Assuming nothing; questioning everything

Archive for October, 2015

We too shall rise, but how?

FeesMustFall Movement 1

I started following the South African university students’ movement from March this year, when UCT students declared that #RhodesMustFall.  I have followed the movement closely and with a lot of excitement, because South African students are demonstrating that they understand the meaning of freedom, not just in its superficial form, but in its deepest and truest form.

The students understand that ending apartheid is not enough, the symbols of apartheid must be destroyed, and they began doing that by demanding the fall of the Rhodes statue at the UCT Campus.  They understand that the remnants of apartheid must be destroyed, and they are doing so by using the #FeesMustFall movement to contest exorbitant universiy fees that continue to exclude students from poor backgrounds, most of whom are black.

The South African university students also understand that change of government, and having fellow black men and women in leadership is not necessarily freedom, it can be as binding as apartheid rule.  And so they are challenging new forms of apartheid, manifesting in the form of neo-liberalism, class and racial inequalities.

Unlike in the anti-apartheid struggle where the participation of women was largely forgotten, women students have refused to have this erasure repeated, by claiming space and visibility during the entire protests.  They led marches, led struggle songs and wore head wraps to ensure their visibility and to make a statement that they would not be erased.  LGBTI people also claimed their space and visibility in the protests.  This movement clearly understands the concept of inclusion, and how structures of oppression exclude women, people with non-conforming gender and sexual identities, black people, those that are differently abled and the poor among others.

FeesMustFallMovement 2

The interconnectedness of race, class and gender issues in the #FeesMustFall Movement demonstrates that the students are aware that the challenges in the education sector are not stand alone issues.  They are manifestations of exclusion, injustice and poor representation of the people, rooted in neoliberal ideology.  The #FeesMustFall movement seems to have asked the critical question of, whose voice is often unheard? and made deliberate efforts to include the often excluded voices.  Evidently, time, effort and ideologically grounded thinking has gone into organizing the movement.

The #FeesMustFall movement demonstrates that when people are pushed to their limits, they will rise up and contest their oppression.  History has proven that, time and again.  We’ve seen it in North Africa and Middle East with the Arab Spring, and even more violent forms of protest with many of the war torn countries in different parts of the world.

Kenya too has demonstrated this from the colonial period, when the Mau Mau contested foreign rule, to the 90’s when the pro-democracy movement contested dictatorial rule and demanded constitutional reforms, and even in 2008 when Kenyans contested unfair electoral processes.  Certainly, there can be no peace where exclusion, injustice, and poor representation of the people abound.

In Kenya we’ve been facing numerous instances of exclusion, injustice and poor representation of the people.  This year alone, we’ve had to deal with land grabbing by the political elite, massive looting of public resources at national and county levels.  We are seeing commodities purchased by government at exorbitant prices, hate speech left, right and center by those elected and those seeking election in 2017, a government that has run out of money, a bloated legislature that has constantly served its own interest by increasing its salaries, and Kenyans dying inhumanely because the public health care system is a mess.

Our response as Kenyans to these issues has been as irregular as the issues themselves.  Every new week there is a hashtag to discuss a new issue. Before that is over, we move on to another hashtag to discuss another issue.  Last week alone, there were three hashtags.  Our social media is not showing any difference from our mainstream media.  We touch, sensationalize and run after the next sensational item.  Our ability to understand the connectedness of the problems we are grappling with seems rather limited, and to deal with any issue exhaustively seems equally challenging.

Meanwhile the discontent is growing among the general population, a population that is bearing the brunt of deaths that could be prevented by a decent healthcare system, a population that is going to bed hungry and unable to educate its children despite walking three hours, to work 8-12 hours a day.

How long will it be before this population contests the exclusion, injustice and bloated representation that does not represent the people in ways that changes their lives?  How will the contestation be done?  Are we preparing ourselves as Kenyans to contest constructively?

The time to begin preparing for constructive contestation is now, and that will not happen by having a new hashtag every day, and forgetting what we were hash tagging about last week.  What for instance happened to the 109K wheelbarrow outrage?  Yet we went ahead and discussed the 37K bars of soap without remembering the 109K wheelbarrow.  How did we forget the NYS scandal?  That is now forgotten, we have made noise about it, and it is time to move on to the next thing.  We moved on to make noise about Aladwa’s inflammatory remarks, and now we have forgotten about that, and we are ready to move on to the next big thing.

I strongly believe that uncoordinated speaking, or being an “armchair activist”, is better than silence, and so we must continue, and speak even louder.  But more than that, we must be able to connect every scandal, every issue, with exclusion, injustice and poor representation.  We must organize for contestation, and organize effectively and inclusively for that matter, making sure that the poor, the rural and women are part of the struggle, and not just two or three women.

I say this, having been to forums that intend to be chart a new political path for Kenya, yet I find myself being one out of five or six women, surrounded by educated, well to do urban residing men.  The discussions seem ideologically challenged, devoid of new ideas other than the old tired mantra that things are not working and they must change.

This to me seems to be politics as usual and I often find myself asking, “What new political path are you charting, while leaving the poor, the rural and women behind?”  “What is the basis for organizing?” “How can a new political path that follows the old political route, expect to lead people to a new destination? “

The revolution will not happen without women, without rural and poor people. Leaving the majority behind is a sure way of maintaining status quo. The revolution will not happen without speaking to the bread and butter issues that the regular Kenyan faces; the hopelessness that comes with living on survival mode and being downtrodden while struggling to survive.

If its not accesbile to the poor

It’s time to prepare for constructive contestation, with understanding that yes, Kenyans will rise to contest what is currently happening.  The question is not when, but how.  Because how we prepare, or fail to prepare for that contestation determines whether we will be walking the paths of a new and brighter political future or recovering from the aftermath of unprepared contestation.

Nelson Mandela once told the South Africans that should the ANC treat them like the apartheid government did, South Africans should do to the ANC what they did to the apartheid government.  I think someone should have told Kenyans that should the Jubilee government treat them like the KANU government did, Kenyans should do to Jubilee what they did to KANU.  Perhaps then, we too would rise.

Photo Credits: Photo 1Photo 2Photo 3

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The great discomfort

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A Facebook friend of mine unfriended me. Before unfriending me, she mentioned that she had observed that I had started a blog on feminism, and made a point of being offensive about the fact that I was an active feminist.  She told me that she didn’t believe in feminism and that although she championed for the rights of women, she would not want to be associated with feminism, adding that she would be offended if she was ever referred to as a feminist.

I had just started writing my blog at that time, and I was getting a number of interesting, sometimes ignorant and other times damn right offensive responses.  I was getting tired of explaining myself, and she found me at the point where I had learnt to be less defensive about what I believed in, and sometimes even listened to responses that made no sense, or added no value, for the sheer fun of it, and maybe write about it someday.

I guess she mistook my silence for interest, and continued to tell me that told me that she thought feminism was demonic, and the devil’s agenda to destroy the family, and spread ungodly practices such as lesbianism and homosexuality.  The Sodom and Gomorrah case got mentioned somewhere in between the demons and the ungodly practices that feminism sought to spread in society.

Feminism, she said was teaching women to reject femininity as they desired to be more masculine.  She went on about how proud she was of her femininity, how she loved dressing up and looking beautiful, and feminism was denying women the opportunity to be feminine and beautiful.

From her unsolicited and rather ignorant opinion, it was clear that my blog and posts on feminism made her rather uncomfortable, and I was not surprised when she later unfriended me.  It’s been eight months now since I started running my blog, and every so often, I am amazed at how feminism generates discomfort in just about every quarter.

The discomfort is to a large extent driven by ignorance, fear of losing power by the privileged, and uncertainty over what a society where women are regarded as fully human, and not subordinate to men would look like. Society is yet to accept that African women are embracing an ideology that has often been described as unAfrican, because it seeks to liberate African women, who have for the longest time been considered sub-human and accorded secondary status in society.

Those that have long enjoyed the benefits of women’s subjugation are afraid that feminism will turn the tables, and human beings regardless of gender will now be equal.  They misconstrue feminism to be about women competing with men, and tell us that this is not the way African culture should be. They argue that there is a place for the African woman in society, which unlike everything else, does not evolve with time, and feminism is destroying that.

The number of times I see feminism appearing in sermons that seem to have an agenda to take women back to 1950 is surprising, disturbing and annoying.  I reckon there are people praying and fasting against the “spirit” of feminism.

The fact that feminism is questioning religious norms that teach that God created man to provide, rule and dominate, while the woman was created to obey, serve and submit is likely to destabilize status quo, and therefore not a surprise that it generates a lot of discomfort. We are told that feminism is destroying God’s intention for women to “care” and “nurture”.  God apparently created woman with “special” genes known as the nurturing, caring and domesticity genes, which are easily destroyed by feminism.  Geneticists need to help us with these twisted biology lessons.

I must say that I am not surprised at the discomfort.  When people question things that seem so fixed such as gender, and the position of women in society, it generates discomfort because then there is fear that people might begin to question other structures including religion, politics and education; tools used by a minority to gain and maintain power to oppress a majority.

Because the feminist movement threatens to destabilize status quo, question traditions that have long silenced, subjugated and oppressed women in the name of religion and culture, it is no wonder discussions left, right and center are exaggerating the empowerment of girls and women, and claiming that this is contributing to the disempowerment and subjugation of boys and men.

Feminists are being advised to urgently shift attention to the boy child who is seriously threatened by the emancipation of the girl child, otherwise, these girls will have no one to marry them. Never mind that violence at home, school, work, on the streets and even on social media is something that many girls and women confront on a daily basis.  And that women are still highly under-represented in business, politics, leadership and ownership of property.

Women, like the Facebook friend who unfriended me, have bought into this patriarchal thinking, perpetrated by culture and religion, and are up in arms, protecting “femininity” from feminist destruction.  Their ignorance on feminism doesn’t help either.

The discomfort created by feminism is not fun for a feminist, because this results in trolls, unsolicited advice, sermons that make me want to weep, and anti-feminist discussions that make me question the ability of human beings to reason.  But the discomfort also tells me that feminists are probably doing something right, and rather than be cowed by the discomfort, it is time for feminists to speak louder, more wisely, more intensely and more articulately than ever.*

The fact that the feminist movement is growing like wildfire, with many young, intelligent and outspoken women openly identifying as feminists is not a comfortable position for society.  Society is having a difficult time with women speaking their minds, and using their voices to challenge society as we know it. But society has to come to terms with the fact that women are leading this revolution, or otherwise bask in this discomfort, because there’s no stopping this revolution!**

* Adapted from a quote by Neil Gaiman

** Adapted from a quote by Alexis Templeton

Image Credits

I’m tired but I will keep going

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When I read Wangari Maathai’s autobiography Unbowed, I was going through one of my lowest points this year.  I was feeling tired, deflated and depleted, and questioning whether “all this” matters.  “All this” being my struggle for emancipation of women and other oppressed groups.

I was so deflated, that I thought I would never blog again.  I was tired of the constant scandals and crisis mode that has become of this country.  I remember sharing with a friend how tired I was of the fact that the entire year has been characterized by crisis after crisis, with a new scandal emerging almost every other week.  I was growing weary from the fact that despite so many efforts, women are increasingly becoming more unsafe, to the extent of being raped while seeking medical care.

Looking at the magnitude of what has been happening, I felt overwhelmed and wondered whether what I was doing really mattered.  I felt that I needed some inspiration, otherwise, my spirit was going to die a slow death.

It was at this point that I picked Wangari Maathai for inspiration. I chose Wangari for two reasons; one being that September was the month that we lost her four years ago, and I thought reading and understanding her cause would be a great way to celebrate her life. The second being that, I established a connection with Wangari at the age of 9, and over the years, I have considered her a soul sister, and I therefore expected her to speak to me during my low.

True to my expectation, Wangari spoke to me the way no one else would have at that time. I picked 3 key things from reading the book unbowed: one, the power of voice, two, that no matter how difficult, change is at hand when we persist, and three, that we are never alone, even when it seems that way.

  1. Voice is power

As I was reflecting on the power of Wangari’s voice in protecting Uhuru Park and Karura Forest, I realized that that we have those two green spaces in the concrete jungle that Nairobi is, because Wangari decided not to be quiet about it, and instead wrote letters to different government authorities questioning the intentions to build a sky scrapper on Karura Forest and put up private development in Karura Forest.

As if to confirm the power of voice through writing, I came across these tweets:Capture 1Capture 2

  1. Change is possible

The most profound part of Wangari Maathai’s struggle for change was the year-long vigil held at All Saints Cathedral with mothers of political prisoners, demanding for the release of their sons.  For a year, they slept on benches demanding for change, and they did not waiver in their pursuit, until their demands were met.

Wangari’s spirit must have had an agenda to reinforce the message because at around the same time, I received a number of comments on my blog, on email and even by my friends, saying that my blog was changing the way they were seeing things, and they were becoming more conscious and found themselves questioning what they would consider normal.  That energized me to keep going, knowing that no matter how slow, no matter how minimal, change is coming.

Another world is possible

  1. We are never alone

My third lesson comes from Wangari’s recollection of her horrendous experience being arrested and locked up in a cold cell at the age of 52, while suffering from arthritis in both knees, and the impact that had on her health.  She recalls how she had to be carried by four policewomen into the courtroom while crying and weak from hunger.  As she was being carried into an ambulance to take her to hospital, she saw a banner from a group of women reading, “WANGARI, BRAVE DAUGHTER OF KENYA.  YOU WILL NEVER WALK ALONE AGAIN.”

She says that this warmed her heart and helped her realize that no matter what happened to her, there were people who wished her well, and who understood what it meant to be a woman fighting for the future of her country.

I too experienced that towards the end of the week, when I was feeling as if I was alone in the struggle.  I met some wonderful Kenyans that spoke with deep concern about what is happening and the need for change.  Speaking to them reminded me that I am not alone, that there are people who care and doing whatever they can in their small ways to change things.

So, I may be tired, but I will not give up because I am convinced in the power of my voice to create change, and know that I am not alone, because there are many of us working to create the change we desire.  As Wangari Maathai would say in her humming bird story, “I will do something about the fire….I will be a humming bird, I will do the best I can”.

Wangari Maathai - We must not give up

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