Not just big dicks: Kenya’s real cross-cutting theme is class
Kenya’s political system has disenfranchised millions of women, but it has also disenfranchised the majority of the population, saving its greatest levels of violence for the poor and marginalised.
[Once you’ve read this, read Nyabola’s rejoinder: Kenya: It really is about dicks.]
In a piece published by African Arguments last month, entitled “It’s time to axe Kenya’s big dick politics”, Nanjala Nyabola argues that Kenyan politics is “overwhelmingly patriarchal” and largely driven by inflated male egos.
This is also reflected in how observers tend to see the country, says Nyabola, and while many people focus on land and ethnicity in their analysis, “the history and politics of Kenya look fundamentally different when the central referent object of the analysis is a woman”.
In making this point and re-examining ethnicity and land through women’s experiences, the author emphasises the crucial importance of gender and highlights huge gendered inequalities in Kenya. She is right to do so: after all, when it comes to land ownership, top corporate jobs, political positions, and even holding bank accounts, men massively outweigh women. Added to the study Nyabola cites that shows a huge prevalence of domestic violence against women, there is no doubt that Kenya’s fairer sex has long suffered under a deeply patriarchal system.
However, while Nyabola adds to the debate by highlighting this oft neglected dimension of Kenyan politics, it is possible to go too far. It is possible to over-emphasise gender, over-compensate and, in so doing, end up overlooking other neglected dynamics.
For instance, while Kenya’s oppressive, violent and male-dominated system has tyrannised women, looking at things exclusively through a gender lens can lead us to miss the point that this system exercises a similar wrath on street children. That it also persecutes members of the LGBTI community. And that it abuses urban slum residents, Muslims, Somalis, and many others.
In fact, while Kenya’s political system has disenfranchised millions of women, it has arguably disenfranchised the majority of the population, saving its greatest levels of violence for the poor and marginalised. It is true that these groups are often female, but ultimately, the real cross-cutting theme in Kenyan politics is not gender but class.
As the Kenyan rap group Mashifta assert in one of their songs, hii system ni ya majambazi − “this is a system owned by thugs” − and in this system almost everyone suffers.
Kenyan society is hugely unequal and has been getting ever more unequal over the years. As early as 1972, the Kenya Mission of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) pointed out that only 1 in 4 urban Kenyans had formal jobs and recommended measures to mitigate inequality, especially regarding access to employment. Yet by 2008, that figure had declined to 1 in 8.
More recent studies show this worsening inequality even more starkly. For instance, in 2013, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics revealed enormous regional discrepancies when it reported that 12% of people in Kajiado (a county neighbouring Nairobi) lived in abject poverty while the equivalent figure in Turkana (in Kenya’s North) was a whopping 94%.
According to some other reports, the top 10% in Kenya earn 40% of national income, while the bottom tenth earn less than 2%, making the country one of the most unequal for thousands of miles around. Furthermore, these trends are happening as allegations of high-level corruption by senior government officials and elites deepen and abound.
[See: Kenya has become a “bandit economy”, says Chief Justice Willy Mutunga]
It is the reality presented by statistics such as these that explains the true underlying dynamics of Kenyan society and that can explain the politics around other cross-cutting issues such as land, ethnicity, and even the fragile masculinities to which Nyabola makes reference.
In terms of land, for instance, struggles over access and ownership are clearly and fiercely ethnicised. As Nyabola explains, they are also highly gendered. And there are also often important religious dimensions to these disputes. However, many of the politics over land today can be traced to the 1960s and 1970s in which Kenyan elites from various different groups benefited massively from land distribution policies, setting the groundwork for a society in which the rich of all stripes have got richer as the poor have got poorer.
In terms of regional politics too, we can locate the underlying importance of socio-economic marginalisation and inequality. From as early as 1965, the government decided that the area lying 10 km either side of the Kenya-Uganda railway − about 13% of Kenyan territory − had high potential and should be prioritised in terms of investment. This meant that development was prioritised around Nairobi, where those with wealth and privilege are concentrated, and that the rest of the country − particularly northern Kenya and coast − were neglected.
Economic marginalisation also plays a part in Kenya’s ongoing security threats. For instance, although not the whole story, elitism, corruption and lack of opportunities have played an important role in contributing to an environment in which young people can more easily be lured by the likes of al-Shabaab. Similarly, trends in irregular migration, human smuggling and other security threats also have an important economic foundation.
Kenya’s poverty, inequality and disregard for its population are, as Nyabola says, the result of a male-dominated system, but they are also, and more importantly, the result of a class-based system − a corrupt system that implicates men and women as well as members of all the ethnicities that constitute Kenya’s well-connected and wealthy elite.
Gender is no doubt central of our understanding of Kenya, but even feminist historians such as Louise White, Tabitha Kanogo or Mary Kinyajui have argued that Kenya’s history is rarely a narrative of unbridled male domination and female oppression. Instead, it is a story consisting of complex relationships between men and women, members of different religions, ethnicities and – most crucially – classes.
Ngala Chome is a writer and historian based in Nairobi, Kenya.