Our Culture Is Not Ridiculous

Fresh cow dung assists coagulation, the process by which the blood clots to form solid masses, or clots. In communities across Africa it was custom for cow dung to be applied to newly born babies to stop bleeding where the umbilical cord was severed. Unfortunately cow dung also spreads tetanus. Health officials launched extensive campaigns to inform pregnant women about the dangers of cow dung to babies. As a result of this campaign the custom has gone out of practice.

In all African cultures greetings are very important. In many communities you shake hands firmly and enthusiastically with everyone each time you meet them. It is not uncommon at large family gatherings to see a new arrival spend the first 10-20 minutes going round greeting everyone individually before sitting and joining in conversation. To do otherwise would be rude. However, in West Africa, in 2014, the necessity to prevent the spread of Ebola by not touching others has given rise to a new vogue – the Ebola greeting.

West Africans have invented gestures that, while they do not involve contact, are just as warm and friendly. From Monrovia to Dakar, from Freetown to Conakry, inventive West Africans are coming up with their own ‘hands-free’ ways to greet each other. They range from a subtle bow or rub of the palms to the more flamboyant gestures of bumping bottoms or throwing your hands in the air in a star shape, or the gentle foot-pat – half-greeting, half-dance – rubbing your left foot to your counterpart’s right. Perhaps the sweetest greeting is the hand across heart gesture.

Take any African custom or culture, no matter how “backward” it may seem, for example rubbing cow dung on newly born babies, and you can trace its origin back to a logical and practical reason, such as the need to prevent blood loss in newly born babies.

However, take any African custom or culture and you will find that it is not sacred. If it stops making sense, it will be changed. For example when you learn cow dung spreads tetanus you stop rubbing cow dung on newly born babies.

This is how we know that using “it is our culture” to justify the unjustifiable is ridiculous. Our culture cannot be ridiculous; it refuses to be ludicrous. For example, our culture will not force you shake hands when there is Ebola in your community. Those who try to make our culture justify the unjustifiable are hijacking our culture and mutilating it, not protecting it. Either the action was never part of our culture, in which case you can not use our culture to defend it. If the unjustifiable action was part of our culture then we need to accept that our culture is not static. It never has been. It never will be. When we need it to change it must change, and change quickly, even over night, as happened with greetings in West Africa.

One of the clear examples of this mutilation of culture is by the Kenyan Member of Parliament for Kitui Central, Benson Makali Mulu, when he advanced the following ridiculous argument while speaking in parliament during the debate on the The Protection Against Domestic Violence Bill, 2013

… in Kamba culture, there is nothing like sexual harassment when you are dealing with a wife or husband. When you pay the three goats, you are given 100 per cent authority to engage in that act without any question … in some cultures, it is a demonstration of love when you do a bit of beating to your wife … if you do not do it, you are seen not to love your wife.

Let us not beat around the bush. What Mulu is stating here is that in Kamba culture domestic abuse is

  1. the foundation upon which family is built
  2. a physical demonstration of love
  3. encouraged on the payment of 3 goats

You will be very hard pressed to find a more complete bunch of nonsense. This violence against women, which Mulu advocates, is a blatant distortion of one of the clear pillars of African, and indeed Kamba culture, the important role of women in society. For example, in the nineteenth century both men and women sat on Kamba decision making councils, Nzama. Colonial changes replaced the Nzama with “native tribunals” run by headmen (all male). Disrespecting women doesn’t just mutilate our culture it also perpetrates some of the most dangerous legacies of the colonial system, the removal of women from respected position of leadership in African culture. The Victorian concept of the woman as the creature of the domestic domain is one which was largerly alien to Africa and was introduced by British colonialists. Even without a seat at the Nzama amongst the Kamba a woman could divorce her husband on grounds of cruelty. Mulu is not defending our culture, he is trying to use our culture to purify a system of violence and oppression.

In an excellent blog post Wambui Mwangi writes powerfully about how dangerous, systematic and entrenched violence against women in Kenya is:

Oppressing and dominating other people is hard work. For their long-term viability, systems and structures of violence and subjugation need a staff, personnel, willing bodies to do the actual labour of violence and violation, of injuring and killing, and loud voices for speaking the mockery and the humiliation. All these are necessary for a prolonged project of physical and mental domination.

I urge you strongly to read Wambui’s entire blog post and understand the depths of the crisis which we are in. Women and girls even babies in Kenya continue to be harassed, publicly stripped, molested, raped and killed nearly every day.

We all have a role to play in dismantling the systems and structures through which this violence is perpetrated. Here are four suggestions.

  1. Recognise and stand up to any hijacking of our culture as this often provides the justification and encouragement for constant violence against our mothers, sisters, daughters.
  2. Support (with your money, time and skills) organisations that continue to take legal action against perpetrators of violence and support victims of violence. I am proud to have worked with FIDA Kenya, COVAW, UZIMA Foundation, GEM, UN Women, KNCHR, KELIN Kenya, KEHPCA, ALP and urge you to support them or similar organisations.
  3. Understand what the triggers and drivers of this violence are. Anzetse Were has written a powerful book, Drivers of Violence: Male Disempowerment in the African Context, in which she make the argument that male disempowerment manifests itself through violence. Look out for it at a book store near you.
  4. Support organisations that work with men and boys to understand what real manhood is about. I recommend the Man Enough programme by Transform Nations which is exactly that kind of provoking, challenging and real experience that works well to get men engaged.

Activity Is Not Security

Drive up to the guards, open your car boot, guards look at your spare wheel (or if they are especially dedicated they may give it a quick prod), guards close your boot, you proceed to the parking lot. Rinse and repeat.

Every day thousands of motorists in Nairobi go through these “security checks” at shopping malls, at office blocks, at places of worship, at hotels, at government buildings etc.

These security checks seem to serve no real purpose. The message seems to be if you want to carry a car bomb do not put in the boot. Or if you are going to put it in a boot at least put it in a suitcase first.

Security experts advise that by the time a bomb is at the gate of a shopping mall then the nation’s security systems have failed. As was seen during the Westgate terrorist attacks guards with metal detectors are not a deterrent to terrorists with machine guns.

So if the checks at the gates of parking lots are not about security why then are we subjected to them numerous times every day? What purpose do they serve?

These checks are not about security, they are about activity. Endless opening of boots of cars and staring at the spare wheel serve at least two key purposes.

  1. Firstly, the activity makes many people feel safe. People are apparently reassured when they witness this exercise in keeping up appearances. It is comforting that someone is doing something!
  2. Secondly this endless activity stops the guards from getting bored and dozing off; it keeps them alert throughout their shift. Security companies lose their contracts if guards are caught sleeping so they have to find ways to keep them awake and what better way than giving them something constant and routine to do?

The problem with this approach is that activity is not security. You may get away with this at the shopping mall, office complex level, after all private security companies are not intelligence gathering outfits. You can not get away with substituting activity for security on a national level. Especially if you are waging a self proclaimed “ war against terror”.

Why then are Kenyan law enforcement agencies engaging in activity at the expense of security in the recently launched Operation Usalama Watch? Following a cowardly attack on a church in Mombasa (the latest in a series of increasingly regular attacks in Kenya) Kenya’s law enforcement agencies launched Operation Usalama Watch which we are told is designed to flush out terrorists.

After watching the operation for the last week we have seen it involves

The crackdown targets the Somali ethnic group many of whom are Kenyan citizens. The warped logic behind this goes like this: since Al Shabaab has a large Somali membership, all Somalis should be treated as Al-Shabaab sympathisers until they can prove their “loyalty” to Kenya. The police operation has been conducted largely in the Eastleigh area of Nairobi, which has a large Somali population. In the last few days the operation has moved into Nairobi’s suburb of South C. In case we forget, ethnic profiling goes against Article 27 of the Kenya Constitution which is against discrimination.

What has been interesting is the near universal praise this police action has attracted from across the political, national and cultural spectrum. Traditional supporters of the police see the massive police operation as more evidence that the police are doing what they are paid to do and we should get out of their way and let them do it even if it means a temporary violation of the rights of Kenyans. Activity.

Traditional critics of the police are happy that finally the police are doing something about the constant attacks that have been killing innocent Kenyans. Finally something is being done. Activity.

The problem with both these opinions is that activity is not security. Supporting the current police action makes no sense, even from a strictly law enforcement perspective in which it is ok for the rights of Kenyans to be violated by the very body responsible for maintaining the law.

To support the current crack down you have to believe the myth that the Kenya’s law enforcement agencies are not very good at gathering intelligence about security threats within Kenya. Supporters of the current crack down argue that it is a necessary step (evil?) as it is a temporary substitute to intelligence gathering. If Kenya’s law enforcement agencies were good at gathering intelligence they would not have to go door to door asking people to produce their identification documents. They would already know where the high-risk threats are located. The police going to door to door is the least they can do, supporters argue. Finally there is some activity.

Except activity is not security.

The reality is Kenya’s law enforcement agencies are designed primarily for gathering information about Kenyans in Kenya and they have become very proficient at it over the last 50 years. To our political leaders the threat within is always more dangerous to their power than the threat without. It sometimes seems that our law enforcement agencies are more concerned about knowing exactly what everyone is doing all the time and with whom than they are about maintaining law and order. The problem with Kenya’s law enforcement agencies is not that they do not have information. The problem is that information is for sale. The problem with our law enforcement is corruption.

Corruption means for the right price you can buy all the confidential intelligence you want. Corruption means that any “terror lord” or “drug lord” would have paid to be informed about Operation Usalama Watch long before the door-to-door police action started. Corruption means they will not be caught in this dragnet. You can see this in the actions of police officers on the ground in Eastleigh and South C who are collecting significant sums of money to leave people alone. Clearly even they do not believe that any significant criminals will be caught in their net and instead are out to make a shilling.

So what then is the purpose of this police action?

When something so high profile does not make sense one strategy is to watch closely for any major policy announcements that accompany that action. Which fire are our collective geese being marinated for? The major announcement this time was that plans are underway to make Kenyans apply for new digital identity cards. This new “super ID card” will contain biometric information — each person’s unique biological markers — as well as social security and national insurance details. This plan is dubious for various reasons, one of the main ones is that it will not make Kenyans any safer. To introduce a policy so controversial as a fait accompli requires a huge distraction.

Another reason for this police action is perhaps much simpler. As people seem reassured by the activity of shopping mall guards opening and closing car boots, they are also reassured by knowing their law enforcement officers are doing something. So long as that activity is happening on the other side of town far away and so long as that activity targets “them” and not “us”.

Respect Our Flag

David Lekuta Rudisha, captain of Kenya's London 2012 Olympic Games team, celebrates with the Kenyan flag after winning gold and setting a new world record of 1.40.91 in the Men's 800m Final - photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

David Lekuta Rudisha, captain of Kenya’s London 2012 Olympic Games team, celebrates with the Kenyan flag after winning gold and setting a new world record of 1.40.91 in the Men’s 800m Final – photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Years ago I led a vocal delegation (consisting of my sister and myself) to the reception of Hilton Hotel, Addis Ababa to log a protest in the strongest terms possible. The hotel’s crime was to fly the Kenyan flag upside down. We refused to leave until they sent someone to sort it out. I was 10, my sister 8.

A horizontal tricolour with three major strips of equal width coloured from top to bottom black, red and green and separated by narrow white strips, with a symmetrical shield and white spears superimposed centrally.
Description of the National Flag of Kenya

A few years later, in 1997, for the 2nd edition of the Safari Sevens, my brother Bantu and I walked the streets of Nairobi trying to buy a Kenyan flag which we intended to wave while cheering our national rugby 7s team. At every shop we inquired we were met with cold stares and sometimes fearful eyes. After a while it was whispered to us that ordinary Kenyans were not allowed to own a Kenyan flag. You couldn’t just buy one. You needed special permission. Permission from whom? Nobody knew, or they weren’t telling us. The only flags openly on display and on sale (usually by the metre) were unofficial flags, without the shield and spears that make the Kenyan flag so unique, or even worse with the spear and the shield replaced with a cockerel, the symbol of the then ruling party KANU.

We learnt that only source for official national flags was THE government. Remembering we had relatives working in the Ministry of Education we made our way there to ask if we could borrow a flag for the weekend. Unfortunately for us, all the flags were “upcountry”. Probably an inexactitude designed by our relative to protect us from our mad quest to own a flag of our country.

The day after drawing a blank at the Ministry we decided to walk down the legendary Biashara Street in Nairobi again in one last attempt to secure a flag. A shop owner (who probably couldn’t believe these two young men were still wandering the streets of Nairobi trying to buy a national flag for a rugby match in the middle of a General Election year) took us to the back of his shop and sold us a flag with a stern warning not to reveal to anyone where we had gotten it. Mission accomplished.

I am not very sure where my passion for our national flag and national anthem came from, throughout school I had the flag and anthem on the wall in the dorm room (leading to some unusual nicknames) and I am lucky enough to have a very progressive and accommodating wife who allows me to have a flag in our living room.

In the run up to the Kenya General Election of 2002 something magical happened. Kenyans liberated their flag. Suddenly Kenyan flags were everywhere. On t-shirts, on hats, on stickers, on bandanas, on bicycles, on matatus. It was beautiful to watch Kenyan citizens reclaim their flag from their government. The last frontier in this fight to liberate our flag is the question of who is “allowed” to fly the flag from their cars and at their homes (in my opinion, everyone).

This hijacking of national symbols by the government is a phenomenon that needs to be explored in depth.

What I find inexcusable and extremely irritating is not only the hijacking of the flag but the disrespectful way our national institutions deal with our national flag.

Let’s start at the top. The Presidency. Everybody at Statehouse, everybody who is involved with organising national events seem indoctrinated or perhaps just intoxicated with flag worship. They love the flag. The problem is they love the wrong flag. The flag they love is the Presidential Standard. Each Kenyan president is entitled to design and fly his or her own Presidential Standard. I see nothing wrong with that and indeed it can grow into a rich part of our country’s history. What is wrong is that the Presidential Standard is treated as more important than the national flag.

In this picture released by the Kenya presidential service shows Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta speaking you can clearly see the Presidential Standard (in the middle) is larger and given more prominence than the Kenya National Flag on the left. Correct flag protocol is that when the national flag is displayed with non-national flags the national flag should be at the centre and at the highest point of the group when a number of flags are grouped and displayed from staffs.

The picture above, released by the Kenya Presidential Strategic Communications Unit, shows President Uhuru Kenyatta speaking. You can clearly see the Presidential Standard (in the middle) is larger and given more prominence than the Kenya National Flag on the left. Correct flag protocol is that when the national flag is displayed with non-national flags the national flag should be at the centre and at the highest point of the group when a number of flags are grouped and displayed from staffs.

Sadly, some of the perpetrators of this downgrading of the national flag are the Kenya Defence Forces. The one body that you would expect would ensure the national flag is always treated with maximum respect as it is the flag they fight under. For example, during the Presidential Inauguration of 2013, Uhuru Kenyatta’s Presidential Standard was raised by KDF while the national anthem was playing. I was shocked to see that happen. Even as 12 year old scouts (8th Nakuru Scout Troop, Buffalo Patrol if you’re interested) it was drummed into us (as it was for many other primary school students across the country) that only the national flag is raised while the national anthem was played. That song is reserved for That flag. We learnt that the national flag should never touch the ground and we learnt the correct way to fold the flag. We learnt that you should always stop and stand at attention whenever the national anthem in being played.

At some presidential events the highest flagpole is reserved for the Presidential Standard not for the national flag. At some venues they will not allow you to fly the national flag from the highest flagpole even if the president is not expected! That flagpole remains empty if he does not attend. You can fly the national flag from any other flagpole, but not the “presidential” one.

This elevation of the Head of State above the country is probably inherited from the British where their monarchy is the ultimate reference point. This needs to change.

The most obvious example of the causal way in which the Kenya Defence Forces and indeed the Kenya Police treat our flag is seen in how they fly our flag on a daily basis. For most of January 2014 at Headquarters of the Kenya’s Department of Defence (DoD) in Hurlingham, Nairobi the national flag flying next to the main gate was dirty, tattered and torn almost in half.

Think about that. At the Headquarters of our military they see no problem in flying a dirty, tattered and torn national flag. The sad thing is all the other flags flying at DoD were in perfect condition. (It is illegal to take photos of the DoD headquarters otherwise I’d have documented that travesty). In Police Stations across the country this is also the case, dirty, tattered and torn national flags flying.

What is the problem? Is it a lack of procurement? Problems in the supply chain? Or is it not seen as a priority or even important?

Please note, this is not an attack on our current president. He inherited this lack of protocol/wrong protocol which places the president above the country. I hope that as Commander in Chief he fixes this. In no way would returning the national flag to its central place diminish his prestige, it would in fact elevate his position in office.

Symbols are important. National symbols, extremely important. Our National Flag is the most visible symbol of our country and it must be treated with respect. Kenya needs to revisit, perhaps rewrite and properly enforce flag protocol and flag etiquette.

How Africans citizens nearly funded the African Union

In 2011 I was invited by the African Union (AU) to speak on a panel at their annual High Level Retreat. The theme of the retreat was, “Making Peace Happen: Strengthening Political Governance For Peace, Security And Stability In Africa”.

Held in Cairo in the middle of the Arab Spring the conversations at the retreat were fascinating as leaders (political, diplomatic, military, etc) tried to understand and get to grips with the rapidly changing political landscape in North Africa. The retreat was held under the Chatham House Rule which allowed normally reserved and cautious diplomats to speak very candidly and passionately. The Chatham House Rule restrict me from sharing in detail the discussions that took place. I can say what diplomats say in public is sometimes very different from the actual position their country is taking. A lesson that current Kenyan government is coming to terms with pretty quickly. Read the Cairo Declaration issued at the end of the retreat. [Read more…]