A Letter to My Father, and Others

Dear Baba,

This is an odd and public and rhetorical letter, on a subject that recent tradition has asked us to sweep under the carpet. I find myself, at 35, at odds with the tone and nature and political space that is Gikuyu. For the first time in my life, in the Kibaki government, my identity as a Gikuyu has been questioned, I have seen text messages distributed amongst Gikuyus about “beasts from the West” and the like.

You have brought me up to be a skeptical person, a thinking person, a Kenyan first, a Nakuru boy, a person who believes in solid institutions, in building them, and growing them – as you did so well for so many years.

This present wave of “uGikuyu” seems to have sucked up a whole generation of people: who believe that the future of Kenya lies ONLY under a Gikuyu umbrella. To me this seems like crazy and corrupt politics, capitalising on the post- Mau Mau, and post Kenyatta entitlements and paranoias that have been past on from parent to child, often without explanation or analysis – and now what is we have is a vague formless fear of the unknown from the ‘other side’.

Last week, some young man, a university graduate told me that the clashes were about “the KAMATUSA tribes killing the Gikuyus”. Basic information would counter this – but educated people, PARENTS, are passing this bigotry on.

On the other side of our family: from Mum’s side, a genocide happened.

I find I cannot be silent about the politiking and the text messaging xenophobia that has infected, it seems, all sensible Gikuyus. I say this because no prominent people are speaking against this: this insane kitchen cabinet of an insane presidency is using fear to keep Gikuyus on their side, and this is causing serious damage to our place, and the place of our children in a future Kenya. Not even the Moi Kalenjin junta caused so much social and tribal friction, in such a short time. It is now Gikuyu versus Kenya – with yuppies saying Kenya does not know what it talking about because Kibaki has planted flowers in roundabouts.

Like any, many young people, I am at a loss what do or say. We are heading to a very dangerous place, displaying a sense of entitlement and ethnic chauvinism that can only lead to violence – all, its seems, to keep a few people who made money during Kenyatta’s time happy and wealthy.

Some friends of mine have said that we are “owed” because we “suffered” under Moi.

Who did not suffer under Moi?

Many people want to speak of these things and agree there is a problem in bars and huddles and not in public. Few people have this conversation with their parents. In clear and naked transparency. Why?

You did not bring me up to react like this.

I will not react like this. I know how much you have believed and invested in the idea of a functional and forward-looking Kenya. I feel that the Gikuyus who feel this way should make themselves public – it is not an affirmation of anything, no ideology – simply a declaration of one’s loyalty to a good and clean Kenya

Is it not time that right minded people started to speak out?

I am sending this email out to you all trusted friends, with love. Post, and distribute this if you can.

Please forward the question to those you feel want to start a dialogue. What is the challenge of this generation? Why is nobody of your generation making their stand clear? Is this government something to approve of? Are “we” behind this new government?

Am I missing a particular conversation?

Why can’t we name this problem?

How can we stop the hate?

With much love,

Your son,

Binyavanga Wainaina


The Rule of Law (you say you want it?)

To: KCL SS&PP Students (University of London, King’s College)
Sent: Tuesday, August 29, 2006 4:30:37 PM
Subject: DVD & video borrowing restriction

Dear all,
Please see the dull but important message below, which will principally
affect users at the Maughan Library.


Dear student,

We have recently implemented a borrowing restriction regarding the ISS
DVD/VHS collection.

In compliance with the Video Recording Act (VRA) 1984 the British
censor must classify (U, PG, 12, 15 or 18) every video or DVD
distributed in the UK. It is an offence (under Section 9) to supply a
video or DVD that hasn’t been classified unless it lies within a very
narrow class that escapes classification entirely. This class includes
sports and educational DVDs. ERA recordings (off-air) are also exempt.
Not all foreign imports have been classified, though those that have
had a theatrical release already will certainly have been rated.

It is also an offence to supply a DVD/video that does not feature the
correct certification labels (Section 13). No foreign imports will have
UK markings. Under the Act, the word “supply” is carefully defined and
it includes “letting on hire” or loaning, even for no reward.

Therefore, having consulted with the KCL Legal Compliance Team we can
no longer allow unclassified videos or DVDs to be removed from the
building (except for classroom teaching on prior authorisation).
However, they can be issued for viewing in the Library & ISC itself.
This use apparently escapes the statutory definition of “supply”. This
category of DVD and video now features a red reference card stating
where the item can be played as well as a short loan label, with the
last loan period ending at closing time.

We particularly wish to avoid any embarrassment or arguments at the
main counter and security gate so we would appreciate your co-operation
in this matter.

Information Specialist – Social Science & Public Policy
Information Services & Systems
King’s College London
Franklin-Wilkins Building
Waterloo Campus
London SE1 9NH

Land, the eternal Gikuyu conversation

I am in Nairobi for a few days from London and just came from a ride to Athi River with my mother who is purchasing some land there. We were accompanied by my uncle, the cliche family rogue, who knows every single trick Nairobi has to part you from your money by means fair or foul. For the hour it took to drive there through heavy traffic and a seriously torn up road, we had the same conversation that we have shared since I can remember: land or to be more specific, how to acquire it and make a profit off it.

Plots were pointed out and owners identified. We had debates on the depth of the water table, the route a new trunk road will take vis-a-vis said plots of land and the provision of electricity. Prices were bandied about and expected returns in the coming years. Both my uncle and mother seem to possess a vast catalogue of information on land and its price. So there were comments like, ‘just behind those shops, an acre used to cost 10,000 shillings in 1983-85 and you can’t get one now for less than a quarter million.’ Followed by exclamations of surprise and frustration at not having spotted such obvious opportunities and pledges to never again allow such profits to slip through the fingers.

The particular land that we were driving out to contemplate is close to Daystar University. I stood admiring its look, the view and suchlike, while my uncle kept muttering that it was fat. Fat, as he explained, refers to land fertility and also suggests potential financial gains from owning it.

We had bypassed many students walking the muddy road to the Mombasa-Nairobi highway and I offered one a ride into town. As is usual when I meet a university student, I wanted to know what she was studying, quality of lectures etc. But my mother and uncle had a quite different take on what to talk about with a stranger. They asked pointed questions about student accommodation, entertainment, health provision and others in a similar vein. By the time we got back into the city, it had become clear that building self-contained hostel space, a pharmacy, a pool hall and a restaurant catering to students were promising business opportunities. The price of her accommodation was revealed in addition to her transport and entertainment costs. After we dropped her off, all mention of the beauty of the views had been replaced by strategies to ‘do some business’ on the land.

In London or New York or wherever else I have lived, I never had these types of conversations with anyone. I am sure that the British can probably relate in regard to home ownership but it struck me that this conversation was different. Perhaps I am being ignorant but I think that it was a typical Gikuyu form of dialogue. Property and its acquisition form the common ground, the public space even. And to own it is a sign of some kind of virtue. How else to explain how few conversations I have overheard since I was a child that were not anchored by some form of financial consideration.

Imagine how many millions of similar conversations are held every year and the enormous ambitions they give rise to. Gikuyu land hunger has acquired sinister overtones in different parts of the country. The image of voracious locusts springs to mind when I recall some complaints I have heard. Yet it strikes me, that kikuyus – whether wa-sapere or not – have this search at the heart of the way they regard the good life. Only property owners get a certain respect that a majority crave. The method of acquisition is less important, in fact it might be completely irrelevant since there is a sentiment I believe of the world being a tough competitive place in which victories are counted one property at a time. Imagine how many millions of similar conversations are held every year and the enormous ambitions they give rise to. Gikuyu land hunger has acquired sinister overtones in different parts of the country. The image of voracious locusts springs to mind when I recall some complaints I have heard. Yet it strikes me, that Gikuyus – whether wa-sapere or not – have this search at the heart of what they regard as the good life. Only property owners get a certain respect. The method of acquisition is less important, in fact it might be completely irrelevant since there is a sentiment I believe of the world being a tough competitive place in which victories are counted one property at a time.

We’re going to get you simba, we’re going to get you! MUHAHAHA, MUHAHAHAH, MUHAHAHA!

“This is the plan: we will import 135 wild animals from Kenya, or 98% of the total, thus leaving behind only 3 old lions. Then we ship our haul to Bangkok where we will hang them from the rafters and slowly stick hot pins into their paws while depriving them of sleep. We’re going to get you simba, we’re going to get you! MUHAHAHA, MUHAHAHAH, MUHAHAHA!”

Forget corruption, forget political murders, tsunamis and terrorist bombings, there is a new scourge in Kenya: animals are suffering. The speak-to-power members of our ‘civil society’ are as ever ready to step to the breach and put a stop to injustice wherever it rears its ugly head. Word on the street is that in the past few months there have been night vigils held outside Hotel Intercontinental in Nairobi to protest against the sending of Kenyan wildlife to Thailand. Those Thais, you just know that they spend most of their time in Bangkok twirling their little brown thumbs and laughing maniacally as they invent unusual new tortures. Their record speaks for itself. In August 2004, for instance, there was an international uproar – at least among animal welfare groups – when 3 out of 115 orangutans died of pneumonia in a Bangkok zoo. Earlier, 32 ‘frightened, wide-eyed baby orangutans, many hugging each other’ were found in the same ‘cramped private Thai zoo’ (see story here). The zoo owners have much to answer for. There were clearly Crimes Against Primates being carried out on the premises. It might even have been that the 32 babies were being raised to become fighters in Bangkok’s famous orangutan boxing. The cruelty. Oh, the sheer mad, evil genius of it all.

They came to Nairobi in November to hoodwink us. Taking time off from his busy schedule of trying to deal with a small constitutional matter, declining national life expectancy, hunger, terrorist attacks, widespread crime, official corruption and a failed state just north of the border, our president took time to engage in the sophisticated arena of international geopolitics. Signing a solemn Memorandum of Understanding with Thai Prime Minister Thaskin Shinawatra, President Kibaki earned Kenya a cool 80 million shillings in return for sending the wild animals to a private zoo in Thailand. What was Mr. Shinawatra thinking? I mean c’mon. Clearly, his ambassador to Nairobi had not informed him that MOUs are really not the way to go in State House. But that is a matter for another discussion.

I demand that we require the Thais to sign and ratify the UN Convention Against Torture before Kenya sends animals to them. We do not want any more Abu Ghraibs after all. Imagine, if you have the courage, what fiendish plots our elands, dik dik and hippos could be subjected to. It makes me quail, yet I want to be true to my optimistic nature.

I have a dream that one day my nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all elephants, orangutans and little black boys are created equal.” I have a dream that one day on the pavements of the Intercontinental, a great cause shall come to fruition: that the bad people who like doing bad things to wildlife will stop and be good and do good things. I have a dream that one day, one day, that I too shall drive a four wheel drive jeep to the national park, and that there, waiting with open arms, will be a Maasai warrior who shall join with me in sustainably loving nature. From the slopes of Mt Kenya to the palm trees of Lamu, I dream that this land will be emptied of its detritus of selfish humans who have transformed an oasis of noble beasts into a desert sweltering with the rot of poaching and tourism. My friends, I have a dream that our apes, fauna and snakes will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their hides or the texture of their scales, but by the amount of conservation funding they attract to our shores. I have a dream today. By any means necessary. Yeah.

The Love Affair Between the Maasai and the English

Colonialists like their savages savage in a romantic mould. There is a streak of masochism in having your material world dismissed by people who have little but vanity and some sick cows. Colonialists want to believe their subjugated people were worth conquering…they are also good for a shag now and then says AA Gill in the London Times to much hilarity…more>>

Persona Non Grata: Kenyan Athletes After Helsinki

Qatari citizen Saif Saaeed Shaheen (formerly known as Stephen Cherono) reacts to smashing the world record and winning the 3000m steeplechase at the 2005 World Championships. I do not care if he is a citizen of the moon or Qatar, there is nothing better than seeing a Kenyan on top of the world.

President Kibaki recently urged Kenyan athletes to resist the temptation to change their citizenship for money. This is a statement that can only have come from a man with a obstinate Panglossian ‘all-is-well-with-the-world’ streak. The sad fact is that talent or heroism are under-appreciated and downright dangerous qualities to have in Kenya. Kibaki is a leading member of a ruling elite that has consigned talent and integrity to the rubbish heap even while he admonishes those who would rather go where they are more appreciated and respected. And the Kenyan public, bunch of innocents that we are, ever blaming the government for our every national shortcoming even as we look to its for every solution, only notice these athletes every four years at the Olympics. They give us a brief glow of warm pride and are soon forgotten along with their achievements and the challenges that they face. When is the last time that you heard that a civic group of any kind had gathered to honour one of our athletes? How many products are endorsed by them, what schools and streets named after them? The real question I am asking is this: what is heroism in Kenya and how, if at all, is it linked to our national life?

Diary of a Mad Kenyan Woman has recently blogged about David Munyakei the whistle blower who alerted the country to the Goldenberg Scandal and how he has since been forgotten by the public. WM says it so much better than I could:

Who are we that we glorify and protect the avaricious, the gluttonous, and the ostentatiously, graspingly corrupt, the liars and the tyrants (why isn’t Moi in jail?). Who are we that we do this in order precisely to make the shabby, cringe-making, shame-amplifying nature of our complete disregard of those who guard and rescue and restore our sense of self more marked by contrast, more significant by difference? Just so we can underline the dichotomy, in case someone had missed it? To sum: you need to f**k Kenya up, not pluck it out of the lion’s jaws. This is the correct trajectory to follow to fame and fortune; failure to which, you will not even be a footnote in history.

As a career and lifestyle choice, I highly recommend that you strike OFF your list the idea of doing something good for Kenya, since we Kenyans assure and guarantee you that no good deed done for us will ever go unpunished.

This then is the world of the Kenyan hero: either forgotten or destroyed.

Many Kenyans are clamouring to vote with their feet, they want to leave that little paradise we call home. And the runners, like the doctors, the nurses and the thousands of Green Card Lottery applicants, want to step out too. It is at this precise moment when the exit door is beckoning that their international accomplishments have fallen.

When the rhetoric of Project Keenya was strong enough that its disconnect with the lived reality of many Kenyans was not readily apparent, our runners made off with gold medals galore. But since the late 1990s there has been a wholesale collapse of the idea what we are in a collective vehicle called Kenya whose destination shall benefit us individually.

This project I have argued in the past was merely an extension in blackface of the colonial desire to civilise and develop the ‘savage’. Its collapse was inevitable and there is a Kenyan being born from its ashes who is more competitive, self reliant and skeptical of the government and its nonsensical postures and actions. It is only when faced with Kenyan athletes cutting and running that there is a sudden surge of concern and a recognition of their worth. As is usual the government’s position can be trusted to be stupid. Sports Minister Ochillo Ayacko speaking about migrating athletes said, “we will declare these athletes as persona non grata and cannot permit them to enjoy facilities available in the country while they compete against us at World championships.” Eh, these facilities of course being the government constructed hills and trails of the Rift Valley. If you are a European tourist you are welcome to come and run up and down whatever you wish, but dare you be an ex-citizen who wants to do the same…

Watching the Ethiopian athletes power ahead in Helsinki and at the 2004 Olympics, I felt that they were running from a psychological and emotional space that their Kenyan counterparts have not occupied for a long while. And there will be no getting back to that place soon since we must first elevate talent and achievement to the highest dais of our national life. For this to happen, the moral state of our communities will have to be revitalised beyond the church step and into the home and all those other ordinary folks’ spaces. But this is a discussion for another day I suppose. For now, I am sad that those Kenyans who competed in Helsinki did not do better but glad that the negative commentary about the performance might be making us ask tough questions about what our country does to its best and brightest.


(Shaheen or Cherono is just a small tip of the iceberg. Beyond the athlete is Dedan Kimathi still in a Kamiti Prison grave, Pio Pinto, David Munyakei broke and close to breaking and numerous others. Kenya produces heroes as a kettle will release steam to relieve the pressure of boiling water. Our heroism, like heroism anywhere else, is the product of adversity; therefore our heroes by the very actions that elevate them often incur injury. It is in how we deal with these injuries that the esteem we hold them in is revealed. Also revealed is what we think of ourselves since the hero at hand has only become so presumably for our collective benefit: they have borne a load greater than themselves and by doing so have relieved us of an unpleasantness that was ours. To ignore the hero, to leave them by the wayside is to deny the existence of a collective self to which the hero sacrificed himself. If Kenyans ignore or do not care for a Kenyan hero, then there is no such thing as Kenya outside of a geographer’s map.)

Super Mum: The London Years

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Read on for more on the ‘brain drain’ and the peerless mama mbugua…and then go to this link for another story on her.

Nursing a problem

Salil Tripathi

Tuesday August 9, 2005

Guardian Unlimited

Charity Kirigo worked long hours as a nurse at the national hospital in Kenya, finding it extremely difficult to make ends meet.
A mother of three, she did not see a bright future for her children if she stayed in Kenya – so she applied to the NHS, which was looking for nurses.

“Salaries in Kenya were very little,” she said. “Everyone had to have some side business – selling cotton wool, cooking, doing some other work at home – and it was very difficult to make a living. I had to take action.”

Ms Kirigo came to England in 1995, just as staff shortages were beginning to hit the NHS. Between 1990 and 1997, the number of people coming into the nursing profession in Britain fell from 18,980 to just over 12,000.

Nurses recruited from abroad accounted for 26% of the 16,000 nurses registered in 1997, and five years later that figure had grown to 43% of the registered total of 37,000.

Many came from the Philippines, South Africa and India. Even though the number of African nurses was relatively small, it nevertheless represented a large proportion of the health workers in their countries.

Life wasn’t easy for Ms Kirigo when she came to Britain, but she had access to a superior infrastructure and modern techniques.

She had to endure some humiliation from patients, who questioned her competence because she had come from Africa, but she saved enough money to send her children to university and to buy property in both the UK and Kenya.

Last year, Ms Kirigo moved back to Kenya. “I had a target to help my children get a good education,” she said. “Once I knew they could stand on their own, I decided to go back.”

Now in Nairobi, she is working to raise £437,000 to set up a telephone-based counselling service, HIV Helpline, to offer advice to families living with HIV, and plans to recruit 20 workers.

Her story humanises the debate about healthcare professionals in Britain. It shows what is happening at the micro level at a time when the macro outlook appears so dismal.

Nevertheless, organisations such as Save the Children are critical of the influx of nurses from developing countries.

“Many African countries have limited funds available for health,” Mike Aaronson, the charity’s director general, said. “Vulnerable children suffer disproportionately when these services are failing. It is shameful that many poor countries are spending millions of pounds training nurses and doctors to prop up the NHS.”

The crisis is acute – around 36 African countries do not meet targets of one doctor per 5,000 people, according to the World Health Organisation.

Even in non-conflict affected countries such as Zambia and Ghana, there is only one doctor per more than 10,000 people, while disparities are evident within a country such as Kenya. In Nairobi, there is one doctor for 500 people, but in Turkana district the ratio is 1:160,000.

Aware of the criticism, the NHS has adapted a code of practice that bans it from actively recruiting staff from developing countries. But it needs workers – and thousands of people living in poor countries want to work in a better environment.

It is true that Africa’s health sector needs more resources, but those resources will not become available by preventing skilled workers such as Ms Kirigo from coming to Britain.

What’s often left unsaid in this debate is the role of emigrating British nurses. That poses the moral dilemma that if a UK-trained nurse is free to leave for the US, Canada, or Ireland (the three most desired destinations) – and even beyond, to the Middle East, Australia and New Zealand – why shouldn’t Ms Kirigo and her compatriots come to Britain?

There has been a remarkable increase in the number of British nurses moving overseas. More than 2,000 left for the US last year, a quarter of the 8,000 who left the country overall. In 1997, the number of nurses who went overseas was half that.

Overseas recruitment is not the only reason African health workers leave their home countries. For many, there are simply no available jobs.

“When I was studying in Kenya, we were absorbed automatically,” Ms Kirigo said. “Now there are more nurses than the country needs or can pay for. If all the Kenyan nurses who work in the UK were to return to Kenya, there won’t be enough jobs for them … I am not betraying my country.”

Forcing people to stay at home will not work. As Kwadwo Mensah, Maureen Mackintosh and Leroi Henry write in The Skills Drain of Health Professionals from the Developing World, a paper published by the UK charity Med-Act: “Coercive measures to prevent departure work poorly; worse, they can intensify pressures to leave.”

There are inequities in this dilemma, but remittances partly mitigate the situation. According to the World Bank, migrant workers send more than $90bn (£44.7bn) to their home countries, the second-largest source of funds for poor countries after foreign direct investment. It is a significantly higher amount of money than that provided by development aid.

Health charities acknowledge the power of remittances, but remain critical because such flows go direct to families and do not replenish the loss suffered by the state in providing the subsidy in the first place.

With that in mind, the economist Jagdish Bhagwati, of Columbia University in the US, says states should tax their citizens who work and live abroad – something the US already does.

Several charities have argued that the UK should provide financial restitution and fresh development aid to Africa so that it can bolster its health sector. However, developing a grand plan would take time.

That is why individuals such as Ms Kirigo are so important. Granted, all emigrant health workers may not return home, but their remittances lift their families out of poverty.

What can be done about the skills gap? “Skilled Africans are going to emigrate. I would propose a Grey Peace Corps, where our ageing and early-retired skilled professionals can be tapped for two and three-year stints to work in Africa,” Dr Bhagwati said.

“While Africans, whom we must train in vastly increased numbers at our universities, will work here, our people must work in Africa until the need for skills can be met meaningfully.”

• Salil Tripathi is a London-based writer who specialises in Asian and international economic affairs. The article can be found here.

SocietyGuardian.co.uk © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005