Assuming nothing; questioning everything

Posts tagged ‘Class’

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

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.

Skip Lunch and Save an African

Save all the Africans

I have never experienced poverty, and so I will not claim to speak for the poor. That said, I have experienced the indignity of poverty, and will therefore speak for the dignity of the poor.

It was in the streets of London, where a“beggar” with a container approached me and asked for a donation to “save Africa and other poor parts of the world”. My contribution would send a poor child child to school, and provide a meal for a starving family. He looked tired from all the talking and efforts to convince passersby. I imagined the smirk on his face, as he went to bed with sore feet and a sore throat, but with a happy heart, having saved an African or two, with a container full of coins. As if this was not enough, advertisements on TV begged for money to “save poor Africans”. Miserable women in need of maternal healthcare, young girls and women walking many kilometers to fetch dirty water for their families, starving and emaciated children and mothers were the faces of such campaigns. As an African, I hated this representation of Africa, and every time I saw these “beggars” and watched the campaigns to “save Africa”, I felt my dignity stripped.

Save Umgoga

These campaigns made me understand why I had to go through so much humiliation when I applied for a European visa, or to get into a European country. They made me understand why I was expected to have nothing between my ears, and there was often surprise if I failed to meet this expectation. I understood why the colour of my skin was associated with sex work. As an African, I was the face of desperate poverty, hunger, starvation, ignorance, war and death. I was therefore perceived as ready to run from my country or even sell my body to escape my poverty. I imagined that these perceptions were often based on the idea that I was likely to be another African that had been saved by those who were charitable enough to “experience” my starvation by skipping a few lunches. I became so conscious of the “stench” of my “poverty”, I almost suffocated in it. I identified with Dambudzo Marechera when he speaks of the “identity crisis, self-hatred, self re-examination, both excessive Afro-pessimism and Afro-optimism, reversed racism, escapism and alienation” that he struggled with as a student at Oxford.

I identified with parents that I met in a research I had conducted, several years back, seeking to understand why children in Nairobi’s slums attended poor quality low cost private schools in the slums, yet the government had declared free primary education. The parents cited poor quality public education, as a key factor that had forced them to take their children to private schools in the slums.

When I asked these parents whether they had officially complained about the state of public education, some considered themselves to be “beggars”, who could not afford to be “choosers”. They took whatever was offered to them, “waiting for a better donor to bail them out.” While these kind of responses expressed the indignity of poverty, relegating the poor to the mercy of anyone that could help, I also got responses that demonstrated the basic need for human dignity. One woman observed that her poverty required her to withstand whatever was offered, without complaining. This observation led her to conclude that, “free things are bad”, and strongly believed that, “it is better to go for a service you have struggled to pay, no matter how cheap it costs”. These kind of responses made it clear that even though they were poor, they did not want to be at the mercy of charity. They valued their dignity and voice, and they wanted their voices to be recognised and listened to. I realised that, charity, while gratifying to the giver, and even to the recipient, it has this tendency to strip people off their dignity.

I am concerned that we are becoming a charity state. Public services have become synonymous with services for the poor. We have a state where elected representatives serve the poor through handouts, rather than develop laws that cause systemic transformation. It is no wonder the culture of “Mheshimiwa nisaidie” or “naomba Serikali” is not dying even with a Constitution that gives all sovereign power to the people. Sadly, the idea of a charity state, is extending from the government to the people; where the wealthy and middle classes “skip lunches” and “run marathons” to “save the poor”. The desire of the West to save Africa, and the gratification derived from it, is the same desire and gratification that Africa’s wealthy and middle classes derive from saving the poor among them.

Gratification

I am concerned when I see people happy to “save the poor”, but not seeking to question the corruption and poor policy frameworks that underlie the state of our public services.  It becomes even more galling when several of these “charitable” elected representatives, are rumoured to be making money illegally, by selling drugs, grabbing land and inflating tenders. They steal from the poor to give peanuts to the poor; gestures that are are met with loud applause.

When I give food to the poor

I am concerned with the small vision that the government and its citizens have for this state. I wonder if there is anyone who is daring to dream differently. I choose to have a bigger dream. I see the vision of a dignified citizenry. I dream of a day when public services will not be for the poor, because services for the poor tend to be poor services. I see a day when our taxes will provide decent healthcare, quality education, affordable and decent housing, regular supply of clean and safe water, electricity, and security for all its citizens, and not just the poor. I long to walk into a public facility for treatment, confident that I will enjoy high quality and efficient service and treatment. I commit to give the best of myself to support a cause that holds a similar vision.

I've seen the promised land

I know such a dream will quickly be dismissed as insane. Like Erwin McManus, I realise that I live on the bubble of insanity, because I feel the weight of human suffering, loneliness and despair on me all the time. It’s not getting easier; if anything, it’s always right on the edge of my skin.

Insane as this dream may be, I choose to persist and not be quiet, complacent, tired or discouraged, until the campaign for dignity and equality is won.

We must not tire

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