Reading Timothy Njoya’s ‘We the People’

I wanted to read this book as soon as it was published in 2017.  I did not get to it until recently.  I was nudged by Timothy Njoya’s absolutely brilliant and thought-provoking tweets. I wanted to understand more of what fires his thinking and philosophy. There was never a dull moment in reading this book. At some points, I found myself laughing out loud, other times realizing how painful it is to be a Kenyan, other times infuriated by the follies of the Kenyan State, and yet other times filled with immense joy about the spirit of Kenyan peoples. This blog post is a reflection on some of the main ideas/issues Njoya engages with.

Njoya

  1. The Lancaster Constitution, the  church, Mashujaa heroes and heroines

According to Njoya, the above were the major stumbling blocks to the transformation of Kenya. Independence or Uhuru has led Kenyans from one pitfall to the other, to the extent that it feels that they are locked in a permanent struggle for social justice.  Kenya was/is (depending on how you see it), colonised by the British.  It transitioned from Arab slave trade, to the property of the Imperial British East African Company, to the Kenya government and finally, to the post-independence government(s). At independence, the British rounded up Kenyan elites to London to allegedly, craft a new constitution for Kenya. In reality the constitution was crafted by a British academic.  The delagates were there to rubber stamp. The one group that walked out of the sham was the Maasai delegates after they realized that this constitution would not revoke the Anglo-Maasai agreements in which they lost huge amounts of land, livestock, and lives.  The Lancaster constitution conceptualized the people as property.  According to Njoya:

This blatant treatment of people as property, moving them from the hands of slave masters into the hands of colonial masters and then into the hands of a totalitarian state, contravened the doctrine of self-determination as defined by the Treaty of Versailles and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which says that everyone has the right to be treated as a person and not as a thing.

The church supported colonialism, slavery, and totalitarian regimes. The church also vehemently opposed the 2010 constitution. As for the Mashujaa heroes and heroines, they believed that independence was an end in itself but as Franz Fanon has shown, independence  plunged Africans into “independence depression”.

WAR & CONFLICT BOOKERA:  CIVIL WAR/BACKGROUND:  SLAVERY & ABOLITIONISM
Image Source: Wikipedia

2. Kenya as a racially segregated society 

Kenya was and is a settler colony. The defining element of colonialism was the entrenchment of racial hierarchy as a tool for facilitating land grabs, subjugation of indigenous peoples, and legitimizing white authority in conquered lands. Njoya argues that from the beginning of British occupation, Kenya was structured and established as a market where everything and everyone had a price. The racial market was/is structured thusly:

White males ranked first and white females second; Indian males third and Indian females fourth; Arab males fifth and Arab females sixth; Somali males seventh and Somali females eighth; and finally, African males ninth and African females tenth. This legalized ranking of people according to their market value—which also determined how much each race was entitled to eat and mate—has been dubbed “racism” or “negative ethnicity.” This skewed piling of people into a pyramid based on their monetary value portrays the whole of Kenya like our snowcapped Mount Kenya; like a mountain capped with white people standing erect at the summit; like a glans stiffened by sucking blood from the races standing below.

Mt. Kenya

What has changed since the acquisition of Uhuru? I think the only change, if it can be referred as such, is the following: The top remains white, followed closely by the political elite (honorary whites), then wildlife (especially the so-called big five), the Indian males…the rest remains unchanged.  The whites remain at the top. This is manifested  best through land, which was one of the central pillars of the struggle for independence. The remnants of white settlers and other kind of settlers are some of the biggest land owners in the Kenyan colony. White settlers are to be found in places such as Nanyuki, Naivasha, and Timau.

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One o the most depressing places to drive through in Kenya, is Timau. You look to theft of the road, you see farms that stretch to the horizon – your eyes cannot see the end. You look to the right, you see the same thing. And your heart sinks because you know those farms are not owned by indigenous Kenyans. When you look to the left, you see white privilege. When you look to the right, you see white privilege. You are engulfed. What do you do? Go ask for a job to harvest wheat? Is it really ethical, morally right, normal, just, etc, for anyone to own hundreds of thousands of acres of land in Kenya? A country where some of those who survived the war in the forest did not get any of the land they sacrificed their lives for? A country in which landlessness is rife? A country in which landlessness was worsened by ethnic tensions in places like the Rift Valley, where communities who had been dislocated by the colonials in their territories ended up? The morally bankrupt willing seller willing buyer argument does not quite help us address the question above.


IMG_4009I ranked wildlife as no 3 in the present day racial hierarchy, because it is associated with those who occupy the apex of the race pyramid. Ownership of large tracts of land is tied to the establishment of conservancies. The name conservancy brings to mind the saga centred around Delamare’s Soysambu Conservancy and the murder of Robert Njoya, for trying to hunt an antelope. In this case alone, you can understand the history of land dispossession, white privilege, racial hierarchy, the romanticization of wildlife conservation, and structural poverty.

 

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3. A society defined by cascading oppression 

In Kenya, you find a society where extreme wealth and poverty are juxtaposed dramatically.  The masses at the bottom of the mountain are poor, and the wealthy at the summit have used every tactic in the book to keep the poor at the bottom of the mountain. One of the other evil ideas of the colonial state is the creation of ethnicity, which is just the same as racism. The idea that some people are better than others. This has openly gotten entangled with and into politics – the politics of death and destruction.  And you have communities fighting each other because their respective ethnic lords have told them other communities are their enemies. According to Njoya, this is a good manifestation of the market and property ideology because:

In a market where everybody is property and the culture dictates that everyone own someone else, the slaves and the poor find it easier to own each other than to liberate themselves from their owners. Freire acknowledged that the struggle of slaves, tribes, the colonized, and the poor is actually the struggle to share their oppression.

Wanjiku divided

As poor and oppressed spend all their time and energy hating and fighting each other, the rich and the oppressors get richer and consolidate power. Then they throw crumbs your way and tell you that you are their “people” or they are “helping you”. They poor and oppressed will not find time to understand the cause of their misery? Where is the time?  If you try and point this out, you will be probably called a traitor or a hater.

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4. Miseducation of the people 

This book is one of the best critiques of the Kenyan education system there is. Njoya demonstrates how education has been used to entrench oppression through concrete examples. Since the colonial occupation, the African is reduced to a non-thinking being. Remember,  white supremacists believed that African brains stopped growing at 9 years old.  Therefore, there was no need to get them to think of complex ideas, to engage in philosophy, or theory.  Those were reserved for the white brain, which was or is more developed -allegedly.  After independence, the state carries on the with the same system of education. There is no fundamental change. I call it A for Apple education.

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Education helps create a divide in society where : “the top class of the privileged, totalitarian, and parasitical few who owned and consumed everything, and the bottom majority that produced everything and ate nothing.”  Nyayo torture  chambers were constructed by Kenyan city planners, engineers, architects, and surveyors, Njoya argues. Thus, their education had not helped them to question anything, but rather to be obedient. Trust and obey! The Nyayo torture chambers were used to brutalize thinkers. They were in the group those that Moi referred to as  “radicals, dissidents, Marxists, atheists, malcontents, and disgruntled.”  Njoya further points out that the school system was a pre-Nyayo chamber where critical thinking was discouraged, where brutalization of the mind was celebrated.  Infact, most people leave school totally traumatized and do not want to see a book ever again.  Has anybody ever conducted a study about why students burn books after completing high school? Education entrenches the colonial idea of a person as property  in the form of  “laborers, taxpayers, or voters, rather than their intrinsic worth as human beings.”

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What is the point of education? Is education not supposed to make us the very best version of ourselves, to make us into responsible members of society  who care about justice and equality for all? In school I learnt that Mt. Kenya was discovered by Ludwig Krapf! Utter nonsense.  In history, homeguards and collaborators were presented as freedom fighters. Has anything changed?  In the Moi years (1978-2002), the best thinkers were killed or exiled, while others joined politics. Professors became some of the most shocking Moi psychophants of all time. Others joined politics essentially turning parliament into the “graveyard of intellectualism.”

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5. Religion as a tool for oppression 

I must say it was quite refreshing to read a critique of the church from a reverend.  He speaks honestly and courageously about the failings of thee church- all of which I agree with. I have three blogs on my misgivings with colonial Christianity: here, here, and here.  Njoya argues that the church and state coalesed to oppress the masses by stupefying them into devotion to their oppression. He confesses: ” Knowing that religion can be a stupefier and yet making religion my career was the greatest of all the conflicts within me.”  One is tempted to ask – just how Christian are Kenyan Christians, when you have cases of Christians butchering each other in churches (as happened in Kiambaa).  He also acknowledges the role of Christianity in the slave trade, colonial conquest, and of course, post-independence oppression.

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6. The laugh out loud moments

As I said at the beginning, there are many laughter-inducing sections of this book.  I often found myself giggling or laughing out loud. This is derived from the a participatory sermon he conducted.  A druken man walks into the church. Njoya asks him: Why did you come to church?

The drunken man said, “I came to ask you to christen our nameless rivers and lakes! The city council has allowed its broken sewer system to form rivers and lakes on our roads and in shops, schools, and homes!” “With what names would you like me to baptize them?” I asked the drunken man.

Someone else in the congregation shouted, “Baptize them with big names!” Furious, the drunken man retorted, “Why are you afraid to say they should be christened River Moi and the Lake Kenyatta?”

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8. Kenyan politicians as merchants of death

During one of his interactive sermons Njoya asks the congregation this: Who is an MP? A woman provides a swift answer:

“The MP is the man who digs potholes on tarmac roads so that his sons’ construction companies can secure state contracts to fill the potholes with mud.”

The politicians who are close to top of the pyramid truly the merchants of death – both metaphorically and in reality. The answer by this woman illustrates a death of trust for politicians who are elected to represent the interests of the people. Digging potholes on the tarmac can also be understood as other forms of economic plunder that are designed to enrich the rich and impoverish the impoverished. No other career is more lucrative than being a politician in Kenyan today. Politicians fly around in choppers…actually, I would extend the quote of this woman and say – …potholes with mud, and then not use the road, and instead, use helicopters to fly around. If they use the road, then they use huge 4wd Germany-made or Japan-made vehicles which do not feel the mud-filled potholes! The contempt with which politicians treat Kenyans is astonishing and deeply hurtful. Njoya brings it home when he writes that: “In Kenya, those who are not victims of physical violence have their psyches hurt by the theft of public resources. ”

helicopter Kenya
Kenyan Politicans’ helicopters: Image Source – The Standard

They are also the merchants of death through instigating communities to kill each other so that they can gain political mileage.  The 2007/08 post-election case is instructive:

 In order for Kibaki, the Trojan horse, to retain power, and for Raila, the most promising, to gain power, they used the elections to incite the people to kill each other. These were the very same people who had never rioted for food, even when hundreds died of hunger.

Njoya describes politicians as “roundworms” and “tapeworms”. They are joined in sucking the blood of the host (Kenyans), by western donors who he refers to as “ringworms”.  What shall we refer the Chinese as? Hookworms? This is a book that should be read by all. If I was teaching, I would make this a required text.

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