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Lessons from the Kenyan classroom

Children play at the sprawling Mathare slums, one of the largest and poorest in Africa, near Kenya's capital Nairobi. (Pic: Reuters)
Children play at the sprawling Mathare slums, one of the largest and poorest in Africa, near Kenya’s capital Nairobi. (Pic: Reuters)

On a recent Thursday at around midday, I saw a group of kids, not more than 15, who by their size appeared to be in nursery school.

The little boys and girls in pink checked shirts and grey pair of shorts were clustered in front of televisions on display.

They were pointing at a monkey swinging on the screens. They sighed in awe when they saw the close-up shots of ants. Around them were aisles after aisles full of new products for sale.

When I saw them, I thought: “Wow, these kids are out shopping at this hour … shouldn’t they be in class?”

However, unknown to me they were in class. Their teacher had brought her class on a trip to a SUPERMARKET.

Let that sink in.

A supermarket.

That one place that we dash into quickly to get a few things was their location for an educational trip.

Their teacher enthusiastically showed them why the many TVs in different sizes were on the shelves and why they had price tags on them. And that was not all; she was also describing to these young children why certain aisles were labelled the way they were.


Body lotion.


Again, a trip to a supermarket.

It stood out for me because school excursions during my primary school days were always out of town, probably to a beach or an agricultural institution or to the zoo or the airport – what I would now consider ‘educational’. A supermarket, in my view, was the least educational place for any learner.

But I was wrong.

From the looks of things and by the teacher’s thorough explanation of what happened here, you could tell this was an important trip.

The supermarket is in Mathare North. Mathare in Kenya is an area known for slums (second to Kibera), violence and more slums. In fact a quick search on Google shows you that the extent of poverty here is on another level.

Indeed it is true. I know, I live here.

The area has informal settlements popping up all over. Every few hundred metres you are bound to find a burst sewer that flows into water pipes, and food vendors. You will see clinics and health centres competing for space with bars and entertainment joints. You will see stalls lined up, trying to attract potential customers with their music, sales pitches or adverts.

There are car washes, colourful matatus (public taxis) and happy children playing on the road side. There are high-rise houses so close to each other that if one tenant has a cold, the neighbour next door would probably pick it up. That close. There are electricity wires in meshes swaying and scrapping the air in the Mathare skies.

Each day as I get into a matatu to town, I pass school children who, despite their torn socks and faded uniforms, carry paper bags full of books as they head to class. I see little boys and girls bracing the morning chill to get to school.

It was only when l I bumped into the class on this trip that I realised their lessons were both in and out of the classrooms.

I deduced that their teacher wanted to show them the available possibilities amidst the sea of poverty they knew. There was such a high level of want that these young minds would look forward to attending class the next day, pegged on the possibility of stepping into a supermarket that they either passed by every morning or whose branded paper bags they saw on the streets.

Seeing these inquisitive children asking why the soaps were put away from the bread and maize flour made me realise that while this visit to the supermarket was ordinary to me, it was probably a first for these little leaders.

You could see the admiration in their eyes as shoppers carried items passed them. It hit me that this trip was the opening of new chapters in these children’s lives. That beyond the mire of life in a slum town as they know it, there was so much more available. So much variety was presented to these kids but circumstances had hindered them from reaching out to them.

I saw this and I was challenged to take a fresher look at the things I have and assume exist for everyone else.

Later, the children filed past the teller and each was given a lollipop on their way out. Some of them began to undo the lollipop wrappers in glee. Then I noticed one who looked at his sweet for a while and then simply put it into his shirt pocket, stretched out his palm and joined his hand to complete a chain of little hands and glossy excited eyes.

Once their lesson for the day was over, they streamed out with their teacher.

Eunice Kilonzo is a print journalist and storyteller who tells tales on development, feminism and health. Connect with her on Twitter: @Eunicekkilonzo 

Nigeria: TB Joshua under pressure over fatal church collapse

(Pic: emmanuel.tv)
TB Joshua (Pic: emmanuel.tv)

Popular Nigerian preacher and televangelist TB Joshua was under mounting pressure on Wednesday to co-operate with the authorities after a fatal building collapse that claimed at least 67 lives.

TB Joshua and staff at his Synagogue Church of All Nations had so far failed to disclose information to the investigation, the Lagos state government and emergency services said.

South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma announced on Tuesday that 67 of his compatriots were killed in the collapse on Friday.

Pretoria’s ambassador to Abuja complained investigators had faced difficulties in getting detailed information on the ground.

In Lagos, rescuers were still picking through the rubble with heavy lifting equipment and using sniffer dogs in the search for survivors.

“The church is not co-operating with emergency workers at all,” said National Emergency Management Authority (Nema) spokesperson for the southwest region, Ibrahim Farinloye.

“For the first three days of the incident, the church people were very hostile and prevented rescue officials access to the site,” he told AFP.

Earlier access may have saved lives, he added, giving the latest toll as 67 with 131 survivors.

South Africa’s ambassador to Nigeria, Lulu Mnguni, told the eNCA news channel that the death toll was still uncertain.

“The numbers can still either go up or down. We have put more people on the ground to assist us,” he said.

Some five South African church tour groups totalling about 300 people were thought to have been in Lagos at the time, the government said.

Toyin Ayinde, Lagos State commissioner for town planning and urban development, said an investigation would examine Joshua’s claim that a low-flying plane may have been responsible for the collapse.

He told Nigeria’s Channels television they were checking with Lagos international airport, which is just east of the church, about the altitude of planes in the area at the time.

Samples were being taken from the building to determine the material used in the construction.

Initial indications suggested the collapse was caused because extra floors were being added to the building without strengthening foundations.

Ayinde said Joshua and his staff had not yet met engineers and representatives of the Lagos State Emergency Management Agency, which was affecting their ability to disclose accurate information.

Kenya marks one year since Westgate mall attack

Men work on a damaged section of the Westgate shopping mall  in Nairobi on January 21 2014. (Pic: Reuters)
Men work on a damaged section of the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi on January 21 2014. (Pic: Reuters)

Kenya began emotional commemorations on Tuesday to mark the first anniversary of Nairobi’s Westgate mall massacre, remembering the 67 people killed by Somali Islamist gunmen and those who risked their lives to stop them.

In a speech at a memorial site opened at the capital’s National Museum, First Lady Margaret Kenyatta said the East African nation had been “seriously scarred” but was not broken by the attackers from the al-Qaeda-affiliated Shabab rebels.

“This is a time that brings much pain and sorrow to many, and is still a time of healing, [we] having also lost members of our family in this senseless massacre,” said Kenyatta, whose nephew and his fiancee were among those killed.

“The nation may have been seriously scarred but we shall never be broken as a people,” she said.

A week of memorial events opened with an emotional film called Our Nairobi, which included testimonies of those caught up in the attack.

Our Nairobi – Rama Manikumar from Arete Stories on Vimeo.

The four Shabab gunmen stormed the upmarket mall on a busy Saturday afternoon on September 21 2013, hurling grenades and shooting scores in cold blood with automatic rifles.

“We saw people panic, running and screaming everywhere all around the mall,” said Rama Manikumar, who was having a drink in a cafe when the shooting started, and whose testimony was featured in the film.

“It was like a battlefield, the whole place was in smoke, there were no lights… a lot of broken glass and ammunition on the floor,” she said.

The shopping centre was crowded with hundreds of shoppers, friends meeting for a meal, as well as a children’s cooking competition.

“I want Kenya to be back to itself, to have peace, harmony, love, and things like terrorism to never happen to us again,” said Kennedy Mungai, who had been working as a waiter at a cafe when the shooting erupted.

Shoppers were hunted down in supermarket aisles and killed, in what the Shebab said was revenge for Kenya’s sending of troops to fight the extremists in Somalia as part of an African Union force.

Kenyans, however, are hoping that the commemorations will also show how people were brought together in face of the horror.

Ranju Shah recounted how she and others had hid themselves in a storage area for two hours as fighting raged, with Kenyans from all ethnicities comforting each other.

“The whole incident has brought the people of Kenya together,” Shah said. “Everybody tried to help everybody, they didn’t care about what caste, creed or religion they were following, they were all helping each other.”

Prayers will be held on Sunday, exactly one year after the attack, with a memorial concert and candle-lit vigil for the following three nights.

“As a country we stand in solidarity with the victims and survivors of the attack,” First Lady Kenyatta added. “We will never be cowed by such acts of cowardice.”

Although Kenyan security forces were criticised for looting stores during and after the attack, The Standard newspaper said the country should pause to honour those who risked their lives to enter the gunfight in the mall to try to save lives.

“Some of the officers who went into the mall to engage the terrorists carry deep physical and emotional wounds… we need to celebrate them all,” it said in an editorial.

All four gunmen are reported to have died in the mall, their bodies burned and crushed by tons of rubble after a major fire sparked by the fighting caused a large section of the building to collapse.

Al-Shabab remain a major threat, and continue to launch attacks despite advances by African Union troops inside Somalia, and a US air strike killing its chief earlier this month.

The extremists have launched a string of subsequent attacks in Kenya, including a wave of massacres in the coastal region, which has badly affected the country’s key tourist industry.

Reuben Kyama for AFP

#FreeYara: Peaceful protesting should not be a crime

Yara Sallam. (Pic: Supplied)
Yara Sallam. (Pic: Supplied)

I write this as a feminist activist whose highest values include freedom of expression, freedom of choice and freedom of association. It scares me that we still live in an age where those freedoms can be taken away from us in an instant, and that anybody who places his or her head above the parapet can become a target for state repression. State violence can be found everywhere, whether in Ferguson, Accra or Cairo. You and I, should we choose to step out of the norm, can be subjected to the full force of the state. That is what has happened to Yara Sallam, an Egyptian feminist activist who is currently in prison for participating in a peaceful protest.

I first met Yara in 2012 in Cape Town, South Africa, at the Open Forum organised by the Open Society Africa Foundations. She was a speaker on a panel dubbed, ‘Are women occupying new movements?’ Yara spoke about the Egyptian people’s revolution, and the active role that women were playing in that process. Yara was one of thousands of Egyptian women who had been out in the squares and streets protesting the corrupt Mubarak regime. She knew that overturning the Mubarak regime was not a silver bullet for revolution.  During her presentation on the panel she stated, “…we see the overturn of the Mubarak regime as the spark of revolution, not the completion of it. The Egyptian people’s revolution has just started.”

Her comment that day – May 24 2012 – seems prescient today as Yara and hundreds of other Egyptians lie behind bars imprisoned by the very people who are in power because of the revolution that she and millions of other Egyptians fought for.

Yara’s struggle and the struggle of Egyptian women for a better Egypt began long before the North African springs. In a webinar I convened in December 2012, she shared how Egyptian women had used online technologies to complement their community-based activism. I remember that just before the webinar started Yara had dashed inside from the streets where she had been part of a protest in progress. I thought then, as I do now, “That’s a real activist.”

Yara works as a women’s rights manager for Nazra for Feminist Studies. On June 21 this year, she along with Sanaa Seif, Hanan Mustafa Mohamed, Salwa Mihriz, Samar Ibrahim, Nahid Sherif (known as Nahid Bebo) and Fikreya Mohamed (known as Rania El-Sheikh) were arrested during a peaceful protest against the Protest and Public Assembly Law.

On June 29, Yara and her colleagues appeared before a judge who, without notifying her lawyers, adjourned her case by postponing it to September 13. By then Yara would have been in jail for 83 days. 83 days in prison without trial for the simple act of taking part in a peaceful protest. 83 days in prison for wanting a better Egypt. An Egypt in which Yara, Sanaa, Hanan, Salwa, Samar, Nahid, Fikreya and all those who sacrifice so much for the rest of us can live in peace and with dignity. It’s time for the Egyptian authorities to do the right thing and #FreeYara and all the human rights defenders in Egypt.


UPDATE – September 15: The trial of Yara Sallam and other defendants has been postponed to October 11. They remain in prison.

Nana Darkoa Sekyiamah is a communications specialist who currently works with the African Women’s Development Fund in Ghana. She is a feminist writer and co-founder of the award-winning blog ‘Adventures from the Bedrooms of African Women’.

Ba re e ne re: Reigniting Lesotho’s literary culture

A storytelling performance at the 2014 Ba re e ne re Literature Festival. (Pic: Meri Hyöky)

Lesotho is an interesting place to be in at the moment. At the end of August, we made headlines worldwide, unfortunately for the wrong reasons. The news had nothing to do with the country’s many unique and positive qualities. There was no mention of natural beauty, of Basotho culture, or of the many exciting initiatives that a host of organisations and individuals in the country are working hard on.

Instead, it focused on the country’s current political mess. An apparent attempted military ‘coup’ took place, and the Prime Minister fled to South Africa. Tom Thabane is back in the country now, but political tensions remain high, with no clear resolutions in sight. Everyday life continues, but people are tense, confused, and many fear a repeat of the political violence that the country experienced in 1998.

In the midst of this uncertainty and political instability, the weekend of 5 – 7 September saw the return of Ba re e ne re Literature Festival, the only event of its kind in Lesotho, founded in 2011 by the late Liepollo Rantekoa, a young Mosotho literary enthusiast who passed away in a tragic car accident in 2012.

Inspired by Rantekoa’s vision of a movement that would reignite a culture of reading and writing in Lesotho, and especially an appreciation of Sesotho language and literature, a group of her friends and family have come together and are continuing with the work she began.

This year, a number of writers from outside Lesotho were invited to take part in the festival. These included South African novelist Niq Mhlongo, Nigerian/Barbadian writer Yewande Omotoso, and Namibian poet Keamogetsi Molapong. Cape Town-based Chimurenga Magazine jumped on board as the event’s official partner. International authors were joined by a number of writers from Lesotho, including Mpho Makara, Teboho Rantsoabe and Patrick Bereng.

The festival’s opening ceremony took place at the same time that a political march was held through the centre of Maseru. Night-time events were cancelled in the face of potential security threats. But despite these challenges, people of all ages came out to enjoy the day-time events, which featured a vibrant combination of live music, poetry readings, storytelling performances and discussions with authors.

Nobody ignored the political situation in the country. On the contrary, the challenges that Lesotho currently faces became a crucial talking point, as guests and participants spoke of the role that artists, writers and literature can play in times such as these. The final event of the second day of the festival saw people of all ages sitting in a tight circle around a small computer screen, laughing together at jokes told by renowned South African author Zakes Mda (addressed by the audience as ‘Ntate Zakes’) who, although unable to be present in person, joined the festival via Skype.

Mda spoke with strength and encouragement to the professional and aspirant writers in the room: “You writers will always play a critical role in the country. Artists can be catalysts for change.”

Audience members enthusiastically join in with the chorus of a live music performance at the festival. (Pic: Meri Hyöky)
Audience members enthusiastically join in with the chorus of a live music performance at the festival. (Pic: Meri Hyöky)

Later, Mhlongo commented: “The festival happened at the right time to bring people together, to give them the chance to express themselves, to express their frustrations, and to interact with others. Writers can go beyond the boundaries of political and cultural divisions. Writers can liberate, especially in times of turmoil like this.”

Teboho Moekoa, a local artist, performed a poem that spoke blatantly and scathingly about Lesotho’s current politics: “My people seem mentally possessed / by the same system that keeps them suppressed / And every time they protest / It’s the voter that the voted cannot respect…”

“We are black youth trying to find our position in the system, trying to find definitions that have already been defined for us,” said Moekoa. “It’s very important that something like this is happening in Lesotho. We don’t have a platform here, and this festival provides that platform.”

Intelligent and outspoken writing, however, can only be truly powerful if it is widely read. In a country with one of Africa’s highest literacy rates (over 90% amongst women, according to Unesco), the serious lack of a reading culture in Lesotho was a prominent topic of discussion. Festival director Lineo Segoete addressed the issue directly: “People in Lesotho have developed an attitude that reading is only important for school, without realising that successful people are avid readers. We want people to learn the importance of reading for pleasure, of reading to self-educate. We are challenging everyone to get back to reading.”

Questions surrounding identity, language and culture permeated the weekend. Mosotho author Mpho Makara spoke of her decision to only write in Sesotho, but nonetheless encouraged young writers to abandon false notions of ‘pure’ Sesotho: “Language cannot afford to stand still. English borrows words from other languages. In the same way, we can steal from English and make Sesotho grow. Write in the Sesotho you know, in the Sesotho you speak every day.”

Mhlongo offered a different take on the language debate. Mhlongo chooses to write his novels in English, and argued that writers should be allowed to write in whatever language they feel comfortable in: “Storytelling doesn’t have a language. It’s like music. The message is the most important thing. Whatever the language, the important thing is to preserve culture. I believe that you can write about your culture in English.”

The focus of day three of the festival shifted to more practical issues, with the authors discussing writing techniques, and sharing tips and advice with the audience.

“The hunger here is evident,” remarked Mhlongo when I chatted with him later. “There’s an obvious interest in writing. School kids filled the hall. A filled hall is a rare thing in literary events!”

Addressing the audience directly, he urged the young writers in the room: “You in Lesotho need to write about your challenges. I hope that after this we are going to see novels and short stories coming from Lesotho.”

Ba re e ne re boomed with engagement, enthusiasm and positivity. The energy was palpable. Soon, we hope, the eyes of the world will turn to Lesotho for the right reasons.

Leila Hall is a freelance writer living and working in Lesotho.