Assuming nothing; questioning everything

Archive for November, 2014

Growing up in the 90’s: A Political Memoir

“Childhood is always looked upon as the happiest time of life. Is that always true? No, only a few have a happy childhood”. This is the opening line of Leon Trotsky’s biographical book ‘My Life’.

Reading this line led me to reflect on my childhood and a recent conversation I had with a man in his fifties. He thought that my generation took a lot for granted, politically. He went on about how his generation fought against a dictatorial regime, delivering to Kenyans what is now considered one of the most progressive constitutions in Africa. He recounted how he and his colleagues suffered to secure these gains. He described how many of them were detained, tortured, some killed, while a number lost their families, as they became strangers to their spouses and children. His fear was that my generation did not know what it took to enjoy the freedoms that we have, which in his opinion, is the reason why we keep quiet as the Constitution is raped left, right and center.

I cannot argue that I did not experience any of the horrible experiences that my friend and his colleagues did, but I grew up in the 90’s, and as such I am not completely oblivious of many things that happened then. As a child it was very confusing politically, as I tried to make sense of what was happening. I read some of the stories in newspapers, of the death of Bishop Munge and Dr. Robert Ouko among others. I listened to adults trying to make sense of what was going on in hushed tones, because ‘the walls had ears’ in those days. In the same hushed tones, I heard about the Nyayo torture chambers, and of horrendous things that happened in there. As I child, I took the ‘walls have ears’ quote literary, and I cringed every time I heard my father speak negatively about the government, as I knew that the walls could cave in and take him away from us. Despite being young, I experienced the fear that came with an oppressive regime.

My favourite political figure then was Koigi wa Wamwere. In my young head, I created a hero out of the dreadlocked man who swore to never shave his hair until the day Moi ceased to be in power. I tried to follow the story of what was happening to him albeit not understanding a lot of things. My most confusing moment was when I heard that the late Prof. Wangari Maathai had led women to strip naked in protest, demanding for the release of their sons and husbands, who were in political detention. I didn’t exactly understand what that meant, but I remember getting the feeling that something was really wrong. I may have been young, but in my own way, I understood that for anyone to grow dreadlocks in protest, and for women to strip naked in protest, it meant that the war was real.

Why do I recount this now? Something about the current political situation reminds me of the 90’s. Perhaps it is the curtailing of civil society and media freedoms through recent attempts and actual passing of repressive and unconstitutional laws. Perhaps it is the personality cult that has been created by the presidency. Perhaps it was the shock that I felt when I heard Kenyans in The Hague singing ‘Tawala Kenya’ as the president attended a status conference at the ICC. I don’t know what it is, but the cloud of fear, confusion and despair that was in the air as a child, seems to be back.

Frantz Fanon stated that “Each generation, out of relative obscurity, discovers its mission, and chooses to fulfil it or betray it”. I am not sure which one it will be for my generation.


My Body; My Clothes; My Choice #MydressMyChoice


On November 7th 2014, a woman was violently stripped naked in Nairobi, by Embassava matatu touts.  The touts aimed to ‘teach her a lesson’ for ‘tempting them’ by ‘indecently exposing her body’. They took matters in their own hands, punishing the woman for the ‘crime’ of ‘subjecting society to immorality’.

While these men justify their chauvinistic actions in the name of protecting society from immorality, the same matatus subject their commuters, young and old, to blaring obscenities, in some cases with videos of semi-naked women in the name of music. On most mornings, many of these matatus will be tuned in to a popular radio station, often perpetuating and justifying what could and has been deemed immoral. Never mind that not everyone wishes to be subjected to such misogynistic content and some parents may wish to protect their children from such exposure.

Violent undressing of women in public by groups of men, often matatu touts, has been reported in Nyeri, Githurai, Bungoma, Kisumu, Mombasa, Thika, Eldoret and Nairobi.  In Nyeri, a woman was stripped naked, by matatu touts for ‘indecent dressing’ in March 2013.  She later died from shock.

Despite the detrimental effects of such violence and humiliation of women, the perpetrators of such abuse go unpunished. The fear that this instils on women is untold. The gender inequality that it perpetuates in society, is unfathomable.

Incidents of men stripping women are reflective of a patriarchal culture of male domination over women, which gives men authority and control over women’s bodies. Men set the parameters of what qualifies as indecent exposure, and determine when it is desirable or unacceptable for society to be subjected to ‘women’s nudity’.

In a society that purports to promote equal freedoms and gender equality, this must change. Male aggression towards women is effectively sanctioned by the authorities, through their inaction, and unwillingness to bring the perpetrators to book.  This must change!

The group Kilimani Mums is calling on the public to join in a peaceful procession from Uhuru Park to Accra Road on Monday 17th November at 10am.  Protestors shall march and deliver a message to Embassava matatu touts that undressing women in public is wrong and women have the right to dress as they wish.

Let us take action to end this blatant abuse of human rights!

Between Rhetoric and Reality: Recognising the Struggles of Poor Women

Picture - women hawking Photo

The streets of Nairobi paint a clear picture population struggling to survive in a harsh economic environment.  Hawkers throng the streets at night, with resilience and determination to work beyond what is considered normal in a bid to make ends meet.

In recognition and support of these hardworking Kenyans, particularly the women, I hardly ever miss an opportunity to buy groceries on the streets.  This also tends to be a convenient way to stock up at fair prices.  Recently, as I was walking on the streets I decided to buy some groceries.  After my shopping was packed, I reached out to my purse and as soon as I was about to hand money, there was commotion and the woman selling disappeared. City Council officers were on the streets harassing hawkers as usual. The hawkers ran with their wares to escape arrest.  A few were unlucky and did not manage to escape.

I stopped to watch this particular woman who clung onto her sack which she had improvised into a mat, to sell her stock.  The city council officer attempted to confiscate her stock, but she wouldn’t let go.  As the struggle ensued, I wondered what would happen to her.  Would she eventually let go, and lose her stock? Would she be arrested for the night, or would she bribe her way out?  As I wondered what would be her fate, I thought about the woman who had lost an opportunity to sell to me, and the money that she would not make from other buyers that night.  I thought of the women that would spend the night in cold cells, those that would lose the goods they had planned to sell.  I thought about the children that would be sleeping in the cells with their mothers, as well as children that would be sleeping alone and terrified as their mothers spent the night locked up.

The struggles of the women on the streets is one that never ends.  Life for these women is challenging enough without the harassment they face on a daily basis.  They work in the cold night, when most people are making their way or already in the comfort of their homes.  Some have children on their backs, or sometimes seated, walking or playing next to their mothers.  Yet the government has decided to ignore the hardships that these women face and focus on the ‘menace’ that they are, just because by these women being on the streets ‘illegally’, the government does not make money from them.

The hypocrisy and irony of the whole situation is when government sets up a fund for women ‘in recognition of their marginalisation’, but at the same time mistreats a group of women that faces immense difficulties.  It is ironical that the government encourages youth to be creative and entrepreneurial, yet when hawkers identify opportunity to sell to people going home from work on the streets that they pass, they are labelled illegal and a nuisance.

Which women and youth then does the government purport to support, if not those who sacrifice their comfort and those of their children to survive?

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