My Tribe Is Justice

Zeituni Onyango was Barack Obama’s auntie. Obama writes about meeting her for the first time his best selling memoirs “Dreams of My Father” the story of reconnecting with his roots and finding a sense of belonging in Kenya. His sister Auma had given her ride to her place of work in a temperamental VW Beetle in Nairobi. As Auntie Zeituni was leaving the car for her office at the Kenya Breweries, where she worked as a computer programmer, she kissed Obama on the cheek and then turned to Auma and said, “ Make sure he doesn’t get lost again”.

This was an expression that Obama had never encountered and he asked his sister Auma what his Auntie Zeituni meant by getting lost. Auma explained the two meanings.

Happy Grandmother’s Day!

Why don’t we have a grandmother’s day? I wondered about that as I browsed through the list of international days currently observed by the United Nations.

Strange, considering the United Nations goes to great lengths to find solidarity with all of humanity. There is an international day for happiness, to remind everyone that joy is what the planet needs.

A World Rabies day to raise awareness around proper interaction with dogs and why you should remember to schedule your vaccination.

There is a World Toilet day because 1 billion people on earth have never known the luxury and privacy of a clean flush toilet.

A World Television day to celebrate the incredible power of TV to shape the world in its own image.  A day of Yoga, a polite reminder to the progressives that mastering the downward dog is what healthy living is all about these days.

I suppose someone in the UN think tank decided that grandmothers were adequately covered in the day for Widows, Older Persons, Rural Women or the World Elder Abuse day.

They could be right.

African grandmothers tend to fit the profile well; aged, widowed, rural and neglected.

Fear Of A Cool President

You have heard it repeatedly that the unveiling of the cabinet secretary nominees was refreshing. No protocols were observed and President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto relaxed demeanour was the major talking point. Their matching dress code, informal speech delivery and openness overshadowed the debate on the credibility of the nominees.  We are not used to a president dressing down during a live state function.

Traditionally, presidents only lost the suit when they went to the coast. I have to admit, they looked cool and cool sells.

It is quite obvious that they are big Obama fans. Ever since the Obama effect took over America, many Kenyans have behaved like jilted lovers who felt dumped. “That should have been our president!”

Invariably, there has been a secret longing for a cool president and Uhuru and Ruto joined at hip like Siamese twins are bleeding the prospect for all its worth. Uhuru’s casualness, calling journalists by name, inviting them to tea had the media corps gushing.

When you have lived through the stereotypical African big men presidents, Uhuru and Ruto’s buddy swagger in public engagement becomes something of mouth gaping spectacle.

How I Lost The Man Box

When I was starting out in the writing business in the late 90s, my business savvy friends advised me to get a card. I had a popular column, called Mantalk, which focused on a male point of view in contemporary urban relationships.  Within the first three years, the column started to generate countrywide interest and it seemed smart to seize the moment and milk my popularity for what it was worth. Had I considered a TV show, a speaking circuit or at the very least a cookbook? Anything to leverage my five minutes of fame. I was big on resolve and psyche but low on resources and the advisers told me to run lean. Start with a business card. People will take you more seriously.

Since I was shaping up as the go-to guy as far African masculinity challenges were concerned, I had to choose a card that reflected a manly profile that was not too cheesy nor too flimflam. I chose the color blue because I had read in some astrological profile that it symbolised strength and power, a tad bit more original than plain white. I grappled with some fancy titles.

“Journalist” was not accurate because I was not formally trained in the craft.

“Columnist” seemed a bit boxed. I did more than write columns.

“Media practitioner” had all the undertones of a PR overload.

“Anthropologist” sounded stiff and academic.

“Wordsmith” gave the impression of self-aggrandizement.

Eventually I ended up with no title under my name because my advisers added that, if I was any good at my craft, my name would be able to carry its own weight. At the back of the card, I decided, to add a little witty touch and wrote, “Lose the box”.

Of Uhuru Kenyatta And The Politics Of Cool

Uhuru cool

There was something understatedly cool about President Uhuru Kenyatta’s choice of dress at the historic Ivory Burning event. A black rugged khaki jacket over a black polo turtle neck and matching dark khakis was a sensible dress choice for a rainy day out in the park.  The president was owning an event that captured the world’s media attention and Uhuru sneakily delivered a reprimand directed at the powerful nations, the lords of conservation to lower their patronising voices and let Kenya (aka the poor country) do what was in its best interests.

The previous evening President was the host at the exclusive Giants Club dinner, a consortium of influence and power to tackle African elephant poaching crisis, whose membership includes African heads of state, global corporate CEOs, philanthropists, conservationists and international celebrities. At the Mount Kenya Safari Club. After formalities, Uhuru in a black suit took to the floor at Ugandan’s President Yoweri Museveni’s prodding. He started off with a hesitant step, almost bashful but soon got into his groove, pulling some decent salsa dance moves. On the same floor was Museveni ( Sevo himself) without his big hat ( Thank God!) stepping on the floor with a two female companions. Sevo stuck to his a one trick pony act, stamping up and down like a soldier marking time. I have heard Museveni rap or the millennials would say ‘spitting a few bars’ so he is not as square as he is dated.

 President Uhuru has his challenges but hanging loose is not one of them. The idea that a President can let loose in the same ordinary folk sense has become a captivating spectacle. It makes him look more human. 10 years ago a president getting down with an unidentified white woman at a private function would have been material for long speculation. From Jomo Kenyatta, through to Daniel Moi and Mwai Kibaki, the presidency was identified with a pronounced stiff upper lip. Presidential royalty was expected to maintain an air of aloofness, making no apology for not participating in the merrymaking rituals of the masses. President Uhuru has flipped that script and is shuffling in step with the millennials. I cannot picture Kibaki having the time nor day to fathom Sauti Sol, let alone inviting them for a sequestered function at State House and asking them to sing “ That song I like…Awinja’.

Every time, I watch the president dancing at a public function on the news, one cannot help but notice his sense of restraint, like the guy at the wedding party slowly foot tapping and head bobbing waiting for the beat to drop before unleashing the fancy footwork.

A week prior to the Ivory Burning event, Uhuru was getting hoisted for a line out by the national sevens rugby team, back with the winner’s trophy from Singapore. And he caught the ball which is a long way from the days when Daniel Moi kicking a football into space was a heroic act that grabbed headline news. Uhuru understands rugby camaraderie and no surprises there since he is a genuine card holder with a rarely referenced high school stint as a winger at Nairobi’s St. Mary’s school.

UK-Offload rugby

The one dimension that Uhuru Kenyatta has introduced to the Kenyan political landscape is that ‘looking cool” is worth its weight in PR gold. Of the stereotypical presidential male traits, playing cool is no longer a leadership liability. Since Obama happened, grownups no longer frown on taking selfies.   With a younger voter demographic coming of age, the cool factor has gained serious currency. Image trumps substance all day and digital savvy presidents would never pass up the opportunity to milk a gif worthy moment. Millennials need to be engaged on their terms and a regular Facebook update about a day out on government duty won’t cut it. Shoot a video and add a music bed to it if you are serious about likes.

Politics is about identity and voters are drawn to people they perceive and believe are like them. In Kenya, tribal identity has been the most persuasive force. However with a better informed and disruptive youthful population, appealing to millennials takes more than a familiar last name. Instead of identifying solely around tribe, party affiliations, economic policies, young people are creating new codes of identity that challenge the dominant political narratives and politicians are making rapid adjustments.

Uhuru’s style rather than substance is reconstructing masculinity identity in 2017 election politics. We are entering a campaign period where the inability to ‘katika’ would just be as sacrilegious trying to be president while single.

Perceptions of maniliness have changed and shaking a leg is how one earns credentials as Performer-In-Chief. The presidential campaign playbook has evolved and if you hope to connect with young voters, one has to descend to where they are and sometimes that entails learning the words to your favourite Sauti Sol song. It helps a great deal to work on some moves, because it is a dance contest to State house.

Uhuru Obama dance