The Slavery in Our Midst: The Nairobi House Maid

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There is much I could say about modern-day slavery in Mauritania, Niger and Sudan. But let me instead turn to the dirty little secret that so many of us Kenyans know but maintain a studied silence about. Yes, I am talking about the lot of the ‘mboch’, the housie, the maid, in good old Nairobi. It is common knowledge that many housemaids in genteel middle class Nairobi are never paid a wage; it is their parents, or ‘auntie’ who receives the pittance that they are owed every month. Anyone who has lived or visited the city for any length of time also knows that it is not uncommon to have ten-year olds doing the washing, cleaning and cooking for an entire family while enduring a steady diet of slaps and kicks. And I do not exaggerate when I point to the high frequency of maid rape in many households. If you ask your typical Nairobi ‘babi’ or middle class boy what his first sexual encounter was, he will spin a tall tale about the ‘older girl who lived just up the road’. Wrong. The first encounter, and the second and the third, is more often than not with the maid. She is shared among the boys in the house, their friends in the neighbourhood sometimes and very often the man of the house who after dropping off the kids and wife to school in the mornings, will sneak back for a quick one. This sexual access is usually procured forcefully with the implicit threat that for the maid to resist will result in instant dismissal. Here’s a little clue for HIV/AIDS health workers who decry the transmission of the disease from philandering husband to wife: it is the maid who is at the centre of a domestic sexual web that runs through the sons and their father, not to mention any other lovers she may take. This is of course not to blame her, it is to recognise that the helplessness that attends many maids – relentlessly mistreated, isolated from friends and family, and economically disempowered – exposes them to the malign actions of a class of people whose upward aspiration is often marked with a immense contempt for their ‘inferiors’. What dirty little secrets I am airing, and it is the most delicious post I have written in a while. When I have levelled contempt at the babi – a category that I unfortunately fall into though in traitorous fashion – I have only spoken about the public arena. But it is in the home that the moral contracts that underlie Kenyan life can be seen most clearly. Observe and recognise the pervasive violence, the disregard for the rights of the individual and the abiding conviction that might makes right. It is the oppressions in our homes that have made it impossible for us to consistently and successfully fight the oppressions of the dictators who have sat at State House or the injustices of the state. We moan and groan about the burdens of colonialism when right in our homes, or those of our friends, we have a cosy little ‘memsahib and bwana mkubwa’ system on the go.

To extend this washing of Kenya’s dirty laundry in public where it belongs, here is a chat room exchange on this issue. I will share just a few of the disgusting entries:

“nani hapa ashaimanga mboch wao cause it was so sweet mpaka even though i lost my uvirgo to her.” (who here has eaten (had sex with) a maid cause it was so sweet even though I lost my virginity to her)

“Am sure the rest of the people who did what you did aren’t as proud…how did u even start…yaani how did u even get hard in the first place….mboch….have integrity bana.Ama u can’t vibe a gal? Sweetie hebu mweleze huyu ndugu asiwe kama dude…”

“Lets cut to the chase people…how many here have done their mboches? (pop, is that ur hand i see raising?)”

“hehehehe…i think it is sweety! i think it is!”

Yes, it’s True, There are Slaves in Niger…

So here we have it. The latest call for food aid to an African country is by Niger, which coming under the usual media spotlight has been revealed to be a country in which human bondage is alive and well. Anti-Slavery International, a London-based human group, reckons that there are 43,000 slaves in Niger. These slaves, even when freed, are part of a stigmatized and legally unprotected class to the extent that their former masters or parents’ masters have often laid claim to their property.

Just two years ago, in 2003, Niger amended outlawed slavery, ruling it a crime punishable with up to 30 years in prison. The Economist reports that a chieftain in western Niger, faced with this jail term, offered to free 7,000 slaves held by him and his clansmen in a public ceremony. But the government in the week leading to the March 5th event feared that such a large release of slaves would draw international attention to the filthy trade’s existence in Niger. It declared that slavery does not exist in Niger and the ceremony was cancelled.

The problem gets worse when you consider that slavery also exists in Chad, Mali, Sudan and Mauritania. Woe to those who believe that this trade is at an end as I had for many years. Most of us associate slavery with the transatlantic trade that fed the plantations of the Americas and ended in the 19th century. If only it were so. Slaves still exist and many never left on a ship but were enslaved in Africa.

Of course I need not announce the moral vacuum that exists among us provided there are still people in chains, owned as property by others. I need not ponder why a country such as Niger is suffering famine when it has in its midst such an abundance of evil that has been translated into an economy that is the second poorest on the planet. Surely, in a world whose wealth and security has been enjoyed by those countries with the greatest protection of the individual’s rights, it is not strange that a slaveholding nation should turn to the world to feed and clothe it.

This issue depresses and infuriates me. What am I to do? Where are the Edmund Dene Morels of our time, the African versions especially? We have a Kenyan Nobel Prize winner running around decrying the cutting down of trees; an AU that says that Africa is ready to manage her own problems (with Western cash of course); billions of dollars in aid; Commissions for Africa; rock star concerts to Make Poverty History; a massive evangelical movement that announces to all and sundry that it is proof of a moral awakening; and yet here is slavery alive and well among us.

“For God’s Sake, Please Stop the Aid!”

I just had to put up this interview of my good friend James Shikwati (Director of the Inter Region Economic Network – IREN) who was being interviewed by Der Spiegel on German aid to Kenya. It is not very different from the stuff that has been on these pages often in the past, but I loved it for James’ outraged and uncompromising tone. Click here to go to the interview.

The History of Kissing

Of course you’ve been kissing and in so many ways too if you think of it for a moment. You have shared kisses of veneration; of peace; perhaps conferred them on religious images, relics or idols; and maybe been ‘lucky’ enough to kiss the Pope’s foot or bestowed one by your superior. It may well have come during your college graduation as you were handed your degree; perhaps from your lover; or it may have been the lustful and adulterous kiss that one wishes they shared with their lover; or the one exchanged by couples sealing their marriage vows. It could even have been the kiss of reconciliation; the contagious kiss; or even the kiss of a Judas. Keith Thomas goes exploring this exchange of saliva, dirt and intimacy.

Are the Lovers of Harry Potter Narcissists?

This is the question that Spengler asks in an Asian Times review of the latest Harry Potter installment – Half Blood Prince (which incidentally I hope you buy using the link to Amazon on this page…)

Spengler has this to say to those such as myself who love the Harry Potter series:

“It may seem counter-intuitive, but complacency is the secret attraction of J K Rowling’s magical world. It lets the reader imagine that he is something different, while remaining just what he is. Harry (like young Skywalker) draws his superhuman powers out of the well of his “inner feelings”. In this respect Rowling has much in common with the legion of self-help writers who advise the anxious denizens of the West. She also has much in common with writers of pop spirituality, who promise the reader the secret of inner discovery in a few easy lessons.”

Read on the for rest of this fascinating review: Spengler

Africans and the European Soul

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Are the Formerly Colonised Set To Colonise Their Colonisers?
(A speculation)

It has come to my delighted attention that African churches are increasingly sending missionaries to the United Kingdom. And that the declining number of British volunteers joining the Catholic priesthood – in Wales for instance – has meant that African priests are increasingly taking over rural parishes. This crisis of belief, if it can be so termed, is so pervasive that churches are closing daily which means that the trend of an Africanised priesthood is only likely to grow. In the cities, London being a fine example, African Protestant and charismatic churches are also growing apace, seeking to emulate their counterparts on the continent.

We are entering an era when the welfare of the European soul shall be in the hands of the African. Europe has always had a peculiar need for Africa as a guiding light to its self awareness. The two, African and European, in the latter’s mind at least, have occupied opposed sides of a binary divide for the last couple of hundred years: black vs. white; stupid as opposed to intelligent; savage vs. civilised; backward vs. forward; lazy vs. industrious…

That Europe has become more secular is public knowledge, as is the rise of state power at the expense of the church. Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster, the leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, recently argued that ‘christianity is close to being vanquished’ and has little influence on government or the public here.

One of the founding ideas of colonialism, and slavery before it, was the state of the soul: Africans were supposed to have none while Europeans were blessed with a hefty, healthy one. But this duality has been turned on its head. No sooner had some wise men in the late nineteenth century concluded that the African indeed did have a soul – a donor driven plot if there was ever one – that Europeans started denying the existence of theirs. As always, our opposed positions had to be maintained.

With its back to the wall, the Catholic Church is now speaking of the need to re-evangelise the West. A meeting of over 100 bishops in 2004, sponsored by the Vatican, discussed a strategy of clergy exchanges to address the crisis. Africans having plentiful manpower in their rapidly growing churches would fill the gap in Europe while small numbers of European clergy provision Africa with their greater pastoral experience. This of course merely represents the last gasp of a European church that is suffering from a colonial hangover and that imagines itself to be the center. The re-evangelising of the West shall not come under its auspices.

The Africans who shall increasingly take up pastoral duties here will be off-shoots of their home churches. They shall reflect a conservatism and syncretism that shall be unlike anything else the European Christian has ever encountered. Gone will be the sleepy little churches that dot the countryside and welcome to the drive to create super churches that lay claim to large areas of their parishioners’ lives. The Nigerian priest in Wales will look toward the African Diaspora in the cities first and then to Nigeria for inspiration of how to conduct his pastoral duties. The local church, low on morale, and the state secularised to the point of ignoring the Christian church as a possible source of opposition (all state eyes will be on the mosque), will offer no counter balance to the most potent African presence there has ever been in Europe. The African evangelist – many who are now being funded by congregations in Africa – will be here to lay claim to the European soul.

Let me try and extend this wild speculation.

Europeans have steadily transformed their institutions into rational-bureaucratic models that are far less reliant on charismatic power than they used to be. The church which historically laid claim to bureaucratic power on the basis of its hold of the charismatic-transcendental realm has seen the both these positions undermined fundamentally. The African church, on the other hand, whether Catholic or Protestant, is only in the early stages of its rise: its claims to domination of the charismatic-transcendental or the soul are unlimited and are supported by more people every year. Soon I suspect its boundaries will begin to bump up against those of the African state which being weak and lacking strong ideological or moral foundations shall be absorbed ever more into it. The church’s innate drive to expand, under the banner of evangelisation, will have a huge impact on Europe. The entry of African priests, immigrants and missionaries will be lead to their domination of the terms under which the soul and its salvation can be approached by individual Christians. No longer will the division between church and state be automatically assumed; no longer will the European state have a beaten and pliant church to co-exist with. It will be dealing with a dominant, dominating force.

Since this is an out-there speculation, surely there is no harm in extending it slightly.

Let us for a minute assume that the increasing pilgrimages by European Christians to churches in Africa is the leading trend of an amazing rebound in the European public’s desire for spiritual nourishment (just look at Madonna and Kabbalah, and the energy of the American southern Baptists). If this happens, as the African church grows in Europe, the binary nature of the two groups shall once again be on show. You will see on one hand an African led soul-revival that shall in effect be the anti-power to the bureaucratic-rational forms of European state power. It shall be power vs. anti-power; state vs. church; and utility vs. transcendence.

The image of Africa in Europe, as a place of darkness, has always relied on more than the image of death and suffering that has been such a large part of its historical experience. This image in the European imagination has been attributed to the African lacking a soul or possessing a perverted one. Now, the growth of the African church in the vacuum left by its European counterpart will overturn this idea of darkness. Africa’s problems, increasingly part of the European public’s ‘we can help and its not fair’ posture, will, in combination with the upsurge in the fortunes of the church, take on a kind of holy aspect.

Meanwhile, Europe’s secularism and tortured anti-materialist, you-can-believe-and-do-anything rhetoric has the effect of consigning it to spiritual darkness or nihilism. And at least one bridge to the light shall be provided by Africans and their churches. From the historical position of Europeans using African misery and ‘savagery’ as a measure of their affluence and ‘civilisation’, we shall move to a Europe whose definition of its fallen soul is reliant ona comparison to Africa’s enlightened one.

Though this will not necessarily mean that the tangible forms of Europe’s state power will be African or answer to Africa’s political institutions, it will nevertheless be a colonisation of the European in that part of the contest that has always mattered the most between this ying and yang relationship: the soul.

That brings this speculation to an end. I enjoyed it seeing as I was procrastinating all afternoon and had no ready access to other entertainments.

Dr. MMK or: How I Learned to Start Worrying and Hate the PhD

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I have slept only about three hours in the last few days as I struggle to finish a chapter of my so-called doctorate. Being the master procrastinator that I am, I have spent a substantial amount of this time on this very blog as I am doing now … sigh.

I can now announce to all and sundry that I hate my thesis. It is the most loathsome, evil and uncooperative little shit that has ever existed. I have been in a book filled, stuffy room all weekend swearing to it that it better behave or I shall refuse to cooperate should it ever want to be published. Bugger!

I just do not see how I can actually produce 55,000 more words. I keep checking the word counter every two minutes only to find that what I have already written is shrinking as I edit. Oh, the woe of it all. Now what am I to do? Where shall I find nice, thick footnotes?

Then there is this little issue of needing to be original. When I first started this torture it sounded grand; like the type of thing that I had been wishing to do throughout my school life. Well that is all in the past now. The demand for scholarly originality is one of the most fiendish S&M rituals ever invented. How was I to realise that other than exercises in word play that no one cared for and the claim to slivers of meaningless intellectual territory, there is actually very little that the average doctoral student produces? My friends were all in on the joke and I can see their cute little faces sniggering away. “Kima, you belong in grad school” they said in serious we-love-you tones. And I ate it all up, all of it, every single morsel. But I’m not angry, I shall get even by encouraging every unsuspecting sucker I know to sign up for a doctoral programme and then I will seat back and laugh my head off. Hahahahahahahahahaha…

I gave up a good income, free weekends, and vacations for this. How is that for having my head up my a#$^? Well, let me get back to it now. If I never blog again, just know that it is because I have made a solemn pledge to never write another word or read another book. I shall then have become what I now regard as the most blissfully happy creature on earth: illiterate, apathetic, materialistic and suffering from attention-deficit disorder brought on by the sheer amounts of TV and Hollywood films consumed.

Tonight I sleep. Tomorrow, being the great self deluder, I shall no doubt rise with the normal megalomania that has me winning the Nobel by 45 and getting offered dozens of prestigious chairs in philosophy the moment I am done with this chapter.