Tips for surviving the west as an African graduate student

First, I recommend you read the other two blogs in this series about undertaking graduate studies in the west. Here and here.

Now, let us get straight to it. These tips are not for those kids from rich families who are studying in the west. These are for the poverty stricken lot, those who are on scholarships – those who are struggling to survive out there.

  1. You need to find something known as a thrift store. This a store where mtumba/second hand stuff is sold. In Kenya, mtumba is also rereferred to as ‘clothes for dead white people’. Just a quick aside -I was among the group of people who used to think that these clothes came here because THEY pitied Africans. That THEY were donating them to US. I have since rescued myself from ignorance. This whole enterprise is a multi-billion dollar industry. Its one of the arms of the industry of poverty. When Kagame said he did not want these clothes in Rwanda, he was threatened with all sorts of sanctions by the USA. Kenya too. Kenya put its tail between its legs and retreated. I think Rwanda is the sole African country that is still saying no to this stuff. Anyway, back to the thrift store. Find one. Here you can buy those ‘clothes for dead white people’ and other items at a much cheaper price than you would buy at other outlets.

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2. Your other best friend should be something known as a dollar store. As the name suggests, items are sold at a dollar or slightly more than that. If its cheap, its not good quality, but you are not very interested in quality at this point. Buy stuff here and save your coins!

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3. Look out for sales! There are genuine sales out there. Sniff them out and take advantage as appropriate. Get into reward programs. These can be in stores/supermarkets, etc. You can accumulate some points, which you can exchange for products. It is all about saving/stretching the dollar. If you hear of anything that entails getting discounts take it on. Sometimes some stores have discounts for students. Do not be shy to ask if a store/outlet has this.

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4. Find out which are the cheap places to buy groceries. For my case stores/supermarkets were not it. A fellow graduate student introduced me to Chinese and Indian shops. The price is much better here. You should also try and find out if there is an African store(s) around. The ones that we had in Vancouver sold more of west African food items. The only East Africa product I found there was flour for making Ugali. If you love your fufu, yams, gari, etc, this is the place to get that. I did not care much for Ugali before moving to Vancouver, but after living there and not being able to get it easily, it became a delicacy!

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5. Get to know fellow African students. When I was very new and green I thought that joining African clubs on campus was one way of meeting African students. I went for a meeting of one of these associations and never returned. A Ghanian graduate student described these clubs as a conglomeration of kids of African ministers and politicians. I had never thought about it like this. He was very adamant. I am not hanging out with the progeny of the people who have made my country and continent an economic nightmare. In those clubs you find those Africans who speak with phony accents. If you are a suffering/surviving African find those of your lot! Those are the people who helped me especially with getting housing and other matters.

NB: there are also Africans who do not want to associate with other Africans because they want to be white. There are Africans out there who would not want to even look at another African. Those would turn away when they see you. Pathetic lot!

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6. Create networks with other students from the Global South. Meeting and forging relationships with students from Africa, South America, First Nations, and Asia was one of the highlights of my time there. These are those that Fanon referred to as The Wretched of the Earth. Some of these relationships have remained alive past my time there. Through these students you experience inter-cultural dialogue and exchanges through amongst others, food. As I mentioned in the last post, it was a student from Peru who led me to the work of Chilisa Bagele on Indigenous research methodologies. I also met wonderful people from the Global North. I forged relationships with some of them. A common characteristic of all of these people are that they had either worked in Africa or were conducting their research in Africa or work with indigenous peoples. Authentic human beings! I am not talking about those people who do extractive research in Africa and those who have a white saviour complex. I am talking about people who have been working with the communities they partner with for years. People who undertake their research in the most respectful manner. People who are committed to forging long-term mutually beneficial relationships with the people they work with.

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7. By all means, try and find accommodation outside campus unless you have a scholarship that pays for your accommodation. This way you will get a better understanding of the city/area you are living in as you will have to commute and move around. Getting accommodation was a hassle and a half. This is one of the places where the dragon of racism rears its head quite prominently. Living on campus is a bit like living in a bubble. Living off campus gave me a change to explore many places. There is plenty of stuff to see. Most of the parks are free. Students in my uni had a bus pass. We used to pay for this with the tuition fees. Through this you could use the bus to go to many places without incurring extra costs. The pic below is of my sister Aneeta and I at this amazing work of art in downtown Vancouver. It showcases a diversity of human expressions.

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8. Navigating supervisory committees. A committee is a group of professors, including your supervisor who oversee your whole research process to the end. The number can vary from 3-5. Understanding supervisory committees and related issues is CRITICAL. For this you need to really find good people in your department to explain to you what the process is like, what the politics at play is, who you need to have on your side and so on. You need to be really smart about it. Your supervisory committee can be a nightmare if you do not get the right people. If you get people who cannot agree on anything or who have inflated egos, you are in for extreme frustration. Senior graduate students who know the professors well are your go to people. They can help you understand this/guide you on how to set it up.

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9. Searching for jobs. You know the way you think of the west as the place where there is no nepotism, how its a merit based society, etc. Drop that thinking. I quickly realized that the only way to get jobs in the department was to be introduced to a Professor by another student who had worked for them. I had made good friends in my lab and they offered to introduce me to Profs they had worked for. The first friend introduced me to a Prof who was teaching communication skills or something along those lines. When we met the Prof – a white lady, she asked me if English was my first language and which schools I had gone to. She said she was looking for someone who had English as their first language or was from Europe/had studied in Europe or North America. She was totally blunt about it. I understood all of this to mean she did not want some African student for the job. I was so discouraged because that was my first shot and thought there was hope because my friend was confident that the Prof would consider me. Apparently, my English was not good enough. The friend who had taken me there was Spanish. The job was given to a student from Latin America and later to a German student. Of course English is not the first language for either of them. Another friend offered to introduce me to another Prof who was teaching the fundamentals of conservation. This one worked out! I worked like a dog to prove myself so that she could consider me for the job the next semester.

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What’s the job?

Teaching Assistant(TA) – the role involves supporting the Prof in teaching duties. The bulk of it entails grading assignments/exams and guiding students as they work on their assignments and such. In some cases it also entails giving of lectures. Guiding students? Yes. Students are totally spoon fed there. If the assignment is an essay, a student can work on a draft and send it to the TA. The TA can tell tell them if they are on the right track, what they should include, etc. Despite all this available support, not all the students get A’s. Students even have access to support from Librarians who can show them how to use citations, but some cannot even use citations properly! If I had this kind of support in my undergrad, I would be getting A’s in each course.

After getting this job, I was in the system. As long as you do a good job, its much easier to get others. It also helps if the Prof you have worked for can put in a good word for you with other Profs.

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10. Relatives demanding for gifts! We have a phenomenon spread across the Global South it appears. Since we have been totally convinced that the west is the land of milk and honey and people collect money on the streets and on trees, you will find a scenario where relatives of students demand all sorts of gifts when students are returning home. This is a huge stress on many students. I know students who never used to go home because they just could not cope with the demands from their relatives. I also know students who spent 1,000 dollars and above buying gifts for relatives and ending up in quite tight financial situations. They work so hard to raise the air fare, and then they have to work some more to find money to buy relatives presents. Bring me an iphone. Bring me a handbag. Bring me a play station. The student who is being asked for all this stuff does not have any of these things. I used to ask some of them why they could not just buy cheap gifts. Apparently, the relatives will take offence if you take them something that does not look expensive. People are unable to differentiate two types of people – people working abroad and students studying abroad. Some of those who work abroad are able to buy expensive gifts for their people. Relatives expect students to match this level of giving. By the way, even some of those who are working struggle with this gifting thing. People are not swimming in money there. The majority are working terribly hard and only manage to pay bills and get by. Please, please if you know a student who is there NEVER ask them for anything. PLEASE. Give them support of whatever nature, encourage them. Do not add to their stress and misery with these demands.

I was lucky; I did not have this problem.

In Kenya the west is referred to as Majuu in urban slang. Literally, this would translate to somewhere that is high but the connotation is a better place, right? Where Machini is, I do not know. I find this terminology very unfortunate because its part of the architecture that sustains the scenario that I have outlined above. Its a justification and acceptance of the asymmetrical economic structure present in the world today.

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11. Working off campus. Depending on your university, visa/study permit, you could be allowed to work off campus. What kind of jobs can you find off campus? All the Global South students I knew who had jobs outside campus worked as security guards, cleaners, baby seaters, or as tellers in supermarkets. Most of the men did those security jobs. I knew an African nun who worked as a teller in a supermarket. As you know, a nun/sister is a person who has very good social standing in Africa. Have you ever seen a nun working as a cashier in a supermarket? In Kenya, nuns live in Karen and such like places. But this student told me she did the math and saw she could not just survive. She asked another African who worked in that supermarket to help her get the job. These kind of jobs pay just about the minimum wage or slightly above. Now imagine asking such a person for an iphone! It is cruel.

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12. White beggars. Yes, there are white beggars. I know people in many parts of Africa cannot conceptualize this. In Kenya, white people live in the best neighborhoods. Those who venture into poor areas do so because they are working with the poor. There are no poor white people in Kenya. During my very first days on campus I encountered a white beggar. When she first asked me for money, I did not hear what she said. She was on a wheel chair so I thought she wanted help. I leaned in and she said: MONEY! In a rather aggressive manner I must add. I left that place very fast. I once met a Kenyan who had lived in Vancouver for a long time. One time his mother came to visit them. She ventured into downtown Vancouver and a beggar approached her. She was so shocked that she launched into Dholuo and said: A white person is begging me!!? The tip here is that you should just get used to it. There are white beggars. There are poor white people. I know there are Africans who cannot process this and give them money.

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13. Jehovah witnesses and the like. These people know that Africans are just ultra religious. They see an African, they see a potential convert. They will come talk to you. They even tried to convert a friend of mine who is a buddhist and told her she will go to hell for not converting. Another Ghanian friend was nice enough to let them to his house. They started coming every Saturday and he was too nice to tell them not to come. He just kept complaining on the side. I am not sure what they were converting him from because he is a Christian. If you like these religious things, these people might not be a problem to you. If you do not not, just do not entertain them.

14. Haloween pumpkins. Pumpkins are a central part of Haloween decor. You find pumpkins displayed all over. My friend and I thought that this was a ridiculous waste of food. We stole two of them from the department and carried them home. We were so worried of having been captured by the security cameras and having our faces stuck on the noticeboard as pumpkin thieves. It would have been quite the scandal. The pumpkin turned out to be totally tasteless and a total waste of my time and energy. I had to haul it on a 45-minute bus ride from campus. Never mind the stress and worry of having been captured on the cameras. Do not bother stealing those. It is totally not worth it.

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15. Speaking in class. If you come from a system where students do not speak in class like I did, you will struggle with this one. All courses have a participation grade. Part of this grade is allocated for speaking/making contributions in class. I thought you should say something when you really have a compelling argument to make. This is not the case. White people have mastered the art of talking. Someone can go on and on in class and when they finish, you cannot tell what point they just made. But that is how you get participation grades! I got quite low marks in one class because I did not say much. The same Ugandan nun/student I mentioned in the previous blog told me to ensure that no class ends before I say something. That is just how it is.

One strange thing you will find is that students eat in class. Someone can just whip out a carrot and go CRUNCH! Or even a plate of salad or whatever and just start eating while the class is in session. All this is accepted.

Let me stop this here.

I hope these tips are helpful to somebody out there. Feel free to add other tips in the comments section.

How to apply for graduate school in North America

When I completed my masters at the University of Nairobi, I was completely DONE with education. DOOONEE Kabisa! The masters had bruised me. I was doing it while working and it was a hassle and a half. Story for another day.  Anyone mentioning PhD stuff to me shortly after my masters got a very nice rebuke.  Three years later, I started looking for a PhD programme.  Why the change of mind? I was in a job that was not secure. It was in the NGO world. Whether you have a job from one year to the next in that world is dependent on donor funding.  At that point the organization was in dire straits. It was a struggle. At some point we all took a pay cut and worked for  four days a week, instead of five. I was looking for jobs elsewhere, but none were forthcoming. Then I thought: Why not look for a PhD programme?

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That would tie me down to something for 4+ years. I was tired of living year to year in the NGO world.  In addition, I used to work with a lot of archaeologists and anthropologists and I admired them. I thought it was nice to dedicate your time to understanding something. To be an expert in something.  And thus, the search for a PhD program began. I registered at the University of Nairobi- I think that was actually two years after my masters. I even paid fees for the first semester. I went for orientation. The room in which this was conducted was poorly arranged.  Just a normal classroom, nothing fancy – some chairs facing this way others facing that way.  Along  one of the classroom walls was one of those big yellow Chinese dragons. I was so irritated by the fact that this orientation for PhD students was being conducted in a room that was not well organized. They could not even be bothered to remove this dragon from the room! This is a sign of things to come, I thought to myself.  The professors came in and assured us that people actually do graduate with PhD’s from the Uni of Nairobi, without being made to suffer for like 10 years. I was not convinced. I kept looking at the dragon! I sat through the presentation, but decided I would not go through with it. I withdrew from the programme. False start. Yes, they gave me my money back. They retained a small percentage, I do not recall how much.

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Source: Britannica.com

I cast my gaze elsewhere. I started looking at North America and Europe. I was even willing to do another masters if it came with a scholarship. I tried several Erasmus Mundus programs and got nothing.  I had a friend who was studying the USA at the time. I asked her what the procedure was. She told me that the first step is to secure the interest of a professor who is willing to supervise you. How do you do that? You have to write to them and sell yourself, your research interests, etc.  I will talk about that later in this blog.  So, I started writing to Profs in the USA. Some of them expressed interest and asked me to apply. This required you to pay registration fees of up to USD 50 for each application. I think I applied for two. Never got nothing! Other Professors did not even bother to respond to my emails.

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I had a friend of a friend who was  doing her PhD in the environmental field in the USA. She would check my letters to Profs in various colleges in the USA. In one of my many letters I wrote that my inspiration was the work of Wangari Maathai and then in brackets I wrote RIP. Wa! The scolding I got! What is RIP!? How do you expect people to know that!? On and on it went. I generally think that people who have studied in the USA are quite harsh in their feedback and or critique. I gave up on sending my letters to her to check. She was also very surprised that I did not know Jane Goodall! How can you be in the environmental field and not know Jane Goodall? That was another bout of scolding. Knowing what I know about Jane Goodall now, I feel no remorse/shame of not knowing her or her work then.  I completely gave up on the USA because all unis required that you either do GRE or GMAT. I did GRE and FAILED flat. That was a total waste of my money aki. I do not think these tests are a good measure of assessing one’s intelligence by the way. I would still fail even if I did them today. So, what to do? I was groping in the darkness. I sort of took a break from it for a while and just continued working and job searching.  All this time I had not really firmed up what I wanted to do discipline-wise. I just knew it had to be in the environmental field.

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One time a friend visited me. We were looking at my pictures from a recent trip to Mt. Kenya forest. She knew about my search for graduate schools. She told me: You should study something to do with forests. Look at you in this picture. This is the happiest I have seen you. I need to frame this picture and put it somewhere in my house, because from then on I got some kind of focus. I had been working on cultural heritage sites and some of them were situated within forested ecosystems. I loved being in those sites. I had at this point read all of Wangari Maathai’s three text – Unbowed, The challenge for Africa, and Replenishing the earth.  It all came together. I now started looking for a programme that was focusing on forests. In January 2012,  I attended a conference in Jordan. In a conversation with some colleagues, I mentioned that I was looking for a PhD program related to forests. One of them asked me if I had looked at the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Forestry. I had never heard of it. When I got back to Kenya, I looked at the website and started writing to Profs there. So, here goes the procedure.

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In Mt. Kenya forest

 

Step 1: Look at the website of the faculty you want to study in and look at the Professor’s profiles therein. Usually, there are detailed profiles outlining their experience, expertise, areas of research interest, whether they are recruiting graduate students, etc.  The next step is to find those that align with your own research interests. You may not have very refined interests at this point, but it would be good to have a rough idea of what you want to do.

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Step 2: Start writing to these Profs. You can start with one or cast your net wide. I started with one. Once rejected, I would move to the next.  Usually, the response will be along the lines of: I am not accepting any new students, I do not have funding, I am about to retire, etc. Those are the ones I got. Prepare to receive rejection. How do you make sure that they respond to your inquiry? If you write a one paragraph that is not compelling or a few lines, do not expect a response. Your letter has to be detailed and compelling. Here is the letter I sent to various Profs.  And by the way, do not even bother try selling poverty – we Africans have been trained to sell poverty. I am poor, please help me. Steer clear from the line of argument. That will not get you very far. What people want to see is what you have achieved, what you want to achieve, what value you will add to their department, etc.

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Step 3: Let us assume you get someone who is willing to supervise you. This can happen in cases where a Prof has research funding and is looking for students to conduct that research. In this case, then they will just tell you to submit an application to the university. Mine did not follow this route. I wrote to several Profs and got rejections. Then one of them responded. She was a director of an institute within the faculty of forestry. She told me she could not supervise me directly, but could co-supervise because of her academic standing. Only those who are hired as assistant professors or full professors can supervise. She then sent me a link to apply for a very competitive scholarship.The Graduate Global Fellowship. The deadline was tight. I had to collate all the materials required and apply within a week.  And I got it.  I had been so used to rejection at that point that when I could not believe something could actually go my way. I was energized! Once I got it, it became easier to find a supervisor. Professors do not want to take on students if they are not sure of funding sources. This is fully understandable. The program is expensive and highly demanding.  So, at this point I now had a supervisor and was invited to apply for the degree program through the university. And that is how I got admitted to do my PhD at the University of British Columbia’s Faculty of Forestry. This is in Canada’s west coast.

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During my first year at Uni of BC. Cherry blossom trees are a major attraction in Spring ( especially, March to April)

Please note:  A major difference between universities in Kenya and North America is that you have to secure the interest of someone who is willing to supervise you first. In the case of Uni of Nairobi, all I did is fill in an application form, paid and then got admission.

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Step 4: Once you receive your admission letter, you can start the gruesome process of applying for a visa and study permit. I think this one deserves its own blog post. But let me just say I felt very humiliated throughout this visa process application. They tested me for Syphilis! There is this clinic where you have to go to near village market in Nairobi. You are tested for TB, Pregnancy, Aids, Shyphilis! And then the results are sent to some place in London for assessment. If you do not pass these medical tests, you are not getting the visa and  you can forget all your study abroad aspirations. At that point I thought there must not be any kind of diseases in Canada. That if they were to get there, it was via people like me. I was shocked to get there and learn that there are STD epidemics in some regions, Aids, and all manner of ailments. Shyphilis was brought to Africa by Europeans, by the way. Let me not  even get into that for now.

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Note: I asked my friends from Europe if they were tested for all this stuff and they told me no. All this costs money. I think I paid up to the tune of KES 30,000  (USD 300) for all the required tests. This is how poverty is entrenched good people. Those without money have to keep paying for all manner of stuff. There is also a cost for the visa, ofcourse!

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Step 5: You have been declared to be disease free, and therefore fit to venture into the New World, alias the land of milk and honey. Your visa and study permit can now be issued. After this you are free to go depending on when the date of reporting for your uni is.

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The next blogs I need to write are:

  1. How to survive in the west as an African student. My scholarship was CAD 21,000 per year (including fees). When I saw that money and converted to KES I thought I had hit the jackpot. One of my supervisors had told me that Vancouver, where UBC is located is a very expensive city and it is difficult to survive on that kind of money. I said ahhhhh I am an African, I know how to survive/live on little. We! I will tell you how I almost dropped out of my PhD program in the first year…not  a year actually, first semester! I even wrote a letter to my former boss asking to get my job back, but ended up not sending the email. DRAMA!

 

  1. How to navigate race and racism. I will share with you my struggles to find housing as an African student. I will tell you about a time when I sent my  friend to look at a house for me. When she told the landlord that I was from Africa, the landlord inquired about whether I was white or black. My friend stormed out of the house in a huff and in furry! Then she gave me the email of the landlord and I went all Martin Luther King on her …..I shall not be judged by the colour of my skin, but by the content of my character, I thundered! I have nice, nice stories for you. Stay tuned.

 

  1. The ins and outs of a PhD program. The struggle! GawD! How to navigate supervisory committees, what is a committee? how to create networks, how to get additional jobs, how to not go crazy!

 

  1. I am not sure if this should be a separate blog on its own, but I need to write about job search after PhD. And ultimately, whether a PhD is worth it or not! And whether studying in North America is worth all the hassle or not!

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This is the friend who was helping me search for a house. I was doing my fieldwork in Kenya at the time and not in Canada. 

Disclaimer: There might be other procedures for application, but this is the one I am familiar with.

Reading Robert Edgerton’s ‘Mau Mau: An African Crucible’

I read this book a while back and have been meaning to blog about it for a long time.  This is a book that humanizes the Mau Mau struggle and historicizes the colonial enterprise in a compelling manner. I want to highlight some of the issues discussed and link them to present-day happenings. The book was published in the 80’s, but since Kenya has never really decolonized, what was written then mirrors the scenario today.

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Settler children in Kenya: Source – users.rowan.edu

  1. The IBEA,  the politics of naming, and ’empty land’

The Imperial British East African Company (IBEAC) was the administrator of the British stolen lands in the East African region. The central goal of the IBEAC was to facilitate trade for Britain, of course, through extractive kind of arrangements.  The IBEAC first set shop in Gikuyuland after getting into an agreement with Waiyaki wa Hinga, a Gikuyu elder.  This agreement was quickly reneged by the IBEAC  leading to a serious of disastrous consequences, culminating in the exiling of Waiyaki, who was buried upside down (head first) in Kibwezi on the way to the Kenyan Coast.  Edgerton writes:

Whatever inclination the Kikuyu may initially have had to welcome the white foreigners disappeared when the IBEA’s African troops, who were very often staggering drunk, stole Kikuyu crops or raped Kikuyu women, killing some who resisted. When the Kikuyu fought back, the British officers organized punitive expeditions that went on “nigger hunts,” as they were known to white Kenyans. In 1893, an officer of the IBEA named Francis Hall (after whom the town of Fort Hall was later named) mounted two so-called punitive expeditions that killed about 90 Kikuyu. The following year, Halls’s troops killed a similar number. Hall was so incensed by continuing Kikuyu resistance that he wrote to his father, a British Colonel, that “There is only one way of improving the Wakikuyu (and t) that is to wipe them out; I should be only too delighted to do so, but we have to depend on them for food supplies. However, beginning in 1894 and lasting until 1899, nature made it unnecessary for Hall to “improve” the Kikuyu”. Plagues of locusts, prolonged, cattle disease, and small pox decimated the southern region of Kikuyu territory close to the route the rail road would follow. It was a this disaster that created what appeared to be empty land when the first European settlers arrived in 1902.

Now, here is the kicker – there are still people who name their businesses and other ventures “Fort Hall” and they are Agikuyu people. Fort hall was renamed Muranga after the attainment of flag independence.  What about land? Of course land remains the most sore point in Kenya’s history. In addition, Kenya is still run like a corporation, following the imperial, colonial, oppressive model where the land is seen a place from which to get things. The government appears to be more concerned about foreign investors (white people) and tourists ( also white people) than about its own citizens.  This is well articulated in this piece by Dr. Wandia Njoya ‘Invisible Citizens: Branding Kenya for foreign investors and tourists.’

Fort hall school of govt

 

2. Delamare inc

Kenya colony (yes, still) remains white man’s country. The goal of settlers at the time of colonial conquest was to turn Kenya into white man’s country – think along the lines of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and USA. One of the leading settler figures was Delamere. One of the leading settlers today is Delamare, err sorry, I mean LORD Delamare. Delamare owns an estimated 48,000 acres of land, some of which has been converted into a CONservancy where two Kenyans were shot dead by Delamare’s offspring, Tom Cholmondeley.  Delamare was one of the leading figures in the debate about alienation of African lands for European settlement. The very best lands were stolen from Africans and given to settlers  for a 99 -year lease, which was extended to 999 years. And what LORD D’s ultimate goal?

As Lord Delamare the acknowledged leader of these first settlers, made plain, their goal was to recreate the Virginia plantocracy in which white gentlemen of breeding and leisure oversaw vast plantations worked by Black men. Sir Eliot’s [the then governor] plan for Kenya was to attract more men of breeding and wealthy like Lord Delamere. The healthy and fertile highlands were reserved for men like these. Indians would not be allowed to own land in highlands and poor whites were discouraged from coming to Kenya at all. And as one English gentleman told Winston Churchill when Churchill visited Kenya, “It would destroy the respect of the native for the white man, if he saw what miserable people we have got at home.” These gentlemen-settlers also thought it dangerous to let Africans see white men actually working.

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Source: gherkinstomatoes.com

What has changed re land ownership? Not that much much. Kenya is still a plantation economy with a few people and companies (both local and foreign) owning huge tracts of land and establishing and entrenching the Virginia plantocracy model that Delamare talked about at the beginning of colonial occupation in the late 1800’s. Read more here: ‘It is a dog’s life for many plantation workers‘.

Picking Cotton. Ballou's Pictorial (Boston, Jan. 23, 1858),
USA plantation. Image source: 18C American Women

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Accommodation for tea plantation workers in Kenya

3. Dismantling of community livelihoods and dislocating Africans from their landscapes

Labour was needed to sustain to sustain the settler plantation economy. Where was this to come from? From the African population. How do you make Africans work for you? First, you steal their land, then you introduce a wage economy and taxation. Cash to pay taxes could only be obtained from settlers. That is how Africans became enslaved on their own lands. Edgerton illuminates the scenario:

Lord Delamere explained to the government that Africans should be forced into the labor market by cutting the amount of land available to them so that the wage work would their only means of survival. When the government was slow to take action, other settlers threatened to use force to obtain labour. Alarmed, the government responded by ordering chiefs to deliver a quota of labourers to the desired localities

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4. How poverty was created 

People assume that poverty in Africa is a naturally occurring condition. That there has always been poverty, because Africans do not know how to use the bounty that nature has provided to them. At the time of colonial occupation, the communities that the settler murderous gang encountered were people with absolute control over their lives- economically, politically, socially, philosophically, etc. Recall, that is actually trade that brought some of these communities into contact with settlers. In other words, they had surplus to sell. They were not poor. But colonialism entrenched poverty through various dimensions, and entrenched various forms of poverty, including the poverty of ideas  (the worst form of poverty), by convincing Africans that they did not know anything and did not have knowledge. This passage below illustration explains the impoverishment of Africans under colonial occupation:

At that time, a cheap shirt bought in an African market cost 4 shilings, and the annual poll tax was 20 shilings. With wages like these a labourer could only stay alive by cultivating the single acre that he was lent as a tenant farmer. Regulations required the “squatters” as the British called their tenant laborers, to sell the produce from their plot of land to their employers at a fixed price. For example, an employer would pay his “squatter” 14 or 15 shillings for a bag of maize. Thanks to government subsidies, the employer could then sell that same bag for 32 shillings. Moreover, while it was the Europeans who benefited most from government services, until 1930 it was African taxes that paid the bulk of the expense. In addition, the Europeans paid no direct income tax until 1936.

What about today? It is the political class that took the place of settlers. Actually, a combination of settlers and the political class. White people and those that the Mau Mau referred to as ‘Black Europeans’ consume most of the taxes that are paid by the masses. Majority of the people remain poor and work themselves to death to support the lavish lifestyles of settlers, former and current colonizers, and the political class.

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Africans rounded up bu the British for demanding their freedom. Image: Getty.

5. Africans are not human 

Edgerton writes:

Settlers not only believed that Africans had the minds of children, they were convinced that they did not feel pain as Europeans did, were able to will themselves to die whenever they wished (both Elspeth Huxley and Karen Blixen subscribed to this view). They also believed that Africans had altogether different nutritional requirements than white people. For example, it was widely argued that a bowl of maize-meal porridge was all that an African needed for good health. As a result, many settler employers gave each of their labourers a pound and half [about 0.6 kgs] of posho (maize meal) per day, a ration that was thought quite adequate. Many settlers, particularly women, never quite overcame their fear of Africans’ blackness, or their supposed resemblance to apes. The settlers saw no reason to understand Africans because they believed absolutely that before the coming of the white men, Kenya had been nothing more than a “howling wilderness” of superstition and death.

So, what is new? Did a Chinese national not refer to Kenyans, including the president as monkeys  in September 2018? What is the relationship between Asians, Europeans, and Africans in places of work in Kenya colony? Who occupies the top leadership positions? Who does most of the work? How much posho (in this case salary) are the Africans paid? Is it still not 0.6 kgs – metaphorically speaking? By the way,  when the Mau Mau war broke out, settlers were furious that Africans were not grateful for the gift of civilization. If you have ever tried to ask your white boss for a salary raise, you will confirm that they will usually get pretty furious and will not understand why you are not GRATEFUL for what they are ‘giving’ you.  Just to go back to the nutrition and impoverishment of Africans, Edgerton provides an interesting piece of information ” 90% of the Kikuyu recruits for the British Army in World War 2 had to be rejected because of malnutrition, primarily due to a lack of animal protein in their diets.” An elder once told me that before colonialism, the Agikuyu people had a lot of livestock. We ate meat all the time, he said. Now, they lacked animal protein! Another thing to note: There is museum dedicated to the life of and history of Karen Blixen and no museum or memorial for the Kenya Land Freedom Army (Mau Mau). In other words, Kenya is still celebrating racism, the dehumanization of its peoples, and colonial occupation, but not celebrating one of the worlds most formidable self-determination movements.

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Karen Blixen.

6. Apartheid

Colour bar remains an defining element of Kenya colony. Today, there are places where whites only live. Conservation spaces are mainly white spaces. Africans who work there are in low-level positions. There are some hotels still known as “hoteli za wazungu/hotels for white people,” because in the colonial period, there are hotels Kenyans were not allowed to go to. While one can go to those hotels these days, majority are still restricted by economic factors. Hence apartheid is firmly entrenched.

The “superior” civilization the whites brought to Kenya did not include racial integration. A visitor to Kenya in the early 1950s was quickly introduced to its color bar. In Nairobi airport, there were bathrooms marked “European Gentlemen, ” “Europeans Ladies” and others marked “Asian Gentlemen” and “Asian Ladies.” There was no bathroom at all for Africans. After surveying all of Africa, James Cameron, a journalist, wrote that Kenya had established a colour bar “of singular crudity and arrogance.”

 

7. Christianity

Settlers, missionaries et al., were keen to convert Africans to Christianity. This was the one gift of civilization. What Christianity has done in Africa is to convince Africans that they are inferior, that they have no history, that whites are Gods – white Jesus is to be found everywhere in Kenya colony, for instance, and that this world is not their home, they are just passing by. Why should you agitate for land rights if this world is not your home? Shouldn’t you just wait to rejoice in heaven with white Jesus and white angels?  You should know that apartheid in Kenya extended to places of worship. Question – would the whites and Africans share the same heaven upon death?

A European woman who said that she did not mind employing Africans, or even shaking hands with them, “but pray with them I will not.”

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European missionaries, church in the background.

8. White supremacy 

Colonialism in Kenya colony created stark disparities in wealth, with the oppressed Africans occupying the bottom of the pole – often living at the edge of starvation. This situation has remained the same into the present.  And since the political class are the present day colonizers, when I replace Europeans with the political class in the passage below, I still make sense of the text.

Meanwhile these Africans were continually  reminded of their destitute conditions by the conspicuous affluence of most Europeans [politicians] and many of Nairobi’s Indians, who usually dressed well, if not elegantly by European standards, lived in large houses, and drove fine cars. African men typically wore a par of tattered European trousers, a badly frayed shirt, a ragged woolen sweater, a threadbare suit coat, and a floppy felt hat. At night and on cold days many wore khaki overcoats captured from the Italian army in WW2, or ragged topcoats that have been rejected by and Goodwill Centre in the USA. [Mtumba/second hand clothing is still presented as some kind of aid, but in actual sense, it is a thriving business enterprise that sustains the supplying countries].

 

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White supremacy reigns supreme.  Africans are still wearing tattered European trousers.  The African political class has ensured that Africans continue wearing tatters, because they are white in their thinking/ideology.  They believe in living off the sweat and misery of their people.  It reminds me of passage from Ngugi wa Thiongo’s ‘A grain of wheat.’

The white man [politician] went in cars. He lived in a big house. His children went to school. But who tilled the soil on which grew coffee, tea, pyrethrum, and sisal? Who dug the roads and paid the taxes? The white man [politician] lived on our land. He ate what we grew and cooked. And even the crumbs on the table he threw to his dogs. That is why we went to the forest.

The voices of resistance and all those who raise their voices in the struggle for African dignity are the new Mau Mau. They have refused to succumb to despair. They are in the forest!

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Image source: Kenya Stockholm blog.

 

 

 

Colonial Christianity has made Africa(ns) stupid

Ah, let it be said:Colonial Christianity(CC) has made Africans stupid! Before any Christians and Christian fundamentalists get too upset, let me add myself to the group of Africans who have been stupefied by Christianity. I think anybody who has come into contact with Christianity has had their intellectual capacity interfered with. But let us look at some examples. How has CC stupefied Africans?

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Women in Nigeria in a church. Image source: Pulitzer 

1. CC is the greatest force in the weakening of African cultural infrastructure. When missionaries came to Africa, they told Africans that ALL their cultures are primitive, raw, and uncooked. That in order to get civilized, they had to abandon all their cultures completely, otherwise they would not be admitted to heaven. The result? Destruction of cultural systems, philosophies that guided African life, knowledge that helped them navigate their respective environments, and so on. A Christian believes that nothing else matters other than Jesus and the Bible. That book has destroyed Africans’ minds. In her book, ‘The Challenge for Africa’, Wangari Maathai argues that de-culturation is one of the most serious challenges in Africa, but it is not closely examined because it is overtaken by other challenges which take a political or economic angle. If you examine those closely, you will see that they are related to culture.

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                          When Ugandan’s hired a white man to play Jesus during Easter.                                          Image source:  Mediatakeout.com

2. Africans are quite happy to buy into the Biblical garden of Eden creation story of origin, and to rubbish all their various stories of origin as primitive. In the garden of Eden story, the woman allegedly fed a ‘forbidden fruit’ (depicted as an apple in CC literature) to a man, who had no self-control, which then set human downfall into motion. Of course, that has been used to entrench patriarchy and subjugation of women, but let me stick with how this has made Africans stupid. How many Africans have ever eaten an apple? How many Africans grow apples? This is just like teaching children the alphabet using A for Apple. This is alienating. Many African stories of origin are packed with teachings, with philosophies that grounded human beings in their respective environments, they featured trees, water bodies, mountains, valleys, etc. So, from a young age, an African child could understand environmental complexity and reverence through these stories. Now we have garden of Eden. Where is this garden? Nobody knows. Even people who live in very arid and semi-arid environments are forced into a paradigm of thinking of lush gardens. Stupefied! I mentioned the other day that Christians in Igboland, Nigeria were destroying trees, which are said to be shrines. The continent is ravaged by climate change. And Africans are cutting trees instead of planting? This is STOOOPPPIID!

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Image source: UN.org

3. African cultural forms of expression such as song, dance, performance, sayings, and other forms were an integral part of their lives – before the encounter with missionaries/colonisers. When missionaries came, they said all this is sinful and the dances were lascivious. There were songs about planting, harvesting, songs for new-born children, songs for transitioning from adolescence to adulthood, wedding songs, funeral songs, etc. A rich repertoire packed with knowledge and power. Now, Africans only sing about Jesus! When they want to celebrate something, they sing about Jesus. Jesus has captured and brainwashed Africans. He has been made to be the only person worth composing songs about;Jesus and politicians are the only ones who now get songs composed about them. In many African liberation struggles, the use of song was a critical ingredient in resisting oppression. Now the power of the African mind had been diminished by only creating songs about Jesus. I once asked an elder to sing for me some songs, that they would sing at various stages in life. Her response: Oh I forgot my child, our songs were wiped out by the church! Don’t you think CC has reduced the intellectual capacity of Africans? CC makes Africans think of African culture as sinful. Everything is a sin. Singing your songs is a sin, dancing is a sin. Even children are said to have sinned and have to constantly pray for forgiveness of their sins. What sins have children committed? Stupidity galore! Infact, they have to be baptized to remove something known as “the original sin”.

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I took this picture at the Museum in Livingstone, Zambia.  By chance, I met a rastafarian on the streets – we go talking and he told me that some Zambians will not go to the hospital or take medicine when they get sick  – they will go to church instead. Of course, they think he is evil, because he keeps dreadlocks. A few years ago, Zambia held national prayers because there were a lot of power cuts/no electricity.  Whichever way you look at it, that is the opposite of clever. 

4. Every religion is shaped by the environmental context from which it emerges. The Bible makes reference to cedars, palms, olives, and so on. Do olives grow in most of Africa? The first time I saw an Olive tree was in Morocco. So, why should somebody in Lesotho be forced to think about olives and to recite bible verses that make reference to them? That is stupefying!

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Olive trees: Image source: Borges

5. Christianity is associated with so much injustice – the slave trade, colonialism, neo-colonial encirclement, extraction of resources, and so on and so forth, but Africans are the greatest defenders of Christianity. How come? Is it because it has made Africans stupid? The most intolerant people you will ever meet are Christians – especially, the ‘born again’ variety. Kenyan Christians massacred other Christians in a church during the post-election violence. During the Rwandese genocide Christians massacred other Christians in Churches. But today, churches in both contexts are packed with Africans. Why? Is it because Christianity hinders critical thought?

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Image source: Kenya News Alert TV/YouTube

6. According to Christianity, when you commit a sin, you are supposed to confess. If you are a Catholic, you whisper your sins to a priest, always a man (the Catholic church is the epicentre of patriarchy), and if you are a protestant you yell and make noise and ask for God’s forgiveness. So, a politician who has stolen public resources, impoverished the poor, made their lives a living nightmare, caused the death of some, can just ask for forgiveness, and will be forgiven – just like that. Then they will meet in heaven with the poor person he impoverished, and dance forever with the white angels in the streets of gold. I saw someone asking – where is the gold in heaven mined from? It must be from Africa. But, back to the point I wanted to make. I wanted to say that Christianity is a Zero sum game for Africans. Nobody has suffered more because of Christianity than the poor, who have to support the lavish lifestyle of the politician that I have mentioned above, and the lavish lifestyle of the clergy. Both of these two groups of people live off the sweat of the poor – one via taxes, and the other one via sadaka/offerings. It appears that the Christian God does not see the gross injustice meted to the poor and oppressed.

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Image source: World Vision

7. In Kenya, politicians are very happy to contribute to building more churches. We have more churches than schools and hospitals put together. I wonder if they would be as enthusiastic to contribute to building a library. Politicians are happy to contribute to churches, because the church will keep the flock so mystified and hypnotized and in utopia, that they will not have time to think about where or how their taxes are used. And the church is used as a platform to launder stolen funds. In that way, the church becomes a tool of oppression. But since you are so busy praising Jesus and God, you cannot see it. Our treasures are laid in heaven, this world is not our home, we are just passing by! Stooopid!

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8.Is the Christian God deaf?? I saw somebody ask this on facebook. Missionaries depicted the Christian God as a white old man, with a big long-white-beard. This man must be deaf. Why do Christians have to make so much noise? Rasna Warah, a Kenyan writer tweeted how she could not work because of noise from a church near her home. She is not alone! Churches are everywhere – in residential areas, in the city centre, in the markets, in public transport – everywhere! And because the Christian God is deaf, they have to yell – with loud speakers and loud music systems. They do not care if people are sleeping, if people are sick, if people are working, if people just want peace and quiet – they just do not care. Jesus must be praised-day and night. A person who does not care about others is a stupid person. Again, I ask, why is Christianity associated with so much injustice?

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This pastor from South Africa told his congregants that if he sprayed them with this substance, he would heal them of Hiv/Aids and Cancer.  Image source: The Standard

 

9. I think I mentioned that the Bible has destroyed Africans’ minds, right? There is a group of Africans who we should call ‘the Bible says Africans’. Every time they want to make a point, and by point, I mean to justify oppression or to justify timidity, they will invoke some Bible verses. Why can’t Africans read other books? The Bible for Africans should be Franz Fanon’s ‘The Wretched of the Earth‘ or any other book of that stature. I was speaking to an African the other day, and they were telling me that the reason why poor people are so exploited by the church is because, “they are not educated”. I do not think so. Aside: women are severely exploited and abused by the church- there are videos circulating around Facebook and other forums of pastors molesting women (touching their bodies, so that they can get children and other kinds of such-like garbage). I actually think it is the educated & elite that are the problem and not the poor. The educated and elite will walk around bragging how God has blessed them, they will attribute their financial or other success to “God and prayer”, and never mention anything about hard work, what opportunities they had, what networks they could leverage into, and many other factors outside religion. It is they that have stupefied the poor with this empty religiosity. Because, then, a poor person thinks that the only thing they have to do is pray, fast, and go to church every day and night, so that God can bless them like he has blessed the elite. This brings me to my last point.

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10. A poor woman will take eggs from her house and go and give them to the pastor, but will not feed them to her children. She needs blessings, and will be willing to give all she has. Then, her children get malnutrition because of lack of protein. She has no money to take them to hospital. And since the government has bungled the healthcare system, by under-investing in it, because they leave such work to NGO’s and missionaries, and churches, she has nowhere to turn to. She turns to prayer and fasting. She also gets sick and depressed.

Christianity has made Africans stupid.
Christianity has ‘dismembered’ Africa , to borrow Ngugi wa Thiong’os word. It has torn Africa apart into pieces, until Africans do not know who they are any more.

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As you can see from this sticker, the finger of God is white. 

Now, someone will say – why don’t you see all the good things the church has done like creating schools and hospitals? The short answer is this – it is not the job of the church to provide these social services. That is the responsibility of the government. The fact that NGO’s and Churches provide these services is a testament to failure of government, and as I pointed out above, the church gives the corrupt and incompetent politicians a soft landing and warm embrace. If the church was involved in helping citizens to push the government into delivering social services, I would support it. But the church cannot because it is a beneficiary of the poverty,  desperation, and oppression of African peoples. Secondly, thee church has thrived(since the colonial period), through cannibalizing other forms of social organization.

How poverty is created: A case study of me

Let me begin by saying that there nothing I detest more than the idea of race. Really. It is one of the most stupid ideas on earth.  If I had never felt discriminated because of my race, I would not take much interest in it. I would say, let us all get on with it. Let me tell you a story – my first encounter with out-and-out racism. I had just finished my undergraduate degree – back in the day. We were required to do an internship as a prerequisite for graduation.  I struggled for a while before I found one.  The whole search process was humiliating and stressful. My worst experience was at USAID. I was not even allowed to go past the gate. The guards were pretty hostile and refused to take my documents. Dejected, I walked back thinking to myself – if getting an internship is this difficult, then getting a job is going to be an impossibility.
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A friend of mine suggested that I try going to an Italian NGO where their friend was working. I did not call them to book an appointment. Somebody will ask – why not just book an appointment? Students leaving university at that time did not have money nor mobile phones, and those days internet was a luxury. It still is.  Anyway,  I just went and walked in into their offices. I thank the guard at the gate, because he did not try to block me or frustrate my efforts. I walked into the building, then asked the receptionist for directions. There were two organizations based in that building. She asked me to walk to the end of the hall.  Somehow, I ended up in the directors office.  His door was open, so I just knocked and got in. The white man (Italian) behind the desk looked at me from head to toe. I  introduced myself and told him that I was looking for an internship. He sent me to the program manager. I got the internship and they employed me after the internship ended.
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That was my first job and this was a catholic church based organization, engaged in humanitarian work – poverty reduction et al.  The pay for all the Kenyan staff was pathetic. We all knew it. The white staff were paid huge sums of money and lived in Muthaiga (one of the posh suburbs of Nairobi). My salary was KES 15,000/USD 150 per month. An Italian intern earned KES 300,000/USD 3,000 per month or so, the Kenyan staff said. Nobody really knew what the Italian staff earned- it was top secret.  But they drove 4 WD cars and lived in Muthaiga. They went home for lunch, while we ate air burgers for lunch. I lived in a one-roomed house with an toilet (pit latrine) & bathrooms that was shared by maybe, 15 other tenants.  After paying rent and transport, I was left with very little or next to nothing really. I was living on the edge of starvation. I was working hard, trying to prove myself. Then, the organization got funding for an educational project.
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I started thinking that maybe my salary would be improved. I knew how much money was in the budget, since I was involved in putting it together. I thought I deserved a raise. So, I went to my white boss and told him that I think I should be paid KES 30,000/USD 300.  All hell broke loose! It was pandemonium! He raised his voice. He shouted. I do not even remember what he was saying, but that was not the reaction I was expecting. I think he was basically saying that he could not give me the raise. I actually thought he would fire me. I was so worried. He did not fire me.  I started thinking – what makes my boss react like that when I ask him for a raise? What makes the white intern get more than me by far, never mind that we the African staff are the ones who have show her the ropes – and actually work more than her? What else could it be other than my skin colour? That incident made me realize that the colour of my skin would always work against me. You do not have to leave Africa to experience racism.
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One day a family member came to visit me and found that there was sewage flowing from the toilet and spreading to where our houses.. houses hehehe rooms were situated. My room was adjacent to the toilet. I think the landlord had tried to empty the toilet and somehow the contents spilled out or something. It was one of those toilets where the contents are floating so close to the hole that you dare not look down. You just do your business and leave. My family member was horrified. She told me that I should start looking for a new place to live (one with a toilet inside).  I told her I could not afford it. She told me she would try her best to help me pay the rent.  I knew she did not have the money either, but I moved out  with the hope that I would find a better job. I ended up in a house that was poorly constructed.  After a while, water started seeping through the freshly painted  walls  and they became mouldy. My clothes  became mouldy too, because the wall was the closet heheehh! After the shouting incident with my Italian boss,  I  had started looking for another job seriously. All my evenings were spent applying for jobs. I told everyone I knew that I was looking for a job.  After 2 years, or so, I found  a much better one at a conservation NGO. This was not without its pitfalls either. I was just talking with my colleague about it the other day and we were ruminating about the fact th the salary of the two top white bosses was more than all the salaries of the 12 Kenyan members of staff put together. Race! Story for another day.
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I badly wanted to move from the Italian NGO that was engaged in missionary-related humanitarian work for various reasons. 1. I found the contradictions of using Christianity as a tool for entrenching oppression unbearable. Every morning the white bosses would call for a prayer session – we needed to start the day with Christ! I started boycotting those prayers, because I thought Jesus would have wanted me to live a better life, which could be made possible by a better salary.  But my white bosses had sort of placed a cap to what the African staff could earn.  Oyunga Pala refers to this kind of phenomenon as the “black ceiling”. No amount of sucking up would melt the hearts of the white bosses. Some of my colleagues tried different strategies – like taking them to their homes to see how the live, or zealously participating in the missionary activities – prayer retreats and the like. Not even speaking English with an Italian accent worked. Not even picking up their mannerisms like Italian hand gesturing. None of that worked!  Technically, we were all field niggers. There were a few house niggers, who they used to keep us (the field niggers) in check.  Some of the dog treats thrown their way were trips to Italy, and higher salaries, of course. But their salaries and life styles were nowhere near our Italian masters. They also tried to bamboozle us with occasional outings to eat pizza.  Now might be a good time to watch Malcom X’s beautiful illustration on the difference between field niggers and house niggers. Watch that before proceeding, because I make reference to that metaphor later. Its just a 5 minute clip :)!
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Where was I? Oh the reasons for wanting to leave. Reason no 2 was that I was working in Kibera( an informal urban settlement), and I could not understand this:  how come the more NGO’s you have the more poverty you have? Everywhere you look in Kibera, you find an NGO. I think there is an industry of poverty, that thrives from poverty, and that is determined to ensure that poverty is sustained. If there is no poverty, what will all the NGOs and white expats do?  Reason no 3 was that I wanted to get into conservation-that is where my interest lies.  But back to the Italian NGO – I have just remembered more things that I wanted to tell you.  Our Italian masters always spoke in Italian, to  lock out the field niggers from the conversation.  I resented Italian. I still resent Italian. I equate the language with oppression.  They try to colonize the African stuff with Italianism. For instance, in one of their school projects in Kibera, they make the kids perform a play based on Pinocchio, the Italian wooden puppet fictional character. What could be more far removed from the reality of life for these kids. They would not want to perform anything from their respective cultures, because, as we all know, African cultures are barbaric. This Pinocchio business was led by one of the Italian bosses, whose job title was ‘Pedagogist’.  There were other teachers in that school of course, but this one had a special job title. I thought every teacher is a pedagogist? Yawn!
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One day I was having a conversation with my colleagues. All of us hated our masters.  Even those that smiled at them and joked with them hated them. Everyone lamented about how unjust they were. How evil they were. Then, one of us fouled the air by saying the following: But, if it were not for them, you would have no job. We all started talking about other things after that. This how oppression and poverty get entrenched.  When people have no option. Because the government has created conditions ripe for exploitation from all sorts of quarters.  You cannot even talk about your oppression without being dragged into a guilt trip. Actually, I now realize that this oppression had dehumanised us.  One time, we went to visit one of our projects in Huruma (another urban informal settlement) in Nairobi. Our white boss  ‘the pedagogist’ gave us a ride in her  Toyota Rav. 4 , which she kept referring to as “my car”, and which she no doubt, loved more than us the field niggers. As we were leaving the project, she reversed into a tree and shattered the rear windshield. We performed a great skit of hypocrisy. We told her how sorry we were.  We touched the Rav and said uh and ah!  It was all hogwash. Later on, we rejoiced! One of my colleagues was even dramatizing the “event” to those that were not there. And we would all laugh! Some even said – it is too bad that it did not hit the body. It should have left a bigger dent! We were the field niggers, who would pray for the breeze to fuel the fire that was burning the master’s house.  This situation had reduced us to people who rejoice at the misfortune of others!
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I resented my Italian bosses. All of them – from top to bottom.  Even the interns were my bosses – because they are white or think they are white. One day, I went to work – I am hard worker, by the way.  I strive to give my best. If my former Italian masters get to read this, I doubt that they will say I am lazy person who does not deliver. And that was not even my finest work, because my motivation was somewhere close to zero.  I was at work quite early that day.  One of the interns walked past me. I do not recall if she said something and I did not respond,  or what  triggered what happened next.  She was ahead of me and took the stairs to her office. As I took the first step of the stairs, she turned around and started yelling. She was sort of jumping up and down and her hair was bouncing up and down.  She established a hierarchy. She was at the top of the stairs and I was at the bottom. I was dumbfounded. I cannot even remember all the things she said, but one thing she said stuck to my mind: you may think you are so important, but you are not. You are nothing!  
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I did not say a word. She finished her rant and walked to her office – in a huff! I walked up the stairs slowly and went to our office. We shared a space with other colleagues – all Africans. They found me there crying on my desk. They asked me what was wrong. Amidst tears, I told them how the intern had yelled at me, without any provocation at all. The mood in the office that day was sombre! I loved our solidarity. When one was wounded, it is like we were all wounded! I was waiting for her to report me to the main boss and for me to be fired. It did not happen. I  never talked to her ever after that. She left the organization before I did.  The Italian gang had perfected the art of raising their voices at the African staff. It was a strategy at intimidating us and putting us in our place, and it worked.  Nobody dared challenge them. We were all scared of losing our jobs. Recall that even getting an internship is difficult enough, so nobody wants to lose their  job no matter how pathetic is.  I now must point out that it is imperative for people working in NGO’s to seriously consider unionizing! I need to write another blog on this.
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When I got the job I mentioned earlier, I left this Italian mafia (that is how some of us used to call them & one of my colleagues referred to the main boss as Mussolini), in the middle of the month.  I wrote my resignation letter and gave it to my colleague to give it to  Mussolini.  I think it was a three line letter.  In the letter, I told him to keep my salary – I did not want it.  Not because I had a lot of money. No! I just did not want him to say that I had not given a month’s notice. I had to borrow money to survive that month. After he received the letter, he called me incessantly. I refused to pick his calls. He was probably calling to yell at me, and I did not want to give him the satisfaction and neither did I feel like yelling back.  We are told that we should say nice things about our employers, because we need their recommendations for other jobs. That you should not burn bridges, etc.  While I do understand the thinking behind this, I do not agree with the embedded assumption and logic. What if your employer was horrible? Should you lie and say they were just great? It is this logic that has entrenched massive suffering of people in Africa and other dispossessed regions of the world.  It is this logic that tells us that:
1. You should not complain, because you have a job. There are those that do not. Yes, of course. We should all be grateful for the crumbs that are thrown our way.  It is this logic that makes child labour possible – at least the children are making money sewing garments and making mobile phones for us.
2. NGO’s are do-gooders. Missionaries are do-gooders. There is a group of Africans who do a show called NGO means Nothing Going On. I am increasingly skeptical of the whole NGO industrial complex.  Yes, there are good and bad NGO’s, of course.  But it is this logic that NGO’s and missionaries are doing good that entrenches poverty. I hope you have understood about how poverty is created. None of my Italian masters were or are poor. But we the Africans were/are poor. We were impoverished by the NGO.  NGOs and missionaries  also entrench white supremacy and the idea of white benevolence. That is why kids can get molested by missionaries, but you have people defending the missionaries, because they cannot understand how a white missionary can do such a thing. That is why British soldiers can rape Samburu women, but instead of sympathizing with the victims, the women get ostracized from their community.
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I spoke to  an elder who told me that when they worked in settler farms during the colonial period in Kenya, they were fed on something they referred to as ‘mathache’. This is what remains of milk after they whip it up and remove all the cream. It is like water,  really. The African took care of the cows, milked the cows, then whipped the milk to remove all the cream, and gave everything to the British. Then, the British gave them mathache!  They also  grew the maize and harvested everything and gave it to the British. Then, the British gave them the rotten maize in the form of flour. This was rationed.  Several scholars have pointed out Europeans in Africa believed that an adult African was the equivalent of a 9-year old European. They argued that the brain of the African was underdeveloped. That the African was like a lobotomised European.  It was believed that the African did not need much to survive. That is why they gave them little food. Malnutrition was rife! This elder looked me in the eye and told me the following: I joined the Mau Mau in the forest to fight for independence, because I was tired of being a slave on our very own land. I was tired of eating mathache!
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The Italian mafia fed me mathache!
And these personal experiences stay with me because I feel it is so,so grossly unjust.  I think I am fully convinced that no white person is in Africa is there to help Africans.  The ‘Tribe of the West’, as Ngugi wa Thiong’o refers to them, is there to help itself. There are people who have grown extremely wealthy through the industry of poverty.  The NGO industry is so powerful. In Kenya, I think the NGO industry is more powerful than the government. It is a parallel government, that seems to be providing services that the government should be providing.  As a result, people lose faith in the government and think NGO’s are on their side. But are they? All this happens because the government is weak and we have bad leadership.  Is it not because bad governance that the Italian mafia could give me and others mathache!?
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The Catholic Church is in some ways (?) a representation of the “Dung of the Devil”

Pope Francis referred to unbridled capitalism as the “Dung of the Devil”. He is right, but I would also argue that the institution he represents is in some ways the embodiment of this Dung of the Devil phenomena. Hear me out…..

So, I go to visit one of my friends and her family and as is tradition we all head to church on Sunday – Catholic Church. Kenya is a predominantly Christian nation. We get there at 11.00am and get on with mass. There are about 40-50 people all together. Then comes time for the sermon. Oh! before that the catechist barraged the congregation for  15 minutes and took them on a guilt trip about not sending their children for classes – I forget what they are called …Catechism? Anyway, back to the sermon. The priest spends a cool hour and a half lecturing the congregation on how they are not GIVING enough.

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He reminded them that the priest’s vestments/dresses that are mentioned in the bible were embroidered with gold. I can assure you that none of the people in that congregation has ever seen gold so I am struggling to find how this is relevant or even useful? He went on to remind all of us how everything in the church now is sub-standard. It sounded like it is the congregation’s fault that the church has had to “down grade”.  I thought the ministry of Jesus Christ was about humility and social justice and not oppression and exploitation. I look around and can see the irritation on the faces of some of the congregation, who by the way are predominantly women.  It is time for the offertory.

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People line up to go give encouraged by the choir who sings “God can see your heart and all that you have”.  Some give food or produce from their farms, some give maize flour, others give cash..(the priest had lamented that people only give coins which is inconveniencing because they have to go change it to get notes and it is heavy. Sigh!.. how do people develop this sense of entitlement?). It seems that giving whatever you have is no longer acceptable. People sell the last chicken they have and cut the last tree on the farm in order to get offering to give to the “men of God” so that God can bless them.

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I remain on the bench because I do not believe the priest deserves any of my money for that lackluster sermon/offensive lecture. I am of the opinion that the offering should be a reflection of the quality of this sermon i.e. the better, the more the offering. This one was somewhere below zero.  After the offertory, we proceed with the rest of the mass but at the end it, we are informed that there is a second collection/offertory. What? What is this one for? To support vocations at the Vatican. Oh yes. All the churches around the world are expected to contribute. The choir rises up to sing and a couple of people line up to contribute. The priest is not impressed by the turn out so he summons the chairman of the church to the front and asks him to talk to the people and explain to them how important this is.  In all honesty, when you look at some of the people who are being asked to contribute it is clear to see these are people who may not have had breakfast or three complete meals in the last couple of days. I sit there writhing in disgust.

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Now, having been to the Vatican a couple of years ago and seeing first-hand the amount of opulence there , it sickens and hurts me to hear the church extracting the very little from people that are really the most vulnerable members of society. It is the poor who sustain the church, it appears.  Isn’t this how unbridled capitalism works – the majority supporting the exponential growth of a few? How did the church get to wealthy? Why the church is still so wealthy given most of the followers are currently found in the global South?Catholics around the world. How much  idle land does the Catholic Church own in some countries where there are serious issues around landlessness?  I do like the pope. He seems like a honest and moral man but he is presiding over a predatory organization and one of the most vertically integrated capitalistic institutions in the world. Yes, the dung of the devil is littered all over the Vatican.

Gold lines ceilings of the Vatican
Gold lined ceilings of the Vatican

I know, I know, the church does good and all that but it also does bad. Extracting the very little that the poor have is a gross injustice.  Everybody seems to be very excited about the Pope’s encyclical on climate change. But what is the history of the Catholic Church? The church is built on the extermination of other forms of spirituality amongst all the colonized peoples of the world. Africans, for example were told their norms and practices were witchcraft, barbaric and evil, never mind that some of these practices were highly congruent with environmental conservation.

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Wangari Maathai writes about an interesting example in her memoir ‘Unbowed’. When she was growing up there was a fig tree near their home. Her mother told her that she was not allowed to fetch firewood from that tree because it was a tree of God.  Nearby that tree was a stream from which she would fetch water. She went for her studies abroad and when she came back she was appalled to find that the tree had been cut down and in its place a church constructed. The church had now become a “house of God”. The stream had also dried. In essence, a whole ecosystem was compromised.

We must appreciate that colonialism and Christianity were Siamese twins in Africa and in other places in the world, I believe. The colonial force relied on missionaries to conquer the people’s minds. Communities were told that it was the will of God to obey authority- never mind that that that authority comprised of all of your land being taken away and you being transformed into slaves on your own land! The church was used to weaken the Mau Mau/Guerilla movement that fought for independence in Kenya, using statements like “accept the blood of Jesus Christ and vomit the poison(oath) of the Mau Mau”.

The Mau Mau in Kenya Image courtesy of MauMauhistory.com
The Mau Mau in Kenya
Image courtesy of Mau Mauhistory.com

When we finally got home hungry and tired (at 3pm 😦 ) we engaged in a discussion and my  friend’s 14 year son quickly proclaimed that “that sermon was all about money”. If a 14 year old can see right through it, what is to be said? One of the adults around says “Ituranyamarirue ni abatiri baa”. This translates to – we have been completely oppressed by these priests.  The graveness of the despair gets lost in the translation.  This is just one example but it is a microcosm of what ails the church today.

The church has made Africans to believe that they are intellectually inferior and this has resulted into an unfortunate morale sapping inferiority complex and  a fatalistic attitude of leaving everything in the hands of God. In essence it has transformed us into cultural zombies. The pope recently apologized to the indigenous peoples of South America for the injustices of the church towards them. I will be watching to see if he will do the same when he visits Kenya. Although, I do not think an apology can help us recover what we have lost in terms of our cultural infrastructure. To be fair, there is a time when the church seemed to stand for social justice issues but it appears that those days are gone by.

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I am 100% sure that this will offend die hard Catholics or Christians but we must also question why it is perceived as almost criminal to question the church. If we question we only murmur about it amongst ourselves and head back to the same institution on Sunday for another dose of injustice.  I am of the view that the church should be up for scrutiny just like any other social institution. It needs to be accountable to the people. The church is one of the reasons why Africans cannot take pride in their cultural heritage and use that as stepping stone to fight for their self-determination and to fight against multiple forms of oppression(from within and without). Even politicians have learnt how to use the church to manipulate the people.

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We are hoping that we will get to heaven because  as scripture says we  should “store our treasure in heaven and not be concerned about the things of this world” then but in the meantime majority of the people continue to live in hellish conditions on earth. The truth of the matter is, no amount of prayers will help resolve the challenges that we face as a people. I will finish this by quoting Wangari Maathai “Surely, there is something wrong about a vision of a God, and a church, where healthy and able-bodied men and women are satisfied with being supported by congregants who are often desperately poor.”

I have got questions

I have got questions about how the world is structured. I find myself asking myself these kinds of questions;

  1. What is poverty? Who defines that? Is ignorance a form of poverty? If yes, why is it not talked about as much as economic poverty? (I mean the kind of ignorance that is manifested, for example, when you tell someone you are from Kenya and they ask you “Is that in A-F-R-I-C-A?”) :)!
  2. What is development? What does that entail? Is there a series of steps that you have to move through in order to be “developed” as a country? Can you skip some steps? Are there many ways through which “development” can be attained? How do you know if you have attained “development”? Is there some kind of “certification” you get?

IMG_79733. What is a developed country? Yes, who defines that? Can’t each country be developed in some aspects and underdeveloped in others?

4.If you are a “developed” country do you stop developing at some point or do you continue developing exponentially? How do you know when to stop (should that be desirable)?

Ruma pictures (1)5. Is there such a thing as an overdeveloped country? Is that a good thing for the planet?

6. Do we foresee a situation whereby all the countries in this world will be “developed”?

7. If yes, can the planet sustain this form of existence?

Suba project from Lorna 0818. Why is it that we normalize describing countries by their markers of disadvantage i.e. developing, low income, least developed countries?

9. Why is there so much inequality in this world and why does it keep getting worse?

10. Is there a way of “developing” without exploiting other people?

Malawi survey and documentation-April 2012(71)

 Answers and or thoughts or other questions  are very much welcome in the comments.