Monday, July 10, 2017

Prominent Kenyan Social-Justice Activist Takes his Fight to Parliament

Social Justice Activist Turned Politician Boniface Mwangi
Photo: Boniface Mwangi
Boniface Mwangi, Kenya’s political firebrand and award-winning photojournalist, was thrust into the limelight in 2007 when his photos—documenting the horrors of his country’s post-election violence—were broadcast by news outlets around the world. The rampage that took the lives of over 1,000 people and displaced half a million would prompt Mwangi to quit his job at one of Kenya’s biggest newspapers to organize a traveling photo exhibition documenting the bloodshed. It also turned him into a full-time social justice activist.
“Growing up in a community where you’re not allowed to speak your mind, seeing injustices, seeing people being oppressed and feeling that something must change,” Mwangi said, were reasons he felt driven to do more than photograph government abuse and neglect.

In March 2017, five months shy of the general elections, the activist launched Ukweli Party, the platform on which he is running as a member of parliament for Starehe, a county in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. As MP, he vows to continue the work he’s “been doing from the outside,” while taking a 50% pay cut and forgoing the perks and allowances typically conferred on parliamentarians. If elected, the 33-year-old said he’ll pass laws to protect small traders and hawkers — whom he claims are treated liked common criminals—from harassment, and set aside funds for sports, arts, libraries and training programs that will equip people with entrepreneurial skills.
Mwangi’s activism started early: At age 14, he was expelled for exposing misconduct at his school in a local newspaper, and subsequently dropped out of the education system when his single mother couldn’t afford the fees at an alternative school. He soon joined her hawking books on the streets.
“She was very practical,” the father-of-three said of his late mother.
As an adult, photojournalism sharpened Mwangi’s view of corruption and the plight of marginalised Kenyans unable to afford basic needs. And that, together with the lack of accountability for the post-election violence instigated his solo heckling of former president Kibaki during a nationally broadcast speech.
For his troubles, he was beaten by the police and arrested. “I thought they were going to kill me,” he said, recalling the 2009 incident.
Still, the fear that corruption will “swallow my children” has kept Mwangi from backing down despite death threats and pleas from his wife and siblings.

Boniface Mwangi at Occupy Parliament Protest
Photo: Boniface Mwangi
Schaeffer Okore, vice chair of Ukweli Party, believes Mwangi’s foray into politics will lead “a new generation of Kenyans down the path of servant leadership by demonstrating what it means to have [the] people in power and not an individual.” However, not all of his supporters are thrilled about his political ambitions, with some arguing politics is the preserve of self-serving politicians and shouldn’t be mixed with activism.
But political analyst Barrack Muluka disagrees: “Boniface Mwangi has seen the trenches. He’s been an active mobiliser. He’s talked about corruption and criticized members of parliament. It would be wrong for anyone to say you should remain an activist because you started out as one.”
Benji Ndolo, a political strategist, described the activist’s decision to run as “noble” but noted that Mwangi’s political naïveté, his impatience with the political process and his party’s relative obscurity make him vulnerable. “Nobody really knows Ukweli Party. Nobody knows who is behind this party,” Ndolo said. He added that for Ukweli Party to influence debates and make inroads politically, Mwangi needs to “build up an ideological movement” and enter parliament with a cadre of like-minded individuals “rather than go alone.”
Other factors working against him include the entrenched ethnic-based politicking among Kenya’s 42 tribes and Mwangi’s reputation as a straight shooter.
“Boniface is not politically correct,” Muluka said, referencing his public feud with deputy president William Ruto and refusal to align with the political kingmakers. He concedes that the MP aspirant is running a “dignified campaign” as a member of the “humanitarian tribe,” but predicts he won’t win the election because “unfortunately people vote along tribal lines.”
For his part, Mwangi said he’s not interested in running a popularity contest nor is he looking to win affection. “I don’t want anyone to love me, that’s not what I want. I want Kenya to be better.” While expressing a willingness to form alliances with like-minded parliamentarians, he also shot back at critics who characterize his confrontational style of activism as a publicity gimmick. “That’s bullshit. If there are better ways to do it, why can’t they do it?” he asked, visibly irritated. “Why would I try to risk my life and get threatened … for attention?”
So far, Ukweli Party has raised roughly two million of its targeted 10 million Kenyan shillings ($100,000) through crowdfunding. A small percentage, to be sure, but in a country where deep pockets rule elections and handing out cash for votes is the norm, Mwangi stands out for soliciting “10 bob” (10-cent) donations from grass-roots supporters.
With the August 8 general election just weeks away, it’s difficult to see how the party will close the deficit in time. “Kenyans are deeply supportive,” Ukweli vice chair Okore wrote in an email. “I’m very hopeful we’ll meet [our] target.”
So does the political neophyte think he has a shot at winning come August 8th?
“I’m going to win,” Mwangi replied emphatically, refusing to entertain questions about his next move in the event he loses. “Kenyans have funded my campaign [and] I’m working very hard,” he declared.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

On Biafra and What it Means to be Nigerian

Abuja, Nigeria
Photo: Flikr
I’ve spent most of my life in Nigeria, but lately I’ve been wondering if holding a Nigerian passport and living a substantial number of years in a country are sufficient to stake a claim over it. I’ve also wondered what it means to be Nigerian.
I grew up in the Rivers State capital of Port Harcourt, the oil rich city nestled in the southernmost region of the country, but the de facto indigene-settler mentality promoted by politicians and accepted by Nigerians has meant Rivers State can’t adopt me in the way Chicago adopted Hawaiian native Barack Obama, who served as a senator for Illinois. I can’t access state scholarships, can’t head any state schools and definitely can’t hold political office because my forebears hailed from towns beyond the state’s border. And yet, the Rivers State had no scruples taxing my salary as a resident of Port Harcourt.
In Nigeria, your father’s origin dictates yours. In my case, with both parents from Oguta, a small clannish town in Southeast Nigeria, I’m Oguta even though my connection to the place is limited to the few weeks I visited during Christmas and Easters holidays as a kid and teenager.
Following the Nigeria-Biafra war, the federal government built public secondary schools known as unity schools in an attempt to foster peace and feelings of patriotism among students from different tribes and socioeconomic backgrounds.
As an alumna of a unity school, I can attest the idea is a noble one and could have worked if Nigerians weren’t perpetually being reminded that the demonym Nigerian is an airy ideal subservient to the flawed reality of tribal affiliations, be it in application forms for government jobs, wherein you’re forced to declare your state and local government area, or by landlords who only rent to people of their own tribe.
Nigeria as a country remains a mirage, which is why every Christmas cities and towns across Nigeria empty out as Igbos, whose calls for secession fifty years ago resulted in the Nigeria-Biafra civil war, travel home to their ancestral lands in southeastern Nigeria. Jokes abound of the yearly mass migration, but beneath these jests is a less humorous motive. For the Igbos, traveling home means establishing roots and reconnecting with their ancestral homes, an insurance against Nigeria’s uncertain future as a united country.
When Nigeria gained its independence from the British in 1960, Igbos dispersed across the country like dust in the wind, with some venturing as far as northern Nigeria to pitch their tents. Language was only a temporary barrier for the Igbos as they quickly learned foreign tongues for the purpose of conducting business and getting on with life.
But then came the 1966 coup, led mostly by Igbo officers, which saw the deaths of many northerners, including then prime minister Tafawa Balewa and the premier Ahmadu Bello. In the counter-coup that followed, Igbos were targeted and killed by civilians and military officers in an anti-Igbo pogrom the North, and those lucky to be alive fled home to Igbo enclaves in the Southeast. It was this event that precipitated the declaration of the independent nation of Biafra and underscored a bitter truth: The name “Nigerian” is a mythical invention and “home” can only be your ancestral land.
Arguably, Nigeria’s crude oil wealth has been the motivating factor behind the ruling elite’s fight to preserve Nigeria in its current disposition. Year after year, the nation’s coffers are looted by government officials who are more interested in securing their profligate lifestyle than getting different factions to work together to build Nigeria into a real country. The ruling elite’s insatiable appetite, its desire to gorge off the fat of the land are to blame for the Boko Haram insurgency in the Northeast and militancy in the Niger Delta, symptoms of abuse, neglect and underinvestment.
If the name Nigeria meant anything, then a long-term resident of Rivers State from northern Nigeria should be able to represent the state at the National Assembly. If being Nigerian meant anything, the presidency wouldn’t be rotated every eight years between the North and South or along tribal lines. If we as Nigerians were serious about keeping Nigeria whole, then we would set tribal allegiances aside and select the best candidates to run the country. If Nigeria meant anything, that would be our first and only priority.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Book Review: Stay With Me by Ayòbámi Adébáyò

Photo: Shayera Dark
Ayòbámi Adébáyò’s Bailey’s-shortlisted, debut novel Stay With Me is an engaging story about the pressures childless, married couples encounter in contemporary Nigeria, a country where children—more than love—are deemed the centripetal force of a marriage and, as such, can determine its longevity. The novel weaves themes of betrayal, pride, deceit, love, grief, patriarchy, loneliness and belonginess into a compelling picture that demonstrates how love can be undermined by our existential need as humans, and social creatures, to conform so we can belong to a society or family.

Set in the fractious era of military coups in the 80s and 90s—and the democratic 2000s, Stay With Me documents the middle class lives of Yejide, a hair salon owner, and Akin, a bank manager, and their struggles with childlessness. Though Yejide narrates the story and her point of view dominates, her husband Akin elucidates his motives as a secondary narrator, broadening the limits of the first person point of view.

The opening chapters introduce readers to the endless meetings and enquiries launched by nosy in-laws into the couple’s childlessness and the routine the Akin and Yejide devised for such instances: Akin writes his weekly to-do list while pretending to jot down details of the discussion and Yejide offers an array of fake smiles. It is also noted that Yejide visited shady pastors and fasted until she was hospitalised to appease her in-laws, all before one of her father’s wives and Akin’s uncle deliver their message and package of doom to her home: Funmi, Akin’s second wife.

Yejide is completely blindsided by this new development in her marriage and has an altercation with her husband for cheating on her. But owing to Funmi’s agreement not to move in, her rage quickly dissipates and everything returns to normal for a while.   

Unbeknown to Yejide, Akin’s decision to take a second wife is in response to his mother’s pestering. After four years of marriage, Akin’s mother, Moomi, can no longer tolerate her first son’s childlessness and takes matters into her hands. At first, she visits Akin’s office accompanied by a potential second wife until she realises he is dithering and threatens to start visiting Yejide each week with a woman if he doesn’t make up his mind soon.

When Funmi taunts Yejide in her salon about her barrenness, it dawns on her that a child is the only insurance against getting expelled from Akin’s life. In a bizarre twist, her mind convinces her body that she’s pregnant, even though she hasn’t had sex in months and two ultrasounds prove otherwise. But when the pregnancy stretches beyond nine months, Yejide finally accepts her husband’s request to see a psychiatrist.

While trying to make sense of her non-pregnancy, Funmi shows up at Yejide and Akin’s home in the latter’s absence, demanding to move in. Grudgingly, Yejide yields knowing that if Moomi asks her to move out for resisting Funmi, she will her lose Akin, “the only person in the world who would really notice if I went missing.”

Funmi’s presence grates Akin but he doesn’t drive her away because he fears she now knows his secret. Instead, he waits for the deal he’s struck with younger brother Dotun to materialise, a deal so vile it will ultimately unravel his marriage and relationship with his brother.

Stay With Me explores some of the reasons people want to have children. For a motherless child who was ignored by her stepmothers and constantly reminded that her mother had no lineage, Yejide’s desire to have a child stems from the need to belong to someone in an “unchangeable, irreplaceable way.”

For Akin, having a child represents the natural order of things. He believes they can “change the very shape of my world.”

For Moomi, childlessness signifies shame and nothingness, a misery she doesn’t want her son to endure. “Why don’t you allow my son have a child?” she implores after accusing Yejide of preventing Akin from impregnating Funmi. “If you don’t, he will die childless. I beg you, don’t spoil my life. He is my first son, Yejide.”

Readers curious to learn how society’s unhealthy inclination to associate fertility with a person’s worth affects people and damages relationships can find a thin slice of that in Stay With Me. For those looking to get acquainted with Yoruba folklores, customs and language—or even the unique speaking style of Nigerians—the novel doesn’t disappoint. That said, don’t expect to come away with a vivid image of south-western Nigerian where the novel is set.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

I Am A Writer

All 25 Amplify Fellows
Photo: aKoma
So after six months as an Amplify fellow, I can finally call myself a writer with conviction. I can claim the profession not because I wrote fiction prior to the fellowship or that I published regularly on my blog and wrote opinion pieces for other online media outlets, but because in the past six months I was in the midst of other writers who, unbeknownst to them, validated my aspirations. In this community of twenty-five creatives hailing from Nigeria, Rwanda and Kenya, I felt safe and in communion with other exploratory souls forging their path in the amorphous world of writing, photography and videography.

I speak of validation and aspirations because three years ago, after the company I worked for went under—thanks to the steep plunge in global oil prices—I made a conscious decision to take a year off from corporate life to indulge a latent desire. With fervour, I sank my teeth into the Journalism and Newswriting course I had enrolled in three months prior, began drafting a business plan for an online media platform, became a contributor for a local radio station, started writing my debut novel and continued blogging. Read more here.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

All Hail King Mediocre

Photo: Shayera Dark
Mediocrity is worshipped in Nigeria, where it is rife and readily accepted. So pervasive its stench and so strong its wave that no corner of society—from government offices to corporate teams to classrooms—has been spared. The bar of excellence has been set so low that it doesn’t take much to be considered a genius.

Nigeria, with a population of 170 million minds, could become a great nation if it terminated its destructive affair with the soft bigotry of low expectations, the mental stance driving its citizens to eschew hard work and/or accept dismal performances. 

There’s no reason, for instance, why Nollywood is still producing sub-par movies despite its twenty-plus years of existence. Nigerian movies ought to be competing with Hollywood, if not in special effects and epic sets then at least in compelling storylines. But because the audience expects little from Nigerian producers, directors and actors—and hence, makes no demands, trashy Nollywood movies continue to thrive, obviating the quest for excellence. What’s the point of striving for perfection when someone’s willing to reward a shitty job well done? Read more here.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Liberals Behaving Badly: Views on Gender

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Photo: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie stirred the hornet’s nest in a recent interview by opining that transwomen are transwomen because their experiences are dissimilar from women’s and having been male have benefitted from privileges that individuals born female aren’t accorded. As expected, in an age where exaggerated moral outrage is encouraged, groupthink (more like zombiethink) is worshipped and dissent severely rebuked, Adichie received a lot of flak for daring to express an individual thought, one that isn’t sanctioned by the liberal left.

For her trouble, she was called transphobic, instructed to check her privilege and told not to speak for transwomen even though she’d been asked a question about womanhood.

So intense were the criticisms that she had to clarify her remarks on her Facebook page. In it, she wrote that while transwomen may have experienced difficulties as boys, it couldn’t be said that those difficulties are similar to the kind girls underwent, which normally entailed learning to shrink themselves, accommodate men’s fragile egos and view their bodies as a sinful vessel. Read more here.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

A Lesson in Socratic Questioning

No one wants to be roped by social mores, certainly not girls.
Photo: Creative Commons
Quality education and inspiring teachers are two important ingredients Nigeria sorely lacks, so when one stumble upon either, it's as refreshing as a drink of water after a long afternoon trek.

Recently, I interviewed a teacher, Itodo Samuel Anthony, whose Facebook posts on gender equality garnered over 100 shares and likes. In it, he questions his male students' assumptions, one they'd absorbed from society no doubt, that paying the bride price gives men the right to control their wives. He also involves his female students in the debate, asking if they'd like to be controlled by boys. Of course they reply, with the exception of one girl, in the negative.

Interestingly, the exercise proves most people don't want to be subjugated and girls and women can hold patriarchal views.

If more teachers, like Anthony, critiqued faulty opinions that have been hardened by customs and religion and passed off as facts of life, there's little reason why our society wouldn't fare a lot better.

You can read my interview with Anthony here.