12 September 2014

Nairobi PTSD?

After we crossed the border on the way back from Denmark, my dad left the Autobahn to look for a restaurant that he remembered from his youth. He wasn't quite sure anymore where it was, so at one point, he stopped by the roadside, and he and my mum looked at the map. This is on one of the regional roads, in the middle of fields (orderly roads, orderly fields). No traffic.

Then a car stopped opposite and a man got out and walked towards us.

I sat in the back and had the craziest surge of panic when I saw him approach.

He bent down to the car window and asked if we needed help. My dad told him where we wanted to go, and he gave us directions. My parents were delighted that he had been so thoughtful. I breathed out slowly and gently as my panic subsided.

12 June 2014

'Africa' is a real subject, sub-category: Writing about M-PESA

So here’s a story about M-PESA. Another one. Written by Charles Graeber for Bloomberg Businessweek:

‘I had traveled from New York to Nairobi to learn how to do exactly this—to pay for things with a phone—and to understand why Kenya has gained a reputation as the mobile payments future. (...) though I believe myself well-traveled, I’d never even set foot in Africa. All to the better, my editors said; there were already too many self-styled experts on how East Africa was leapfrogging more mature economies on mobile payments.’

And you know what? There’s actually a reason why it might be a better idea to have such an article written by a so-called ‘self-styled expert’. Or just someone who's familiar with it. Because M-PESA is hardly a new subject, and there are a great number of people who know how the system has developed and works, and who also know the basics about Nairobi:

The airport didn’t burn to the ground, for example, and the city isn't referred to as ‘Nai-rob-me’. This article is sprinkled with mistakes on M-PESA, too: the daily transaction limit and the maximum balance are wrong, for example, and pesa means money, not payment. No mention of the fact that you can now transfer money from your bank account to your mobile account, which saves you running around with cash. This is not available to the author as he’s a tourist, but certainly an important feature in how the service has developed both in competition and co-operation with the banking sector. Or that Safaricom developed mobile money further to offer a payment platform specifically for retailers. The article has the inevitable NGO stories, but no mention of M-PESA’s payroll services (because yes, there are employed people here).

Le Sigh. No doubt well intended, but sloppy. ‘Africa’ is a real subject. So do some real homework.

11 June 2014

Kenya Inc: Standing Solidly with Rapist Elders?

This was an interesting (for lack of a better word) couple of weeks with corporate ethics in Kenya. A few weeks ago, in the Business Daily, Frank Njenga responded to someone seeking advice on how to speak out about having been abused as a teenager. The situation had been made more complicated by the fact that the abuser was now considered a ‘respected elder’. Mr Njenga lobbed a misplaced bible quote at the woman. And then he went on a lengthy, absurd and highly unprofessional speculation that she had really been making all this up in a strange desire to bring shame upon herself and her husband and destroy her family.

This would have been outrageous ‘advice’ by any measure. But I read this pretty much around the same time as this news item from the Standard: ‘A Kenyan High Court has ordered police to reinvestigate complaints of rape by 11 girls in a landmark case brought by a children's charity on behalf of more than 240 victims of child rape, some of them as young as three years old. (...) (The girls) came to the charity for help after being raped by fathers, grandfathers, uncles, police officers and neighbours. The police rarely investigated their complaints, even locking one girl in a cell after she reported one of their colleagues had raped her (...). Police demanded bribes to investigate rape, refused to investigate unless the victims produced witnesses, and said victims had consented to intercourse, the victims said.'

I still have no words for how angry this made me. How incredibly angry. Digest it: Children as young three years. Raped. By the very people who should be looking out for and protecting them. Read the two articles parallel, and your stomach turns. And those rapists get away with it, time and time again: because the system fail (the police are the rapists) and people like Mr Njenga create the environment in which the ‘respected elders’ will continue being respected while the victims will be silenced. ‘Respected elders’ standing up for another one?

As I said earlier, I saw little point of engaging Mr Njenga – someone who gives such ‘advice’ has chosen his side, and you don’t need to engage with every reactionary who is muttering away in the corner of the bar. I was looking at the role of organisations here. First of all I was stunned that the Nation Media Group would run this article, just like that. Was there nobody who looked at it before it went to print? I emailed the NMG about this. Four very senior people. Repeatedly. They hmmmed and hahed, and admitted in private emails that yes, this hadn’t been ideal. But that wasn’t the point: this wasn’t about telling me. The reason why I kept emailing them was because the NMG is the largest media group in the region and it is an outrage that it carries such reinforcement for rapist ‘elders’.

But I didn’t just try to speak to the NMG: Mr Njenga is also the chairman of AAR. I happen to have been a client of AAR for several years. So I emailed the CEO to inquire whether, if I ever sought medical help after sexual abuse, I’d be confronted with bible quotes and accusations of lying. Whether that was, in fact, corporate healthcare policy. Mr Gakunju weaseled out of this by responding that he had forwarded my inquiry to Mr Njenga and I should wait for his response. So far, deafening silence.

I also asked the Kenya Medical Board’s CEO, Dr Yumbia, for a comment. Repeatedly. Deafening silence.

And then I emailed the head of the Psychiatrist Association, Dr. Mutiso. Deafening silence.

After a couple of weeks of pestering, Business Daily put this on their Facebook page: ‘BUSINESS DAILY has noted the controversy and offence caused to some by Frank Njenga's column. We would like to state that Nation Media Group, and Business Daily in this instance, has a firm policy of non-discrimination, and in no way condones a disrespectful and insensitive treatment of victims of sex abuse. Dr Njenga's views are those of a columnist, and in no way represents NMG's views. We sincerely and deeply regret and apologise for the pain and embarrassment caused. Thank you.’

So: we print stuff that people send us, but we don’t read it. We just print it. Don’t hold us responsible for content?

That’s the best you got? Seriously now?

So there we are. Kenya Inc, presumably fathers, husbands, uncles: standing solidly with rapist elders. This keeps happening on such a broad scale not just because there are people who will actively back and protect the rapists, but also because the good guys don’t have the you-know what to speak up.

In somewhat related news, I’m keen to hear from a reputable health insurance company with no implicit or explicit policy of treating anyone seeking help after sexual abuse with bible quotes and accusations of lying and sluttery. I don’t smoke, I drink very little, I exercise regularly, I mostly eat healthily. Also, I’m a woman, so I don’t fall sick with the wildly dangerous man flu. Anyone?

Originally published on 15 July 2013 on The Star.

Edited to add: Mr Gakunju eventually responded after I copied Swedfund, one of AAR's investors, on my follow up email (and after the column was published in the Star): 'We at AAR are “stakeholders” of Gender Recovery Centre. Our staff are fully trained to deal with the medical conditions in this area and more importantly, the trauma that accompanies these types of terrible and mental scarring incidences. Points expressed by the writer in the Business Daily are personal and are not AAR’s.' Well phew!

The Radical Notion that Women are People

I am lucky: I have a lot of wonderful people in my life. Amongst them are my girlfriends. Most of them, all, I think, are professionals. Some of them mothers, but not all. This wasn’t a deliberate choice, but since I’m quite wrapped up in my work, I think it just so happened that most of my close women friends also fall into that category. Obviously I think they are great, because why would I be friends with them otherwise? They are smart, interesting, passionate about what they do, and fun to hang out with. And they are part of the web of support that helps keep me standing, and going, personally, professionally: Advice, or a piece of information, or an introduction are usually just a phone call or email away. I’m happy for them when they succeed, and I think they are the bee’s knees anyway.

All of this is both wonderful, and also very normal. So I was more than a little taken aback to read an article by a Peter Mutua on ‘The problem with having too many women leaders in a firm’. Mr Mutua states: ‘Women are necessary, lovely, delightful, wonderfully colourful creatures. However, when they constitute an overwhelming majority of management within a workplace, the resulting corporate environment can be disturbing.’

I have no idea what trauma Mr Mutua went through. Possibly being challenged a little insistently on rubbish statements such as these? Leaving aside his convoluted writing, his reasoning is underwhelming: ‘Till late 2012, a local State corporation had women occupying 10 of its 11 senior management positions. While this oversight was recently rectified to include three more men, this corporation’s results fall far short of the expectations given by women activists.’

I have thoughts on this, several thoughts: That this must be a very unusual organization for Kenya, because how often do you find any company where women hold the majority of board seats? Or the majority of senior management positions? And: That women are people. Like men. Some will do exceedingly well, many will be mediocre, some will be lousy. By Mr Mutua’s reasoning, KPLC (Smooches, guys. Nothing personal. Not hating you too much this week) must be run entirely by women’s rights activists.

These are things I’m over: That behavior we salute in men – say, assertiveness – becomes a liability in women. That women’s bad behavior is seen as reflecting all women. Yeah, Rachel Shebesh and Mary Wambui did beat doors down in the middle of the night, and I disapprove – but good grief, have you ever had a look at what male politicians have gotten up to for decades? I’m done with the fact that portraits of successful women have to include the necessary addition of how humble and simple she really is (better still: chuck in husband and how he’s still ‘the head of the household’ when she gets home).

And I’m done with this getting airplay. I emailed a couple of people at the Nation Media Group about this Business Daily article to ask, facetiously, whether misogyny had now become editorial policy at the NMG. I would have probably let this slip – after all, you don’t need to respond to every chauvinist idiot muttering away in the corner of the bar – if it had not been for a piece that the NMG had published a few days earlier: this was an ‘advice column’ (quotation marks of derision here) by Frank Njenga. He had responded to a letter by someone who had been abused as a teenager by someone who was now a ‘respected elder’. Despite now being married, she (or he – it’s not possible to tell from the letter) finds this so much of a burden that she wants to speak out about this. Mr Njenga starts off nicely with ‘the truth will set you free’. And then he compares her to the adulterous woman in the bible who only those without sin should throw stones at – missing the point by a couple of miles. This is not someone seeking advice for her own mistake, but for a crime committed against her. Njenga then launches into a convoluted, lengthy, unsubstantiated speculation that she wishes to bring ruin upon her husband and her own family and essentially made the whole thing up anyway. Lesson: If you seek to speak out about abuse, you’re a slutty slut and a liar. Mr Njenga – a ‘respected elder’ protecting another one?

I have little interest in engaging with Mr Njenga. His victim shaming is clearly beyond redemption. But I will engage with the NMG. It is one of the largest and, by virtue of being a media house, most influential corporates in the Kenya (and, let me add that, certainly not the only one to publish misogynistic nonsense). In any better regulated market, Njenga would have been struck of. I am baffled that nobody at the NMG looked at this piece before publishing it and thought ‘Ummm maybe not’. I am the NMG’s client, and as a client, I will call them out on this. Again - I’m still waiting for a response.

And now I’m off to email Safaricom why a talk by governor Evans Kidero was billed as ‘Mantalk’ for a male audience. Nairobi women residents too colourful and fluttery to have an interest in weighty matters as how our city is run?

‘Feminism is the radical notion that women are people’ (attributed to British suffragist and journalist Rebecca West).

Originally published on 15 June 2013 on The Star.

30 April 2014

Kenya's Marriage Bill

The Kenya Law Reports website has a useful summary of the new marriage bill here.

Assuming that this is correct:

  • Christian, Hindu and civil marriages are monogamous. Only Muslim and traditional marriages are polygamous. First/prior wives must be informed, and can register objection, but can't halt the marriage.
  • Divorce is still difficult - I think it's still not possible to just decide to part ways, and one party has to be at fault. But a monogamous marriage can be annulled if one party was already married (this would apparently also void the marriage).
  • Penalties are interesting - I wonder how enforceable those criminal offenses will be? (which, of course, does not mean that they should not exist).
  • Curious: 'Court may order a party to refrain from molesting a spouse or former spouse' (why thanks) but: 'No proceedings may be brought to compel one spouse to cohabit with the other Sec 84(2). However court may order restitution of conjugal rights Sec 84(3).' So the whole concept of marital rape hasn’t gotten much traction yet.

Can I now have several husbands? The law speaks of polygamy, not polyandry. I think someone should challenge this in court. Asking mostly as a matter of principle, though, as even one Kenyan husband seems to require more work than I'm willing to put in, what with their inability to look after themselves like a normal grown up.

On reflection, I might rather have a wife. Friends assured me that this was possible under traditional marriages, so I guess I’ll have to wait until my ovaries kick it completely, and then argue continuation of my family line and preservation of property. There’s an old Merc to be had, ladies!

A couple of other thoughts, mostly drawn from Facebook discussions:

I have no issues with polygamy – as long as it’s between consenting partners. This is a flaw in the bill. Someone argued that this didn’t really matter, and that in the west, men didn’t seek consent for a string of mistresses and girlfriends either. Not that it’s really of any importance what the west does or doesn’t (bit of a red herring argument), but the whole concept of marriage (as legislated by the state, or regulated by other institutions) is that it has implications. In this case, mostly to do with property and inheritance.

That’s a substantial issue, and you cannot assume that people are ‘wealthy and wise’ (as proposed by that Facebook commenter) nor, in fact, that they leave a will, let alone a reasonable one - see plenty of court battles just in Kenya, and corpses being perma-frosted in the morgue because they can’t be buried. It is not fair to a partner in marriage who builds family wealth jointly with his/her partner to then have to split this with a second family who was taken on without consent. I think most men would be reluctant, too, if their wife took a second husband who then, in the event of her death, claimed part of the property that he put years and lots of effort into creating with her.

The marriage bill does not actually give blanket authorisation to polygamous marriages - Christian, Hindu and civil marriages are still monogamous. So from a property perspective, apart from making sure that her property rights are clearly documented, it makes sense for a woman to insist on one of those. You can't really legislate for the emotional hurt of finding out that your partner plays away, but as far as property etc are concerned, the marriage bill allows women to avoid the implications of being in a polygamous marriage by choosing a marriage form that is monogamous.

Having said that, I think even children born to a girlfriend/mistress/lover are entitled to a share of the man's property, and to maintenance (and, from the perspective of the child, that's fair). So there's that. I guess for women the main risk really is to have no own income, no own assets, and/or to not have proper documentation of co-owned assets.

Stephen Partington also notes the difficulties of context and transition:

‘A customary marriage, for example, is polygamous (no problem there to a great extent) unless the couple agree to it being monogamous and get a certificate asserting that they agreed that it would be monogamous, as far as I read it. But that ‘paperwork’, that ‘certificate’. It would work if women were all fantastically educated with regard to this law and its requirements, and weren’t, prior to marriage, in situations of relative poverty and other circumstances of inequality. Unfortunately, in Kenya women in the vast majority ARE in these categories, meaning that they can be exploited in all manner of ways, and you and I know how many men work: certificates will be denied them by their husbands, meaning more court cases and trouble for often uneducated women; certain disadvantaged women (and most polygamous marriages will involve this group) will not be made aware of the provisions of the law until a second wife is obtained; a man can just get a second wife without the first’s consent (even if he knows, by word of mouth, that the first didn’t want to be in a polygamous relationship) if he works quickly or claims that he never knew her wishes; and so on. The law provides that poor and uneducated women will be disproportionately held captive and abused, and as such is a class/inequality crime as a much as a gender crime. This ‘opt in’ to monogamy in a customary marriage is a huge problem.’

Legal eagles – any thoughts?

14 April 2014

Crowdsourcing Information: Is the Maasai Fabric Maasai?

In a Refinery article I posted on Facebook yesterday, a checked fabric was described as 'Buffalo Plaid', and Kui L Irungu pointed out that it was Maasai fabric. Or is it? When did the Maasai start wearing what is identified as a quintessentially Maasai fabric? Does anyone know?

Not that many obvious answers on the internet. Since the Maasai are pastoralists, I don't think they would have engaged in fabric production, which is not to say that the shuka itself, made from other materials, but in distinct colours and patterns, isn't a Maasai item.

This link describes the origins of the textile trade from South East Asia, which is also a fascinating tale of globalisation and colonialism. Two pointers in it: the use of black-blue and red, based on the available natural dyes, in Madagascar, and the fact that fabrics were used as a means of payment in the slave trade. There is a mention of West Africans becoming particularly fond of red and blue checked cottons known as 'Guinea Cloth' in the 18th century.

P. 15 has a para on the Maasai, referring to the end of the 20th century: 'The Maasai continue to affect distinctive dress while rejecting both Islam and Christianity. Their tourist paintings show them invariably clad in single red woollen blankets originally imported from England, although they now drape themselves in an average of four lengths of thick striped or checked cotton, called shuka, which is produced locally for sale to both the Maasai and tourists.'

If you have any useful information or links, please comment!

11 April 2014

Behave, or Bono!

Ian Cox (@IanECox), forever fond of prodding bears with sticks and such things, brought to my attention that there was a bit of dispute on social media about the Emmanuel Jal/Eric Wainaina Southern Sudan peace concert that took place yesterday in Nairobi, and was sponsored by Oxfam:

Ayom Wol Dhal and other people raised the issue that Emmanuel Jal may not be quite neutral and peacey enough for a peace concert for Southern Sudan. Ayom Wol Dhal is the editor in chief of the South Sudan Independent and, in an article, says that Emmanuel Jal has made repeat tribal comments on his Twitter account, including unsubstantiated allegations against Southern Sudan president Salva Kiir. Here’s the Facebook post that carries the full story.

That is, I would imagine, less than ideal. More importantly, though, I do as ever wonder how a (Nairobi) concert is going to fix a civil war? I only have one explanation: If the joint Jal/Wainaina intervention doesn’t bring Machar and Kiir to their senses, threats will be escalated: We’ll have no choice but to BRING GELDOF AND BONO. Possibly even without a UN Security Council resolution. So there!

Oxfam are being asked questions, too, and obligingly have said on the concert website, under ‘How is Oxfam involved’:

‘We're putting on this concert as we believe that there needs to be a counter-narrative to the messages of violence and hurt that are currently coming from South Sudan. We want to give space to voices of unity, reconciliation and peace. We are lucky to have five great performers from South Sudan, Uganda and Kenya sharing the stage for this event, so we can bring their musical voices to you, either through radio in South Sudan, on TV in Kenya, or over the internet to reach you, wherever you are in the world.’

*Eyeroll*. Yes yes. I trust that all these people are listening avidly – from Crisis Group: ‘The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) is hosting almost 70,000 civilians fleeing ethnic reprisals, but its badly outgunned peacekeepers are no match for the thousands of heavily armed forces and militias.’ (this is not, before you get worked up about this, a comment on the efficiency or, clearly, otherwise of UNMISS, but on the scale of what can be technically described as a ‘complex emergency’).

Also, this does not really say how Oxfam is involved (Money? For the venue and the equipment? Performance fee for the artists? Tickets were for sale, so did the whole event break even?), only why. Which bit of Oxfam was involved? Inquiring minds want to know. Civilians giving Oxfam donations for concerts should certainly want to know.

Ian tried to engage Oxfam advisor Sam Rosmarin on the issue, but ended up concluding: ‘You're beyond the pale with your obfuscation. Shoulda gone to law school.’

I will leave you with a link to Wainaina’s lyrics that inspired the event title, Baby Don't Go.

Now baby must go, or my eyes will be stuck in the back of my head when the wind changes.

PS: I think they may even have used Comic Sans on the concert website. Surely one must draw the line somewhere, and if we don’t draw it at Comic Sans, then the terrorists will definitely have won.

10 April 2014

The Wisdom of Children?

Another WTF from the World of Do-Gooding: Just spotted an ad from Raleigh International who are looking for ‘volunteers aged 18-25 for Raleigh ICS, a UK government funded development programme that brings together young people to make a difference in some of the poorest communities around the world.’

Those volunteers will be sent to India, Nicaragua or Tanzania for ten weeks to

‘focus on water and sanitation and natural resource management, and you will take part in a number of activities to affect change in these areas. These could include:
  • Surveying the local community on their needs and the issues that affect them.
  • Developing campaigns which inspire local people to take action.
  • Working with local youth or women’s groups to raise awareness of development issues.
  • Working on sustainable construction projects to help build infrastructure in the local area, such as gravity feed water systems or composting toilets.
  • Training the local community on developing and maintaining these projects, to ensure that the benefits continue to be felt for future generations.’

Yup. Because it takes British 18 year olds to ‘inspire’ Tanzanian grown ups, with a solid knowledge of their environment, ‘to take action’ and to acquire ‘awareness of development issues’. And because there is hardly anyone around in the ‘local communities’ who could build infrastructure, or would know how to maintain such projects.

Incidentally, they also need to fundraise for their trip. So why not bloody send the cash and hire a local fundi who knows what s/he is doing, can use the income, and doesn’t create a situation where a British kid with exactly zero experience of what it takes to survive on little money in another country lectures grown ups who’ve lived and survived in that place?

Patronising much?


12 March 2014

Neighbourhood Patrol

The doglet and I are out on neighbourhood patrol (i.e. walkies) every day. Sometimes there is interaction with people. As I noted earlier, there have been far more recruitment attempts by Christians (three so far) than by homosexuals (none): 'Do you love the lord?' Random man shouting at me across the road. Eyeroll + 'Never met the dude' - me.

What always baffles me are men who, walking towards me, will wait until they are almost past me to make their approach - and then often squeak out their 'hello' in a falsetto voice (What *is* it with the falsetto voices?).

Yesterday, however, a young man upped his game: He wriggled his eyebrows at me and said 'hello'. I took a quick look at him and didn't recognise him, so I decided to ignore him. He tried again, again with eyebrow action. I was just as determined to ignore him. But then, just as he walked past me, he went: 'Do you like to fuck?'.

Mind you, a few weeks ago, an about nine-year old street boy at the roundabout told me confidently 'I can fuck you'. I think manners around here are really deteriorating.

On the upside, the crazy dreadlocked mzee at the roundabout is pleasantly reliable and friendly: 'Hello!'
'Habari mzee!'
'I like your hair!'
'Thank you!'
'I like your hair!'

Every single time.