Reading 2016 (February)

Rather somber reading for February: I must find some laugh-out-loud reading this coming month…

The In-Between World of Vikram Lall, by M.G.Vassanji (2003).  vikramVikram Lall comes of age in pre-independence 1950s Kenya,  the grandson of an Indian railroad worker trying to find an identity and life between the Kenyans and the British. It’s a story of childhood, fear (Mau Mau), politicians and corruption as Vic becomes a fixer and exile. It’s well-written and I believe this is a better novel than Dust (but then again there’s a lot to be said for the “die-hard” in-your-face approach of Mukoma Wa Ngugi’s Nairobi Heat and Black Star Nairobi both made to measure action movie scripts too). But killing off the first-person narrator? I remember being told off for doing that at school. A poor ending but Helon Habila’s review  captures the novel well.

The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai (2006). Another great novel. It’s a sobering commentary on inherit_lossturn-of-the-century experience of people in two continents – more often than not one of humiliation – from the unseen workers in Manhattan to a lost village under the Himalayas. The novel is centred on the lives of a small household circle, but it focuses on dispossession, abasement, the loss of opportunity, dignity and justice (the font of fundamentalism and terrorism) from which monopoly finance capitalism offers limited futures.

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett (2011) & In the Heart of the Amazon Forest (Penguin Great Journeys No.11, 2007, abridged version of The Naturalist on the River Amazon, Walter Harry Bates, published in 1863). Reviewed here for Forest Novels.

danielThe Book of Daniel, E.L.Doctorow (1971). I really should have read this novel ages ago, somehow Doctorow slipped off the radar. This unsentimental novel is narrated by the scarred son of communist sympathiser-activist parents (based upon Julius and Ethel Rosenberg,who were tried and then electrocuted in 1953 at the height of cold war hysteria for allegedly passing atomic secrets to the Russians) and it evokes the communist scares of the late-40s and early-50s with the US of the late-60s (it was written during some of the bitterest anti-war and pro-civil rights debates in the US).

A fragment from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” prefaces the novel, and is perhaps, the key to its morality.

I play not marches for accepted victors only, I play marches for conquer’d and slain persons.

Thgilead1ere are many of the  “conquer’d and slain” in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead (2004). Just a phenomenal novel. For once the publicity blurb on the covers is right. I’m going to have to re-read this one very soon. Best read of the year so far.


Reading 2016 (January)



Tax governance or a “get out of jail free card”

Tax Justice Network

Kenya’s Nation comments on HSBC

From today’s edition of The Nation (hat tip Jonathan Davies in Nairobi).


Kenya’s Nation comments on HSBC

The Gates of Horn and Ivory

Picture taken by this blogger in Tsavo East National Park, December 2013

Some notes on poaching in Kenya on World Wildlife Day

1. The trade in slaves, gold and ivory (and more recently drugs) has always been the monopoly of kings and rulers, not least since the nineteenth century, when coastal traders in Eastern and Western Africa exchanged arms for slaves to hold onto power. Now the illegal wildlife trade is estimated to be ‘worth’ $19bn-a-year. Much of the wildlife and drug trade in and through Kenya has been and is carried out on an industrial scale.

2. The new wildlife crimes unit will catch a few ‘mules’ and small-scale poachers (cases for Secret Agent Jack Stalwart). There have been no major prosecutions in spite of containers being detained in Mombasa. Donors seem reluctant to fund forensic financial audits and multi-agency and cross-border investigations to identify those freight companies, agents, banks, accountants and lawyers who are laundering the proceeds of ivory and rhino horn sales. Many of the same well-connected (political-criminal) networks seem to be headed by those who are “too big to fail, too powerful to jail”.

Illicit finance flowing into Kenya has jumped five fold in a decade. Kenya is the easiest place in the world to open a shell company. Global financial regulators tag Kenya as a high risk place for money laundering and terrorist finance …  Yet the government is pushing ahead with plans to turn Nairobi into an international financial centre.  Is it building instead a major haven for laundering dirty money? (Tax Justice Network)

3. Putting microchips on rhinos is perhaps not too smart given the ease with which computer systems can be hacked.

KWS4. There has not been a national wildlife and biodiversity conservation debate in the past 10 years, rather an Escher staircase of grandstanding inaction. The population has risen six-fold since Independence and laudably about 10% of the country’s land area is covered by national parks, reserves and private sanctuaries. Yet little progress has been made on furthering the early success of  “community-based conservation”, which gained ground in the 1980s, with such ventures as Campfire in Zimbabwe (I squeezed some funding for this on an ADF rural development project in the mid-Zambezi Valley in 1986) and regulated hunting in Tanzania and Namibia, and in Kenya the “parks beyond parks approach”in the mid-90s. 

5. Black poachers, white hunters.  Fencing may be popular but little thought seems to be given to the wider impacts on ecosystems and habitats, as evidenced by Nakuru National Park; the linkages between pastoralism, livestock and wildlife ranching is rarely on the agenda (and can be avoided given the continuing and general lack of security in northern and eastern drylands). Compensation for death or injury or crop damage is inadequate, wildlife cropping remains banned and community benefit-sharing arrangements are otherwise unimaginative, while perhaps as many as half of the tourist lodges in the Mara are operating illegally. 

6. Destroying ivory (or drug) stocks will have no impact on price, since their wholesale prices already discount such losses. Reducing the demand for ivory needs perhaps a more innovative approach:

Policymakers and conservationists need to stop auctioning horns and burning stockpiles of ivory… By virtue of being a black market, there isn’t a good organized body that can consistently verify the quality of ivory in general … The government, or some general body that has access to tons of ivory, should douse (or credibly commit to dousing) the tusks with some sort of deadly poison, and sell the stuff across all markets. Granting some additional complexities, the black market could not differentiate between clean and lethal ivory, and buyers would refrain from buying all ivory in fear. The market would be paralyzed.

UPDATE: Paula Kahumbu: Target the ring leaders to defeat poaching.  So hand the list of names over…

UPDATE: The Nation’s Macharia Gaitho has also caught up with the political-criminal nexus angle.

Mwakenya: an unfinished revolution

Mwakenya. The Unfinished Revolution, by Maina wa Kinyatti, published by the Mau Mau Resource Center, Nairobi, 2014.

This is an absorbing archive record and commentary put together by Maina wa Kinyatti, a courageous dissident, political prisoner, and historian (whose earlier books include Kenya: A Prison Notebook, and Mau Mau: A Revolution Betrayed, 2nd edition). It is very properly dedicated to ‘the patriots who struggled and sacrificed for democracy and social justice’.


It contains documents from the Workers’ Party of Kenya and the December Twelve Movement (1974-1985), Mwakenya (1987-2001),  examples of the Mwanguzi and Cheche newsletters, and a wide variety of reports, notes and essays from across the 25-year period spanning the Kenyatta and Moi regimes.

The book is then an important reminder of a strand of Kenyan history whose significance is overlooked, not least perhaps by today’s comfortable middle classes, who have materially gained most by the underground’s struggle, and also by those liberals such as the human rights lawyers, the churches, the media and the handful of politicians who came out to oppose the Moi dictatorship in the 1990s.

As Maina wa Kinyatti notes in the preface, this collection forms just a small portion of the papers from the WPK-DTM-Mwakenya movement. Some of the documents may seem parochial to today’s reader. But this is inevitable in any underground movement, beset by personality clashes, factions, setbacks and the loss of comrades.* There is however a pressing need to digitise all the available documents and post them onto Wikipedia and a Mau Mau Research Center website to reach a wider and younger audience in Kenya and beyond.

The WPK-DTM-Mwakenya movement was as relevant in the past as it is today. The Manifesto of Ukenya (1987), included in this collection, is arguably more comprehensive and radical than the better-known “21 demands of MKS” which prompted the creation of the Solidarity movement in the early 1980s. The legacy of the Manifesto is evident in the Bill of Rights in Kenya’s current Constitution. 

But 1987 also marked the assassination of Thomas Sankara. Sankara saw his government as part of a wider process for the liberation of the Burkinabé people, who through mass mobilization constructed schools, health clinics and basic infrastructure and achieved unprecedented levels of food self-sufficiency

Building a broad democratic socialist movement is today’s most pressing need in order to bring about peaceful social change in this period of late capitalism. The political and business elite lack moral legitimacy; Kenya’s political parties are hard-pressed to mobilise even their own acolytes, and yet they are all too aware that the gulf in wealth and opportunity, across generations, and between class that jeopardises, eventually, their own class. The political crisis is one of elite stasis.  History tends to teaches us, however, that the status quo is not invincible. But the most immediate danger is a reactionary response, rather than the formation of a progressive government.


Did Kenya’s patriots and freedom fighters die in vain? No, clearly they didn’t. The Mau Mau struggle is not finished business.

The transition in Kenya is the fight between reform and anti-reform forces. The desire by the anti-reform forces to lock out reform forces is outmoded as the authority of the people reflected in the endorsement of the Constitution is unstoppable. The ruling elite are not aware of how Kenyans are building a popular movement for progressive change in Kenya.

Let’s hope that Maina wa Kinyatti will write some reflections to bring the Mwakenya story up to the present day. The prospects for the formation of a democratic socialist party have never been better. And who knows: perhaps Dr.Willy Mutunga could be emulate (albeit in reverse) William Taft, who served one term as President, and later became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court (the only person to have held both of these highest offices of the US)?

The British hanged Field Marshall Dedan Kimaathi Waciuri, the leader of the Mau Mau War of Independence, on February 18th, 1957. Karimi wa Nduthu, Mwakenya’s home coordinator, was murdered by Moi’s regime on 23rd March 1996.


[*The collection includes within the essay “Education and Imperialism” lambasting the popular writers Charles Mangua and David Maillu, which – in my view – completely misreads their intent and impact. Charles Mangua was an exemplary boss at the African Development Bank, at a time when the Bank habitually employed ‘exiles’ from various post-independence regimes. He was – like the other East Africans gathered at the Kilimanjaro Bar in Abidjan’s Deux Plateau- very kind to this green young professional, and he would talk widely on politics and literature late into the humid night … whisky and Nat King Cole. Fortunately, the young professional could walk back to his nearby apartment.]

UPDATE: The British Anti-Apartheid Movement has a tremendous website that catalogs a range of historical material (documents, posters, leaflets, speeches,  photographs) that the Mau Mau Research Center could emulate.