We Often Speak Of Ourselves In Images Of Motherhood

We often speak of ourselves in imagery of motherhood. We see our nationhood through feminine prisms, such as “Kenya our motherland.” Elsewhere our poets have taught us to think in terms of “Mother Africa.” At the best of times, we are fecund with celebratory thoughts of the trope of motherhood. Uganda’s Chris J. C. Wasike is the author of a brilliant essay titled “Feminization of the Ugandan nation in John Ruganda’s The Floods, The Burdens and Black Mamba.”

Wasike’s striking essay attempts to understand his country through the female characters in the plays of one of East Africa’s most successful playwrights. He demonstrates how – through the voices of Ruganda’s female characters, their bodies and sexuality – we can come to grips with “the complexities, contradictions and constructions of the Ugandan nation, especially during Idi Amin’s dictatorship.”

Wasike observes, “The trope of mother Africa is equally fluid and problematic.” He recalls that the motherly image of our continent was floated by poets like Senegal’s late founding president, Leopold Senghor. Yet men have not always been honest in usage of this image. Wasike reminds us of Florence Stratton’s argument that men usually use this metaphor to draw bipolar gendered distinctions. Is this symbol “conventionally patriarchal”? Does it work against the interests of women seeking – both implicitly and explicitly – to exclude and exploit them?

The argument has been made that this masculine imaging of womanhood seeks to create vistas of landscapes that should be explored, discovered and exploited. In this context, is the woman’s body objectified as a curious “thing”? Is the “thing” to be hunted, captured and savoured – this nubile female “thing”?  Conversely, can the trope of motherhood be turned on its head to challenge patriarchal dominance? The springboard of this thought resides in the reality that motherhood is the cradle of life. Biblically, we read in the Genesis story of creation, “Adam named his wife Eve, because she would become the mother of all living things’ (Gen. 3: 20).

The preeminence of motherhood cannot be challenged. Chinua Achebe tells us in Things Fall Apart that the Ibo people say, “Mother is supreme.” In the real world, we know that it takes one woman a whole year to bring forth one life. And even this is only for a limited phase in her life. The man, conversely, can produce thousands of lives in a year throughout his adult life. That is if he is lucky to find willing partners – but we know he has sometimes used brutal force!

The preciousness of the woman as a mother, nurturer, guardian, teacher and role model is uncontestable, however. Contrariwise, the dispensability of the man in these contexts is obvious. Of course I recognize the plethora of arguments against this statement – with varying degrees of validity, some of which are nonetheless driven by pure machismo and are outright nihil ad rem. I will not go there.

More to the point, however, is the need to agree with Mineke Schipper and Mariama Ba, as read by Wasike, that women (should) “no longer accept nostalgic praise to the African Mother who, in his anxiety, man confuses with Mother Africa.” If we agree further with Wasike that “gender is a set of lived and embodied realities” do we get closer to an appreciation of the contradiction between masculine sentimentality about Mother Africa on the one hand and the treatment of the mothers of Africa on the other? Do we, indeed, get closer to waking up to the reality that gender is not synonymous to women?

My country Kenya has a constitutional law on gender. It says that no gender shall constitute more than two-thirds of elective or appointed positions in public service. The constitutional law goes on to authorize Parliament to make another law that will actualize what the Constitution says. Moreover,  Parliament has been given a period of five years within which to make this law, with an extension of one year. Six years from 27 August 2010 when the Constitution was promulgated, the two-thirds gender law must come into being. If this does not happen, any citizen can petition the courts to dissolve Parliament.

Kenya keeps missing the boat of enacting the two-thirds gender law. Of course a significant number of male MPs support the effort to make this law. We must hail these progressive gentlemen. Their numbers, however, fall below the constitutional threshold. This week only 199 of them voted for the Gender Bill. They fell short of the required number by 33 votes. Those who voted against the Bill, put together with those who neither rejected it nor abstained would be enough to push through this Bill.

It is also instructive that a huge number of other members were absent at the time of voting. This is curious, seeing that on the same day Parliament made a constitutional amendment, giving members immunity for “any wrong things they may do in good faith.” If “in good faith” MPs refuse to enact a law on the two-thirds gender requirement, do they enjoy immunity against being sent parking? Is this law constitutional? Should it have even been allowed for debate in the House?

Back to the point is the need for Kenya to go beyond nostalgic praises to the African Mother. If we should even assume that the gender law is about women, then is it not about our mothers and our daughters whom we love so much? Even if we don’t love our spouses and female colleagues, can’t we do it for our daughters? Come on gentlemen, do the noble thing. Please come out on Thursday next week to vote for this Bill when it comes up again. Do it for our motherland and for Mother Africa. Please, do it for posterity.

Praise Great Women

Let us now

Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us. 2The Lord hath wrought great glory by them through his great power from the beginning. 3Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms, men renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding, and declaring prophecies:

When Coalition for Reform and Democracy

When Coalition for Reform and Democracy (CORD) leaders asked for dialogue with Jubilee leaders in May 2014, they did the right thing. Their attitude was probably wrong. Their idiom was certainly in bad taste. For they told President Uhuru Kenyatta that they would “shave him with broken bottles,” if he did not listen to them.

They were at once menacing and disrespectful. They scorned both the office of the President and its bearer. Perhaps they intended all along that their pleas for dialogue should be rejected? Hence they deliberately positioned it for rejection. They chose to anger the President and his team by open defiance and disrespect. Not surprisingly, Jubilee leaders rejected the invite. They were characteristically full of sound, fury and trademark arrogance.

We wake up each day closer to disaster and in greater need for dialogue. We say in Emanyulia that a wise man may refuse what you want to tell him. But he will never turn down the invitation to listen to you. We also say that those who will not talk to one another must prepare to fight. After they have fought, they will learn the importance of talking. They could then almost just sit down and talk, amidst pain, wounds and tears.

Going forward, Kenya must choose between decent dialogue and hostile conflict – and the consequences. Even wild beasts know this. For they recognize the importance dialogue in their lives. Lawrence Freedman tells us that since the beginning of time and space, survival has depended on diplomacy, coalitions and violence. In the volume titled Strategy: A History, we are told of a study among chimpanzees in the 1970s, “They built coalitions, offering grooming, sex and food to potential supporters – all in order to prevail in conflicts. But they also appreciated the importance of limiting their conflicts so that they could live cooperatively.”

Have we failed to see the need to limit toxic conflicts? Are we just slightly worse than chimpanzees, therefore? We have today an adult generation of Kenyans that knows that only knows grandstanding, insolence and hostile behaviour as the essence of political leadership. If you are aged about thirty, you have grown up on a diet of stormy exchanges among political leaders, teachers and even religious leaders.

Freedman tells us of the chimpanzee study by Frans de Waal in the ‘70s, “Actual fighting played only a small part in this process (fighting for masculine dominance)  . . . The apes appeared to know that they should limit violence among themselves, for they might have to unite against external rivals. They also seemed to understand the need for mediation and reconciliation. Once a goal had been achieved, the patterns of behaviour changed – for example, both the winners and losers became less aggressive.”

In Kenya, we lack this basic capacity. We thrive on the fuel of permanent earsplitting intransigence. When CORD leaders call for dialogue, they do so menacingly. “They will shave the president with broken bottles.” Huh? Shave the president with broken bottles? But Jubilee leaders will not be outdone. From the lowest ranked levels to the very highest, theirs are profiles of furious impatience. They regularly engage in confounding hysterical outpourings at public gatherings.

The Deputy President is a permanently irate gentleman, preaching the gospel of rage and doom against “wale watu (those people).” Even when he smiles, the smile is filtered through an indelible sneer. The President is progressively hoarse voiced because of raining at his detractors.  If this is the reward of high office, then I am happy with my humble station in life. For when will these people stop shouting angrily and begin living? The head of state proclaims almost on the edge of tears of desperation, “Tumechoka (We are fed up)!”

If those in government scream with the anger of frustration, those in the opposition scream with the bitterness of exclusion. The rulers wish they could be left alone “to fulfill our promises to Kenyans.” They actually mean they want to be left alone to enjoy “the good life” that should come with high office. Their lieutenants take the decibels of hostility to deafening levels. They demonstrate absolutely no capacity for independent thought. They are the willing sounding boards of tribal kingpins and masters of emotional arguments that appeal to the tribe. You will never get from them a reasoned argument that appeals to the nation.

The bad news is that the political class is slowly but surely pushing the country to the brink of disaster. Now we don’t want to talk to one another across a wide spectrum of leadership. This week the senators refused to attend the governors’ annual conference, in Meru. They said the governors were thieves. You would have expected them to attend the meeting to vent their unhappiness there. The Governor of the Central Bank, for his part, will not talk to Opposition chiefs. He denies them information that both they and the public are entitled to. The IEBC officials will not give audience to CORD leaders. And CORD leaders are sending us thinly veiled messages about the grand Armageddon that awaits us when we go to the polls next year.

Jubilee stokes the fires by taunting CORD leaders with words to the effect, “We are going to rule over you for ever! You will never rule this country – now or ever!” Put that together with perceptions about corruption as the reason why governments are formed. Add to this an expansive frustrated and idle youthful population. Throw into this hostile ethnic animosity. Seal it with reckless tribal pronouncements. You don’t need an oracle to tell you. Kenya is counting its steps towards Destination Disaster. Is it just about time we slowed down a little – just a little – and began talking to each other? Over to you, Mister Odinga and President Kenyatta.

An Earthquake

An earthquake. That was lawyer Karim Khan’s summary of this week’s announcement from The Hague. The Deputy President’s counsel at the International Criminal Court (ICC) has been blusteringly eloquent, basking in the limelight of victory. The ICC judges declared the proceedings a mistrial and terminated them.

Back home, we have equated the vacation to an acquittal. Our media calls it “great victory.” It is celebration time. A mistrial is the abortion of a trial due to a disturbing procedural flaw. The critical thing is that the trial does not get to a normal conclusion, because of the incurable defect. In the Ruto and Joshua Sang cases, the judges cited “interference with the witnesses” and “intolerable political meddling.”

There were no pointers to the court’s thinking on possible innocence or guilt on the part of the accused. It is dishonest or ignorant – or both – to state as some are doing that the court found the accused people innocent. Put differently, the court simply said, “Let this not be considered a trial. We have no opinion on whether these people have a case to answer or not. This whole thing is irredeemably faulty. We therefore discontinue it and discharge the accused.”

I should have been happy to see a complete acquittal. It is not just because these matters could return. It is rather because the sacred truth about these accusations must forever remain in the province of doubt. The celebratory mood is understandable, nonetheless. Nobody wants the sword of Damocles hanging over their heads forever.  The spin that the two were acquitted is also understandable. You want to travel into the future without appearing besmirched. In the coming days, we are going to transform the court decision way beyond the slightest recognition.

And yet Mr. Khan is right. The announcement was an earthquake. In November 1755 a monumental tectonic upheaval rocked Lisbon, Portugal. An estimated 60, 000 people died. The philosopher Voltaire wrote about it in the volume titled Candide. He was overwhelmed by all that was crushed and buried under the ruins. Earthquakes bury precious things – often forever.

Earthquakes bury memory. Memories of structures, people and their property and other sentient beings – all these and more are interred beneath the ruins. In the emerging mood, Kenyans are likely to forget why they went to The Hague. The cycles of violent chaos since 1992, the loss of faith in the electoral commission, the ethnic hate, the souls of the dead, the letdown by a groupthink National Assembly, all this will be buried under the earthquake. Petitions of “Let us forget and move on” are already abroad. The danger with loss of memory resides in the possibility that such history will repeat itself.

Celebration of the perceived victory before the ICC would do well to be couched in modesty. A belligerent “us” versus “them” attitude is likely to fan future conflict. The protagonists might be different, yet the script could be replayed. The air continues to be disturbed with accusations of unnamed people, who allegedly “fixed” the Hague defendants “for political reasons.” From the start, this was simple political spin. Without doubt, there remains good mileage in this spin. It can now be sold in the mould of “They framed us, but we have defeated them.”

The spinoff can only be heightened polarity and tension. Put this together with the perception that both local and international criminal justice forums are impotent vis-à-vis political violence. The risk of repeat violence with different casts is real. It will help a great deal if President Kenyatta and his deputy use their forthcoming rallies for national reconciliation rather than political chest thumping. National reconciliation must itself encompass all Kenyan tribes.

But the ICC earthquake could bury many other things. Other national debates and conversations risk sinking under the impact of the quake. The Eurobond and NYS sagas could rest comfortably under the decibels of celebration, as could the matter of the National Youth Fund. Pushed to the periphery also could be the trouble at Kenya Airways, the troubled sugar sector, the school examinations challenge, unfinished business at the Lands Ministry, the matter of the Panama shell companies and numerous kindred concerns.

Significantly, too, Kenya may very well have buried the ICC. The court has been left with a bad smelly egg on the face, regardless of what it may say for itself. Not having been able to conduct a trial, the court comes across as completely helpless in the face of what it was constituted to be doing. This is the one court that was established to defeat impunity. By saying it is unable to give us a verdict because of “intolerable political meddling,” the ICC fails to justify its continued existence. Cases get here because of political challenges at home. When this court says that it is not any better than municipal courts, it loses its reason of being.

Finally, the defeat of the ICC in this matter has given Jubilee fresh political impetus. Employed carefully and with the necessary sensibility to the plight of the victims and consciousness to ethnic sensibilities, this advantage could give Jubilee a huge head start over the Opposition. Cord, the principal Opposition, will have to reinvent and repackage itself if it is to stem the Jubilee tide. It will need an earthquake of its own. If Cord fails to do something huge and dramatically inspiring, it might be one more casualty of the ICC earthquake, unless Jubilee buries itself in reckless exuberance.

Thursday’s Grounding Behavior in Parliament Was Totally Uncalled For

Sense of occasion is one of the hallmarks of a person of honour. It reposes in the simple ability to advise yourself about where you are and how you should behave. Thursday’s crass conduct in Parliament was accordingly totally uncalled for.

President Kenyatta’s State of the Nation address was held back for half an hour.  This solemn constitutional function had to wait for hecklers to do their thing first, all decorum thrown to the dogs. This was their way of protesting against what they see as the failings of the Jubilee Government.

Like all governments, this government has failed in some critical things. It has done particularly poorly on some of the issues the President is supposed to focus on in the State of the Nation address. Yet disrupting what is supposed to be a solemn address is entirely without merit. Nothing redeems such misconduct and poor example to children and adolescents.

Parliament is constituted so that honourable ladies and gentlemen may disagree there as robustly as possible. But even as they disagree, they must remain honourable ladies and gentlemen. In this forum leaders fight with the might of the mind. They employ the power of persuasion in the search to carry the day. If such a forum did not exist, they would probably settle their differences violently. You don’t, therefore, carry atavistic conduct to the house of dignity.

Yet this is where Kenya has come. President Kenyatta is wrong when he reports that the health of the nation is good. Kenya is ailing. And it is not afflicted by a passing common cold. It is in the throes of mortal ailment. The atavistic activities in Parliament speak to this truth. We are precariously perched between an ochlocracy and a kakistocracy, both pretending to be democracy.

Let me explain. Prof. Peter Kagwanja has recently told me that democracy is a game of numbers. He agrees with those who have talked of a tyranny of numbers as legitimizing government. In truth, however, the notions of parliament and democracy can never sit together with tyranny. This thing called tyranny of numbers is a hopeless oxymoron. It is a meaningless formation of words in the effort to justify dictatorship. When raw numbers are all that matters, democracy dies. In its place, the rule of the crowd is born. Social science calls this ochlocracy – the rule of the mob.

Kakistocracy, on the other hand, has been defined as government by the worst men. Those who attempt to be a little charitable to this kind of government define it as government for the benefit of crooks at the cost of fools. The philosopher Voltaire says that scoundrels reign because there is a class of fools ensuring that they reign. In the volume titled Candide, or Optimism, Voltaire compares this relationship to that between a mongoloid who is caressing a serpent that is devouring him. He will wake up – if he does – when the serpent has eaten his heart.

This is where Kenya is. Raw numbers have replaced conscience. Even legislators have become sheer statistics. They are ethnic zombies, waiting to be directed on everything. More ethnic zombies out there lend them fanatical ethnic support. This class litters the social media with appalling ethnic hate. It lacks the capacity to attack ideas. It attacks people instead. And so Kenya is at war in cyberspace. President Kenyatta buries his head in the sand when he ignores this war. Yet even his own officials in State House engage in this cyber war. Someday this war will burst into our homes and streets.

Kenya needs preemptive intervention ahead of next year’s general election. The presidential address did not capture public grievances that drive this cyber war. There are grievances on national unity, inclusiveness, equity, good governance, rule of law, participation of the people and non-discrimination. Others are concerns about protection of the marginalized and sharing and devolution of power.

Kenyatta was quick to attack the Opposition and the Governors while saying nothing about the National Government on the same issues.  The President circumvented the values and principals that are prescribed and circumscribed for him by articles 132 and 10 of the Constitution. He safely focused on what he perceived to be sustainable development. Here he did an outstanding window-dressing job.

However, you need national cohesion first, if you will have sustainable development. Window-dressing and Orwellian statistics aside, the most urgent job for the Kenya Government is the building of one Kenyan nation. This was the dream of independence. The heckling in Parliament was a primitive way of telling the President that he is failing. Today the Presidency leads in betrayal of the Kenyan dream. It fosters ethnic nations at the expense of the Kenyan nation. The less said here the better.

The rest of us need to ask how we are contributing towards the search for Kenyan nationhood. The leader of the majority in the National Assembly emerged from the chamber gleefully running down a whole tribe for the disruption of the President’s address. Juvenile legislators from the government side went into cyberspace with ethnic hate. This is unacceptable profiling of tribes.

As part of our search for national cohesiveness, Jubilee may want to wear a less choleric face and be less confrontational. Jubilee is in government and is the government. The burden of leadership in the values in Article 10 of the Constitution sits squarely on their shoulders. They must provide leadership. Blaming others is abdication of duty.