Friday, June 28, 2013

The Mkokoteni Economy

They jostle and hustle for roads space with vehicles through the morning traffic as they pull their cargo-laden carts. With pain and strain being their lot from dawn to dusk, mkokoteni pushers are the human versions of beasts of burdens.

Labour hardened and more often than not covered in soiled and tattered garb, these men literary feeds from the sweat of their brows. 

Motorists who dare stand on their way ends up with smashed side mirrors while pedestrians who hesitate to give way will be nursing a broken limb.

“Navigating through the morning traffic jam with three sacks of potatoes on board from Marikiti Market in Muthurwa area to the other side of town is no mean task,” explains Peter Mutahi-not the real name- a cart pusher who spoke to The Nairobian on condition of anonymity. “You not only fight to deliver the goods on time but you are also dodging the city council askaris and trying to avoid smashing into other peoples cars”.

Mutahi says that he pays the City Council Sh50 every day after which he gets a receipt which he has to carry around all day, failure to which he pays again.
“In some very rare occasions I am lucky and I don’t meet kanjo (council askaris) hence I don’t pay the money,” he says. “But that is very rare, it happens around once or twice a month”.

Mutahi explains that he is just a beba beba (pusher) who doesn’t own a mkokoteni and have to rent one whenever he gets some goods to ferry from Marikiti to another destination.

As we gain his confidence he directs us to the famous Marikiti Market in Muthurwa from where he operates.
We had to literary dodge our way around a throng of vehicular, human and mkokoteni traffic in the densely crowded market until we get to a group of men standing next to a long line of orderly parked carts.

This is where Mutahi and other beba bebas usually rent the carts, and the owners are very willing to talk as long as long as we don’t reveal their names. 

“I used to have around thirty mkokotenis but unfortunately all of them except six were stolen and sold to scrap metal dealers by rogue beba bebas,” explains Blackie, one of the cart owners who decline to give his real name for fear of being harassed by city council askaris. “The remaining ones I only hire to those pushers that I know really well”.

He says that the beba bebas are supposed to operate all day except between midday and two o’clock. Anyone caught by the city council inside the prohibited time is usually in big trouble.

“If caught you either bribe your way out or the mkokoteni will be impounded by the askaris,” Blackie explains. “You have to pay Sh1000 for it to be released by kanjo, and since the pushers barely have any money with them it’s the owner who usually foots the bill”.

The cart owners support the order by Nairobi Governor to revoke all the scrap metal dealers licenses saying they are the ones who abates the stealing of mkokotenis

But that’s where their love with the city fathers ends.
“The council only collects money but there are dangerous potholes in the market that have broken the legs of many beba bebas,” complains Mike Muya, another cart owner who, like Blackie, declines to give his real names for fear of reprisals from city council askaris. “They haven’t provided a parking for us yet they harass us whenever they find the mkokotenis double packed saying we are obstructing the market’s traffic”.

Our efforts to get in touch with the City Council officers in charge of Marikiti Market bore no fruits since the calls went unanswered.

Muya who owns ten carts says that the money he gets is barely enough to sustain his wife and three children given the fact that one mkokoteni hardly rakes in a hundred shillings a day.

“It costs between Sh8,000 and Sh10,000 to make one cart and the beba bebas hire the mkokoteni at Sh30 per trip on average,” he explains. “This means to get back the initial investment the cart have to do more than 300 trips which is more than a 100 days of consistently doing three trips per day”.

This, Muya says, is the ideal situation since one have to fact in money paid to the city council, days when the cart won’t get any business, even theft and traffic jams that sometimes bog down the mkokotenis for hours. 

However, the pricing dynamics are also determined by the distance between the point of departure and the destination.
From Marikiti to the central business district they will charge Sh30 but longer distances like Ngara, Mombasa and Jogoo roads the price could go as high as Sh100 because the beba beba will spend more time with the cart. 

“We are very disappointed that those we elected during the general election like our MP Maina Kamanda and Central Ward County Representative Gitonga Mwaniki have never been seen in Marikiti since they won,” Muya complains. “The only elected leader who visited us a few days ago is Senator Mike Sonko”.

The mkokoteni owners say that these elected leaders should be the ones presenting their plight to the Nairobi County authorities. 

Each cart owner marks his fleet using a unique trademark, which comes in lofty titles like Global War, Pastor Investment, Godfather, Jack Mover, Gold King and Yesu ni Bwana.
Unlike the Matatu industry that operates through co-operatives, the mkokoteni sector does not have any formal organization but for one to succeed they need the support of an insider.

“You have to be brought in by an established owner, otherwise you will face a lot of hurdles,” quips Blackie who started as a beba beba and rose to be a mkokoteni owner. “If you come on your own your carts will be stolen and you will get no business”.

Apart from mkokoteni, the trolley is also a familiar site along the streets of Nairobi. The trolley business, The Nairobian learnt, have the same story as the cart industry where there a many pushers who earns peanuts and few owners who takes home a lion share of the income.

Trolley pushers rent their tools of trade on a daily basis and pay the mandatory Sh50 city council fees, which means to operate at a profit one has to earn more than Sh150.

“There are other miscellaneous costs like the city council askaris can arrest you on allegations of driving on the wrong side of the road or parking on the pavement,” explains Moustapha Azia, a trolley pusher who operates from the Bus Station area. “We would like the city council should specify how much a trolley should pay per day or week”.
He says sometimes he is arrested even three times a day.
Unlike many other mkokoteni and trolley pushers who have resigned to the fate of toiling in the tiring trade for the rest of their lives, Anthony Mwangi, 24, believes that for him pulling a trolley is for a season and a reason.

“I started doing this job while in high school and right now I am working to save enough to join Nairobi Aviation College to do a course in Hotel and Catering Management,” he told The Nairobian. “Hopefully, I will have enough money from my daily earnings and well wishers to start my studies by September”.

Saying that the youth should not be selective in jobs as long as they can earn a living, the ambitious young man says the public should also erase the perception that all beba bebas are thieves or conmen.

Mwangi says he hires his trolley from an owner who operates based at Tea Room around River Road area.
“He owns more than 40 trolleys and he have a manager who ensures all the trolleys are hired out daily and returned in the evening,” he explains. “He is a wealthy man who has other business interests”.

Efforts by The Nairobian to track down the trader bore no fruis. 
There are other beba bebas who owns the trolleys they use, although this is rare given the fact that a good one costs between Sh5000 to Sh8000.

Fact Box
The history of mkokoteni stretches far back to Kenya's pre-independence era where the carts were being pulled by animals like donkeys and cows. However, how the name “mkokoteni” was coined is quiet unclear.
Some scholars say the word“koko” stems from “kokota” which means to drag in Swahili. Just like the word matatu, the terminology must have come about as a matter of necessity.
But despite the mystery of the origin of its name, mkokoteni remains an integral part of Nairobi's urban transport.

Story first published in The Nairobian

Friday, June 14, 2013

PAWA254: The Artistes' Creative Den

PAWA 254 was a hub established more than a year ago to be the go-to place for artistes in need of inspiration and to create a platform where creatives could use their talents to bring social change. 

And the place is striving to live-up to that expectation, as we confirmed during a visit early this week. From the interior d├ęcor to pink and purple furniture and the room designs, convention is thrown out of the window and creativity let lose.

Emblazoned on the red, light green and dark walls are graffiti of social rebels, heroes and heroines of past and present struggles. Wangari Maathai, Malcom X, Tom Mboya are
 artistically embedded on the walls with their famous quotes to symbolize PAWA 254’s quest to make artists a formidable force in social struggle.

“As a young and upcoming photojournalist I had no mentor and I had to do everything on my own which was very obstructive to my career growth,” explains PAWA 254 founder Boniface Mwangi. “I vowed that one day I will start a hub where artists and photographers can meet and mentor and inspire each other”.

The renowned photojournalist and activist talked to us from a niche in the hub that he calls office, where the walls are sprayed with defiant graffiti like “Revolution Now”, “We are not Afraid” and other artistic depictions of his struggles for social justice. 

Mwangi confesses that most of the unconventional methods of protest that Kenyans have witnessed in the recent past like the use of more than 200 coffins, pigs and vulture graffiti in the city center are hatched at PAWA 254.

“PAWA is the word power artistically corrupted and 254 is Kenya’s country code,” Mwangi explains the unique name. “This alongside the motto “Arts Rising” was designed to capture the centers theme which is to use the creative elements to bring social, political and economic change in society”.

Even the various places across the hub are suggestive of a highly political artistic community. Mageuzi Space is the hall where functions are conducted while Ubuntu Room is the area that holds the workstations.

PAWA Roof or Ideas Garage is the converted roof top where artists can relax, play pool, work in the work shop or just breathe in the fresh air that is in abundant around this State House neighbourhood. 

The Switch, a gospel program aired by K24 television, is beamed live every Sunday from the PAWA Roof.

Even the tanks are not spared by the artist’s brush for they are adorned by larger-than-life portrait paintings of Burkina Faso revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara.

“PAWA 254 is quiet an experience for artists because since I started coming here I have met creative people from different fields like film makers and programmers,” explains Swift, a graffiti artists. “This have not only improved my perception as an artist but have also widened contact base which a good thing for an artist”.

Besides providing an ideal workplace, the hub also organizes various interactive platforms where professionals from the creative sector conduct talks and seminars. Various activities are assigned to each day of the week.

“I like the place because it gives our show the touch for a raw setting and makes it stand above other gospel productions in Kenya,” explains DJ Soxxy, one of the presenters for The Switch. “We need more places like this to give artist an opportunity to interact and work in a conducive environment”.

Tuesdays evenings are marked for PAWA Debates where prominent people are invited to give talks about issues affecting the creative industry. This is meant to not only engage with the audience but also horn participants’ public speaking skills and make them better leaders in their respective areas of expertise.

“This is meant to create leaders because at PAWA 254 we believe art is supposed to be geared towards bringing about tangible change social change,” explains Mwangi. “It’s important to be articulate in what you do since you can earn a living by giving talks about it”. 

The two-time CNN Photojournalist of the Year says that he travels to at least six countries every year to give talks on photography and social activism from which he gets paid. This has made inspired him to inculcate speaking events at PAWA 254 where artists have a chance to horn their communication skills.

“Last year I won Prince Claus Award which came along with Sh2.5 million from which I bought a family car and the rest I dedicated to the development of PAWA 254,” Mwangi says. “Sometimes I turn down talk invitations abroad because I am overwhelmed by my various engagements in Kenya”.

He says he used part of the money to buy a family car while the rest went to fund the activities of PAWA 254. 

The hub has a trophy board where the 29 year-old photojournalist’s numerous awards are displayed alongside those of other artistes that have been part of PAWA 254 like renowned gospel rapper Juliani

Boniface Mwangi claims that he sold both his car and his wife’s to raise money for the setting up of the non-profit making art center in 2011. Thanks to this generous gesture poets, painters, web designers, rappers, writers, singers and any other Tom, Dick and Harry in the creative industry have a hangout where they congregate in various days of the week for bonding sessions.

“On Thursdays PAWA 254 always hold PAWA Salon, a three-hour session in the evenings where we invite a professional from the creative field who takes the audience through the nitty-gritty of their line,” explains PAWA 254 manager Kevin Oyugi. “The speaker could be an artist, photographer, painter, poet, writer or any other creative professional”.

Fridays PAWA 254 always has what they call Open House where artists meet from eleven to five. Visitors on this day are at liberty to engage in any constructive activity of their choice and to use the facilities of the center like WiFi and studio rooms for free.

“This is one of the most popular sessions because the artistes have an opportunity to meet with their peers, interact and exchange ideas,” Oyugi explains. “There are also performances at the Mageuzi Space while those that are willing can use the PAWA Rooftop parlour or the fine art studio”.    

Besides the usual activities of the week the center also organizes workshops, trainings and partnerships in conjunction with organizations that supports art, all in a bid to ensure talent is exposed and nurtured. 

For instance a few weeks ago PAWA 254 partnered with British Council to conduct a training dubbed Culture Shift which brought together creative people from the art and technology world.

“Just like artistes, techies are creative people hence there is a need to bring the two together in order for them to connect and see how they can explore each other’s unique abilities,” the center’s manager said. “This being a digital age it’s important to expose artistes to technology in order to enable them explore the potential that platforms like internet presents”.

After the workshop, the techies and artistes are supposed to collaborate on a single project, with the winning team bagging 5000 pounds which they will use to implement their idea.
Besides partnerships, PAWA 254 also develops in-house competitions meant to inspire creativity and keep artistes coming to the hub. One of them is Cypher, a competition whose performances were broadcast live by a Google hangout. 

During the time of the week when there are no activities, the art hub acts as a workplace for PAWA 254 project managers working on various projects like photo exhibitions, poetry workshops and citizen journalism training. 

But this is not like any other workplace since staff has access to DSTV, a kitchen, a rooftop relaxation parlour and cool music playing on the background and a chilling space that doubles up as a prayer spot for Muslims. 

“We try to provide an environment that inspires creativity and concentration so that artistes can bring the best out of their potential,” Kevin says. “We also have membership structure where individuals or groups pay a monthly fee of Sh10,000 which gives them access to the office space, WiFi and other facilities”. 

He says the money generated goes to funding of events and other expenses incurred in the running of PAWA 254.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Struggle within a Struggle in Kenya Civil Society

The world watched in awe as a group of activists damped a drove of bloody pigs on the gates of parliament to protest against the legislators clamour for a pay rise. To many Kenyans, and the world at large, this was a show of solidarity a spectacle of audacity unseen before.

The unprecedented event was organized by a group of civil societies under the umbrella of Kenya for Peace with Truth and Justice (KPTJ).

But as we learnt, a battle of supremacy simmered beneath the dramatic display of pigs and running street battles with the police.

“That days demonstration was a well-choreographed ritual by the elite career activists and it was supposed to be performed and executed as per the planned script,” explained a civil society insider who talked on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to speak to the media. “As pre-planned they knew ten demonstrators will dare the anti-riot police, be buttered, clobbered and arrested and after wards they will be rewarded Ksh50,000 each”.

But the plans are said to have crumbled after young volunteer activists from like Dandora, Kibera and other poor neighbourhoods driven by a patriotic desire to tell off the “MPigs” joined in. The mainstream organizations are also said to have paid the bail out money for those who were arrested.

These are the characters that were dancing and chanting around the blood licking pigs while lifting up piglets and hog heads. With most of them young and enthusiastic they are the ones that were adding vigour and verve to the whole fanfare.

“From the outset, any one might have thought that the demonstrators were one as hand, and united in their purposes and strategies against collective greed of MPs, our source explained. “But unfortunately they found themselves in the logger head with the elite career activists who tried to physically elbowed, ejected and kicked them out of that days ritual.”  

He claims that although the civil society gathering presented a united front they were inspired and driven by overlapping agendas and vested interests.

It was noticeable that while the young activists were busy chanting and jumping their older and well known colleagues like Maina Kiai and Yash Pal Ghai were giving interviews for both local and international channels.

“I never do this for money and if somebody thinks that’s the case let them come with the evidence and I vow I will never go to the streets again,” declares Boniface Mwangi, one of the architects of the MPigs campaign. “Why should I setup myself to be clobbered whereby I can even be shot dead, get a lifetime injury or end up in prison?”

Mwangi says contrary to the rumours that he is a gun for hire, the says he makes his money through photography and giving talks in various institutions across the world.

“I travel to at least six countries every year where I am invited by academic and other institutions to give talks on issues to do with social justice and photojournalism,” the two times CNN Photojournalist of the Year explains. “I make good money from these activities hence I don’t need anybody’s bribes to demand justice and create a better Kenya for my children”.

Mwangi denies that there is an undergoing struggle explaining that he and his associates directs all their energies towards fighting for a better Kenya rather than jostling for fame and fortune.

But our informer maintains that there is a “struggle within the struggle” in the civil society circles pitting “professional activists” whose economic endowment affords them abodes in upmarket neighborhoods like Lavington, Kileleshwa and Kilimani against those genuinely concerns citizens from Kibera, Dandora, Korogocho and Mathare.

“As the demonstration was going on, Boniface Mwangi a lone ranger demonstrator who came to lime light through his pet project Picha Mtaani fame, and has formed his own movement Kenya Ni Kwetu, was seen manhandling his fellow comrade in activism Getonga of Bunge La Mwananchi Gitonga,” he explains. “He forcefully snatched Gitongas mega speaker and threw it inside parliament’s perimeter wall, saying he has enough money to buy him another one”.

But Boniface Mwangi says Gitonga was paid by politicians to come and disrupt the peaceful protest so that it can be dispersed by the police.

“He was telling people to storm the parliament compound which is trespass hence would have resulted in people being arrested and beaten by the police,” Mwangi claims. “For these reasons I took the loud speaker after the police refused to arrest him. I told him I would buy him another one, and the pledge still stands”.

The activist who is organizing another demonstration next Tuesday says Kenyans should brace for a surprise, yet again.

“We are determined to use all the means within our reach to ensure the MPs get the point that the whole country is against their abnormal pay demands,” the photojournalist says.

Others who are said to be having beef with each other are Gacheke Gachihi of Release Political Prisoners (RPP) and Fredrick Odhiambo, the man who famously heckled Retired President Kibaki during Jamhuri Day in 2008.

Okoiti Omtata, a veteran of Kenya’s civil society movement, says that he does what he does because of his love for this country and not because of money.

“I dedicate one percent of my time and ten percent of my income to agitating for the right of citizens through civil society engagement,” Omtata says. “This I do as a way of giving back to the Kingdom of God since am a devout Roman Catholic. Even Jesus Christ was an activist because he spent his life on earth advocating for justice and fighting religious dogma”.

The playwright says he works like any other Kenyans and he is not paid by anybody to do what he does.

“I write books, do farming in western Kenya, give talks and do consultancy work for people hence I am not under anybody’s payroll or I don’t know of any activist that is paid to be beaten on the streets,” Omtata claims. “There is also no struggle within the civil society as you say and I can tell you that most of the young people that you saw during the anti-MPs protest outside parliament are young patriots driven by passion for a better Kenya”.

However, he admits there are those who form organizations in order to attract funding and these are the ones who gives the civil movement a bad name.

“These are lobbyists who are paid to agitate for a certain agenda and their mission is supply-driven,” Omtata explains. “On the other hand, activists are patriots whose actions are demand-driven and most of them do what they do because of an inner conviction that goes beyond money”.

While lobbyists are paid to advance courses like tobacco bill to ensure they favour the industry players, activists demonstrate to demand the repair of a damaged road or reconnection of water supply.

He says organizations like the Mau Mau and individuals like Dedan Kimathi, Martin Luther King Junior were all activists because they were spurred into action by the demand to see change in their society.

“Those who say people are being paid should know that sometimes we contribute to give the young men bus fare to go home after a protest since most of them come from very poor backgrounds,” Omtata told writer. “Therefore the issue of people being paid to be in the in the streets is a lame excuse by cowards who don’t have the guts to face the police in a protest”.

He says he has an organization called Kenyans for Justice and Development (KEJUDE) whose activities are funded by monthly contributions from members.

Okoiti is remembered for chaining himself outside the police headquarters and successfully suing the government to unban the controversial play Shackles of Doom.

He cites Grannies Against Greed and Gluttony, an organization of grand mothers who participated in the demonstration against the MPs’ pay rise, as an example of the fact that the civil society is not a money-driven sector.

The same sentiments are echoed by Gladwell Otieno of African Center for Open Governance (AFRICOG) who says claims that activists do what they do because of money is part of a smear campaign against the civil society by those determined to undermine its course.

“Most of those who work in civil society organizations are driven by a desire to see change in our country besides the fact for some who work there full time it’s a job,” she explains. “As an organization Africog acts what it preaches and that’s why we display our financiers in our website for everyone to see”.

Among those listed as Africog funders in its website include the British Department for International Developemnt (DfiD), Embassy of Finland in Kenya, Royal Netherlands Embassy in Kenya, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and German International Cooperation (GIZ).

“Although we are donour funded we turn down any funding that comes with conditions or attachments that we consider not to be in line with our vision and mission as an organization,” Otieno explains. “Therefore those who says that we are puppets of our funders expose the nature of their greed-driven personalities rather than the other way round”.

The AFRICOG board of directors includes Maina Kiai, John Githongo, Gladwell Otieno, Nigerian scholar and gender activist Funmi Olonisakin, Stella Chege and Duncan Okello.

Besides being part of the team that organized the pig-laden demonstration outside parliament a few weeks ago the organization was also one of the three petitioners who challenged the election of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the Supreme Court after the March 4th elections.

“AFRICOG contributed cash which enabled Boniface Mwangi purchase and transport blood, mother pig and its piglets from Dagoreti to the gate of parliament,” our source reveals. “Muslim for Human Rights (MUHURI) also contributed in printing T-shirts and Transparency International Kenya was in charge of media mobilization”.

He claims that while big civil organizations facilitated the event financially the real work was done by the poor grassroots organizers from Kangemi, Kibera, Mathare, Mukuru, Ndandora, Korogocho and Majengo.

“Elitist civil society activists are hypocrites per excellence. None of them was arrested, tear gassed or clobbered,” the source adds. “They purported to occupy parliament as an up rise against collective greed of Kenyan MPs, but their act was not for the purpose of keeping parliament in check, neither were they in the course of trying to re-shape the state and government behavior”.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Time for Africans to Tell their Tales

Africa celebrated 50 years with a grand bash that brought together the usual congregation of heads of state in Addis Ababa. And although the condemnation of ICC and crying over missed dreams of improving the lives of more than a billion Africans were the main themes, there is was one equally important issue that was missing in the agenda.

And that is the fact that most African stories are actually told by non-Africans. 

To confirm this sad issue, you only need to pop in your nearest bookstore and check the names of authors of major titles dealing with themes like Congo crisis, the Somalia situation, infant mortality rates and food insecurity.

You will discover that the writers have surnames like Gordon, Maxwell, Simmons and others all of which are of Western origin.
And as expected, the skewed perceptions on Africa saturate their works which, reinforced by an equally biased western media, is the root cause of this continent being perceived as cesspit of global misery.

This explains why a New Yorker or Torontonian gets the shock of their life if they meet an African who have never been bitten by a snake or whose country is not being ravaged by war, famine or AIDS. 

And the most tragic thing is the fact that African writers, either out of laziness or lack of initiative, hardly writes factual books about the positive things happening in the continent to counter this pre-meditated negative publicity campaign.

While I believe scribes like the late Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, and Ousmane Sembene have done the continent a great service through their fictional work, facts are better told through factual books.

As Chimamanda Adichie, that rapidly rising Nigerian scribe, once said, facts are stranger than fiction.

And the content is not short of positive facts.

We need more Africans doing factual titles on the success story of Rwanda for the last two decades, the gains made in Angola since the end of the civil war, the rise of the African middle class, the success stories of Kenyan athletes and the tremendous and rapid growth of the African information and communication technology sector. 

Even conflict hotspots like Darfur, Somalia, Congo and Mali needs to be told from an African eye, which is likely to see something the Western authors miss either through commission or omission.
Most of the factual work in Africa is done by academics, more often than not as a requirement in pursuit of scholarly honours like PhDs rather than as a quest to inform the general public. This scholarly tomes ends up in University libraries where they gather dust until someone comes calling for class work research.

Hardly do ordinary readers in the streets bother with such books.
African leaders, either for luck of faith in their own or an effort to avoid their stories being told by those who know the skeletons in their political closets, most have their authorized biographies done by foreigners.

Nelson Mandela, Thabo Mbeki and Daniel Arap Moi are a few examples. But even the unauthorized works of major African personalities are still dominated by foreign authors despite the subjects’ homelands swarming with seasoned writers. 

I suspect the reason why African writers are obsessed with writing fiction is because it involves less physical work in terms of research, with the writer feeding the reader with a concoction creative thoughts weaved through life experiences.

For instance, it took Mark Gevisser eight years of research to write the hugely informative Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred

Many will be quick to say that Africans don’t read hence it matters less whether their story is told by locals or foreigners, but I will counter this by quoting Patrice Lumumba who once prophesied that “The day will come when history will speak…Africa will write its history…it will be a history of glory and dignity”.