Taking Up Space

Bibi mgani huyo *3

(which wife is that)

Anataka nipike chai

(who wants me to make tea)

Sufuria nimenunua

(I’ve bought the pan)

Kichungi nimenunua

(I’ve bought the sieve)

Ketepa nimenunua

(I’ve bought ketepa)

Anataka nipike chai

(yet she wants me to make tea)

The patriarchy actively teaches/recruits/persuades.

This is something that we know to be true. The song above is sung often. Mainly by drunk men during social events. While it is sung (as I’m sure many comments will show up to say) “all in good fun” it’s also a song that heavily reminds us of gender roles.

There are many more songs.

There are many worse songs.

We sing them anyway.

*

Matter is anything that has mass and occupies space

–          Science

The more accommodating you are the less space you have to take up. The less space you have to take up the more you have to accommodate

–          Sara Ahmed

 

Sometimes taking up space could be as radical as you could possibly be. Existing, within a system could be to challenge the system.

Bodies swell.

A friend tells me about his tactics to get ladies to sit next to him in buses. He swells whenever a man walks by. He takes up space and, by taking up space he send messages of acceptance/denial. Taking up space is one of the most obvious tools of othering. Think of how men will completely swallow up the conversation when in a room. Taking up space can be defined here by raised voices, animation, interruption and interaction.

Obviously the response could be “they could have spoken up at any moment,” as if somehow accommodation is something that can be demanded.

(and once accommodation is demanded words like “bossy” and “aggressive” start to show up)

People who “matter” are given more mass and space than others in a room. This extra space must be taken from the finite amount of space available. If a conversation is set to go on for 3 hours and 2 people decide to dominate an hour and a half of that it would mean that the other people involved in the conversation have less time to share amidst themselves.

Of course the people who will have the space taken away from them would then be the “others.” I use taken away because, often, the process of othering is violent and oppressive.

 

Bibi mgani huyo?

 

With this I’m taken back to the wife in the song. The wife that we sing about in her absence. Which wife is that? The song carries an absurdity to the question. As if it is something that can’t happen. In her existence she doesn’t exist. Even as we sing about her we will not allow her to take up space. She is an anomaly an other. Any wife hearing this would here the caution. The “such women don’t exist, don’t be the first.”

Othering comes in many forms and sizes.

It’s also a cautionary tale to men. Don’t let her. You are a provider not a provider. Do the things you must (and as the song varies, the lists are very specific) and she must then follow suit in some way. Within this even the man who might think different is othered. Not as violently and as distantly as the wife but is othered. At this point it is upon the man to say, but I have that wife and there’s nothing wrong with it (or I don’t have that wife but I still find nothing wrong with it).

This would be to be a killjoy…

…which Ahmed reminds us might be the entire journey of feminism.

P.S. As I write this the demolitions in Kibera remind me of how literal the idea of taking up space could actually be. Find out more with #KiberaDemolitions on Twitter.

Give this Essay a Fighting Chance

Here,

where the smell of charred flesh

dances in the wind

and lingers before ascending

into forgotten dreams.

 

Here

where fists of men

meet fists of men

and women and children

are marked as battlefields.

 

Here

where ideologies are nothing

but reasons to die.

No,

excuses to kill.

 

Here

where gutters have seen

so much deoxygenated blood

that they call them veins

 

Here

where a knock on the door means

the approaching of death,

news of death

or the ambulance.

 

Here

where they told me,

he died a hero.

 

They didn’t know that

 

here

 

there are no heroes

only dead bodies.

 

I’ve never known how to think about war. I’ve never known how to write about war. Partly this is because I’ve never directly experienced a full scale war. Although, even writing this, I don’t know what “full scale war” is meant to mean. It’s more about not knowing how to package grief and, not just grief but the relentless onslaught of it.

Particularly poetry about war has baffled me. I’ve read a lot of war poetry. I’ve listened to a lot too. Rafeef Ziadah’s we teach life captures the anger. It captures how deep this thing that we call war cuts people. How lives that lie within the “collateral damage” zone are affected by this easily disposable status.

An unexpected guest

in the middle of the night

is rarely under an obligation to knock

politely.

 

The nature of the midnight guest often

involves some sort of emergency

and bypasses any obligation of

kindness.

Usalama, security, is very important

more so than the ten seconds it takes to

turn a key and avoid breaking down a

door.

 

The most important thing you could

give such a guest is tea.

The second most important thing is a

bribe.

Kenya is at war. This is what I have been told severally whenever I talk about the ethnic targeting of Kenyan Somalis. It seems to be a justification for anything and everything. The idea that, because we are killing people elsewhere we can do whatever we will to people here as well. I’m wondering about war as a justification for war.

I’ve been a pacifist for a large chunk of my life. I’ve never really seen the value in a fight and, even though I’ve told stories of fights and laughed at stories of fights a part of me has always found them silly. Many people find this inconsistent with me playing rugby. That’s fine. Life is inconsistent.

And so is poetry.

Capturing the entire ethno-ubaguzistic operation usalama and bringing it down to 50 or so words seems to simplify it. Seems to bring it down to a bite sized nugget of injustice.

And

when the

mother

of the mother

lets her grief

escape;

catch

her tears.

 

They are a

story

that cannot be

told.

 

There’s something about the re-telling of a story that makes it lose its essence. There’s something about the re-packaging of grief that makes it lose its essence. There is, what I’d like to call, a purity of grief in moments that, even when described by the best, cannot be duplicated. This is not to say that we can’t try. The imagination has been known to fill the gaps. This is to say that, no matter how deeply a poem/essay/prose piece makes you feel about a situation the actual experience was several times what you are imagining. There is more poetry in a single tear than there is in the entire world.

55

is

11 times 5

is

7 weeks 6 days

is

45 less than 100

is

5 bullets short of 2 AK 47 clips

is

Almost, but not yet, an hour

is

a  new born child,

an umbilical cord

and bloody fingernails.

Even though I’ve spoken about how we can never do this, I think it is important that we try. I’ve been trying to imagine what the situation is like for the people stuck in Kasarani now. Rounded up like cattle and led to – what might as well be- an abattoir.  Some part of my imagination is skeptical. “It can’t really be that bad, can it?” I’ve learned not to listen to this part. I’ve learned to believe what people say they experienced even when my mind is trying to doubt. Especially when my mind is trying to doubt

Do you have enough bone broken limbs

to cover the sun?

Hand me over your dead and

Give me the list of their names

In 1200 word limits.

–          Rafeef Ziadah, We teach life

To be disposable means we can never be casual about our ongoing vulnerability

–          Keguro Macharia

 

A few days ago I was walking to the shops late at night when a friend called me. On hearing I was out at night she got angry and demanded I go back into the house “don’t you know you are in the wrong body to be out at night? You’ll be shot.” She was right. Young black men in Kenya are “suspects” we are shot, every day. We are shot for “resisting” for being “suspicious” or just because they needed a body that can, believably, be a gangster. I’m thinking about the bonoko story of a man who was just shot, and how easily we laughed it off and even made a dance track.

I’m wondering about how we can stretch form to capture the realities of government that is waging war against its citizens.

He had heard

rumours

of a war

seven hundred

and fifty kilometres

away.

 

He had followed

the news

his mind

willing victory

to his country.

Even he

wasn’t spared.

I spent some time with a Somali Kenyan who largely supported Kenyan troops in Kismaiyo on a bus a while back. He seemed interesting. I hope the soldiers in Eastleigh didn’t get to him but I can’t help but think of the irony if they did. I wish I could reach him to have another conversation.

The thing about writing poetry about war is that these small moments can’t be missed. They are not recalled with a chuckle or with sadness they are just recalled. And, maybe that’s what I was getting at in the first poem. There is no glory in war – only death. And death is something the imagination has problems capturing. Whatever your imagination tells you #KasaraniConcentrationCamp is like – it’s worse.

Are you Safe Now?

Silence is a form of poisonous knowledge. A paper I’m reading quotes Veena Das on this. It comes at a time when I’m thinking about the current state of the Somali people in Kenya. I’m thinking about the stories we’ve heard and seen. And, more particularly, I’m thinking, and frustrated over the large scale silence the dehumanisation has received.

Even when the stories come out, they have been denied. Mothers losing their children, police with guns in homes at 1am, rape, extortion.

We have heard these stories.

We have experienced these stories.

We know, because we know, that the police are as the police are. We know, because we know, that there is rarely such a thing as police interaction without transaction in Kenya. Yet, somehow, in this particular instance, we act like the police will be a model of politeness.

And even within all this knowledge – silence reigns.

No, silence thrives.

We stay silent not because we don’t know, but because we do.

Because not talking about it will make it go away. Because, in not talking, problems disappear. And, more importantly, because feeling safe is more important than actually being safe.

Meanwhile, as we protect our illusion of safety our silence sends a message of approval. Now, the state can do as it will to people that it doesn’t like. All they have to do is tell us that it was in the name of security. That we are now secure.

Secure

(adjective)

not subject to threat; certain to remain or continue safe and unharmed.

The thing is, this attack on Somalis doesn’t make one feel safe. Not  in the slightest. The idea that the police can prance around with their guns barging into homes and doing as they will doesn’t create an illusion of safety. Even to that standard it has failed.

We hang on to the operation because we want to feel safe. We want the police to be right. We want Somalis to be terrorists because then we will have a face to look at. We will have a place to point and say ‘there lies the problem.’ We will have, what we have now. A constructed other that we can point to and blame.

And so we continue to stay silent, hoping that somehow someone else’s disposability will buy our safety.

It won’t.

When We Fail

“Are you gay?”

The question is spat out with a venom that I can’t dare imagine. The “no” finds its way out of my mouth way too quickly. My mind has accounted for the dynamic of this fully male testosterone filled environment faster than my leftist self could stage defiance. Even my net clause “and even if I was all of you buggers are too ugly,” seems weak. Like a trying of sorts, like a cry for exclusion within my inclusion.

 I am seeing the world again.

I am seeing my straight male-ness allow me to navigate through worlds with a certain confidence. I’m seeing the person who has to answer yes. I’m holding places, and thoughts, in one light.  And it isn’t looking pretty.

I rank sentences. One of the most beautiful sentences I heard last year was a friend describing her relationship with her grandmother. She said “we lack the tools to navigate each other’s’ worlds.” I think about this situation, I find myself without the tools to navigate this situation. Life has moved on. The new guys are being asked to introduce themselves. Part of the introduction must include whether or not they have sisters. One guy has three sisters. The crowd goes wild.

I lack the tools to navigate this situation.

Eventually I begin to feel smaller, hypocritical, dumber. I begin to hate myself for my fear. I begin to wish that I had said something.

Silence is wrong. I have said this before.

But what happens when you don’t have the strength. Another friend reminds me that we must pick our battles. She says “Otherwise, we burn out, lead joyless lives, die young.” She said this about something else. I try to apply it to my situation.

I fail.

I promise myself that next time I will speak. It is a feeble promise, one said with the knowledge it will be broken. It becomes easier to put my politics aside in some situations. It becomes harder to live with myself. It becomes impossible to live with others. One thing rings true – it hurts.

later that night

i held an atlas in my lap

ran my fingers across the whole world

and whispered

where does it hurt?

it answered

everywhere

everywhere

everywhere.

–          Warsan Shire

Unique – Just Like Everybody Else

I’ve been watching a lot of aspirational poverty porn NGO type videos recently. It’s funny how these things work by giving people in the village westerly aspirations. For example, being a pilot, or a doctor. As if to say, they are human too, because they want to be like “us.” Let us give them a stamp of authority and accept them into our humanity, a humanity that they, so desperately want to join. (watch this video, for example)

And, even within these aspirations there is a certain hierarchy. For example, I want to be a doctor vis-a – vis I just want ambitionto dance. I think about how that just works. Creating the impression that dancing is a lesser aspiration, a mereness, a lower ambition. It has no “professional” standing (although anyone who has seen me on the dance floor knows that there are people who cannot dance in this world). This word “just” bothers me. And I use it a lot. I find myself saying “I just want to write poetry.” I have been told being a poet is not an aspiration that is enough. We must want to do something “more”

In Bend it, happy multiculturalism Sara Ahmed writes:

“That word ‘more’ lingers, and frames the ending of the film, which gives us ‘flashes’ of an imagined future … In an earlier scene, the song ‘Moving on Up’ is playing, as Jess and Jules run towards us. They overtake two Indian women wearing shalva kamises. I would suggest that the spatial promise of the ‘up and away’ is narrated as leaving Indian culture behind, even though Jess as a character articulates a fierce loyalty to her family and culture. The desire to play football, to join the national game, is read as leaving a certain world behind. Through the juxtaposition of the daughter’s happy objects, the film suggest that this desire gives a better return.”

I’m bothered by why the validation to according these women in Uganda (in the video up there) is tied into the fact that they want the same things that the people in the West do. It seems to drive people towards a norm as opposed to towards embracing diversity.

‘It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.’

–          Audre Lorde

This some to me as I think about how quick we are to run away from categories. We do not want to be called “feminist” or “African” or anything else for that matter. Taye Selasie said that African literature does not exist.

I have lost myself, and may end up discussing the Afropolitan. Let me start again.

*******

We often describe things in the terms of “regressive” and “progressive.” Progressive, as many of us know, is something that moves forward while regressive is something that takes one backwards. Very often we use the word regressive toflowchart describe our own culture. I’m not sure this is right.

Before you read on, get one thing straight. This is not about the misogynistic, oppressive and down right wrong bits of our culture – those need to be buried very far away.

I’m thinking more about it from the progressive angle. We aspire to be like the west. This is why we have Freedom talk about a common currency even after seeing what the Euro has done to the EU. It is for this same reason that we have musicians like Ke$ha being listened to in the middle of Kisii.

As I write this I see how this could be turned to fuel the mechanism of the west political narrative.

Allow me to rephrase.

********

All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others

–          George Orwell, Animal Farm

A friend asked me about class. I wonder – who defines it? What is this intangible quality that a person has? Is it an upbringing thing? Because we have no choice in who or how we are bred. Or perhaps it is a societal thing (I see the swag generation taking their selfies now). The most accurate response I received is that class is a way of people who were born with money to identify each other. Being born and bred in a certain way helps you identify people who were bred in the same way.

The commercialization of class, and explosion of the media, has led to class being something to be aspired to. And, the thing is, we do have a very clear picture of what class looks like. It is sitting in the back of a Rolls Royce Phantom, smoking a Cuban cigar in your leather coat.

This is a problem.

What, then, I am trying to say is that moving forward doesn’t have to mean moving towards a certain set picture. It may mean opening our minds to the idea that we are different – and that’s okay.

How Round is A Circle?

Women and children should not be killed unless and until women and children are killed.  If women and children are killed then more women and children can be killed.  If women and children are killed then more women and children should be killed.  If women and children are killed then more women and children must be killed.

–          Wambui Mwangi, A Lamentation of Mourners

There’s been a lot of thinking around Westgate. A lot of thinking around what happened and how it continues to (not) happen. A lot of scrutiny as to what the government did (not) do. And, generally, a lot of a lot-ness going on.

A friend wrote, on a listserve:

 I can’t celebrate death; can’t see killing as victory; I’m unable to understand how neutralizing terrorists will stop future attacks; how cult-like it is when we give thanks for bloodshed; while grieving for a different kind of bloodshed.”

 It is hard not to join the cultic cries for the blood of the people who attacked the mall on that Saturday. Harder still isSavage Chickens - pressure trying to understand why we weren’t equally torn over the tana clashes, or the several strikes across Nothern Kenya; Wajir si Kenya?

What is most difficult to reconcile is how we see this as worse damage, because it has happened on our soil. As if somehow, because the deaths have happened here they are worse. And, by here, I don’t even mean in Kenya, I think about here being Nairobi. And a certain part of Nairobi. The part that the people who handle the wealth of the country go to have their coffee, and buy their diamonds. These deaths are worse than the others because, somehow, these lives bear more value. In a lamentation of mourners, Wambui Mwangi (quoting Judith Butler) writes:

Ungrievable lives are those that cannot be lost, and cannot be destroyed, because they already inhabit a lost and destroyed zone; they are, ontologically, and from the start, already lost and destroyed, which means that when they are lost and destroyed in war, nothing is destroyed.”

Barely days after the Westgate siege a blast in Wajir came to my attention. Unlike the Westgate victims, there was no paybill number for these victims. There was no national outrage, no list of victims and no concern on twitter. It could be argued that fewer people died in Wajir than in westgate and, to that, I ask, where’s the mourning for the 1500 dead of the PEV? To the over 60 dead of the Tana Delta clashes. What deaths have we resigned to the space of normal, acceptable, palatable? What deaths we have become accustomed to? Who decides what life we shall and shan’t grieve?

I think about this as I think to the amount of collateral damage that has occurred in Kismayo. Collateral damage, lives lost in a bid to protect other lives from being lost in a bid to keep more important lives running. Because life has been lost, life will be lost. I think about this as I think of our disposability. About the jubilation when suspects are gunned XKCD- Death ratesdown.  We celebrate death as if it comes with a blessing. They were suspected so they must be guilty. We don’t even bother to find out their names. Their mothers are not allowed to shed a tear for them Their sons were thieves, they deserved to die.

As if somehow a tv and a few wires are worth taking a life.

The irony in all this is that, while we mourn for the victims of the Westgate blast we tell the ICC to leave our president alone. We urge the victims of the post election violence to move past what has happened. We use death, to erase death.

Witness #95

Say their names:

Ali, Ben, Susan, Beatrice, Lucy

Say their names:

Brother, Friend, Wife, Sister, Girlfriend

Say their names:

Kiptoo, Onyango, Achieng’, Nyambura, Cheruiyot

Say their names:

missing, burned, raped, decapitated, insane

 Say their names:

scared, criminalized, hated, feared, intimidated

 Say their names:

forgotten, erased, error, error,error.

Tell Me a Story

When Governor Kidero raised his hand and let it accelerate rapidly towards Women’s Representative Rachel Shebesh’s face he made a very public statement – a statement that has been made, and reiterated for generations:  when a woman gets in your face, it is advisable to remind her of where she belongs, and using physical force is the most convenient way to send this message.

The reiteration of this message (and particularly the numerous ways in which this message has been reiterated) makes me wonder about how certain words have been used to represent desirable, and non-desirable, attributes in an individual. Aggression, for example, seems to be an attribute set aside for men. Female leaders are spoken of having ‘aggressive tendencies’ and the words are spat out of the mouths of the men who use them.

Aggression, as per the second definition in the Oxford Dictionary is “readiness to attack or confront.” It was derived from latin words that mean attack, and to proceed. This level of hyper alertness, that we call aggression, has to be developed. It comes from several confrontations where one is taught, harshly, that one must forcibly stand for themselves or someone else will stand on their behalf. It then makes sense that aggression not be desirable by the oppressed in any battle against oppression. Aggression, being a way of being ready for attack, means that the control of any said situation leaves the hands of the oppressed.

Aggression, being a non-desirable trait, leaves the oppressed with only one other option, submission. According to the Oxford Dictionary passive aggressivesubmission is, “the action of accepting or yielding to a superior force or to the will or authority of another person.” The act of yielding, giving way, allows the status quo to remain as is. Furthermore, without aggression, the collective conscious is allowed to rest. If all these people aren’t so hyper alert, then it means everything is okay. The world, within the status quo, is allowed to exist.

With this thought being planted within the minds of the people what they should and should not be, brings about barriers that limit what they can, and cannot be. Then, when these people are unable to attain certain goals this inability is pinned down to them being unable to perform when the structures that be are, very easily, keeping them out.

Barriers are the reasons people with privilege are allowed to own certain aspects of life. In the essay, can the white girl twerk, Ayesha Siddiqi writes: Black girls who don’t twerk are made invisible because white consumers decide not only what blackness is but also what they want out of it. In the same way I think the Kenyan woman has had her story taken from her, and owned by men. We define what being a woman should be, and what we want out of it (chapos, clean clothes and good sex, mainly). It is important that we let Kenyan women own the narrative of their own lives. The work – and I call it work because that’s exactly what it is – of listening is very important. To listen to a young lady lay herself bare on the rape debate and talk about the existence of herself as  a woman is to understand that she is speaking on her experience. To try and negate her experience is to tell her that she is wrong, that she must only feel how you tell her to feel.

Allowing people to own their own narratives is hard. Being a human being with an opinion means that you already have preconceived notions as to how people are, and how they aren’t. But how were these notions conceived? Why is it, for example, right that Shebesh’s husband be ready to forgive Kidero? Does he own her? Is she a cup that was broken, and must now be glued together, or replaced?

In a further bid to control the narrative people on twitter have began to ask where the feminists are. Where were the feminists when this happened, wrongwhere were the feminists when that happened? Now, not only do women not own their own narrative, their struggle to change the narrative is to be controlled as well. They are being told how to fight. “Don’t accuse men,” they are told, “it is individuals that are wrong, good men exist.” This is the defense of the self-proclaimed good men.  “You can be beaten in public, and we’ll make jokes about it,” say more men.

And, when these women push back, they are termed as aggressive. As people refusing to buy into the story that they have been told is theirs. As if somehow owning their own story is a bad thing. Femnet has released a statement on where Kenyan women stand in light of the recent assault on Rachel Shebesh. Will we listen this time, or will we tell them they are wrong again?

Lights, Camera, Fire

And so when I finally decided to write I sat down at my computer and began to think. Steam from the cup of coffee on the side of my desk warming my fingers. Thoughts swirled around in my head. Egypt, Syria, The USA, South Africa, Kenya.

Kenya.

We burned the airport and the analysts came out. Everyone spoke, and with authority too. “Airport fire disastrous for the  tourism industry.” One headline boasted. Another, not to be outdone went even deeper into the story “Airport fire may have disastrous effects.”  Yes, this type of in depthanalysis analysis was characteristic of what we have come to expect from the local media. Foreign media didn’t disappoint either. In fact, foreign anything didn’t disappoint. The FBI themselves made their way to the airport amidst whispers of terrorism.

It surprised me that I wasn’t necessarily surprised when the airport fire broke out. It seemed to be the next logical step in the narrative that is our country. The squabbles, the noise, the little microaggresive tendencies they had all been relatively small in scale.

In his blogpost on banal misogyny is Keguro Macharia asks “when did misogyny become dull?” He goes on to talk about where we chose to set our gaze as society. About the things we see, without seeing and without recognizing them; the things that happen at the corner of our eyes that we wave away to be tricks, or distractions.

In a similar line of thought I’d like to ask when scandals, corruption and this general ugliness became the norm. To the extent that two weeks after a major airport fire no one is talking about it. As if the memory will jar us from our collective stupor.

I think about this as I reflect on the recent accident in Narok. As I write the death toll is at 41. It is tragic. However, the larger tragedy, in my books, is the fact that in a few weeks the Narok tragedy will be, just that, another tragedy in a long line of tragedies; perhaps coined up to the whole idea of August being cursed. There may or may not be a roadside decree issues on traveling a decree which will quickly be forgotten, or ignored in lieu of bribes.

Sarah Ahmed in her essay, Black feminism as a life-line, writes: “when racism recedes from social consciousness it appears as if the ones who “bring it up” are bringing it into existence… People of colour are often asked to concede to the recession of racism” The idea of recession is one that can be replicated when it comes to Kenya and how we deal with tragedies.

It is very important that we think about the airport fire, the floods on Thika road, the suspected gangsters that we shot, the bus that crashed in Narok and think about what these events represent. It is important that we refuse to consent to the recession of these events. There’s no saying that this will form a coherent story. A friend says the present never lays itself out into a fully coherent narrative. And, if the narrative can barely been seen to be coherent, how can we claim to understand it?

We can’t.

But that cannot mean that we ignore it because we can’t completely understand what’s going on. There are things we do know, and we know to be fact:

  1. The police have shot, and killed, 100 people over the last 4 months, at least 2 of whom turned out to be fellow police men.
  2. We still don’t know who burned the arrival terminal of our airport.
  3. The IEBC refused to swear to the results of the presidential election, yet still claim that  they must be true.
  4. The TJRC report has been largely ignored even for the atrocities it revealed.
  5. People have, and continue to, die due to our laxity in enforcement of the law.
  6. Rape culture continues to be propagated
  7. and it continues not to end.

When making a tv show there is a process known as storylining. This process involves creating plot points and story arches. These arches are then filled in bit by bit after which the bits are put together by the scriptwriters.  If one was to take the points above and use them as plot points in making a script they would only say one thing, “It needs a grand ending.”

Pay attention to the plot points. The major(minor) events that happen along the way. The things we barely see, even when seeing is exactly what we are trying to do. Trying to see the things that we would miss even if we were looking for them.  Then, finding these things, hold onto them with a fixation and call attention to them. What hides in the shadows will only be seen if we cast a light to it.

Teach Them to Talk; Then Teach Them to Speak.

Life isn’t at all like what you imagine, but that can’t mean you stop imagining, can it?

– The Artful Dodger

K’naan wrote this amazing Op Ed in the NY Times on 8th December. Turns out that life is a lot complicated once you become a big musician. Before writing his 3rd album K’naan’s producers bought him breakfast. Thankfully, they didn’t order croissants, or they would have opened up a whole other can of worms. Long story short; they wanted K’naan to change his music. The music that sells is a bout self-absorption, and money; not about the struggle in the Horn of Africa. The only time people want to hear about Africa is when they are giving aid to the poor Kwashiorkor stricken child.

And, when it comes down to it, everybody wants their work to sell.

The monetisation of the world is something that has been debated and counter-debated. Theories have been brought up to argue for and against capitalism. Long standing economic principles have been found flawed at a fundamental level or mathematics leading us to question the system of money as we know it.

 A recent podcast on planet money talked about how much we should trust economics. At one part of the podcast the defence for economics, and particularly macro-economics, is “don’t trust us because we are right, but because everyone else is so horribly wrong.” And it’s not just economics that brings this to its defence. Democracy did too. Winston Churchill, in one of his more famous moments, said, ” Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

And this bothers me. It seems that we are currently living in a broken system but one that we are either incapable of, or too lazy to fix it. So we chalk it up to the fact that no better option currently exists. And, maybe to zero in a little on Kenya, it is of particular worry the complacence we have to create any changes within our own system. And the hypocrisy within which this complacency manifests itself.

Here’s an example, we have a problem with corruption. The police, we say, are harassing us. They shouldn’t be allowed to take bribes, we protest. They should be taught better. Then, immediately after that we ask a policeman if there’s any other way we could deal with the fact that we were caught speeding. And, when talking of Kenyans, I do not even try to say that I do not fall in this category. It is a lot easier to say accept the system is broken and figure out a way to game it to get maximum rewards from it than to actually do something about it.

The problem with this is, the system just gets worse. Like a sports injury the more strain you put on a broken system, the worse it becomes until it gets to a critical mass and, well, Egypt. K’naan, in his piece, tells us of a fox. The fox, according to fable, once had an elegant walk, for which the other animals loved him. One day, he saw a prophet striding along and decided to improve on what was already beautiful. He set out walking but could not match the prophet’s gait. Worse, he forgot his own. So he was left with the unremarkable way the fox walks today.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of Kenyans online. We seem to be passionate crusaders for anything. We attack, in a swarm, anything and anyone. For a long time I have been against this talking, for the most part. It exposes ignorance and displays a lack of critical thinking that, for the most part, is just embarrassing. However, I’m beginning to find myself more and more convinced that maybe this talk needs to be encouraged. As a country we are coming from a place where talking was frowned upon. Moi locked people up for saying anything that even vaguely opposed his administration. Gathara called Kenya the republic of fear. We are silent, for we are scared.

And thinking along this line has made me more accepting of our public displays. Whether we are marshalling a crusade against politicians or rallying outside the walls of Art Caffe, Kenyans are talking. If silence was fear, then noise must, surely, be our way to fight back. To pour out decades of unspoken frustration at whoever dares listen. Speaking, in the words of K’naan, is our graceless limp towards finding our walk. And, if that’s true, then, by jove, let them talk, tweet, facebook, blog, march, shout, dance until their lungs let out, their throats are sore and fingers can’t type anymore. Coherence will come later.

I Occupy, Therefore I am

To occupy means to fill or take up a space of time. Once one has filled that space, they may, in theory, take charge of it. This is seen in statements like “the occupying army.” Of course, in order for you to decide to occupy somewhere you must not have been there in the first place. You can’t go to occupy the area where you already are.

Why, then, must the people occupy parliament? If the elected officials are the representatives the people, then the people must already “occupy” that space; if only by virtue of their MPs being there.

They don’t.

The simple truth is that there is no space for the local mwananchi within parliament. The government has just recently said that they plan to bring about the 16% tax on goods that were previously zero rated (there’s a petition against this here). This means that the price of local goods will go up – exponentially.

A raise on taxes would not be so bad if the money was going to something worthwhile, like fixing things. Sadly though we lose most of our taxes through our very non-efficient system. Then we lose more to the, ever-rising salaries of the politicians. Some more goes the corruption way. Whatever is left after that is barely enough to maintain our current infrastructure, let alone expand. Inorder to expand we borrow from the US, China, World Bank, AfDB, Private Local Lenders and anyone else who has the money to spare. The result; debt that is 48% of our GDP and growing. (Imagine owing someone half your salary, before you’ve paid rent). And that’s not even taking the interest into account.

Instead of addressing problems like this the leaders do something very different. They argue over whether or not our previous prime minister was barred entrance to the VIP section. And whether he should be allowed into that section. This has become the highlight of issues in the aghast house.

Meanwhile the price of tomatoes went up more than 100% in the last 9 months, sugar is a luxury and housing prices are spiraling close to the edge of Oh My God.

No, there is no space for the citizen of Kenya in parliament.

In fact, increasingly there is no space for this citizen anywhere. Kenyan honour is already gone, our passports are fast loosing their value, Uganda and Rwanda are attracting more investors than us and the South Africans are methodically chasing us away from their country.

Maybe there are better ways to speak, and be heard. This has been said severally. Maybe, even, there is a lot to be said of the futility of the whole march. The futility of walking down the streets into teargas and swinging batons. Maybe it is true, there is no winning at this. Maybe we don’t even need to occupy parliament. But, one thing’s clear, the Kenyan citizen needs to occupy some space, any space. Before the idea of citizenry is lost to us completely.