Assuming nothing; questioning everything

Archive for the ‘Identity’ Category

Lessons from a taxi driver

Taxi

I often hear researchers say that talking to taxi drivers is a good way to get a sense of the political atmosphere of any place. My experience with one tells me that Kenyans are angry and despondent at a political system that has completely failed them.

While I was in a taxi today, the driver was very vexed, and I decided to hear him out. It turned out that he was so ideologically grounded, it felt like I was in a Sociology 101 class that was speaking to the realities of what is happening.  He spoke with a lot of concern and anger about the inequality that this country is grappling with.  He said, “everything that is going on, is benefiting just a few people, and everyone else is suffering as a consequence”. He spoke of the standard gauge railway and how billions of shillings have been misappropriated by just a handful of people. Then he went on to talk about a by-pass that was recently built, but because the land surrounding it has been grabbed, the road is so narrow, that when trucks approach each other, they have to be very careful not to cause an accident.  “You see”, he continued, “a few people grabbed those pieces of land, and now Kenyans are not safe on the roads that are coming up”. “These roads will kill Kenyans, because a few people have to take what does not belong to them”. He called it the politics of “me, mine and myself”.

I noticed how the narrative has changed. For a long time, whenever I got into a political discussion with taxi drivers from the Mt. Kenya region, they would go on about the humility of the president, and how this was the best president that Kenya ever got. I remember one day as we were driving past State House, the taxi driver began to narrate in awe how the president had dropped off a chopper, ignored the car that was meant to drive him into State House, and instead opted to walk. “The chopper landed right there” he pointed excitedly. This to him was a sign of great humility and good leadership. I remember asking him angrily whether he had ever eaten humility. So today I was surprised when this person who is from the Mt. Kenya region sounded so dissatisfied with the system. I take it as a sign that people are coming to the reality that their tribesman is not their security.

As I was getting to my destination I had to interrupt him, because I wanted to hear from him what he thought the solution was. I asked him what he thought people could do, and he replied, “only God will save us, he is watching and one day he will rescue us; I know that day is coming”. But even as he was saying that, he seemed to have a good understanding of power dynamics. He argued that people could organize themselves and challenge the system, but then the powers that be would seek private meetings with the organizers and pay them off.  He gave me an example of a time when they organized as drivers to challenge the difficult working conditions, in an organization that he worked for.  But the drivers that led the organizing were paid off and given better conditions, and that was the end of their organizing.

Speaking to the taxi driver and other Kenyans, it is clear that people of all walks of life are disgruntled, because of the blatant economic exclusion, where those in the lower strata of the socio-economic ladder toil for hours on end but are unable to afford the basics.  A recent survey tells us that 36% of children in Kenya are underfed, yet their parents are the same people who work day and night, only to send their children to bed on empty stomachs. Even the middle class are struggling with high interest rates on loans and mortgages and failing public systems that force them to send their children to expensive private schools and healthcare services that they can only afford because of the private health insurance their employers provide. Not forgetting constantly having to send MPESA to support friends, relatives and even strangers to access education or to get treatment both locally and abroad.

In a context where the political environment is so stifling, yet organizing to challenge the system seems impossible, citizens have little else but to resign to their fate. Those that strongly believe in a higher being, see that as the sole saviour. Those that do not believe or have given up on the idea that even a higher being could rescue us are giving in to the idea that violence is inevitable, particularly given the subtle and sometimes not so subtle ways in which incitement is happening.

Like many Kenyans, I am concerned that the social, economic and political environment bears the signs of looming violence. But I am even more concerned at the way people are speaking of violence with such simplicity.  Like it is a door that you walk in, and walk out. The little exposure we have of violence has left us with the idea that violence is as simple as killing and burning each other’s property, flying Kofi Annan into the country, having two political figures from opposing sides shake hands, and life going on as usual. Some of us have been arguing that Europeans had to slash and kill each other to get to where they are economically, socially and politically. We forget that it took Europeans 300 to 400 years of slashing and killing each other to finally figure their politics and economies.

As I think of the simplicity that we approach the idea of violence with, I am reminded of an older Somali friend of mine, whom I have the privilege of getting into political conversations with once in a while. He has on several occasions commented that Somali was exactly where Kenya is in the 80’s. That massive infrastructural projects were ongoing, roads were being constructed, high-rise buildings were coming up and foreigners were investing in the country. It seemed as if all was going well, but this development co-existed with massive looting of public resources by those placed in power and outright ethnic hostility. We know that Somali is yet to recover from the war. We know several countries endowed with resources, but war will not allow them make use of the resources.

As we grow more and more despondent, and some us begin to accept the inevitability of violence, let’s put the Kofi Annan mediation scene off our minds for a moment, and think for a while other possible ways that this could go.  When I think of such possibilities, I want to try something else.  Isn’t that what we always do in life? Don’t we try other channels when one isn’t working?  It’s not easy but we have to be willing to try other routes; do our best and remain hopeful that our efforts will create change.  We must begin organizing slowly, but in a progressive fashion, understanding that “unless we learn to live together as [Kenyans], we shall perish together as fools”.*

*Adapted from a Martin Luther King Jr. quote

Photo Credits

Advertisements

Every struggle needs feminism

I need feminsim because

“What is feminism?” is a question that I have been asked very many times.  Last week alone, I was asked the question three times.  As people ask this question, many do not hesitate to share their understanding of feminism with me.  The most common ones tend to be feminists as women who hate men, with intentions to be like men and go against nature by dominating over men.

After responding to this question during a radio show last week, I got into a discussion with a feminist friend who had listened to the programme, and we both agreed how difficult it can be even for a feminist to define feminism.

Like many feminists, I often focus on challenging inequalities experienced by women, because women are among the most oppressed groups, subjected to various forms of oppression in just about every space that they occupy, be it public or private.

However, this definition doesn’t wholly encompass what feminism is for me, as I find myself concerned about many other forms of oppression experienced by different groups of people.  I seem to be concerned just about every emerging issue that oppresses a particular group of people, while privileging others. From hawkers to farmers, health workers, domestic workers, guards and more recently, teachers.  I am also concerned about a variety of issues from LGBTI rights, to children’s sexuality in addition to society’s need to silence and shrink women.

There is no single issue struggle

My definition of feminism is therefore growing to recognize that gender is not the only factor that facilitates oppression, but class, race, age and ethnicity are also among factors that intersect to exclude and marginalize or privilege certain groups of people.   As such, gendered structures are not the only systems of oppression, but other systems such as colonial legacies, imperialism and capitalism, often interconnect and sustain each other to oppress a majority and privilege a few.

Although women tend to be most disadvantaged by these systems of oppression, they too can be privileged and oppressors of various disadvantaged groups. Feminism therefore needs to be intersectional by recognizing the ways in which different groups of people are disadvantaged as a result of the interconnection of various factors.

Intersectionality

At the moment, like many Kenyans, I am greatly concerned about the education crisis that the country is facing.  Beyond the issue of teachers’ wages, the crisis demonstrates how capitalism as a system of oppression operates, and why the education crisis is an anti-capitalist struggle and consequently a key concern for feminism.

Capitalist ideology has made the Kenyan government comfortable with neglecting its education sector, failing to pay teachers adequately and creating a sub-standard public education.  Citizens on the other hand have responded by resorting to private education when the public system fails.

These mind-sets by both government and citizens, have created opportunity for charities and entrepreneurs to produce brands of education, to fill the void created by government inadequacy. For the upper end of the market, the brands are presented in all manner of enticing packages, with a promise of producing successful, wealthy, confident and all rounded children. For those in the lower end of the market, the conditions are immaterial.

These responses by the government, private sector, civil society and citizens have bred values that normalize capitalism, and even laud it as choice and democracy.  As a result we have a public education system that has over time suffered neglect by the government and has slowly been going to the dogs, while the private education system, both profit and non-profit, high and poor quality continues to thrive and boom.

As the middle class and wealthy rush to take their children to top notch private schools, the poor, who are the majority, are left to go through poor quality education that does not equip them adequately with basic education skills such as numeracy and arithmetic, nor prepare them adequately with skills to be productive in the economy.

An Uwezo study on the quality of education in public schools in East Africa revealed that less than 30% of children in class 3 possess basic literacy and arithmetic skills.  The study also revealed that 20% of children in class 7 cannot competently undertake class 2 numeracy and literacy assignments.

The situation is worse for children in urban slums, up to 70% of whom are attending poor quality low cost private schools with untrained teachers and poorly equipped schools, in unsanitary environments and with minimal resources.  In other communities, children can neither access the poor quality public schools or even the poor quality private schools, and schooling for them remains a distant dream.

Lack of commitment by the government to provide decent education for all its citizens, coupled with privatization and charity as responses to government inadequacy has created high levels of inequality and stripped the poor off the right to education.  Decent education is not secured or available to all, but only to those who can afford it.  Education as a citizenship right thus remains a guarantee to only those with money and the wealthy.

Sadly, capitalism describes this as freedom of choice.  I fail to see the freedom in this.  I don’t see the freedom in a small portion of the population going through high quality of education, while a major section of the population goes through poor quality education. I don’t see the freedom in paying for expensive private education, and at the same time paying huge amounts of taxes to a government that fails to provide the fundamental right of decent education to its citizens.

Did we fight for independence and for a new Constitution to entrench the idea of a class society more deeply? To become a society where the fruits of independence and the gains of the new Constitution are enjoyed by a few?

As a person who went through high quality primary and secondary education in public schools, I believe change is possible. But change can only happen when people respond and resist after carefully and critically thinking about what is happening around them.

My understanding of feminism as a struggle that resists all oppressive systems, is therefore essential in providing me with the tools to be part of this change.

This is how low we have sunk

A few months ago, I planned a group interview with residents of certain parts of Nairobi.  When I got to the venue of our meeting, I asked the guard to allow me in for the meeting. To my surprise, her response was, “unaenda ile mkutano ya waluhya?” Quite irritated with the question, I informed her that I didn’t know the ethnic identities of the people that I was meeting.

Shortly after that incident, I attended a meeting in a different community in Nairobi.  In this meeting, no one seemed to know the name of any of the people they were discussing, and the descriptions ranged from the “Kikuyu mama”, “Mkamba shopkeeper” to the “Mkisii policeman” and the “Kalenjin watchman” among other ethnic related identities.

Using ethnicities as a primary identity seems pervasive, not only in Nairobi, but other parts of the country as well.  Late last year for instance, I was conducting research in Turkana County, and I had this wonderful taxi driver who picked me up from the airport, took me everywhere I wanted to go, and was extremely helpful to say the least.  On the last day of my stay, as he was driving me to the airport, he asked the common question, “na nikuulize, kwenyu ni wapi?”  I told him that I am from Nairobi, since that is where I was born, raised and live.

As is common with many other Kenyan conversations, he wanted to know where my “real home” was.  I knew that he wanted to know my tribe, so I told him where I came from just to see where he was going with this.

When I told him where I came from, he almost jumped up to hug me.  I had never seen him this excited the entire time I was with him in Turkana.  Seeing how excited he was, I asked him “kwani huko ni ushago kwenyu, ama unajua mtu huko?”  He wasn’t from the place, and didn’t know anyone from the place, but he was my tribesman, and judging from his response that must have been the most important thing he got to know about me.

I think about these incidents, and I get the sense that we are losing it as a country, given the significance and primacy that is increasingly being pegged to ethnic identities. The number of times that people ask me where I am from, so that they can know my tribe is all too common.  Some will go ahead and ask whether my surname belongs to my father or my husband.  Perhaps because to them, my physical identity does not match that of the community that they associate my surname with.

A surname unfortunately is now used to judge political standing, and in some cases economic and social standing, as we saw with a recent tweet by a well-known political analyst.  We elect “our own”, and are satisfied with the simple idea of having “our people” occupy top positions in government, never mind that that they often do not represent us or our interests, often looting public resources for themselves and the few people surrounding them. As citizens we are often left bearing the brunt of the self-interested leadership of “our people”.

We seem to be sinking lower into the morass of tribalism by the day. The recent incident of a man by the name Mugo wa Wairimu, raping women while masquerading as a gynaecologist, demonstrates how low we have sunk as a society due to tribalism.

When I visited Mugo wa Wairimu’s Facebook page following the scandal, I was shocked to see how much support he had from his tribesmen, who purported that this was a political and tribal scheme by the opposing political and tribal camp.  His supporters alleged that this was an agenda to “destroy” their man, and encouraged him to be strong, knowing that the plan of the “evil one” would not prevail.

God was on his side, according to his supporters, who continued to encourage him with examples of men that had suffered tribulation, but emerged stronger and victorious.

Not too long before that, an audio clip of a woman who was being raped went viral in Nairobi.  This time it was by a man by the name Morris, but given the name Mollis, as the woman he was raping could not pronounce his name correctly due to mother tongue influence.  Using her accent to determine her community, jokes went round that this was evidence of the lack of sexual prowess by the women of her community, as the stereotype goes.

Tribalism seems to be eroding our humanity, intelligence and sense of justice.  Value for humanity, pursuit for democracy and justice have been replaced and blurred by tribalism, to the extent that as a society we no longer care how much we suffer or who suffers, the perpetrator will be supported by those they share an ethnic identity with.

It’s a sad state of affairs, and only time will tell how long we can continue this way, and where this will lead us.  What I know for sure is that this is not a healthy state for any nation to be, and as with all diseases, the longer it goes untreated, the more devastating and tragic the final outcome.

This way of being a woman is not working

how-to-be-a-woman1
Sometime back, I came across a post by a woman sharing about how hooked she was to social media, that on one occasion, her husband hit her because she got into bed with her phone, and she couldn’t put it down.

Interestingly, many women commenting on her post found it ok for her to be hit for not paying attention to her husband, particularly while in bed. There was very little alarm raised over the fact that she had been hit. She seemed more concerned about her addiction to social media, than the violence meted out on her.

Reading the post and the comments that followed, got me thinking about how society has created an image of “the good woman”, and the idea that a woman who fails to fit in that image, should be ready to face male-perpetrated violence.

We learn very early as girls that we need to behave, dress and look a certain way with all men, including our fathers, brothers, male neighbours, spouses and even male strangers, with the threat of male – perpetrated violence if we don’t.

I too, was taught from a very early age to expect physical, emotional or sexual violence from men, if I failed to conform to this idea of being female.

When I was a young girl, I was fond of taking meat from the pan as it was cooking. To discourage me from the habit, our house help often threatened that if I carried the habit into marriage, my husband would one day buy me an entire goat, and demand that I cook it all and eat it all at a go. That apparently would be his way of punishing me for this behaviour that was very unbecoming of a lady.

Our house help was not the only person who threatened me with crazy things that my husband would do to me, if I didn’t fit the “good woman” image. Many times when I overslept, my mother threatened me that no man would entertain such sleepiness. She often told me that one day my husband would return me back to her, because I had overslept, and the children were not bathed or fed, and the house stayed dirty.

In this case, my husband would be returning me to my mother for more training, because if I was not a “good woman”, my mother would be to blame, for not providing adequate training. Never mind that these would be my husband’s children, just as they were mine, or that I was the product of both my mother and father.

We learn to expect violence for not conforming to gendered ways of being female. A lot of people don’t even recognize how they teach girls and women to expect abuse in relationships. I’m sure that was not my mother’s or the house help’s intention. They just wanted me to be a “good woman” who fit in society.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has been taught to expect physical, sexual or emotional abuse for failing to conform to certain ways of being female.

Girls that talk too much or question a lot are told to control their mouths, otherwise they will get hit for answering back their husbands. Women are told to teach their daughters not to sit on their fathers’ laps, or to be affectionate towards their fathers, because “men have very little sexual control”, and even a father could rape his daughter. Girls are taught to sit “properly” with their legs closed even in the presence of brothers and uncles, because of this “sexual control issue” that men have.

In a previous blog post I talked about how the lives and bodies of women are dictated and policed. From how to dress, where to be at certain times, and who to be with at those times. Sadly, when women face violence, the first thing society checks is whether they conformed to the standards set for them by society.

The problem with this messaging is that it not only centres the lives of girls and women on fitting into the image of a woman that will find a man to marry her, but it also creates a situation where violence against women is normalized. It also creates a society where women are constantly facing blame or blaming themselves for the violence and the abuse that they face.

It’s high time we cultivated ways of being male or female, that do not create such imbalance between genders; where one gender learns to cater to the other, while the other learns that it is ok to be violent to the other.

It’s high time we abhorred all forms of violence, and discouraged both its perpetration and receipt regardless of gender. No ifs, no buts, because this way of being a woman is not working, and it cannot be sustained.

I packed my bags and left

I packed my bags and left
“I packed my bags and left.” That is the opening line of Dambudzo Marechera’s book, House of Hunger, a statement that I find symbolic, and perhaps indicative that this is Dambudzo’s way of preparing to share with his readers about his journey in life.

Journeys are interesting because no matter how much you have, quite often you leave all that behind and take just what you need for a particular journey. I’ve gone on journeys with just a pair of pants, two blouses, a few sets of underwear, a tooth brush and toothpaste, because that is all that I needed for the journey, even though I possess a lot more than that.

As a sojourner of life, I find a lot of symbolism in the statement, “I packed my bags and left”; a statement that makes me reflect on the many things that I’ve had to leave behind or unpack from my bag, as a feminist.

As a feminist, on several occasions I’ve been forced to leave behind a number of things that I held as true and dear in my life, because they were either unnecessary baggage, or they were too painful to carry on the journey. I’ve had to leave behind what hurt and wounded me, more than bring joy, pleasure or healing.

First among the things that I had to leave behind were books and magazines that defined femininity for me, often telling me how to be a woman worthy of love and success. These pieces of literature often told me that my main goal in life was to secure the love of a man, and they promised to give me the tools to secure this man. They taught me how to tighten my vagina, how to be a goddess in bed, and how to use my feminine charms to secure the love of a man, and even get ahead in my career.

I left these behind, as feminism taught me to depend on my brains and personality, rather than my face,smile or body, in both my personal and professional life.

The depiction of beauty in these books and magazines, was often of women who looked less like me; they were often white or fair skinned if they were black, skinny, tall and flawless. They taught me that to look like these women, I had to learn how to put on makeup perfectly, put on 6 inch heels that made me contemplate having my feet amputated at the end of the day, and make my hair as straight as possible.

Through feminism, I was unlearning dominant ideas of beauty, shaped by western ideals and embracing a more robust notion of beauty.

The next thing I had to leave behind were the rules that came with being a woman. Some of them had been instilled through these books and magazines, and others though talking to my peers and older women. The rules often applied to dating, and these included a host of mind games. No matter how much I liked a man, I couldn’t ask him out. If he asked me out, I had to pretend that I wasn’t interested, until he became so desperate, almost getting on his knees.

Whereas I was to expected to play these mind games as a teenager, as a woman in her 20’s and even beyond the 20’s, feminism taught me that I needed to put aside immature behaviour, if I expected to get into a relationship with a mature partner.

Once he ‘got’ me (the prized possession that I was), I had to keep him on his toes, so as to remain valuable to him. This meant that I had to be available and unavailable at the same time. To achieve this, sometimes I had to pretend to have other plans when he asked me out, and suggest that we meet on another day. This was my way of keeping the relationship on my terms, and not his. It was my way of having power, but in a subtle way.

The rules also included how long to wait before having sex, because if I gave in to sex, I would be losing power. I had to maintain power, by taking his power by making him almost, if not get down on his knees for ‘my prized goodies’.

Through feminism, I was unlearning the power play that had been a key feature of my relationships, and learning to not only seek honesty, but to be equally honest in my relationships. I learned to ask for what I wanted, and to stop demanding for the moon and stars as a proof of love. I learned to seek relationships where my true self was loved and respected, and I learned to do the same.

Some of the relationships that I had also had to be left behind, as I carried the things that I needed for the journey. It became painful talking to many of my male friends and some of my privileged female friends. It no longer made sense to champion for equality, and maintain friendships that saw nothing wrong, or even justified inequality.

My most painful relational loss, was losing the relationship I had with God and the Church. I had grown up knowing that God was my friend and my father, and Church as the place where I found God. I had learned to run to God whenever I was happy, angry, sad, or going through any experience or emotion.

But it continued to become more and more difficult to reconcile this image of God, with the fact that he had created me inferior to a man. It became difficult to reconcile this image of a loving God, who would tear down a city because he hated gay people so much.

Being cognisant of how religious notions of gender, race and class have contributed to the subjugation of women, homophobia, racism and slavery, I had to go through the painful process of losing this being that I had known as my friend, father and source of refuge.

As a feminist, I was becoming less accommodating of any form of bigotry, and I lost the capacity to be part of a religion that saw me as a lesser being, or thought of others as lesser beings.

Packing and unpacking is a continuous process in the feminist journey, and one that never seems to end. At the moment, I am thinking of leaving behind WhatsApp groups that drain my feminist energy with sexist jokes and discussions.

I don’t know what else I will be leaving behind, but I now know that loss for a feminist is inevitable. Some loss is joyful while some is painful, and that I must be ready to embrace.

Where do we belong?

Chimamanda Adichie often speaks of how she became aware of her blackness, when she left Nigeria to live in the US. It had never occurred to her that her skin colour had any significance, other than being one of the skin colours that exist.

After living in two countries that are not my country of birth, like Chimamanda, I realise that living abroad can make one conscious of things that one would ordinarily be oblivious of. Many times I don’t realize some of the things that I am now conscious of, until something happens.

My most recent is the consciousness that language is not just about words and speech, but also about belonging, inclusion and exclusion; a realisation that was prompted by a call that I made to KPLC to report power outage in my area.

belonging-quotes-2

Late last week, I got home from work, and there was no power. After being notified that there had been a power outage all day, I called KPLC…

The call goes directly to an automated voice machine, which asks me to press a certain number to speak to an attendant. The lines are obviously busy, so I am put on hold, and every 60 seconds or so the automated voice message notifies me that all the lines are busy, and thanks me for my patience.

I then realise that the automated recording speaks in a British accent. It also occurs to me that there isn’t a Swahili recording, and therefore someone who doesn’t speak English, would have a difficult time understanding, and consequently getting assistance.

I wonder aloud why a Kenyan public company is addressing me in a foreign accent, and more concerned that a recording is not done in the national language.

I realise that I am conscious of this, because while living in the Netherlands, I often had the challenge of understanding automated voice messages recorded in Dutch. I remember how often I had to call all the numbers provided on a website, trying to get to a number that would be picked by a person, and not a machine, since I could explain that I didn’t speak Dutch.

After several such frustrating incidents, I realise that the Dutch expect me to live by their rules while I am in their country, and they will not adjust their systems to suit those who decide not to learn the language. It reminds me, in no subtle ways, that I don’t belong.

I then remember an incident in the UK, when I called a British Company and my call was answered by a call attendant with an Indian accent struggling to speak in a British accent. After he had finished assisting me, I asked what his name was, and while I was expecting a Sumra, Vijay, Shah or Sumit, he gives me a typical English name, something like John Smith.

This call reminds me of the movie, the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, in which Evelyn, a retired British woman moves to India and takes up a job in a British outsourcing call center. In her job, she teaches Indian call center workers to speak in British accents, and even how to make small talk, the British way.

I think to myself, I guess if you are going to work for a British Company, you have to speak like the British, understand what makes them tick, even if you are in a call center located in Mumbai, Abuja, or Nairobi, receiving calls from London and other English cities. I realise that to belong in this place, I may be forced to begin killing hints of my roots, and adopt the British way of life. I begin to understand why I meet so many Africans in the UK, with weird sounding accents. I become more conscious of their struggle to belong.

Going back to my KPLC call, as I am put on hold, all these incidents play in my head, and I ask myself why KPLC has opted for an automated message speaking in a British accent. I get irritated, because it not only reminds me of my experience of not belonging in foreign lands, but it also gives me a sense of not belonging in my own country.

I get even more annoyed, because I realise how language can be used to exclude people in the very place where they should belong. It reminds me of a few video and audio recordings I made immediately after finishing university, trying to get into the Kenyan media, as a newscaster.

I remember the disappointment I felt, when it dawned on me that I would never get into any of the stations that I was applying to, because my accent did not sound like I had attended an upmarket British or American school. Neither did it indicate that I may have lived in the UK or the US for some time in my life. I realise that while I have been awarded a degree, and conferred with power to do all that appertains to it, that I sound too Kenyan in my speech to be accepted in certain careers. In this case, I can only belong if I have a tinge of the foreign.

Once KPLC sorts out the power issue, and I now have access to the internet, I get on social media to see what has been happening while I was in darkness. The hashtag #Mollis is trending on Twitter, and I wonder, what is this Mollis? Maybe a new discovery? A new type of car? A new restaurant or club?

I realise that Mollis is the name that has been given to a rapist, and it is actually a mockery of the fact that the woman being raped cannot pronounce the name Morris correctly, because her English is influenced by her mother tongue. Kenyans on Twitter (#KOT) also create memes and jokes using the word Sallenda, which I realise, is how she pronounces surrender. This is also her way of pleading with Morris, and indicating that that she cannot endure the violent sex anymore, as Morris insults and continues to forcefully thrust himself on her.

shape-sorter-bullies

As I read tweet after tweet, I realise that the fact that she sounds too Kenyan, and more rural than urban, has contributed significantly to people’s inability to empathise with her pain. I find myself thinking about Ngugi wa Thiong’o and wonder if this is what he means when he encourages Africans to write in their languages, arguing that the language of the colonizer is a tool for oppression.

I wonder what the hashtag would have been, if the woman being raped spoke in an American or British accent. Perhaps the hashtag that would be trending would be #FindMorris. Perhaps our colonised minds would believe that this woman is indeed being raped, and we would be looking for her, to help her report the incident, so that Morris can be arrested. Morris would be a beast, a wanted criminal, and the object of our venom, as opposed to the hero he has become, and the accolades he has received.

I find myself thinking of how language has been used to remind me that I don’t belong, while in foreign land, and how it continues to determine who belongs and who doesn’t belong, who gets heard and who is ignored, who is respected, and who is not, even in my home country.

Where do I belong? I wonder. Not abroad, not home. Where do I belong? Where does the woman being raped by Morris belong? Where do we belong?

belonging

Obama’s visit tells of a society in need of emancipation

Liberating minds _ Angela Davis
Every month, the watchman of the building I live in asks me to lend him 1,000 or 2,000 Kshs, with the promise to pay me back at the end of the month. He rarely pays me back on time, because things always come up. Although he watches over property worth several hundred million Kshs, his earnings are barely enough to see him through the month.

This man walks three hours every morning to get to work and back home every evening. He works 12 hours a day, without a lunch break, and yet he cannot afford to pay 40 Kshs. for his daily transport. This is despite the fact that he supplements his income by washing the cars of the residents of the building, alongside other manual work that is given to him.

Even with all these efforts, he still owes me 1,000 Kshs. from last year, and he has explained to me that he is paying a loan, which makes it even more difficult to make ends meet. He is highly in debt, just to survive. On top of that, he recently got a wife, so things are probably worse, with an extra mouth to feed.

Now that he has a wife, there is a possibility that he will be getting children in the future. I don’t need to investigate to confirm that the chances of his children having the same kind of education, healthcare and nutrition as the children occupying the houses he mans are close to, if not zero. Miracles may happen, but I foresee a high probability that his children will be in the same situation he is in 20 years down the line.

Sometimes I overhear the conversations between the watchmen and the domestic workers, and I get a sense that they are well aware of the structural inequalities in this country. Talking and joking are their ways of dealing with the harsh realities of life. They talk about the challenges of being on the tail end of the inequality divide. They joke about how they can only afford certain luxuries in their dreams.

The luxuries they joke about are nothing luxurious by middle class standards – sometimes it is just the need for a decent lunch, the dream to take their children to university, or to take public transport to work and back home. For the domestic workers, they wish they could see their children daily, spend more time with them, and like their employers, receive their children when they come back from school.

These kind of inequalities glare at us every day in the places that we live, our places of work and just about every public and private space. Any Kenyan will tell you that the fruits of independence are only enjoyed by a few; that where you are born, and who you are born to determines your chances in life and the kind of opportunities that life will present you with.

In their conversations, the watchmen and domestic workers correctly correlate their social and economic challenges to corruption, nepotism, cronyism and tribalism. They know that without these social ills, their lives would be somewhat, if not significantly different.

Yet when Obama talked about inequalities, tribalism and corruption in Kenya, we spent the entire day quoting different sections of his speech through tweets, re-tweets, and Facebook posts that were liked, commented on and shared widely. We marvelled at Obama’s genius, his wisdom, and spoke at length about how inspired we were, never mind that any ordinary Kenya would have told you the exact same thing. We celebrated these obvious statements, as if they were the words of the prophet, foretelling a future that we don’t know of.

I have found myself trying to make sense of the response of Kenyans to Obama’s visit, and more specifically, his speech. I have found myself wondering whether the over-celebration of these obvious statements could be symptoms of a repressed society. Were we celebrating because Obama said what many of us could not say for fear of being branded traitors or unpatriotic?

Could the ‘Obama-mania’ that we witnessed, and the over-enthusiastic cheering of obvious statements be signs of a nation clinging to the hope of much needed salvation? Could these be signs of a society that is in self-doubt? Could the hope we vested in Obama be an indication of low confidence to emancipate ourselves from the problems that we often articulate so well, even across socio-economic divide?

As Africans, we have struggled to emancipate ourselves from the indignity of domination by foreign and colonial rule. Even after attaining independence, Africans have vehemently objected to be shaped by dominant narratives of the West, about Africa. This is a journey that we continue to pursue spiritedly.

However, we cannot succeed in the journey to emancipation if we continue to cling to the West for affirmation and legitimization. When we fail to believe ourselves until a foreigner ‘diagnoses’ our problem and speaks on our behalf. We must rise above the need for affirmation by the foreign, and believe that we are holders of knowledge about ourselves. We must believe that the power to chart a new kind of Africa lies with us, and not the West.

Bob Marley - Emancipation

%d bloggers like this: