Assuming nothing; questioning everything

Posts tagged ‘change & transformation’

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

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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

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.

Is this really the Nairobi we want?

Guest post by d’Arthez. 

Nairobi is a bustling city. People are always in a hurry – if not to make money, then to spend it. The lucky among us, on consumer goods and holidays abroad. The less fortunate among us on food and school fees. Like an army of confused ants, we’re marching to the CBD, Westlands, Kilimani, Karen. To Kibera, Dandora, Kayole, Kangemi or who knows where.

The fortunate ones waste hours sitting in traffic jams. The less fortunate are wearing their shoes out, While the former go to gyms, or upmarket walking tracks to enjoy the joy of walking, the latter are hoping to make enough money to own cars so that they can enjoy the joys of traffic jams themselves. And if not them, their children.

It strikes me that Nairobi is not meant to be a place to live in. Or if it is, that little to no effort is made to make the city liveable for majority of its residents. There are but a few green spots. Pavements are mostly non-existent. The city still depends on but a few, almost permanently clogged, arteries.

Demand for services, such as education, healthcare, security, transport and electricity, seems to be outstripping the provision of these services. Well-paying jobs are scarce. Recent statistics suggest that the informal economy is far more successful than the formal one in providing jobs, but sadly the jobs in the informal sector often offer little beyond hand-to-mouth living. It is not uncommon to see recent graduates with Masters Degrees performing odd jobs, just to make a meagre living.

To some extent governments, local and national, have given up on their responsibilities to provide these services. We can see it in the mushrooming of private schools, we can see it in the fact that lamp posts hardly ever work anywhere. Corruption is rife, and corruption is essentially another tax on the poor.

But it is equally true, that we as citizens have given up, or simply cannot even be bothered with anything that moves beyond our private concerns.  Rather than demand public services as tax payers and citizens entitled to basic public services, we resort to private solutions to secure just about every basic service.

Education? Spend long hours working and sleepless nights thinking of how to make that extra buck to spend -on private education that costs an arm and a leg.  If you’re poor, you’re left hoping against the odds, that somehow your children won’t become casual labourers, but will have a better life than you.

Healthcare? Get insurance, travel abroad for treatment, or pray to the Lord that one will be spared chronic illnesses.  Those that cannot afford insurance and treatment abroad, endure prolonged suffering or death from illnesses that could be prevented, managed and cured by a functioning health-care system.

Security? Put up a gate, a fence, or rely on neighbours, who hopefully prove trustworthy.  Pray that you are a victim of insecurity, because justice, in a court of law, is unaffordable to the vast majority of people.

Transport? Walk long hours on end, for majority of the population. For the struggling middle class, spend a substantial amount of your salary on matatus, or spend a small fortune for the privilege of becoming a target for traffic police who seek to supplement their income by hook or by crook. While the urban poor are mostly spared traffic police, they have to deal with askaris.

We’re being conned so often, that the highest recommendation for a service provider seems to be that they have not even tried to con you. We all act as if Chapter 6 of the Constitution is entitled “Impunity”.

Nairobi produces and reproduces dysfunction, and as long as our mind-sets don’t change, we’ll have to face the realities of floods, carjackings, polluted air, robberies, corrupt city/county council askaris and traffic police, clogged roads, and sub-par education. Is this really the Nairobi we want?

Can it end with me?

I have been sexually harassed for 20 years of my life. I have grown up and lived most of my life in a society where touching and talking inappropriately to women, myself included, has become all too normal, and in all spheres of society.

My first experience with this reality dates back to 20 years ago. A certain green dress is etched in that memory. Not only because it was a beautiful dress, given to me as a gift, but more because the first day I wore that dress, at the age of 12 was my first experience with sexual harassment.

In my neighbourhood, there was a corner where boys that had finished high school sat in a gang. I had passed by the gang unnoticed for many years, until I wore the green dress, and for five minutes or so, I had a bunch of 10 or more boys whistle, laugh, shout and make me as uncomfortable as possible, as I passed by. I guess this was a sign that I was now grown up.

Shake that ass

The frustrating bit about it was that for the next three years or so, that I lived in that neighbourhood, I dreaded finding the boys there, because that scene was repeated over and over again. It was a thoroughly uncomfortable and embarrassing scene that became all too normal. I learned to ignore it, but unfortunately, that was not the only space that I had to learn to ignore sexual harassment.

For the last 20 years, bus stops, construction sites and corners of the street where idle young men sit, have been spaces that have subjected me to numerous experiences of sexual harassment as men whistle, sometimes touch or utter words and jokes that are sexually offensive and embarrassing.

On occasion, I have stood up for myself and told off sexual harassers. But as a woman that was stripped last year at a matatu terminus will tell you, this is a very unsafe move, as the same crowd could turn violent, and decide to humiliate a woman through public undressing.

just because

Sadly, streets and public transport are not the only unsafe and sexually intrusive spaces for girls and women, but the truth is even professional spaces are not that safe.

This week, I happened to be attending an event that was bringing together the most politically powerful men in this country. As I was preparing to attend the event, a colleague of mine prepared me mentally for the unwanted sexual advances and harassment that I would receive. True to her word, I found myself on occasion warding off a particular politician who considered his political and economic power as a license to sexually harass me and solicit for sex.

But this is not only confined to the politically and economically powerful. My biggest challenge as a professional required to attend meetings that require me to sleep away from home, is the amount of sexual harassment I experience. During the day, I imagine that I am sharing ideas with professional peers, only to be proven wrong in the evening when I begin to be touched or spoken to, in a way that makes it clear that I am an object of sexual gratification, and a potential substitute for people’s wives.

What is even more vexing is how there are no mechanisms to report these forms of inappropriate touch or forms of speech. Since I was 12, I have been harassed on the streets and in public transport, and now in professional spaces. Yet 20 years later, there is simply no mechanism to report. If anything, this form of sexual harassment is so normal, it would seem absurd to report. I have often asked myself why in meetings there is no mechanism to address sexual harassment, something that I have been subjected to conference after conference.

I realised how unsafe each space has become, when I sought a massage service a few weeks ago. I bought the service from a popular website offering deals and discounts. As is characteristic of every space for a woman, my massage experience turned out to be sexually inappropriate. I wasn’t too sure who to report to and what to report. I could not report such an incident to the police, as I would only end up being more humiliated. Besides, how do you report to Kenyan police that you think a place is unsafe for women based on how you have been touched or talked to?

I was also deterred from reporting to the police when I remembered an incident when a friend of mine accompanied me to a police station a few years ago, as I was going to report loss of identification documents. She was concerned about unwanted advances and disturbing text messages by someone that she had long ended a relationship with. The police laughed and joked about her report, and asked her to cooperate with the man. They advised her to stop being a ‘difficult’ woman and instead be more receptive to his advances.

Without a proper avenue to report, I wrote to the administrators of the website, where I bought the deal and gave feedback on my dissatisfaction, a complaint that was duly ignored. It was not until 25 days later, this week, when a 15 year old Norwegian girl got raped, that I got a follow up call on my feedback, expressing regret on what they termed as my ‘less than satisfactory experience’. The apology is too late now, it has led a young girl to go through an extremely traumatic experience, probably the most traumatic she will undergo in her life. Since that experience, I have been wondering whether I could have done more, but until now, I wonder what mechanisms are there to really listen and respond to complaints of sexual inappropriateness.

I read the thread on Kilimani Mums on the same issue and was surprised that the comments with the most likes were those that laid blame on the mother of the victim for taking her daughter for a massage from a man. But then again, this is the kind of society that we live in, one where the victim and the perpetrator share blame, with the victim taking the lion share of the blame in many cases. This is why rape is grossly under-reported, with only 1 in every 20 victims reporting rape. It is also the reason why people that have undergone sexual violence do not even speak about it. I could not discuss my experience, because on top of the trauma, I wanted to spare myself the shame and blame that would be heaped on me for my bad experience.

What we refuse to acknowledge, is that anyone can be a victim of sexual violence, no matter how empowered or cautious. The effect is also the same, no matter how empowered, sexual violence is humiliating, and embarrassing to talk about. It is even more difficult when mechanisms to report are either non-existent, unclear or unresponsive, coupled with a society that is hell bent on blaming victims of sexual violence.

Something is wrong

My questions is, when will this end? Can it end with me? Can it end with other women in my generation? Will our daughters still be blogging, 20 years from now, about sexual harassment on the streets, in public transport, and in professional and recreational spaces? Will our daughters 20 years from now be stuck without options to report? Or frustrated with the inadequacy of options to report? Will our daughters, 20 years from now still be ashamed to report and discuss sexual violation, afraid that they will end up being blamed for the sins of the perpetrators? Are we willing to spare our daughters the shame and the pain that we have undergone almost all our lives? Can it end with me and my generation?

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