Unsettled – by Kalundi Serumaga

Focus: Kenya view.

Hitting Without Touching

Poverty is the worst form of violence. At its own worst, it is a form of slow genocide. For an example, take the fact that the vast majority of the Native Americans “rubbed out” in the American genocide died (and still die) not from settler bullets, but from poor diets, disease, poor-on-poor crime, stress-related illnesses caused by predatory lending and the like. In short, they are killed by the condition of being poor.

Girls are affected the worst, as it exposes them to all sorts of deprivations that lead to temptations and inducements resulting in angry, enervated young women. Even as an adult, a person raised in poverty often suffers a certain furtive sense of shame and anger that they can never quite shake off. Years of “no”and “not enough” force them to ingest a bitter diet of silent rage, frustrations, thwarted dreams, hurtful choices and humiliation as their parents age prematurely before their eyes, and their siblings learn to mask all feelings of disappointment. It is violence at the deepest psychological, spiritual and emotional levels, long before it becomes physical. I know. I’ve been there. In Kenya.

If Kibera is indeed the world’s biggest slum (I don’t who measures these things, or how), then it is currently also the biggest single act of violence against African people, carried out over the longest period of time.

The recent magic tricks at Electoral Commission of Kenya (how to breed votes and then count them in the dark; how to speak out of both sides of your mouth, and other marvellous wonders) and the subsequent orgy of gratuitous blood-letting, have given rise to expressions of grief, shock and anger from the Kenyan intelligentsia, in a way that leaves me truly mystified. Have they not been paying attention? If money and land meant for the poor can be stolen from them, than why not votes? If it became a four-decade normality for children to grow up sharing the eating of rotting oranges from garbage skips, why on earth should they not share more direct forms of violence with each other? Having grown up witnessing Kenya’s normalising of the grotesquely abnormal, my only surprise was that these acts – from the rigging itself to the rape, pillage and murder – took so long to reach this particular nadir. Kenya was and is an atrocity a long time made and a catastrophe a long time coming.

“There are no stories in the riots, only the ghosts of stories”, as some wise black British woman said of Brixton and Handsworth, a long time ago.

I should declare an interest: though I spent some critical formative years living both near the top and the bottom of Kenyan society, I am not Kenyan. I was a refugee from another atrocity called Uganda, and part of a very politically engaged community that was actively fomenting armed rebellion back home. Since our flight was political, we came to Kenya with a heightened interest in politics generally and were fascinated by the way in which the Kenyatta and Moi regimes were achieving through “sowing acres of cynicism” (to quote Okot p’Bitek, another Ugandan refugee) what Amin and Obote could only attempt through planting killing fields.

Honourable Mwai Kibaki was a particularly interesting study for us. As a graduate of Makerere University, we would wonder if he participated in politics with Ugandan or with Kenyan sensibilities. For me, he answered the question most eloquently when on tour, as a Seriously Big Government Man, of (I think) Kamiti Prison way back in seventies. There had been media talk of increasingly horrific conditions in the prisons, and his visit was supposed to be a fact-finding tour. At one point, as Big Man And Entourage walked through the prison complex, a prisoner displayed incredible dignity and courage by stepping out in front of him, and trying to hand him a letter sealed in an envelope. The prison official next to Hon. Kibaki intercepted the convict’s outstretched hand, took the envelope and pocketed it. According to the news report, Hon. Kibaki paused, watched the entire incident, and then carried on with his “fact-finding”.

Forget about the botched attempts to write a new constitution, forget about the failure to follow up on the Canary Patni Goldenberg song, forget even about the indignity of swearing-in at twilight (quick question: was that really a Bible he was holding up? It looked suspiciously like a pricey desk diary to me. You never know, given the indecent haste), as kids watching their elders paying a much higher price to be in politics, we felt that was a most pathetic display of craven indifference. In truth, looking back, it was at that moment that Hon. Kibaki for me disqualified himself from being president of anywhere or anything. It’s just that nobody realised it, or thought about it hard enough. Now look where we have ended up.

Tea Without Biscuits

Jeffrey had two thumbs on his left hand, but in the end, that was not the most interesting thing about him for me. He drove a little pick-up truck for one of the large tea estates in the Limuru area where I went to school, and would often give us a lift back up to our hillside campus after we had been hiking or running in the countryside. He lived in the tea plantation, but not in a house. His home was a large garage next door to a tractor. He lived there with his wife, kids and possibly his mother. During the day they would just just slide the huge door open and leave it that way like some large gaping wound. As we walked or jogged past, you could see them all gathered inside, going about their domestic business as if on a cinema screen. Once, Jeffrey drove us much higher up the hill, where one had a clear view of much of the valley below. He was really talking to my classmate Karim Walji, but I remain grateful to him for the education he gave us. Using large, lonely trees, hillocks and dips in the valley as landmarks, the three-thumbed Kikuyu man, living in a mzungu’s garage on his own ancestors land, listed for us which families and from which clans lived where before the endless carpet of green tea was violently laid down. “Where did the people all go?”‘ Karim asked him. I don’t think he bothered to answer, and wore a wan smile. As somebody who had been smuggled across a border on the back of a pedal-bike to a new and more “stable” country, I felt strangely disturbed. But I understood that smile, and the inability to say more (our parents seemed stuck in that mode), but I was scared at how normal this dispossession had become. At least we were fighting those who had evicted us, not living in their garages. But now we were living in Kenya, where the abnormal was normalised.

Don’t Hunt What You Can’t Kill

“Don’t go to town today, they are rounding up Ugandans”. This was regularly heard advice in the Ugandan exile community, as Kenyans pointed us out to their police. A night or two cleaning their police cells or a well-deployed bribe was what was needed to keep you from joining a refugee camp population. On reflection, it made sense for people oppressed by their own police force to be more than happy to point out other, better victims to the same police. “Wakimbizi” have no permanence, no power to come back later and retaliate. They are perfect victims, and probably helped deflect police attention from the native poor. Now, displaced and poor working Kikuyus find themselves the new targets, but without the help of the police. If you kill a cop, ten will come back, if you kill a child of the rich, your fellow poor will be offered reward money to find you. If you kill a fellow poor “non-you”, you have found the perfect victim.

How else are the poor, schooled in forty years of systemic violence expected to communicate except through violence? On whom are they to vent their rage except another guaranteed to have no power to retaliate with greater force?

Hose who escaped the poverty also took the internalised violence with them. Having perfected the skills of managerial service provision, the Kenyan middle classes have moved to dominate managerial positions in media, financial services, NGO and hospitality sectors throughout the region, where they have acquired the reputations of being the most cut-throat, ruthless, backstabbing, neurotic and yet efficient of Boardroom-wallahs.

Herculean C-130 Military Aircraft Dreams

The crisis that is Kenya today, comes largely as a result of the Kenyan intelligentsia’s abject failure to come up with viable alternatives to this mess. Those in power never had answers, and are not interested in looking for them. Like Uganda, the creation of Kenya was an act of theft and murder. Anyone managing it is simply perpetuating those crimes. Those in opposition had a responsibility to come up with something better. But did they? With my two teenage brothers, I wandered the Nairobi streets amid the August 1981 mayhem, walking from Eastleigh through Majengo then downtown, up to Hurlingham and back, as Kenya Air force mutineers used their Land Rovers to wrench the metal grilles from shop fronts and then say “chukuwa” to the waiting looters. There was a lot of shouting of “Power”, but no answers about poverty, certainly not for the half-naked man lying in the street at their feet, his whole body ashen grey from the blood loss occasioned by the open wound in his head. He was nobody’s concern. He reminded me exactly of another half-naked dying man I had seen years before as a child in Kampala. He had been attacked by a mob. Or shot. Nobody was saying. Just walking past. He was also lying in the gutter, also bleeding from the head, also barley twitching as he drew his very last breaths. Their ashen greys were a perfect match.

A couple of years later – against well meant advice – we saw the would-be mwakenya rebels hitch their doomed wagons the notoriously unreliable star that is the National Resistance Movement, leading to many bitterly spat words of anger and disappointment. Following Ochuka’s forced return flight from Nyerere’s Tanzania that ended in “the rough hand of the noose around his neck”, one would have expected the “revolutionaries” to have learned a few lessons about African presidencies beyond the rhetoric, but no. Instead, wishful thinking and infantile prescriptions prevailed, while prisoners wrote unopened letters, and Kikuyus were hoodwinked by Emperor Kabalega’s self-aggrandising alleged son Jomo Kenyatta into being vulnerably half-gathered far away from the rivers of their ancestors, and grown men danced in the footsteps. This is where the recent deaths were foretold.

There is a lot more that needs to heard about why the “revolutionary” Yoweri Museveni chooses to congratulate Hon. Kibaki at the expense of the “socialist” Raila Odinga, and why Hon. Odinga seems completely unsurprised by this turn of events.

In those 1980s, a good friend of mine (Ugandan, resting anti-Obote guerilla) found this whole tragedy perfectly summed up in advance, while on a necessary visit to a Nairobi public toilet. There was clearly no toilet paper, he narrated, so somebody before him had used their finger to clean their behind, and then wiped it on the toilet wall. On closer inspection (my friend is insatiably curious, no matter the circumstances), he realised that this person had used their shit to write something on the toilet wall.

The word written was “Uhuru”.

Yani, the idea, I think. Not the person. But you never know.

Posted in Kenya. 3 Comments »

3 Responses to “Unsettled – by Kalundi Serumaga”

  1. Bookend and Three More Things « Ugandan Insomniac Says:

    […] writing and analysis by people you know.  Doreen Baingana (who I soooooo want to be my friend) and Kalundi Serumaga are featured giving their take on Kenya’s post-election […]

  2. Dennis Matanda Says:

    Although, like people do when they read my rubbish, I had responses at each and every line, one cannot help but be seduced by the personal references and charming anecdotes.

    I am bleeding, as usual. But also insulated in a very numb way.

    My favorite city, Nairobi, has turned into a story – and all those people who are my friends are too embarrassed to speak to me. Its like New York after 9/11 – with poorer people and even sadder ones.

    Lastly, the people who measure poverty and size of slums are called NGOs.

  3. Ssemwanga Says:

    you so remind me of great minds, writers, thinkers and wise men your father included. Now that the peasant minded ones have sought to “kill you softly”, is that not an opportunity to step out for a minute, broaden your wings and sphere of influence instead of waiting for this putrid mound of peasant minded rot to dry in the sun? It may take a while, and that is time you would spend broadening your sphere of influence!

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