The Mbwa Kali Culture & its discontents

In his book ‘Detained’ Ngugi wa Thiong’o writes that he was once asked to write a book about the culture of white settlers in Kenya. He argues that at first, he did not believe that these settlers had any culture, and therefore, he did not see how he could produce a book out nothingness. Why?  They settlers produced very little art because they were too busy “whoring, hunting, and drinking”. How about science? Here the settlers would brag about Leakey, who loved the archaeological remains of dead Africans more than living Africans.  The Leakey’s “hated Africans and proposed ways of killing off nationalism, while praising skulls of dead Africans as precursors of humanity.”  But after being tossed into a maximum security prison by the Kenyan state, he gave this more thought. And realized that the settlers actually did produce a culture:

The colonial system did produce a culture- a culture of legalized brutality, a ruling class-culture of fear, the culture of oppressing minority desperately trying to impose total silence on a restive oppressed majority. This culture was sanctified in the colonial administration of PC, DC, DO, Chiefs, right down to the askari. – This was the Mbwa Kali culture.

Image Source: Greyhorn

I want to reflect on the Mbwa Kali culture as manifested in Kenyan society today.  All the various defining elements of this culture are clearly visible in the following ways:

  1. Governance

Ours is still a colonial state. We are dripping with coloniality from every pore.  Did we not get uhuru in 1963!? No, we did not. We got what Walter Rodney refers to as “flag independence”.  Read Fanon’s chapter on ‘the pitfalls of national consciousness‘ to understand why we really do not have any independence. The Mau Mau were fighting for total economic emancipation and freedom. Do you have that? The only group of people who have that, is the political class and associates (both local and foreign).  The  flag independence governments completely act like the colonial government. The political class represents the white settlers who lived large from the taxes and sweat and blood of the masses of the African population. You do not have to be white to be a colonialist. At the core of the colonial administration, was to treat the Africans with total contempt. The government was something mysterious and impenetrable. That is why it is called Serikali, which is a distortion of siri kali, meaning big secret. The government lords over the people, never serves them, or cares for them. The British were more interested in serving the British, and not the Kenyans who were paying taxes and slaving on the stolen land. The same kind of attitude permeates governance from top to bottom today.  This is what NASA refers to as “the culture of madharau“.


2. General rudeness in public service

Do you ever look forward to go to any public office? You are most likely going to be confronted with arrogance, intimidation, and emotional torture. You will find this behaviour in schools or other institutions of learning – the teacher or lecturer is never to be questioned; in hospitals – the doctors and nurses will yell at patients, in matatus – no rules there. The huduma centres are good because they help save the public from encountering public officials, whose salaries are paid by their taxes, to provide services that they deserve, but treat them like dirt.  Mbwa Kali culture!



3.  The police

This one deserves its own category, because I think it is the exemplification of  what Ngugi was referring to as “legalized brutality” above. Do you ever look forward to being stopped by the police on the road? Do you look forward to going to the police station to report anything?

Image Source: Radiolab

4. Mbwa Kali Signage

This is mainly found in white people’s homes in places like Karen. These signs are prominently positioned at the gate and are primarily directed at Africans. Keep off our white property !


Fierce dog baring teeth


5. General culture of fear and submission

Let us whisper so that they do not hear us! You cannot fight the government! Do not joke with the government! Just lie low! Do not talk back! Do not ask questions! Just smile! 70 years of British colonialism and 54 years of Black European colonialism, buttressed by Christianity (the pyschological arm of colonialism), have entrenched the culture of fear and submission in Kenya. It is so bad that when Kenyans find an out spoken person, they say that person is proud and arrogant – even if that person is asking why doesn’t every Kenyan have access to clean drinking water or access to good public health care.  They also say that person has been paid by donors (read – white people), to disturb the peace!  Kenyans will celebrate the person when they are dead. A good example is Prof. Wangari Maathai. People said she was mad, a loud woman who does not know her place, and arrogant. All she was saying is that we should protect forests, we should strive for better governance, we should stop land grabbing by politicians, etc.  But she was vilified and humiliated. The very best Wangari Maathai became in Kenya, is Assistant Minister for environment. That is basically a portfolio-less position. We are a country that cannibalizes its best and brightest.  All this happens because of coloniality.  And when you try to talk about colonialism, you are told that you are stuck in the past. That you should stop blaming the white man.  So, instead of teaching history – a thorough interrogation of history, kids are taught CRE and IRE. Both Islam and Christianity emphasize humility and meekeness.  Given the multiple oppressions facing African peoples, meekness and humility are not skills that should be encouraged or celebrated. It is because of meekness that Africans have been swindled of their resources over and over again.  Meekness transforms Africans into the greatest defenders of their oppressors.  Try critiquing white supremacy in the presence of a Kenyan and watch the reaction carefully.

Image Source: Thought Co

Read this passage from Ngugi wa Thiongo’s ‘Detained’, and tell me if it is not an accurate representation/reflection of Kenyan society.

Obedience of the oppressed to the oppressor; peace and harmony between the exploited and the exploiter; the slave to love his master and pray that God grant that the master may long reign over us; these were the ultimate aesthetic goals of colonial culture carefully nurtured by nailed boots, police truncheons and military bayonets and by the carrot of a personal heaven for a select few. The end was to school Kenyans in the aesthetic of submission and blind obedience to authority reflected in the Christian refrain, trust and obey:

Trust and obey

For there is no other way

To be happy in Jesus

But to trust and obey.

How about we create a revolution of  radical kindness and compassion towards each other?  That might be a way of eliminating coloniality.
How about we encourage a thorough interrogation of history? You cannot solve any problem if you do not understand its cause.