On Death and why you don’t need to be perfect


My friend and classmate, Julie, died on 15th November 2015. I found out because I had been idly scrolling my Facebook timeline, sipping a Cappuccino at ArtCaffe, feeling posh and typing away frantically at my computer doing important things. A chill ran down my spine when I saw the RIP message, but I dismissed it and decided to talk to the person who had posted the message to ask for more information.

I was sure it was a mistake.

Of course it wasn’t, and even as I attended her memorial service and held back tears as we sang ‘Amazing Grace’, and tried to say hello to some of her friends, I still felt like I could text her on Whatsapp and tell her that this whole thing is pretty lame and when can we finally do our wine date and moan about it?

I scrolled her Instagram and looked at her pictures. I read everything she wrote on Facebook and googled her name over and over again. I kept repeating to myself, ‘Julie is dead, Julie is Dead, Julie is dead’

It still feels surreal.

I was not a good friend to Julie. I cared about her, but predictably, life happened, and even when we did reconnect, it was in that weird millenial way that allows people to make plans but not really commit. Where it’s okay to cancel at the last minute or simply ignore the fact that you had arranged a meeting. Where following people on social media is a substitute for actually sitting down with someone and being in their presence. Where the lamest of excuses are accepted with a smiley face and a ‘no worries’ text. Where instead of spending time with people, we would rather stay home and troll the internet.

Funerals remind us just how fragile life is. They remind us just how unfair life is. That ultimately, few things matter. No-one will remember what car you drove (even if they do, it won’t be their fondest memory). They will remember you and how you made them feel. Even your mistakes will pale in comparison to all the good you did. They will remember the joy and happiness you brought into their lives.

Funerals remind us that we are failures. That we will never live up to our standards. That we will never be good enough or smart enough, or kind enough or anything enough. But it’s okay, we were never meant to be. We were meant to live as flawed humans, who have little control over what happens. We were meant to live with pain and fear and sadness and then disappear. But as long as we try our best, appreciate our friends and families and everyday that we live, then it will be okay.

Rest in peace Julie.

NB: Sometimes we can never fully understand the struggles that other people go through. Sometimes we can’t understand that there is a difference between soul crushing depression and a funk because something bad happened. Sometimes ‘get over it’ is the worst thing we can say when we are trying to help someone. We just don’t understand, and we can’t. My friends out there with issues they may suspect could be serious, get help. We can’t save you because we don’t understand.

 

Spirituality, Religion and Lies


Jommo Kenyatta, in his book, ‘Facing Mount Kenya’, has a lot to say about Gikuyu traditional religious beliefs:

 No individual may directly supplicate the Almighty…In the ordinary way of everyday life there are no organised prayers or religious ceremonies such as ‘morning and evening prayers’. So far as people and things go well and propser, it is taken for granted that God is pleased with the general behavior of the people and the welfare of the country. In this happy state there is no need for prayers. Indeed they are inadvisable, for Ngai must not needlessly be bothered. It is only when humans are in real need that they must approach him, without fear of disturbing him and incurring his wrath…Further, in our linguistic illustrations, we have: ‘Ngai ndegiagiagwo’, literally, ‘Ngai must never be pestered.’ This is a saying much used in Gikuyu. It has wide implications. In the first place it implies that even if a terrible calamity, such as the death of a child, should befall a man, his attitude must be one of resignation, for people know that Ngai gives ad has the power to take away. The man is not left hopeless- for Ngai may restore his losses- another child may be born to him.’

I bring this up because traditional beliefs are often discussed in the most simplistic terms. We all learnt in school that the Gikuyu pray facing Mount Kenya, where Ngai resides, and that the Mugumo tree is sacred and that sacrifices are made when there is a drought. It  fits well into the general narrative about Africans as backward people with quaint and/or bizarre customs and traditions, but not world views, philosophies and other aspects that make a proper culture. It is also, I suspect, the reason that cultural studies never really dig into ‘African culture’. Africans are relegated to Anthropological studies instead.

This all started because I found myself signing up for the Mavuno Church ‘Mizizi’ programme. I had heard great things about it and I was willing to take a go. The promise of wiping away your old self and transforming into the super you is deeply appealing. (Look at the number of self help books available, the cults around vegeterianism, paleo, veganism and all the rest are testament to this deep need we all have too).

So I signed up and I was willing to listen and learn.

Except that my stubborn brain could not unlearn everything it has decided about how the world works. It could not unsee all the diverse spiritual practices imprinted in India and France and Sicily.

So of course I started picking away at the logic that was being fed to us. Unfortunately it was easier than shooting fish in a barrel.

What struck me the most was the seeming shallowness of the message. For example, our instructor told us that it is important to pray always. To pray if we have had a stressful day and we need to rest. That God will work a miracle and we will get a break.

Really? The Alpha and Omega, the creator of the universe (in seven days, mind you), the dispenser of justice and mercy, he who parted the Red Sea and brought down the 7 deadly plagues to free his chosen people, will work a miracle so that you can rest after a tiring day? This is what should drive my faith?

I couldn’t.

Then I read a book (SELF HELP shoot me please) that strongly suggested that no matter one’s intellectual inclinations, something still drives us to believe in something outside of ourselves. That man needs faith, and man needs religion. Prayer is meditation and meditation helps calm the nerves. Brain waves literally change and you enter a state of hypnosis that some would call the holy spirit, others would call being in touch with the universe and others would call opening the soul to demons.

It’s not just this version of Christianity that promises you a hotline to God with every little crisis that you face that sells this message. The Secret and many other self help books work on the same principle. That if you will something, the universe will realign to meet your needs.

So you are in a full parking lot and you visualize an empty parking space near the entrance (because walking that extra 500 meters would absolutely destroy you) the universe realigns so that you can get a parking space right at the entrance.

They ignore (or downplay) the second part of visualization, which is actually you getting up and doing something. And the fact that the most accessible miracles sound very similar to random chance.

Is this really what we are becoming? Is this how we want to use the power of God/ the Universe? To get parking spaces and to rest at the end of the day? How is this different from basing your life choices on Buzzfeed personality quizzes developed by bored interns? Or from getting life advice from Cosmo?

Are we looking for God or for meaning or are we simply looking for magic? Is this why charlatans like Kanyari can get away with their madness? Is this the reason that we allow overly tanned pastors with suspiciously white teeth to flood our social media with meaningless platitudes?

I am not condemning religion. I am upset that the same cheap psychological tricks are being used to take advantage of people in need of hope and reassurance and a kind word by both the ‘religious’ and the ‘self help’ gurus out there. I am upset that instead of Mark Twain’s reminder that,

Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed down-stairs one step at a time

All we get is  BELIEVE IT AND IT WILL BE TRUE. And if it isn’t then it’s because you don’t believe enough.

Because that is what we are looking for, really- to be better people, to lead better lives, to be inspired and to be inspired. To actually mean something. And of course, to be immortal.

They all cheapen our struggles. They make it seem like , instead of dealing with the very human fallacies we have each been gifted by our parents, we just don’t believe enough in the snake-oil that’s currently in vogue and that the answer is in believing harder. Harder and harder until it finally works.  And if it doesn’t work, guess what, believe harder.

I don’t know. But it seems to me like the Gikuyu, apart from being deeply fatalistic and very pragmatic, were onto something with their concept of God.

Welcome to Samburu County – Maralal


Last weekend, I was invited to spend a few days in Maralal. The spelling is MaraLAL, and not MaraRAL, as would be kinder on the tongue. I consider visiting a place like that a once in a lifetime opportunity because even though Maralal is about 350 km from Nairobi, it’s not exactly the kind of  place that you can go for a weekend barbecue. It’s not the kind of place you go to unless you have serious business there or you are one of those die hard tourists determined to go off the beaten path. And off the beaten path it is.

Nonetheless, Maralal is beautiful. And it is a special kind of place. The kind of Kenya we hear about on the news but can hardly conceptualize. The kind of place that foreign film crews visit to make a slice of ‘Africa’ documentaries that irritate urban Africans with digital tv. The kind of place where little girls and boys don’t swat at the flies covering their eyes and noses. The kind of place where brightly dressed morans saunter into town without anyone batting an eye.

source

source

Heading to Maralal is cutting a line right up to Kenya’s center. From Nairobi, you drive upwards to the rift valley. Past the donkeys in Limuru and the mysterious plantations in Kijabe. Past the hysteria of Soko Mjinga and past the panoramic views at the Rift Valley View Point. Mount Suswa on your left, passenger cars and trailer trucks acting out video games on the winding road before you. You bypass Naivasha town and push ahead into Nyahururu.

You go further still and slowly the fertile hills so coveted by colonial farmers ( now little patches where thousands of Kenyans were resettled after independence, payable in installments and demarcated by redwood ciders) give way to Laikipia’s ranches and acacia trees.

Rumuruti marks the end of ‘Kenya Kenya’ and marks the beginning of what I call ‘greater Kenya’. Even before independence, that settlement marked the spot where the road abruptly shifted from the deep greens of the Rift valley and took a sharp turn into the seemingly hostile, parched pastoral lands. Where, like the colonialists before them, the Kenya government is reluctant to venture into.

The wild.

Not much has changed because just after Rumuruti town, the tarmac gives way to what is still technically a road, but really isn’t. It’s not gravel, or murram or even plain old sand. It’s hard, jagged rocks poking out from the ground and daring you to ruin your engine’s suspension. At this point, you have covered half of the journey in 2 hours. The remainder could take 4 or 5.

Laikipia

Laikipia

Now the lushness of the Rift Valley gives way to the dryness of the scrub lands. The maize plantations become less frequent and the agroforestry approved trees give way to acacias and thorny bushes. Soon the tin roofed houses give way to thatch and then to nothing at all.

The people disappear. In front of you and behind of you, is nothing but grass and the road stretching endlessly before you.

You spot a man with a herd of white cows. Where did he come from and where is he going? Because there is nothing in sight except for the road. And in the far distance, low undulating hills.

At the back of your mind, you worry. Because the Morans are now called bandits. Because now, livestock market days means that gangs of young men slinging AK47s can jump in front of your lone vehicle and bundle you out.  Because police men dare not wander out that far. And even when they do, they go in peace to negotiate with the Samburu elders. To beg them to ask their troops of thirsty young men to leave innocent tourists alone.

But you drive on. On and on; even here, reckless matatu drivers speed by in garrish minivans – the only difference is that theirs have massive ground clearance and lorry tires.

You wonder, who’s ancestors consciously decided to settle in these wastelands?

There are only two towns between the long forgotten Rumuruti and the promise of Maralal. Suguta and Kisima. Calling them towns would be generous. Like calling Nairobi a megapolis. Both are nothing more than a few shops on each side of the road. Mpesa is here though. As is coca cola and plastic bags.

Kisima is 38 kilometers from Maralal. But it will take another hour and a half. By now the scrubland ceases to be exciting. Sure you spotted a few antelope, maybe some giraffes and possibly the dark outlines of elephant herds in the far distance. At this point all you want is food and rest. And for the moment of when you will be finally be released from the rattling vehicle. Your back hurts and your legs are stiff. There hasn’t been a single petrol station or kiosk in sight for the last hundreds of kilometers.

The road that doesn't end

The road that doesn’t end

How do people survive here?

Subtly, the landscape shifts around you. The odd maize field and fenced yard appears. The first stone houses since Nyahururu begin to materialize. Buildings, too. A girls’ high school. A church. A dispensary. All brand new and presumably courtesy of the Samburu County Government.

Maralal is a typical rural town. There is evidence that the colonial government had a plan for the town. Uniform police houses surround the Maralal Police station. They are now in disrepair, the windows are boarded up and the grass has grown wild. Washing lines run between homes because people still live in them.

There is a petrol station staffed by Somalis and men from Nyeri, all chewing mogoka. Laikipia university proudly proclaims its presence with a campus housed in one building. Equity Bank, KCB, Faulu and KWFT too have laid their stakes here. Apart from World Vision, there are no visible NGOs here.

What else is in Maralal town? Where the government stopped, private developers took over. Rows and rows of tin shacks line the road, selling those brightly colored shukas and blankets so loved by the Samburus. Lots and lots of miraa. A couple of cafes selling milky tea and ‘food food’ and not nyama choma.

Boda bodas, cows and ancient cars with reckless drivers, who no longer care about the damage the brutal roads caused their shock absorbers.

The bus station, with all the accompanying seediness and chaos that bus drivers and conductors carry with them. Hidden in sight are dozens of boarding places where you can get a room for 250 bob a night. But you probably shouldn’t.

A few hundred meters out of town is the Maralal Safari Lodge. It is on 5 square kilometers of land leased from the county government. It is an animal sanctuary where guests can watch eland, zebras, impalas, bush bucks, warthogs and the odd stray cow from the comfort of the lounge.

Unlike other over the top Safari Lodges, they keep it real over there. It has recently been renovated and has shed most of it’s stiff colonial decor. Bright orange lampshades and big, comfortable couches.

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The lodge is run by a father daughter team and is host to the kind of characters you would expect to find here. KWS rangers, residents and the odd politician. The conversation too, is fitting of such a place. Nairobi is a distant memory.

Turkanas are becoming a problem, sneaking into Samburu to poach their precious wildlife. Members of parliament gave away gazetted land for private development and now the wildlife corridor is slowly disappearing.  The best way to show your wife that you love her is to give her a good beating every so often.

Kenyatta House is a little three bed roomed property managed by the National Museums of Kenya. It is remarkably well preserved and is Maralal’s long forgotten but biggest claim to fame. During the war for independence, Mzee Jommo Kenyatta spent years in jail – in Lodwar and Kapenguria, which are even more remote than Maralal.

Maralal's legacy

Maralal’s legacy

Jommo Kenyatta had this dial up phone

Jommo Kenyatta had this dial up phone

He spent his last year and a half under house arrest in Maralal. It must have been a big improvement because he finally had the luxury of going to town to fix his shoes. He was given a little bungalow where his wife and daughters (Jane and Christine) could live with him. He could receive groups of friends and associates. Eventually, that little house in Maralal is where the British government negotiated Kenya’s transition into an independent nation. The care taker also claims that Uhuru Kenyatta was likely conceived in that house.

Mattress ya makonge

Mattress ya makonge

Maralal represents an uncomfortable kind of truth for me. It represents the facts and the statistics that we read about but don’t understand; that Kenya is mostly arid and semi- arid, that most of Kenya is rural, that most of Kenya is barely serviced by the government. That our national symbols are less lofty than we like to imagine – miraa, mPesa and trash. And yet, where our governments fail us, we pick up.

I hated leaving Maralal. Not just because of the 8 hour drive ahead, but also because I would miss how I felt in Maralal. I would miss the lack of responsibility and obligation. The feeling of novelty and freedom. Most of all I would miss the wide open spaces. Maralal made me fantasize about living in the wild (but somehow still have access to services and convenience). It made me wish that I could own a property that I could escape to on occasion.

Dove’s #ChooseBeautiful Campaign and that Pandora’s Box they Seem Determined to Open


So Dove followed up their adverts that don’t contain any blatant product pushing and instead embrace the idea that every woman is beautiful. Because, guys, Dove doesn’t just hawk shampoo and soap, no..they are completely invested in making womens feel good about themselves.

Okay.

Full disclosure, I love all their adverts on beauty and womens’ perceptions of themselves. For me, the best part was  when  the mothers, friends and daughters pushed their female companions through the door marked ‘beautiful’. That was heartwarming stuff. (Watch here.)

But Dove may not have as good a grip on the anatomy of the female mind as they would like to think. These are my first thoughts:

1. Confirmation bias and its downside

I did not come up with this theory but I found it quite interesting. Basically, you are more receptive to a message if it confirms your original belief. So, if you think that every woman should walk around feeling FLAWLESS, then you will think that yes, this advert is awesome.If, on the other hand, you think that women should not be judged on their appearance, then this advert will be insulting and has probably taken the feminist movement back into the 18th century, because WHY SHOULD WE BE JUDGED BY OUR LOOKS ONLY???

There is a more insidious undertone though: if you feel good about yourself, then, you will be like, of course, I am BEAUTIFUL. But if you don’t, then you will not only be left still feeling unattractive, but now you have the added pressure of feeling guilty for not feeling beautiful. Like I said, mindfuck.

2. Dove may not know what actually makes women feel beautiful

As much as the entire self-help industry would like us to think that all you need to do to feel good about yourself (and therefore live the life you want right now and attract wealth and an angel husband and a perfect physique through the power of your mind-waves and positive energy…) is just repeat self affirming platitudes to yourself until you wake up one day magically transformed.

It may just be me, but no amount of repeating stuff in the mirror to myself ever changed anything.

If anything, it’s a great excuse to stay stuck in the same place and underestimate how difficult it actually is to change anything about yourself. (Except underwear, one would hope.)

If I look back at all the times I felt the most awesome, powerful and yes, beautiful, it was when I was working towards something. When I felt like my everyday shitty struggles were contributing to a bigger goal.

It never really mattered if I was wearing makeup or not. Or if I was skinny or not-so-skinny. If I had the right clothes or the right accessories. As long as I knew that I was in charge, then I felt, quite simply, FLAWLESS.

On the other hand, if I was failing myself and acutely aware of it, in that downward spiral that seems to have no bottom, then no, looking in the mirror was no fun. And that advert probably wouldn’t change that.

Mind you, I did not say achieving your goals. I said working towards your goals.

3. What the hell is beauty anyways?

Seriously, would the world population stand at 7 billion if everyone had the same definition of beauty? I think not.

This is where I agree with Dove though. First I should say that your mother thinks that you are beautiful. And you are/ should be convinced that you shit rainbows and gold. The rest is semantics and you don’t need to ‘#ChooseBeautiful’.

Because at the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter that much.

  • Do you think that bleaching your skin will make you happy and beautiful? Go for it (as long as it is safe and you can make sure you don’t run into complications later)
  • Think you should grow your hair out, wear Khaki and be all out not female female? (Why the hell not?)
  • How about do something to your hair that will piss #TeamNatural off? (yeah, so?)
  • Live on tuna and egg whites and look like a waif? (Sure, just check with doctor first)
  • Spend hours contouring your face and wearing the right shade of lipstick? (Hell yes, and share your secrets while you are at it!)

Really, this has been said millions of times before, but you will be judged, no matter what you do. So why not do something that you like (well, until you don’t like it anymore, because humans are not like walls, they change…)

At the end of the day, Dove is a company that sells hygiene products, including skin lightening creams, armpit lightening creams (as f you will ever fail a job interview because your armpits are dark. Or your life is so together that the one and only thing that is stopping you from your happy ever after is your cursed, mutant armpits? And of course, those AWFUL, AWFUL smelling Axe body washes )Dove is building a brand, and going about it in a clever and quite admirable way.

Honestly, life is hard enough without the added pressure of feeling guilty because you feel beautiful, don’t always feel beautiful all the time, never feel beautiful ever, worry about your choice at that present moment or all the other combinations that it is possible to experience.

What I can say is that ‘beauty’, whatever your definition, is like a great cover page. It earns you free points that you should definitely collect in the best way you know possible. But when it comes to the real substance of life, what truly matters isn’t meeting shifting goal posts. It’s something else, (i’m not entirely sure, but I don’t think it is ‘she was the most beautiful woman that ever lived.’)

We are waiting for the Parody videos.

Let’s Talk About the Dirty F Word


I get really uncomfortable when people ask me if I am a feminist. I find it a very difficult question to answer, and it seems like a very heavy burden to carry. ARE YOU A FEMINIST??? it’s almost like an accusation. For me though, it’s kind of like asking if a fish likes water. Or if humans enjoy oxygen. As opposed to what? Growing up, my life was dominated by larger than life women who had clawed their way to the top. Women with absolutely zero chills and a sometimes terrifying streak of hardness and ‘take no prisoners’ mentality that is not associated with the so called fairer sex. The kind of confident, brash, angry and often confusing women who can brutally bring someone down, and in the next moment, weep in anguish over their wayward children or disappointing husbands. When we talk about feminism, a lot comes up. I cringe when I hear women distancing themselves from the F word and saying stuff like they believe in equality and fairness and a happy, peaceful society. I don’t blame them though, because I also find that it is much easier to engage people in meaningful discussions if you are not brandishing your feminism like a mega saber that will slay any idiot that dares cross your path.

1. We don’t really know what feminism is: A quick google search comes up with the following definitions: ‘Feminism is a multi-disciplinary approach to sex and gender equality understood through social theories and political activism. Historically, feminism has evolved from the critical examination of inequality between the sexes to a more nuanced focus on the social and performative constructions of gender and sexuality.’ And more succinctly, ‘the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men’ Or, according to that great philosopher Pat Robinson, ‘Feminism is a socialist, anti-family, political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism and become lesbians’  I think that the first definition was sanitized to be more inclusive: a product of changing times, if you may, given that inequality and mistreatment of women is no longer as blatant as it was before, and now takes on more subtle forms that are harder to point out. Let’s get comfortable with that: the idea that we have the right to ask for more, that we have the right to voice our discomfort and the idea that we deserve better. And that is okay. We don’t have to apologize for this, and neither do we need to water it down to make others feel comfortable.

2. We think that feminism is a zero sum game: Every time gender relations are brought up, you will undoubtedly hear what I consider the most tired argument ever. ‘WHAT ABOUT THE BOY CHILD????’ Indeed, what about him? You would think that feminism is about running around in villages and castrating little boys so that their sisters can go to school. It is true that boys in society, not only in Kenya but in the world, seem to be struggling to fit into the new world order. I don’t think its because more women are literate, or are working shitty jobs for lesser pay. Maybe it’s because boys lack proper role models, and all they see around them is men shrinking from their responsibilities and caving when things get hard. I don’t know, but based on the growing number of church programs that try and get men together to talk things out, clearly there is a problem and it needs a solution. But blaming feminists smells of scapegoating: feminism, since it’s very beginning, has always had a very clear message: enough with treating women as second class citizens. That’s it, not, bring down men to our level, but rather we insist that you see us as equals.

3. We don’t fully appreciate just how much women’s rights movements have improved our lives: It is difficult to imagine that up until the 70s, many western countries did not allow women to vote. Why? Because women, periods, lolz! The only reason women are allowed to work today is because of World War 1: since all the men were away fighting, it suddenly dawned on society that women could, and this was quite the novel idea, actually do mens’ work and do it well. Today, in 2015, we still have this massive undercurrent that guides society: basically that women should know their place, be happy that they can get jobs (even though they are still paid less and struggle to rise beyond a certain level), be careful not to provoke men into raping them, maintain their purity but also transform into vixens for their husbands overnight: a world where any great woman’s achievements can instantly be wiped out because someone said she is a slut, or that she got divorced, or that she had an affair and therefore is not a moral, upstanding woman is therefore clearly a failure. The menz get a free pass though. We live in a world where it is still okay to ignore women who say they were sexually assaulted, and go further by blaming them for what happened to them. It is still a dangerous world for women, and none of us are safe.

4. We are not always aware of just how hard it can be for women:  Those ball breaking amazons I was talking about, they were not born that way. Quite often, they simply had no other choice than fight. Years after my father died, I asked my mother how she kept it all together, and in fact launched an even more awesome phase of our lives. She told me, ‘I did not have the luxury of falling apart. You people looked at me like I was your whole world and I could not disappoint you.’ I find it absolutely hilarious that people expect female politicians to be better than men just because periodz, looolz. But if you think about it, how the hell did they get into power in the first place? Was it by hugging children and being good wives? Hell no. You can be sure it was just as dirty and conniving as their male counterparts. All the while, of course, waiting for the accusations about their whorishness to start flying. My insides twist when I hear statements like ‘great queens…women in Africa were respected…strong woman’. Oh God, please no. Please. This is just as patronizing as insisting that women know their place. It creates this romantic image of women that is absolutely not true. Women don’t want to be idolized. They just want a fair chance.

5. We don’t want to admit that feminism, by its very nature, has to upset people: Did any country ever gain independence by declaring that they just want to be happy and live in an equal society? No, they fought, and they were lucky that current affairs, i.e. financial ruin from World War II came together to allow for independence. Did black Americans get the right to go to proper schools by writing polite letters? No. They had the ever loving shit beaten out of them until finally, at least on paper, got the right to be equal citizens. Then the racism just morphed into another beast. The thing is, fighting against anything changes you. It makes you harder, sometimes paranoid, and sometimes it makes you closer into the very thing that you are fighting against. That is why these strange labels start floating around. Like femi-nazi, man hater, militant feminist. Please. Let’s not kid ourselves. No-one in power will voluntarily surrender something that seems to hurt their interests. And we know that. That is why we will keep shouting ourselves hoarse until we get what we want. It’s a long, long struggle, and each victory, no matter how small, takes a lot of noise. But the trenches were dug long ago. We are not going anywhere, mostly because there is nowhere else to go.

So, am I a feminist? Labels are a waste of time. They distract us from the real issues that we need to deal with. I will say this again: more time having healthy discussions, less time throwing mud at people based on half baked ideas and misinformation.

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.

Is there anything as silly as a job interview?


In today’s economy, getting a job in the formal sector is a bit like finding a unicorn. It is a hard and often thankless task. What is even worse is that , browsing through the Twitter and the endless LinkedIn updates and the Facebook and the Instagram, everyone else is living their dream life except for YOU.

I have had lots and lots of awful, painful and embarrassing job interviews that ended in polite rejection letters. I’m sure I am not the only one. During my long, long years in under/ unemployment, I made a few observations that made me think that the whole concept of job interviews is quite silly.

1. We are all reading from the same script

It seems like HR people ignored their training in favor of internet articles on interview questions. Which explains why every single interview I have ever had rarely strays from the path of ‘tell me about yourself, what are your strengths, what do you want in life.’

Does anyone actually expect any honest answers? It would go something like this:

‘I have a degree that taught me a lot of American theories. I am very good at putting pictures in my Power Point Presentations. If I don’t know something I will go on Google until I find it. I want a job because my mother is threatening to kick me out of the house. And this jacket is the only formal piece of clothing in my wardrobe.’

This tells you nothing about what I can actually do, and it tells me nothing about what kind of company you run.

2. Interviews are only good for weeding out blatant liars and psychopaths

Since we are all reading the same articles from Wikipedia and Business Insider, you can be sure that anyone with an internet connection and an empty bank account has memorized all the answers to all your tough, probing questions.

‘How much are you currently earning?’

*Laughter* ‘Less than I would like’

‘Could you give me a rough estimate?’

*more laughter*

‘It’s too early to start digging my own grave’

I understand the employer’s dilemma. Which is  basically, ‘Can I actually spend 8 hours a day, 5 days a week with this person without killing them?’

But since we all have to hide our real intentions behind buzzwords and adjectives that convey our enthusiasm, this can be very difficult.

Which is why people are often hired through networks. At least you have someone to stand up for you and say, ‘this person will, at the very least, show up everyday and use big, impressive words.’

3. The lies go both ways

I once went for an interview where we spent a considerable amount of time discussing my ‘flexibility’ and ‘willingness to go the extra mile’. What they were really asking me was whether I was willing to work on weekends and in the evening.

The real answer, of course, would have been,

‘MADAM, I AM SELLING MYSELF TO THE HIGHEST BIDDER. HOW MUCH WILL YOU PAY ME TO WORK ON WEEKENDS AND IN THE EVENING?????’

Instead I made noises about dedication to the project and my desire to grow my career.

4. We tend to forget that we too should be interviewing the company

The behavior of the person interviewing you can tell you a lot about the company culture. And whether you actually want to work there. You should be able to spot a slave contract disguised as a learning opportunity.

You can also tell the person’s thinking processes by the way they handle the interview: lateness, last minute cancellations, aggression, using the interview as a chance to display superiority and so forth.

There is once I was interviewed by a woman who seemed physically repulsed by my presence. I soldiered on and answered her silly questions but I knew without a doubt that I had already failed. If I could go back in time, I would have asked her point blank why she looked so disgusted. It would have made for a much more entertaining experience for all involved.

In fact, if you fail these kinds of interviews, thank God because you dodged a massive bullet.

5. You should never stop interviewing

This is a new piece of advice that I haven’t tried yet. Basically, you should always be scanning the horizon for new opportunities. And actually go out and interview, even if you have no intention of moving from your current place of work.

That being said, if you actually do find a job that you genuinely enjoy, with people that you get along with, doing things that you like, then thank your lucky stars. I have heard that such things actually exist.

For the rest of us, let’s keep memorizing answers from the internet and smiling like our lives depend on it. Oh, and throw in a few curve balls, especially if you realize that you have zero chances of getting hired.

I want to hear your ridiculous interview stories.

[Sorry HR people, please don’t take offence.]