her legs from her brothers throwing burning pieces of wood at her. And she remembers being locked up in the latrine by her father and brothers on more than one occasion for her ‘wrong doings’

Hmm how about my generation? Some of my cousins tell me that the boys in the family gave them sweets and biscuits so that they could fondle them and try have sex with them. Yes, keeping it in the family indeed.

Let’s get some academics to back me up:

‘Hellish existence in the colonial world carries with it both the racial and the gendered aspects of the naturalization of the non-ethics of war. Indeed, coloniality of Being primarily refers to the normalization of the extraordinary events that take place in war. While in war there is murder and rape, in the hell of the colonial world murder and rape become day to day occurrences and menaces. ‘Killability’ and ‘rapeability’ are inscribed into images of the colonial bodies. Lacking real authority, colonized men are permanently feminized.’

Spot on.

So, is this the traditional culture that people are screaming for? Well, let me tell you that it is alive and well. Just move your family out of Nairobi and get your daughters raped in the name of upholding your culture.

What we know as “African tradition” is nothing more than a perverse system of distorted value and misplaced anger. We should not accept it.

How about pre-colonial Africa?

If these supporters of “African culture’ would only dig deeper, they would find out some crazy stuff.Look at this  particularly romantic description of women: ‘Women were treated with unparalleled respect because they were seen to be closer to the creator than men ever had the potential of being. This is because women themselves had the ability to create due to the fact that they were able to give birth. As creation of life, they were charged with the sacred responsibility of caring for the needs of the next generation, and because of this, they can be regarded as the originations of the idea that is now known as sustainable developments.’

And

One of the consequences of the advent of colonialism is the erosion of gender equality which characterized traditional African society. Both men and women had different roles they played in families and the society at large. But the case became different since the contact of Africa with colonialism…But since the era of colonialism, women have been placed on the lower rungs of the proverbial ladder by the dominant forces of capitalism, and now globalization, which emphasizes this need for power, superiority and compartmentalization of roles and responsibilities with different values attached to them

African society, like large parts of the world, was patriarchal. That is clear and we cannot deny it. However, ‘The positions of women in pre-colonial…differed according to ethnic divisions and the existing occupational divisions and roles of women within the economic structure and prevailing kinship systems. Women’s roles during pre-colonial times were perceived as complimentary to men rather than subordinate.’

What our traditionalists forget is that at the time, European civilization was characterized by some very rigid gender roles. These were they days when women were fainting in their corsets. When they were not allowed to leave their homes without male chaperons. When they had to cover their entire bodies lest an exposed ankle drive a man into wild, uncontrollable lust. When they were not allowed to vote (until the late 70s for some…)and were still being diagnosed with ‘hysteria’ and treated by being manually stimulated by their doctors. When lobotomies were an acceptable way to ‘treat’ a woman with too many emotions.

These are the values that were imprinted on us. Through violence and emasculation. These are the values we are fighting for today as though they were our own. This is how we made that massive leap from the little skirts and swinging boobies to a society of people who cover their heads and insist that you wear skirts of a decent length (preferably pleated and shapeless) in the space of a few generations. The rest of the world has moved on. We haven’t. We have dug our heels in and are taking out our anger and frustration at society’s most defenseless people:

 Fanon analyzed how colonial violence influenced the colonized to be violent. In the first place he noted that the abused and violated colonized people ‘manifest this aggressiveness which has been deposited in his bones against his own people’. In the second place, he explained that the colonized person’s confrontation with the ‘colonial order of things’ places him/her in ‘a permanent state of tension’. In the third place, Fanon argued that: ‘The native is an oppressed person whose permanent dream is to become the persecutor’.

The way we think about our women, the way we talk about them, the way we allow them to be attacked and abused, it is a measure of just how much our minds have been conquered. It is a measure of how powerless our men are, that they have to attack and justify their attacks so that they can feel slightly more powerful.

Some people think that all this drama in the city is overrated. That we should be focusing on the girls being forced to get married at 13 in the villages. The girls who are being circumcised by their own aunties and mothers. But I say we are part of the same struggle. Injustice is injustice and they have the same roots.

Saying yes to this nonsense means that your mind is still colonized. That you are still enforcing Victorian values that were rammed down your parent’s throats through violence and abuse. That you are willing to live in ignorance and spout half baked nonsense to justify your bullshit. That, at the end of the day you are emasculated and you know it.

A brief summary of African Ideology: the pub version


Yesterday, I had a very strange exchange with a fellow on the Twitter, who posted an article by that loony scientist Dr Richard Lynn (of the black women are ugly because of too much testosterone fame) claiming that atheists are more intelligent than the average Bible thumping, Jesus loving uneducated cretins running loose in our streets.

I told him that  using this man’s research to prove a point is a slippery slope that leads to weird Nazi like arguments about race, intelligence and the value of human beings. Stuff that you really don’t want to get into.

Somehow, the argument descended into a flurry of links with information about the colonized African mind and misinformation about the great black race, with lots of references to the Egyptian civilization thrown in for good measure.

These things reminded me a lot of myself when I was in my late teens- obsessed with Bob Marley, slavery and finally discovering the truth about Africa. With the obligatory shaggy ‘fro, questionable sources of information and lots of beaded jewelry. (We all deal with teen angst in different ways, okay?)

This got me thinking of the debate about Africa, the different forms it has taken over the years, and my changing opinions about African identity, nationhood and other ways we try to make sense of a world so hell bent on proving that we are doomed for eternity.

And since I love lists so much, here is my list of  philosophies that you are bound to come across in bars around the continent:

1. The ones living in the Past before the Past

I’m talking about the past before the past here. Before pre-colonial times to that space where information is scant and fantasy rules. These are the people who like to argue about whether or not Ancient Egypt was ruled by black Pharaohs, and in that way, shielding themselves against anyone who thinks  that Africa was a bush-land populated by people a few degrees smarter than monkeys.

The fact is, there are no known written languages originating in Sub-Saharan Africa, so we will never really know what went on before international trade began (8th Century?) All our information therefore comes from traders, missionaries and slavers, so yes, the objectivity of their reports can be questioned.

The past before the past philosophers use this lack of information to lay fantastic claims like ‘Africans discovered science but rejected it because they realized it was evil’.

But why this obsession with Egypt, when there are plenty of other examples across the continent? Is it just a way to hide an inferiority complex by clinging on to an example that fits the  ideal of a classical empire considered to be powerful and civilized?

This is dangerous territory because it makes you look like a nut and eventually people will avoid you.

2. The Pan- Africans

I blame this one squarely on those books we were forced to study in high school. As much as I respect our post-colonial writers, I don’t think we should be feeding this narrative to impressionable young people 50 years after the end of foreign rule.

I’m talking about the people who think that colonialism in to blame for absolutely everything. That, before the 1800s, we lived in a utopia where men and women were equal, everyone lived in harmony and died peacefully in their sleep after a life well lived.

This is often followed by an idolization of leaders such as good old Bob in Zim and the late, flamboyant Gaddaffi because they are supposedly finally kicking out the evil colonialists and freeing their people from oppression.

Once again, it is difficult to tell fact from fantasy and colonial propaganda because we were not doing any recording of information ourselves.

Sadly, whether or not the Pan Africans are right, it is virtually impossible to go back to this kind of life. I suspect that the damage done to our cultures and values by the violence, humiliation and subjugation that came with colonialism means that what we have today is a mangled culture that is doing more damage for us than good.

And of course, playing the blame game means that taking responsibility is conveniently avoided.

3. The Afro-politans

The source of this term is an article about life in the diaspora for young, educated and well off Africans. Despite it’s playful and entertaining tone, it provoked some measure of outrage from the kind of people who concern themselves with these debates.

I’m not sure I can be objective about this one, because I do check many of the boxes here. However, as some people have pointed out, ‘Afro-politanism’ looks more like cultural commodification (think chic leather bags and handmade jewelry), rather than an actual identity.

It is also useful for people navigating different cultures,  and suits the ‘Africa is rising’  crew because it makes us look a little bit more glamorous and cool and civilized.

4. The ones who just don’t care

Thank God for pragmatic people. Thank God for people who are more interested in working and living and not endless naval gazing. Thank God for people who don’t live in their heads but face life for what it is without making excuses.

These people probably never even finished reading a single book by Ngugi. They aren’t interested in the dusty past and whether or not Egypt was ruled by black people.

They want things to work, but they don’t really care how.

They have a point though,  I mean, is this kind of debate even useful anymore?

Objectively digging into the past is useful in order to understand the present. But doing it in order to find excuses and avoid responsibility? Not so much.

How to answer annoying questions and end conversations quickly


When travelling and meeting new people, you get used to responding to a standard set of questions that come up with exhausting frequency. It usually goes something like this:

Oh so you are from Kenya? (searches brain to think of something that they know about the country.)

Nairobi, right? (blank smile on my part. I don’t help this knowledge exchange because I believe in the power of Wikipedia)

Image

I want to visit someday. (Great, should I call my travel agent and book you a ticket?)

Then safari, animals, language, (establishing if we speak English down there) and possibly food.

Awkward silence as I ponder on whether or not it would be appropriate to break out into a native dance.

Then I politely ask the same even though I really could not give two shits about where they come from because that’s what civilised people to to carry on the meaningless small talk and waste some time.

I’ve talked about this before, but the more I think about it, the more I realize what a terrible ambassador I am for my country. I mean, when people tell me that they want to visit, I tell them to go to the parks and to the coast.

Why?

Because tourism is an important part of our economy. So skip all the crap about wanting to know the real Kenya and just go burn some cash so that we can build ourselves some super high ways and/or buy some phantom passport making machines. Your government made this video expressly to attract people with lots of money to burn. Count how many times actual people (except for the ruggedly handsome dancing Maasais of course) feature in there:

Seriously.

When people ask me about food, I end the discussion by saying that Kenyan food places emphasis on fresh, natural ingredients cooked in an unpretentious way. And like the British, we generally eat to live and not the other way around.

Admit it, it’s true.

How about language?

Please download a copy of the Lion King. Memorize the words ‘hakuna matata‘.

Voila, you speak Swahili.

Some of the more masochistic ones will keep probing. How is the situation there? (this means, are you one of those countries busy hacking each other to death?)

Yeah, we lost our minds in 2008, I’m not sure if we will go in for round two next year.

I also generalize a lot. I say, ‘in Africa, we do this…In Africa….’ Why? It’s true that Africa is not a country. But it’s also true that we have a lot more in common than we would like to admit. Our problems are almost uniform in nature: pick a little old lady living in a village in the Gambia. Chances are, she has plenty in common with my grandmother living in Nyeri. It’s not an insult. It’s a fact.

That is what it means to belong to a race of people. Y’all have shit in common.

(And besides, were we not in love with Gaddaffi because he wanted a united Africa? Just saying…)

And please don’t talk about North Africa- they only become Africans when they are unemployed, roaming the streets causing trouble and feeling rejected by society.

Image

Why do I do this? Because it is very, very rare to meet someone with a genuine interest in my continent. Blame it on the media if you want to. Blame it on us for being woefully unprepared to join a global community with incomprehensible and incompatible structures with our own.

Blame it on our predecessors who do not remember enough about our culture and passed down to us a crippled understanding of ourselves, poisoned with self loathing. Blame them for unwittingly sharing their inferiority complex.

I do not encourage these kinds of meaningless conversations because, like anyone with a decent bullshit radar, I can tell when someone is making an attempt at ‘talking to the African’ and possibly going through the confusing process of trying to -sift through stereotypes and not putting their foot in their mouth while trying to find common ground maybe with this person but not really sure if it is worth it talking to them oh God what to do this is really weird-

It’s not too much to ask to be seen as an individual you know. And those that do are often well rewarded.

By the way, this video by His Awesomeness Hugh Masekela is what put me in this dark mood. Watch it if you have 15 minutes to spare.