The President Who Burned Kenya’s Heritage, Humiliated Girls And Elderly Women by Sultan F Somjee

Volume 18, Issue 1  | 
Published 27/03/2021
  |
Sultan F Somjee

An ethnographer, writer and a social activist. He is the author of One who dreams is called a prophet (2020).

One of the barbarities of Moi I will remember most is of a president who burned material culture, humiliated girls and elderly women. He held the dreaded club considered a weapon among many nationalities, and had a red rose bud of Love, Peace and Unity, pinned to his lapel. That’s the image of him I have. He who did not age in the photograph everywhere - schools, bars, government offices, shops, you name it. His fatherly look in those light brown eyes was patronizing, caring, saintly.  

But the image of his sculpted hand holding his favourite weapon shattering Mt  Kenya showed otherwise. I looked at his sculpted hand bursting out of Mt Kenya like a volcano as I drove by Uhuru Park and tried to think of the meaning behind it. The mountain is a sacred shrine to many. Elders still face Mt Kenya for blessings as the freedom fighters did at dawn. Mt Kenya is Kenya’s national symbol that has appeared on stamps, bank notes and wall paintings in rural bars and eateries. Armed resistance centred around the mountain and was protected by it for many years. What was the reason behind the design that obviously showed one man’s power over a mountain that’s the highest point and a symbol of Kenya? Was it a show of conquest over the uthamaki? I could not find an explanation in any text or from any person. We ought to look again at the statues of tyrants in this year of toppling statues and take a moment to reflect on what and for whom they are there.

I hold other images of arrogance and show of power over the defenceless. My first encounter with President Moi humiliating the pastoralists was in late 1970s. I was in the field in the vicinity of Kapedo (Turkana County) among the Turkana when his motorcade appeared on the hot desert road like a dust storm. There was a lot of excitement to see the spectacle and welcome the new president from one of the minority nations emerge out of the pageant from the city. He was one of them unlike the previous President, an avaricious agriculturalist, whose kinsfolk were encroaching on their land and mineral resources albeit in cohort with their own local politicians. But the local politicians were brothers and sons, and that did not matter. Only, the agriculturists were the madoa-doa demon settlers from the other cultures.

President Moi held a huge baraza at Kapedo where steaming hot waters of the river fall over a rock. Truly, a sight to watch! After some welcoming speeches, it was time for the much-awaited presidential address. I was aghast to see what followed. The President called a shy teenage Turkana girl to the stage where he was seated in his usual faked austere pose, clutching to his club. The people must have at once read that the club was a weapon. The president put fear rather than peace, love and unity into the audience. In most Kenyan cultural groups, a club is a symbol of violence to knock an enemy on the skull. The symbol of authority and respect is a flywhisk or a peace staff that is also often used as a walking stick by the community elders. There was an obvious contradiction between the new president’s words and the symbol that he lifted over his head as if to strike.

The teenage girl was wearing traditional Turkana dress and ethnic beads that proudly spoke of her identity and who she was. She was dressed exquisitely for she was meeting the President. Then, the president called another girl. She was wearing a neat school uniform you would think she came from an English public school. She was also Turkana. Pointing to the girl in the beautiful calf skin clothes with his club, the president put on a noticeable frown on his fatherly face gleaming in the strong Kapedo sunshine. The Father of the Nation, our Baba wa Taifa as we called him, said he did not want to see ‘this’ meaning the Turkana dress. His following sentences were toned with references to backwardness and becoming civilized that his presidency was bringing to them.  He said it was time for the Turkana to join the maendeleo path like other Kenyans. From 1963 onward the word maendeleo had evolved to mean not just development in Kenya but also becoming civilized that connote becoming westernized and perhaps Christianized as well. Then, he pointed to the other girl in a neat school uniform, a white shirt and blue skirt. The president’s face brightened into a smile and said, something like, ‘he wanted to see this’. That was the path to maendeleo, leaving primitivity behind. These may not be his exact words but that’s what they purported to. I write from the images, emotions and memory from over forty years ago that have lived in my mind. 

My heart sank. I wondered what the teenage girl must have felt being humiliated in public by the President of her country? What her parents must have felt? What the Turkana elders, the custodians of their culture, must have thought? What the community was thinking listening to the president in utter shock? The Turkana people, like everyone else, hold pride in their dress and culture. Now that was insulted on their own territory that day by the new President of Kenya. Their culture was what sustained them in the harsh desert-scrubland and gave them a sense of identity, community and survival. I was working on Turkana material culture, especially on their skin clothing, that interested me because of the unique cut and stitched lines that patterned their long skirts suited for the semi-desert scrubland. How they quilted different tones of cow-hair to create an amazing pattern coded dress.  It is an ingeniously designed garment weighted with flattened hoofs to walk on thorns and stones over sandy ground, so it did not flare in the desert wind or rip at the bottom. The skirts needed to be long because of respect for the female body and local cultural etiquette. They needed careful cuts down the thighs to the legs for the air to circulate in the hot desert climate and movements of the legs while taking long steps and running after the animals when herding or walking long distances to fetch water and firewood. I wanted to include the Turkana dress in the Material Culture curriculum for schools I was writing and the book that I was working on as an example of Kenya’s indigenous dress suited to their environment and vernacular design. I thought the President was ignorant of Kenya’s culture.

Back in Nairobi, I was shocked to see the picture of the President and the two girls on the front page of the newspaper. I don’t remember which one, probably the Daily Nation. It was as if the humiliation of a proud culture was celebrated in the euphoria of celebrating Nyayo’s onward path to maendeleo. In the staff room at the University of Nairobi, where I worked, I tried to talk about this incident, but I met blank, if not surprised, faces. ‘The Asian is talking about primitive tribes again’, I read on their faces. I worked, put up exhibitions and often talked about the Material Culture of Kenya as a heritage to cherish like the mother tongue. Both were looked down upon by a segment of the intellectual class as an obstacle to development. Once, an academic at the University of Nairobi also told me to my face that I was taking Africans backwards. Intoned in the comment was an allusion in his racist mind of an Asian stereotype that I had got used to being called on the campus. The President had his followers in the hub of the intellectual community then as now, even after his death.

My second encounter with President Moi was in Orwa in the Pokot region that he was also visiting. I came to the area soon after the President had been there on his ‘Civilization of the Natives Mission’ that reminded me of the infamous colonial Pacification Expeditions. I was stunned to see a pile of ashes and burned items of material culture on the Orwa airfield, a makeshift stripe of cleared bush for taking off and taxiing of one and two engine planes. The elders told me while spitting bitterness, how jeshi la Nyayo had forcefully stripped them of their valued skin garments and beads. I gathered jeshi la Nyayo were the dreaded GSU. I had seen them work at the University of Nairobi and had fled from their batons. The Pokot material culture was piled on the airstrip and made into a bonfire. My heart wept for I was collecting the precious material culture of the Pokot at the time, especially what they wore; how they celebrated their identity with their clothing and beads; how they expressed an embodiment of utu, their humanity and, most important, how they made reconciliation through their art. How relational material culture was to the songs they sang and the dances they created in communal celebrations of stages of life. How important was material culture in their lives. I was collecting material culture for preservation for posterity and here I find my President burning the nation’s cultural archive, the resource for the school curriculum on indigenous art and knowledge if at all one day the authorities had sufficiently decolonized their minds to look at the mirror and see who they are.

Among the items stripped from the bodies was the leketyo. The leketyo is a woman’s waist belt and is considered sacred for maintenance of peace in the community. In fact, the metaphor used for peace is leketyo and for some like the Marakwet, Keiyo and Pokot, the word for greeting is “Leketyo!” - very much like Shalom and Salaam. What is leketyo? A leketyo is a leather belt decorated with lines of coloured beads and cowry shells. Expectant mothers wear it around the waist to prevent aborting the foetus. Women walk long distances for water and firewood; they herd goats and build houses. Their strenuous work in the harsh climate easily leads to aborting pregnancies. The leketyo has become a sacred and respected object for it saves life like the mukwa among the Akamba and enkitati of the Maasai. I have seen how fighting, that is physical fighting, using weapons, comes to an abrupt stop when a mother removes her leketyo and throws it between the belligerent warriors. The leketyo may be laid down by any mother passing by and all the warriors respect it for in the communal societies one mother represents everyone’s mother of her son’s age group and she call them ‘my sons’. As any Kalenjin would know the leketyo is revered in the community for it represents protection of the womb. Like the mukwa of the Akamba and enkitati among the Maasai, it is a symbol of motherhood, love and nourishment that prevents violence and maintains peace in the community. It’s also a symbol of the feminine God-given gift for procreation, family and community well-being. In other words, women’s waist belts are symbolic of peace used as metaphors in speech and songs.

When I heard the songs of Pokot mothers, concealed from the ears of the local special branch, bemoaning the loss of their leketyo, I felt their pain. The humiliated mothers sang about the beauty of their lost leketyo while cursing the President in the same verse. Yes, during the oppressive regimes of Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Toroitich arap Moi, there had developed clandestine oral literature expressing outrage at those who stole their land and on top of that stacked brutality and humiliation on them. There was a parallel between the clandestine oral literature of rural Kenya and the underground papers like Pambana I read in the city. The difference was that the pastoralist secret literature was oral, in poetry and songs using idioms, metaphors and double meanings that those who did not know the culture and the language like most of the administrative staff at that time, the police and the GSU, would not understand. They were masked like the Mau Mau revolutionary songs that sounded like hymns to the non-insider. The underground literature in the city did not mask the message; it openly condemned the despotic Presidents and called for change. Unfortunately, the two did not connect.

The Pokot also erected secret memorials invisible to the outside eye in memories of those who were killed by Nyayo. One such a memorial that I visited is made of gigantic marble-like white slabs that stands near the Kenya-Uganda border in the West Pokot region. One would need to persuade the local oral artist to hear the full narrative of the cultural oppression, the humiliation and the brutality of the punitive military expeditions of the Nyayo era. These are the monuments erected by the people that we need to celebrate and care for, not the self-aggrandizing ones of the despots. People-erected monuments speak of resilience to oppression.

It baffled me why the President humiliated the Pokot women and Turkana girls who were closer to his cultural roots, than let’s say Wangarĩ Maathai. The lady professor and environmentalist was protecting our trees, our natural heritage, that the President was scraping off Mt Kenya for profit from tea plantations; and had also the intention of grabbing the city’s park to build his sky-scraper. He also insulted the lady professor.

But then in 1992 what happened at Uhuru park was shocking. In my novel Home Between Crossings (2014), I put together what I saw, read and heard to write about the assault on the mothers of the detainees. Putting it in print was the way I could untie the emotions locked in my memory and tell the story so it is not forgotten. Though based on real events it is the writing of my creativity, feelings and imagination.

Chapter: Humiliation of disowning motherhood

Home Between Crossings (2014)

The next day women gather in groups to talk about the incident at Uhuru Park. There is horror in their eyes. Anxiety in the air. We had all seen the Daily Nation photographs of the riot police hounding old women. Some had watched the news on the TV.  I tell them I was there and what I saw. They come closer me. Even those I don’t usually talk to come to listen to me. They listen in silence and shock. But what horrified them was how President Moi treated the mothers protesting in the park.

‘Does he not have a mother?’ asked one.

‘Would he have treated his mother like that?’ asked another.

‘What if he were detained without trial, would his mother not have come to Uhuru Park to ask for his release?’ asked the third…

Later in the evening, I look at the photographs on the front page of the Daily Nation. ‘MOTHERS OF DETAINED PRISONERS WITHOUT TRIAL FLEE.’ Yesterday comes back in my eyes. I see them. They flee before the brutal charge of the riot squad and the paramilitary. Helmeted, armed and shielded in metal, the machine-like army of young men assail the old mothers in cotton dresses and head scarfs. Putting the newspaper pictures together with what I saw yesterday was like bringing two pieces of a torn photograph together. First, the women herded together like trapped animals, hugging each other in one tight embrace. A combined hug in unison out of fear. Of comfort. Of courage. Of unity. Of solidarity of mothers. I felt I was in that circle of human embrace. Some whimper for mercy, others sing hymns. Aged mothers thought the President would listen to them, for he had a mother too. Then one of them stepped forward before the contingent of young armed men and she began tearing her clothes off her body.  In Africa, it is a taboo to see a woman, who is the age of your mother, so distressed that she unclothes herself surrendering her dignity to a young man the age of her son who, by custom, is her son, too. It’s a gesture of wounded motherhood that many do not understand. A gesture showing there is no more utu or humanity left in society. Of showing self-inflicted humiliation that says it’s not worth being your mother. It’s the humiliation of sacred-hood of the womb, meaning the giver of life. Shame and sin would fill the eyes of the onlookers. In Africa, I repeat, to see your mother’s nudity is a shame and a curse. Everyone knows that it pains the land when the mother forfeits her honour to her sons’ gaze. More mothers come forward, ripping clothes off their shrivelled frames, spitting curses and disgust, tearing away headscarves, casting away mother-love for rage and forfeiting the dignity bequeathed to them by nature when they gave birth. They were surrendering in defiance to the rape by their sons. They sing hymns in unison daring the armed men to come, touch them and dishonour their mothers until they feel satisfied. What more had they to lose when they have lost all, meaning their self-respect? Some policemen cover their eyes, others turn back and yet there are some who advance without shame. They would say they had orders. Or they are not of the same tribe so the curse would not harm them or that they are Christians now. That these are not their mothers! They don’t believe in superstitions and primitive customs. Never before, not even under the English, not even during the girls’ circumcision unrest at Mt Kenya, were the mothers of Africa reduced to such humiliation as under the black government of Nyayo.

I write about my encounters with Nyayoism with the hope that we can retain the memories of how the one in authority to whom the nation had entrusted its trust, shamed girls and mothers. This has become repeated incidents like it is an accepted part of our Kenyan culture as graphically described by April Zhu in a recent article in The Elephant about the defiance of Mama Victor and the MSJC co-founder Juliet Wanjiru Wanjira (https://www.theelephant.info/reflections/2020/07/09/when-we-lose-our-fear-a-saba-saba-day-reflection/). The show of masculinity by male politicians is handed down to the batons of the dreaded GSU and police humiliating women. Insulting women has been a global phenomenon as explained by Joane Nagel. (Masculinity and Nationalism: Gender and sexuality in the making of nations. Ethnic and Racial Studies 21.2 (1998). Web. 2 Dec. 2010.)   Daniel arap Moi had just come to power and he had to show he was a man.  All the incidents I speak about were reported in the media albeit from different angles than how I viewed them as an ethnographer. They can be looked up in the newspaper archives. There would be pictures too.

What I came to know during my work on the cultural aspects of Peace and Conflict Resolution, was that humiliation had a significant role in conflicts. Humiliation breeds chuki the hard hate that festers in the community. And chuki breeds revenge. Cultural humiliation has been more often than not the undertone of political campaigning. It becomes an epidemic, widespread in conversations during elections, making somebody unlike Me, the Other of the nation and hence the President from his/her culture was not quite worthy to rule. At times it turns into jeering and nasty behaviour like once I watched a shirtless young man running through the streets of Nairobi holding his pants up because the belt had been pulled out. Chased by a jubilant mob shouting, ‘Circumcise him!’, the young man looked helpless and terrified. It was in late 2002 when campaigning between the circumcised and uncircumcised contenders was at the peak. This was directly the result of cultural humiliation spurred from the top to diminish the Other as not worthy to rule. Think of how President Trump has been fanning the racial pride of the white nationalists during the Black Lives Matters struggle in the USA.

More often than not, the epidemic of cultural hate and humiliation is instigated by the politicians and even the President as I have seen during my forty years of working in the field in Kenya. We know how cultural chuki was spread through the radio in Rwanda to galvanize the population for a massacre. Sometimes, in frustration, I wondered if Moi’s humiliation of Wangarĩ Maathai, the Pokot women, Turkana girls, mothers of the detainees and the market women of Nairobi was not a matter of patriarchy embedded in nationalism? Professor Claire Robertson has pointedly written about the latter (https://www.theelephant.info/features/2020/02/11/moi-and-the-erasure-of-memory/).  Or did it show a trait of a mind that sought pleasure in humiliating women while singing ‘Mindfulness, Love, Peace and Unity’ in public broadcasts? A misogynist perhaps, masked behind his presidential piety that KBC TV played on Sundays for an hour at least? I remember there were talks of this on the campus that only the ones close to him could tell us about now that he is dead.

To understand humiliation, it is best to think in an African language. Nelson Mandela had once famously said: If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.

In Swahili, for example, humiliation has several shades. Like we say tia aibu meaning put shame. Or tia uchungu, put pain and vunja heshima meaning break self-respect, and also break the heart vunja moyo. Humiliation is to make the other feel she/he is not human, si binadamu. Then the humiliated is filled with chuki (hatred) and looks for revenge to reclaim his/her or the community’s honour or kisasi cha aibu ya staha. This can lead to killings.

Humiliation is one face of governance by repression. In societies where identities are communal, one killing or one rape is considered humiliation of the entire community. Consequently, that calls the people to rise and avenge the spilled blood of kinsman or dishonour of a mother, wife or daughter of a fellow kinsman. Humiliation is communal, and like trauma, it is generational in that the responsibility of the unavenged wrong falls to the youth. Hence, ethnic conflicts turn cyclic. Whenever suppressed rage of humiliation comes to the fore it is horrendous. Evelin Lindner who is among the foremost thinkers and writers on Humiliation and Violence says:

Rage turned outward can express itself in violence, even in mass violence when

leaders are available to forge narratives of group humiliation.

(Lindner, E  Emotion and Conflict, Greenwood Publishing Group 2009 p 55)

We know that power and wealth breed arrogance. This is neither new nor particular to Africa’s presidents and politicians. But how can we create awareness of what we do to each other and thus stop or at least lessen this especially now with the elections coming?

One way maybe is to consider making February 25 1992, when Kenyan mothers, our mothers, were forced to declothe before young armed men in the age-group of their detained sons, Kenya’s National Day of Shame. Thus, we may reflect on what shame our leaders put upon us and its consequences that the ordinary person has to bear as we so often see during elections. Keeping and refreshing memories would remind us to be watchful of politicians who divide Kenya on gender and cultural lines. Students will ask: Why are we remembering this day? The media will report and commentaries will expand on the history of humiliation from the colonial days to present day dictatorships led by brutal capitalism, nationalism and cronyism. One bright Kenyan may choose to write her Ph.D on the History of Humiliation in Kenya from colonialism to now.

When we choose to be silent, we are erasing historical learning from our memory. We become complicit in the propagation of the politicians’ and state’s propaganda. As a result, violence breeds from one generation to another among the nationalities not to mention gender violence. This becomes systemic in governmental and other institutional hierarchies. It becomes systemic in organizations and businesses where petty bosses become bullies. And worse, it comes down to families and schools.

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