Georgetown University Doyle Seminar Lecture
On March 8, 2021, we were invited by Professor Olufemi Taiwo, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University to speak at the student dialogue of his Doyle Seminar (PHIL-435 Global Justice and the Environment). Here is a transcript from that talk, edited for clarity.
[Stoneface] Mathare Green Movement (MGM) is run by youths who live in informal settlements, who want to bring the future of Mathare into the limelight. We conducted a tree census in Mathare—which consists of six wards, Mlango Kubwa, Hospital Ward, Mabatini, Huruma, Ngei, and Kiamaiko—we went all around Mathare to find out how many trees there are. What we found surprised us…. We found only one tree for every 1,200 people.
[April] I actually think that’s a good statistic to start with. Because one tree for every 1,200 people…it just illustrates the fact that Nairobi is still very much an apartheid city. There’s a green apartheid happening. This is the DNA of what originally began as an apartheid colonial city. What happens is that, for those living in informal settlements, everything around you—from the economy to the society to the state—is telling you that you are disposable, that you are displaceable, that you are disconnecting from the land that you live on.
Like many other postcolonial cities, Nairobi is always developing in two opposite directions at once. For every new highway or high-rise, you have an unannounced eviction. Every action of building Nairobi to become this cosmopolitan city that it wants to see itself as requires violence to be done to the other half of Nairobi.
[Stoneface] It’s a whole ecosystem of violence we live in, in Mathare. It’s a slow violence… Almost every week, we lose at least one life to police violence. I can call it a massacre. So as MGM, we still want to bring hope. By planting trees, it’s bringing hope to our community and saying, we can stop this by fighting slow violence by plantings trees. We plant medicinal trees, we plant memorial trees for those who we’ve lost to police violence, and we plant ornamental trees. Trees are soft power.
[April] But that thing about trees as soft power… I think you’ve glossed over it, because it’s actually one of the more radical things about MGM. It’s more than just “beautifying” the space by adding trees to an informal settlement. It’s an exercise in realizing collective imagination. Say you have this strip of godforsaken land that’s got sewage running through it, it’s black—and there’s no soil in Mathare, it’s just dirt and soot and ash and trash in varying ratios—and then you get this group of young men in Mathare. You have to look at this space, collectively imagine togehter a future. For this strip of land. Perhaps a radically public “park” where anyone could come and make “use” of the plants for free. And then you realize that together.
It might take a year of lead-up time just to get permissions in a public area (because this is in informal settlements, where land is either public or grabbed or contested). But a year to hold onto this idea together—this is an exercise in solidarity as well.
Groups like MSJC and MGM are creating glimpses of utopia in the places where they work. So if you want to see mutual aid at work, you’ll se it there. Women/LGBT/people with disabilities in leadership roles, etc. Radically public spaces like the ones MSJC creates, you’ll find it there. So planting trees is much more radical than it might seem at first.
I’ll connect this to Arjun Appardurai’s book Future as Cultural Fact, where essentially he argues that, depending on who you are and how much power you have, the future is either something that you can navigate within and have the agency to mold, or it is something that happens to you, something which is out of your control. He also describes ways people are able to carve out forms of resistance within that framework.
MGM, what Stoneface just described, is a good example of doing that. Of resisting all the forces in your life that tell you that you are disposable, that you are replaceable: That, if you want fair compensation for your labor, you are told that there are thousands more willing to work for less, that if you are gunned down but he police, that you are only one this week who has been murdered by them, that if your house burns down or you’re evicted to make way for a construction site, that you were never meant to be on this land in the first place.
So the political rootedness involved in planting and raising a tree is really powerful.
[Stoneface] You have to understand what’s happening in Mathare right now. We have extrajudicial executions, we have all kinds of injustices happening. Mathare futurism imagines a possible reality. Maybe you stand from a tall place and see Mathare. See it with clean, green spaces. Public spaces. For the imagination, that place could be green and clean and safe. It’s just imagining a possible reality in the future. It’s important for people of Mathare to imagine.
[April] If we want to talk about urban informal settlements, often people see the shit ecosystem that people are forced to live in, and elide the living conditions of that place and connect that with the people who live there. That’s where the logic of disposability comes from: that, well, if you live in a place that is dangerous, that is criminal, that is dirty, then the people who live there must also be dangerous, criminal, dirty. And that is something projected by people of different classes towards people who live in Mathare, but it’s also something internalized by people of Mathare. So Mathare futurism, like Stoneface says, is this idea that you can imagine a free future that doesn’t require “getting out” of Mathare, but rather, making sure that everyone who lives there gets free, together. And, as with MGM’s tree planting, imagine that future together and realize it together.
We know the logic of disposability is powerful, because every time extrajudicial executions happen, anyone who supports it will bring up this logic. They’ll say: oh well, you know, the police don’t just kill anyone. They only kill violent criminals. And if you look at that closely enough, what they’re really saying that this particular kind of state violence is okay, is legitimate, when it is done to disposable people. You won’t ever have that lack of due process happening at an affluent mall in Lavington. You won’t have a police break in to a mall and start shooting a suspect because they might be a criminal. There are certain logics, certain forms of governance, that are only applied for Outcast Nairobi.
One important thing I wanted to draw from urban ethnographer Wangui Kimari’s work is that in places like Mathare, police are the infrastructure of Nairobi’s informal settlements. In lieu of actual services that the government is meant to provide, such as water, education, healthcare, utilities, roads, everything that is not provided in Mathare—in lieu of those services that the government is meant to provide, the only thing left is police. How else are you supposed to govern a place that is essentially treated as a modern-day reserve, in Stoneface’s words.
[Stoneface] So far, we have some sites where we’ve planted trees that have done very well, because there are no public spaces in Mathare—all of them are contested or being claimed by someone else. The churches, government, the community themselves are all claiming public spaces. We don’t have truly public spaces. Right now we mostly plant in privately owned spaces, like schools or churches. To acquire those garbage areas, we claim the space by planting the trees. Right now at a place called Pirates, there’s a huge dump that hasn’t been collected for years. It’s blocked the road. The place started almost as a joke, like one person dumps, and another dumps, then garbage was coming in from other parts of the city, not Mathare. In MGM, we claim that space by planting a tree. With soft power. We don’t use a truck to pick the garbage, we plant a tree and the tree gives hope.
But the tree faces a lot of challenges in that place. The soil—we don’t have soil, we have garbage and black soil everywhere. The tree struggles to shoot up. If the tree is in a struggle mode, what about the human beings living in Mathare? In the same way it is difficult for a tree to survive to Mathare, it is also difficult for youths to survive past the age of even 25. But they do.
[Student] From what I understand, people who live in Mathare are not regarded as citizens. Is there any push from any organization from within the communities themselves, or communities outside, to gain recognition?
[Stoneface] For the people in Mathare themselves, we are fighting hard by ourselves….but there is a lack of resources. The issue with garbage—we have cartels in our area depend on the garbage. Whenever we ensure that there is no garbage, we’ll be targeted by the cartels, members of our own community.
[April] That’s a good point, because in “places where the constitution doesn’t work” this emphasizes that it’s a constant, active political negotiation. It’s not about, oh we just need to get someone to take out the trash. That can be done. But it won’t be done, for reasons that have to do with power relations between the state and people.
Prior to the time that MSJC published their report, it was difficult for people to speak openly about extrajudicial executions. It was something that happened at mass scale. But if your son was shot dead by police, you would not talk about it, let alone go to the police station to report that police killed your son. The bulk of the work that Stoneface does is not the podcast. It’s helping victims of police violence (or family of those killed by police) document those crimes.
But now, things have changed. People know they have somewhere to go to if they encounter police violence. They know their rights a lot more, because of the work of MSJC. This goes back to MSJC’s recognition that too much human rights work in Nairobi is professionalized, or NGOized. It’s being done by people who work in nice offices in Westlands who, when they need to collect data on human rights violations in the ghettos, will outsource that work to the people of the ghetto, who experience that violence every day. And yet little changes. So MSJC founders and HRD believe that the people of the ghetto are the only ones who can do this struggle. The only ones with political power to change their conditions.
Obviously, extrajudicial executions are still happening—and any scale is too much—but MSJC has achieved what many NGOs, and definitely not the state, haven’t been able to do, which is to really move the needle on extrajudicial executions.
[Stoneface] This week alone, seven young men were killed by police in Mathare. But because of the community dialogues we have been holding for years, I think the community is starting to realize their own potential. They’re also going to police officers, demanding their rights, asking why they’re being killed. Asking, are they not Kenyans? They’ve even demanded for a strike, demo, by themselves. But before it was a tricky decision, young people going to police officers. But I think now we are heading somewhere.
[Student] The experience of living in an informal settlement in Kenya is so far removed from ours, attending an elite university in America. So it can be hard to communicate that experience. If we wanted to advocate on behalf of the people in Nairobi, it would be difficult to communicate to the typical American what that experience is like. Do you have experience or guidance on how to bridge that divide—both within Kenya and other countries where there is that class difference, but also between the West and the developing world, in terms of helping people understand that experience so as to solicit help?
[Stoneface] For instance, when these killings happen, people in the West can tweet and come to the community to see what’s happening. Documentation is important.
[April] With international attention… After the murder of George Floyd last year, a lot of international attention was turned to police brutality globally, but also including Kenya. Having international attention on individual police killings in Mathare, it’s noticeably shifted things, though I wouldn’t say necessarily for the better. Because now, instead of shooting people on the street, police have changed their tactics, which hasn’t fixed anything at all. Nothing changed in the shift of power. With anywhere at a distance, it’s more about supporting people there who do know about it and just need the resources.
[Stoneface] Before Covid hit last year, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killings paid a visit to the Mathare Social Justice Centre and highlighted this issue. They documented this issue and raised it on social media, all over the world. After the police got this information, they changed their tactics. They’ll take you to a different area without using a bullet: they may hang you, or pour acid on you. So when we’re talking about this issue, they’re keenly listening.
[April] This comes back to the only people who will push the needle on this issue are Mathare people. It comes down to supporting them in any way.
That actually leads quite well to talking about our podcast because, yes, people at MSJC, people in Mathare can fight as hard as they want, they can get international support. But that’s not going to shift the calculus of why police commit violence in the first place, without addressing hte logic of disposability—why half of Nairobi gets to develop and half of Nairobi is governed in a completely different way. So how do you help people en masse understand these very abstract structural forces that shape the way they live? One way you can do that is through a podcast.
Our podcast Until Everyone Is Free is about Pio Game Pinto, who was a Goan-Kenyan socialist freedom fighter and the victim of independent Kenyas first political assassination. He was a freedom fighter involved in so many different aspects of the liberation struggle but was killed only two years after independence. He was a linchpin of the Kenyan left and, after that point, it collapsed and never quite recovered. So looking at his life gives us a window in to what went wrong around independence, which is essentially the decolonization question.
[Stoneface] We wanted to understand this history that was different from what we learned in school. In Kenya, in Mathare, we’re being given a sanitized history. The info we’re getting from public schools is different from what we learned from the street. I never learned what we included in the podcast.
We wanted to create an archive people living in Mathare. We don’t need an archive in the museum or on the street but we need it to be in people’s minds. So thats why we created a people’s podcast, Until Everyone Is Free, about the history of Pio Game Pinto.
[April] You mentioned the sanitized history that is taught in schools, and of course it’s not just Kenya, this is everywhere. History is not just dropped down from heaven in tablets. It is written by people who are situated politically—specifically, people in power! So it’s not an accident that histories of resistance, like that in Kenya, are often erased or forgotten. So, like Stoneface said, we are archiving these forgotten histories of resistance. But we are doing it in sheng’.
Sheng’ is the street patois of Nairobi’s informal settlements—mix of English, Swahili, Hindi, many indigenous languages—and it changes constantly. And because of the people who use it and because of how fast it changes, it is a language of the youth. But, importantly, it has always been a language of political resistance. It was banned under the dictator Moi in the 1980s. Somewhat unintuitively then, we are using an ephemeral language to archive things. Why not make it in English? So that people could listen from Canada and Ghana and Japan?
[Stoneface] The issues that we talked about MGM, extrajudicial executions, all those violations happening in the community... We wanted people to start talking about these issues by themselves. We wanted them to understand the history, because if you don’t understand your history, you definitely don’t know where you’re heading to. Because the majority of people who live in informal settlements are youth. To communicate with them in a language they understand, so that they can demand these rights for themselves, we have to use the language of the youth. The language they understand best. And the language they understand best is sheng’. Politicians themselves understand the power of sheng’. During election times, politicians come to the community and use sheng’...to get votes.
[April] The podcast is broken up into several episodes (which are available with English subtitles on YouTube). Each episode takes a look at one of Pio Gama Pinto’s roles in the liberation struggle—Mau Mau ally, land justice advocate, trade unionist, radical journalist, and political mastermind. Like Stoneface was saying about the power of history...It’s like what we were talking about with futurisms, right, because if you can mine images from the past, quotes, events, you can use those to feed the current imagination about what’s possible for the future.
For example, there has become a very cynical mainstream attitude in Kenya towards demonstration, especially street demonstration, that it doesn’t work, people are just being paid by NGOs and foreigners. But our trade union episode features the 1950 Nairobi General Strike, which has been all but erased from mainstream history. Just the fact that, in 1950, well over a decade before independence, the entire city of Nairobi was brought to a standstill for two weeks. And that the general strike was powered by landless people, unemployed people, people of Eastlands, people of Outcast Nairobi, they were the ones who drove this strike. They were the heart of this powerful form of resistance—well, it failed for reasons we’ll explain in the podcast—but it sparked the Mau Mau armed insurrection once it failed. It was one of the things that really shook the colonial administration.
So just having that image, the story of a general strike that occurred seventy years ago. Our hope, our theory, is that that then adds to the imagination of people today about what is possible in terms of resistance but also what forms of resistance are “Kenyan.” Oftentimes we find ourselves battling cynicisms like “This kind of thing doesn’t work here, this doesn’t work here. This is Kenya.” No, this thing happened. And these were the people who made it possible, not elites, not foreigners, not NGOs, but the people who had a stake in any change happening.
[Professor Taiwo] You put it in a really nice way, that the importance of the archive is that it lives in people’s heads, not in any particular place. Part of the idea of having it in sheng’ is that the right people will understand it and the people who need to hear it understand it. But I’m assuming you’ve made other decisions about the podcast that were also about the idea of getting the idea in peoples heads. So why did you pick Pinto, for example, is it just the fact that he was in so many different kinds of movements?
[Stoneface] Me, Stoneface, I’m from Mathare. That’s where I was raised and brought up. I came across a book called “Pio Gama Pinto: Kenya’s Unsung Martyr” (ed. Shiraz Durrani). Pinto helped fight for Kenyan independence. In school, there were maybe 2-3 lines about Pinto’s life, but the book had a lot of detail about Pinto’s life and how he helped the Mau Mau Kenya Land and Freedom Army. The Mau Mau headquarters were based in Mathare, and Pinto helped to route weapons from Asia through those headquarters to the forest fighters. If Pio Gama Pinto was helping fighting for freedom, and there’s no place talking about Pio Gama Pinto... We don’t have a public holiday to celebrate him. So I wanted the info to reach all over the people in informal settlements.
[April] To loop it back to what Femi asked, something you, Stoneface, thought about especially in this process... So the Mau Mau were the armed insurrection against the British colonial administration, and their headquarters in Nairobi were in Mathare—where they would hide, hold meetings, route weapons, even conduct executions of loyalists. The main road that goes through Mathare today is called Mau Mau Road. In terms of what it means to bring the archive into life, and into the minds of people… In the Mau Mau episode, there’s a scene where Stoneface goes with two kids from MSJC Kids Club, and they go to Mau Mau Road, and he asks them, “When people think of Mathare, what do they think of?” And they respond by saying, oh they think we’re all street kids, or crazy people, or drug abusers… Then he asks, “Do you know why this is called Mau Mau Road? What does this place have to do with Pinto?” I think we’d tried the interview a few times, so by that point they already knew the right answer, but yeah. They responded by saying that they knew Mathare had always been a site of resistance, home of the Mau Mau, that Mathare is a “country of power.” This place which is their home, this road they walk on every day, is part of their history as well. It’s a history they can own.
So when they hear this history of Pinto, he walked here, he did this, they can see themselves as inheritors of a long freedom fight. Just by the way that history is located, physically, in the places they walk every day. That they are descendants of a long freedom fight.