Missing The Forest For The Trees

There is a concept in corporate governance called the Hammer principle.

It states, never use a hammer to swat a fly on someone’s head. It won’t end well.

American psychologist  Abraham Maslow, in his book, “Psychology of Science” talks about this over reliance of a familiar tool in his famous quote, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as is it were a nail”.

Maslow’s law of the hammer came to mind as soon I caught the news on the latest happenings on the security front. Al Shabaab militants had wrecked havoc on innocent civilians in Lamu county and varnished into Boni forest. Coast regional coordinator, Nelson Marwa was livid when he addressed a press conference. He looked like a man itching to throttle someone. Nelson Marwa is known for his hyper aggressive staunch and Napoleonic complex but it was what he said that made me sit up. In response to the recurring Al Shabaab terror raids, KDF air strikes were ordered to flush the militants out of their secure hideouts in the dense Boni forest.  

My Man In Somalia

In the beginning, I felt invincible. I was part of a duo in our neighbourhood, that the boys at the estate called the ‘untouchables’. They could look but they could not touch. We were army wives, married to soldiers and the kind of men you did not want to cross.

Now, not so much.

I have been counting down days, since the start of the year. My man Bwasa, a KDF sergeant is going to soon be back from Somalia. He said, this would be the mother of all Valentines, when he walked me down the aisle. I had anticipated this day for years but we were unable to settle on a date because Bwasa’s combat mission dates were unpredictable.

Mama, I Do Not Want To Be A War Hero

KDF war hero

On a drive back to Nairobi from Kisumu, I stopped in Nakuru to catch up with an old friend over lunch. Sunny was a Nakuru boy who had taken up the very healthy habit of avid reading, mostly around historical subjects and excitedly shared his latest reads. Most of what he had to say felt like a crash course on European history during the 1st and 2nd World Wars. The better part flew over my head but I had some grasp on Nazi Germany and the rise of the Third Reich due to the attention paid to that period in cinema. Sunny was astounded by the tyranny of Adolf Hitler’s reign during the Third Reich (1933-1945) and how ugly it got for the civilian population. “People were stripped of their decency, even clothes, Man! How quickly we forget!” It was a statement that demanded a moment of silence. After a long drawn out sigh, he added, “My mother says, we are lucky to be a generation that did not have to live through a war”.

Only a mother would understand the tormenting fear that shadows the departure of sons sent off to war and not wish it on another. When the higher ups decide that the battle has to be fought, some mothers have no choice but to give their sons up for war. My grandfathers’ generation came of age in British East Africa and their lives were disrupted by foreign wars. From their ranks, battalions of young men were shipped from Kenya to the Asian jungles in Burma to fight for the British crown in the 40s. They comprised the forgotten heroes from Kings African Rifle brigade, the 11th East African division who played a small but significant role in driving the Japanese invasion out of Burma and helped Britain regain control of its colony and dominion over the Burmese.

Many did not return after the end of war in 1945 but their families kept their memories alive by passing the names on to the next generation. One war veteran named Omanje, from my little village out in Gem, Siaya County, who lived to see the 80s, participated in the action in Burma. Villagers describe an eccentric character who built a famous rickety wooden bridge across the rapids of river Yala. It was a personal bridge and he charged people to use it. I never heard anyone refer to him as a war hero. He just a short tempered old man who smoked too much pot and fought in a big war with wazungus, a long time ago, in a country that nobody knew anything about.

Soldiers are often heroes only in death. It is a recurring story of men who put their lives on the line for country. Forgotten heroes, only brought to our attention to remind us of the privilege of having another man fight to preserve one’s right to a peaceful night sleep. In death, they are accorded the dignity of a military funeral complete with a draped flag. Young widows urged to hold back their tears for there is no greater honour than dying for your country on the battlefield. Every soldier is a mother’s son and I empathise with Kenyan mothers agonising over the fate of their sons in the aftermath of the devastating Al Shabaab attack on a KDF battalion at El Adde inside Somalia.

This level of distress has been a constant for Kenyan mothers since our troops crossed into Somalia in 2011 under President Kibaki in a military campaign dubbed “Linda Nchi”. Five years on, the carnage has been relentless and the body count piles up. Innocent shoppers at Westgate to hapless students at Garissa University and now scaling up to an overrun army camp in Somalia.

The official response has fallen into a cyclic pattern of ceremonial appearances. The breaking news story, headlined by an impassioned speech from the visibly angry Commander in Chief roundly condemning the attackers and promising revenge. Trailed by reports of the military in hot pursuit of the perpetrators with the single mission of hitting them where it hurts. Airforce jets are instructed to launch airstrikes to satiate outraged citizens’ thirst for revenge. Peace mongers are denounced for lack of patriotism and bowing to the pressure of the extremists. Politicians across the board reserve comments on accountability as patriotic fervour rants the air. A week later, the heat cools down and the news cycle returns to the intrigues of the political business.

War on terror coverage has become an occupational hazard in media reportage. The preferred narrative of a cowardly rag tag militia is becoming a difficult sell to a rational thinking public. Given the very real trauma that terrorism has visited on both civilians and military personnel, Kenyans have adopted a deflection strategy. If we pretend it does not exist, it might just go away. It is unpatriotic to apportion blame as a country mourns its fallen heroes and families agonizingly wait for their bodies for burial. The thoughtful things to say is, “Mistakes were made’ and to leave room for speculation.

The truth is the first causality as it becomes highly ambiguous. The default media position is towing the sanctioned script. Crossing the fine line between the truth and Al Shabaab’s propaganda machine is walking into a minefield of consequences. With this information gap, citizens resort to what they know. Slogan chanting and hashtag activism #KDFOurHeroes #SomeonetellAlshabaab. Patriots beat the drums of war from the safety of their storeyed bedrooms desperate for someone to blame for the induced state of helplessness.

It is easier to look the other way and simplify terrorism to religious fanaticism. Easier to feign ignorance as Somalis in Eastleigh endure another round of official profiling and police harassment. Stony silence prevails when collective blame visits Kenyan Muslims every time we have a terrorist attack.

Meanwhile, the grieving mothers, attempt to come to terms with the loss of a son sent off to war patriotically. A mother whose final consolation, is an empty condolence message that reads, “We sorry for your loss but never forget! Your son was a WAR HERO!”

Strathmore Drill: Mimicking Reality Is Not A Joke

Strathmore drill

Prank skits on Kenyan TV have become a most annoying trend. They clutter your visual space and the slapstick is rarely funny. These skits initially invaded our mindscape as cheap downtime fillers and oddly Kenyans have become desensitized to the phenomenon. Pranksters left loose among the public can create disturbance in ways likely to increase and incite havoc. It is puzzling how pranking evolved nationally into an adult activity. Most grown folk typically stop pranking by teenage.

Sadly these days, making a fool of innocent people on camera qualifies as a legit TV content. People have forgotten how to crack a good joke and prank shows basically encourage laughter at things mediocre or humiliating. Cool Nairobi city people assailed with this grafted humour are expected to act restrained and tolerant. A measly apology plus the opportunity to play idiot on TV is all that it takes for them to play along and not punch the prankster in the face.

We are deluded by annoying strangers interrupting innocent folk, violating private space and publicly belittling people in broad daylight and trying to pass it off as FUNNY! Most of us prefer to be spontaneous and original with our laughter.

Maybe pranking works for irate Westerners who need major prodding to lighten up. Over here people do not appreciate disturbances from random strangers on any given sunny day. The reality in the so called ‘Developed’ world is that some producer can leave home daily and earn a decent living by scaring the shit out of strangers.

In our Kenyan reality, if you pull a prank carelessly, in the wrong part of town chances are you may lose a limb or your life. In my village, pranksters are quick runners who operate under the cover of darkness for good reason. The general public finds them a nuisance.

Nowadays too many people think their tired jokes are universally funny. This infiltration of ‘Knock! Knock! Who is there!’ level jokes is tedious. Being Kenyan is already an exhausting reality and the last thing anyone needs is an idler looking for a TV filler complicating their day.

These new generation of digital rebels scare easy. The most effective pranks evoke and involve fear. Adorn a creepy mask, black cloak and jump out a bush in Uhuru Park, playing Satan and you would be surprised at the number of adults scampering for their lives. Whatever happened to the sensibility of shags where people faced by the unknown took a second look before panicking? Clearly years of sustained indoctrination has left a marked impression of what evil is supposed to look like. Culturally we collectively learn what to fear from perceived experience much of which is exclusively imaginary.

When the “imaginary” disguised as a drill causes loss of innocent lives, this amounts to taking a game too far! In view of the unstable terrorist climate, this newly learned fear of terrorism has to be countered intelligently.

Recent terror related incidents locally have shown a glaring lack of safety drills. As such, priority should be placed on enforcing clear and real evacuation procedures for regular citizens. Students in particular should be taught to distinguish between a drill and an actual emergency. To avoid stampedes, exits or emergency exit options ought to be taught as mandatory studies.

When an institution of repute such as Strathmore College passes off a prank as a drill using live ammo with tragic consequences, it is wrong. Perpetuating terror based caricatured stereotypes in a learning Institution is careless.

The Strathmore “terror drill” incident, highlights enacted official ignorance of epic proportions. Why would anyone sanction a make-believe terrorist attack in view of our recent trauma? Why continue pushing the panic buttons and heighten animosity among innocent people? When will we learn to understand we are multi ethnic and stop the internal profiling?

The threat of susceptibility is existent and in the face of death, normal people run for their lives. As it is, the country’s youth are traumatized and depressed. The children are crying yet we tell them, “not to worry. It is just a drill”.

The recurring mass episodes of random and unchecked savagery means that people need to be taught how to mentally cope and survive under duress.

If a make-believe fantasy world as seen on TV and the internet defines our daily reality, how will actual terror events affect our collective reality as Kenyans?

The Writing Is On The Wall


The construction of the security wall between Kenya and Somalia has begun. 700kms of concrete to fend off Al Shabaab insurgents along the Kenya- Somalia border. The basis of the wall is flawed. The timing, knee-jerk. A good number of the terrorism suspects are Kenyans, living securely within our borders. Their funding networks are embedded in the country. Entire communities have ethnic ties across the Somalia border. Where does one even start? Mega projects are typically conduits for mega corruption and the opportunity to pilfer is written all over the proposed wall. The tender-preneurs must be salivating and rubbing their palms together. We have long list of pending national priorities that could make any patriot want to bang their head against a wall. The security machinery is in need of a serious overhaul. The incompetence on display can be tracked to systemic flaws that are routinely ignored. Corruption within the security ranks is at epic levels.

The reason for a low-key opposition against the audacious construction project must be due to Kenyans affinity to walls. When a Kenyan private developer grabs land, the first order of business is the construction of a perimeter wall.

When I was growing up manicured hedges lined properties. In most estates, fences were nonexistent and gates were rare. Where gates existed, they were only a few feet high and see-through. In the affluent neighbourhoods, bamboo fence and barbed wire served as a deterrence. Over the last two decades, the population exploded, rogue elements multiplied and the rate of house burglaries increased. In response to insecurity, walls replaced live hedges at a rapid rate. Over time the gates have gotten larger and solid.

I live in a walled and gated city. New residential properties are all walled in. No sensible Nairobian would move into a housing estate that did not have a perimeter wall. Inner walls are constructed within the perimeter walls to separate neighbours who treasure privacy. Sophisticated security alarms are installed within those walls and unarmed watchmen control entry through a hole in the wall. Watchmen and women are the underclass that man the walls and gates, every few meters apart. In suburbs of the city, there is a ratio of a watchman for every ten citizens.

A 100 years from now, Nairobi will be reminiscent of Lamu Old Stone town. Historians will talk of the barricaded buildings, massive solid gates, numerous sentry posts, the narrow roads, of the old city and marvel at fortressed existence of past Nairobi residents who solved problems by building more walls.