Comment & analysis
Nairobi’s ‘Glass House’ experience and post-election IDPs
2009-02-18, Issue 420
Beginning by reviewing the circumstances behind Kenya’s 2007 post-election crisis, Caroline Mose discusses the role of an alternative radio station-led initiative in Nairobi to draw attention to the plight of the country’s internally displaced persons (IDPs). Underlining the social role of Hiphop as a tool of consciousness, Mose considers the significance of Ghetto Radio FM’s ‘Glass House’ experience, a six-day event staged at Nairobi’s Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC) in which three radio MCs took turns to broadcast continuously with only a daily glass of carrot juice for sustenance. Highlighting the historical marginalisation of much of Kenya’s youth, the author emphasises the ability of the Glass House experience’s participants to force the government into direct contact with the country’s IDPs, and success in driving a conveniently-forgotten issue back into Kenya’s collective memory.
One of the ‘darkest’ periods in the history of the Republic of Kenya was witnessed just after the December 2007 presidential election, an election that saw Raila Odinga of the Orange Democratic Party (ODM) take on incumbent Mwai Kibaki of the Party of National Unity (PNU) in a closely contested poll. The poll turned out to be flawed however, with claims of rigging and violent episodes in poll centres around the country. The Electoral Commission of Kenya (ECK) was accused of tampering with ballot returns. On the evening of 29 December, and after days of delayed results, Mwai Kibaki was hastily declared winner by the then ECK Chairperson Samuel Kivuitu in a small room at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC) in central Nairobi with only state-owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC) in attendance. Moments later, Mwai Kibaki was sworn in as president of the republic, paving way to weeks of first, anti-Kibaki protests thwarted by police, then violence and the displacement of people from all over the country. Thousands were killed violently, spurred on by the ODM’s assertion that Raila had won, and PNU’s stance that Kibaki was the legitimate president.
At day’s end, 1,000 lay dead and more than 600,000 were displaced from their homes nationwide. Kenyans themselves believe the number of the dead might have been between 3,000 and 5,000, with many of these undeclared and unknown, left rotting in the remote countryside, and in the no-go areas that urban slums, especially those in Nairobi, had become. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan brokered a peace deal that saw, if anything, a fragile and uneasy power-sharing government formed. The nation tried to get over what is now quietly referred to as ‘postelection’ and pick up the tattered threads the violence had wreaked, but the internally displaced, now living in camps, were a constant reminder of ‘postelection’, especially when the coalition government was seen to be doing nothing to address their plight.
Several government-initiated schemes were formulated in mid-2008, including ‘Operation Rudi Nyumbani’ (Operation Return Home) which sought to resettle IDPs (internally displaces persons) in their former homes and did not work. Many IDPs said they could not return to these homes due to the insecurity that had crystallised largely as a result of ‘postelection’ ethnic divisions. To date, IDPs still live in utter poverty in camps around the country, surviving on handouts. Some, forcibly removed from certain camps, have found temporary refuge in slums, especially those in Nairobi. This article seeks to comment on how, a year later, a select group of popular culture figures in Nairobi reiterated the plight of IDPs through an alternative radio station-led initiative.
Hiphop is a global culture with origins in Africa and America. Its ancient form was practiced by griots and soothsayers in Africa, while its modern form was perfected by African immigrants and descendants of slaves living in the ghettos of New York in the 1970s. These immigrants took up Hiphop as a protest voice against racism, inequality, crime, police brutality and poverty. In the 1990s, modern Hiphop was appropriated by mostly urban youth in Africa, especially those living in slums and ghettos, as a protest voice against the very same issues that their New York counterparts had tackled.
Despite its commercialisation, pure Hiphop remains a tool of consciousness, especially in Nairobi, where it is called ‘underground Hiphop’. Mainly taken up by young artists, underground Hiphop, locked out from mainstream radio, has found a medium of expression through alternative radio stations like Koch FM (based in Korogocho slum, the third largest in Nairobi) and Ghetto Radio FM. These alternative FM stations address issues from the slums and ghettos of Nairobi through various slum-based reporters, and through taking music requests from listeners living in slums and ghettos.
Between 19 and 24 December 2008, nearly one year to the day after ‘postelection’, Ghetto Radio FM staged ‘Serious Request: On the Run, but not Outta Sight’, a six-day event that was popularly described as ‘The Glass House’ experience. In this event, three radio MCs from the station entered a glass house constructed on the grounds of KICC and spent the entire six days inside the enclosure, fasting and broadcasting live to remind the nation that IDPs were still displaced and living lives of poverty all over the country. The three, Angela ‘Angel’ Wainaina [Editor: who since sadly died in January’s tragic Nakumatt fire], Muki Garang and Rapcha the Scientist took turns sleeping and broadcasting continuously for the six days, only drinking a glass of carrot juice once every day to prevent dehydration. Muki is an independent rapper and activist, Rapcha is best known for his role as ‘Lambert’ in popular television programme ‘Vioja Mahakamani’ (Drama in the Courtroom), while Angel boasts the title of Kenya’s first female MC. Both Angel and Muki work with Ghetto Radio, the former as a presenter and the latter as reporter for the radio’s website. Generally, the Glass House Experience was being carried out in three different countries, and its aim was to highlight the plight of IDPs and refugees worldwide. In Kenya, there was deeper interest in highlighting the plight of IDPs, whose number had shot up by leaps and bounds after the post-election violence.
cc. Caroline MoseDuring each day, the three presenters attracted crowds of IDPs and people living in ghettos and slums, playing their requests and interviewing them, and during the night, they took telephone and text message requests from hundreds of listeners, both in Nairobi and upcountry, asking them to include a caption that had a message for the IDPs and refugees. On many occasions during the day, the crowds outside the glass house were entertained by several Hiphop artists, and watched them being interviewed inside the enclosure. Broadcasting equipment, turntables and the presenters themselves were clearly visible through the glass walls of the enclosure. I happened to have a close-up view of the proceedings in the glass house through daily attendance of the day-events, and through telephone interviews with Muki Garang.
THE GLASS HOUSE – IDPs, GOVERNMENT AND IMPLICATIONS
The Glass House experience had several political and social implications that spoke directly to the post-election violence that rocked the country, and the ensuing peace deal that gave birth to the present coalition government.
First and foremost, the presenters are all popular culture figures through Hiphop and theatre. This in itself is an endorsement of popular culture as moving away from a sphere of mere entertainment into more socially-conscious movements that seek to provide solutions to societal challenges, and at the least, offer a space for debate regarding these challenges. Furthermore, the use of alternative radio is testament of the extent to which Hiphop has influenced its growth and established itself in the arena of national discourse. The three presenters went without eating food for the six days, a gesture of solidarity with IDPs, most of whom starve, or go for days without having anything to eat. This gesture alone served to create empathy in listeners and observers who were curious to see if the presenters would make it through the six days without ‘breaking’.
Second, the link between ‘youth’ and ‘postelection’ cannot be ignored. It is no secret that many of those who took up arms and participated in riots and violence were predominantly the country’s youth; loosely, those between 15 and up to about 40 years of age. However, the context and history of Kenya’s youth must also be taken into consideration. Kenya ranks one of the highest in inequality indices, with the gap between rich and poor being phenomenal. The majority of the country’s youth remain jobless and unable to eke out a decent if dignified living, despite a huge number of them being graduates of colleges and universities. Some of these turn to crime and violence in order to restore a sense of dignity, though politicians have often honed the youth-for-hire habit into a fine skill. History shows that from independence, all political regimes and their corresponding politicians have repeated formed youth gangs as political instruments, including various ‘majeshi’ (armies) to the present-day Mungiki, an organised group that has continually controlled public transport routes in the country, and used violence and gruesome murder to silence their enemies. Thus the Glass House Experience, carried out by youth, was a refreshing and symbolic gesture that while youth is seen as prone to violence and crime, they can participate in social justice causes as well. Muki reiterated this in a short interview, saying that it was time for young people to reverse the trends of history, and take charge of positively impacting Kenyan society in place of destroying it at the behest of politicians, as was the case during the post-election violence.
Third, the Glass House experience was broadcast live from the Kenyatta International Conference Centre (KICC), in itself a highly symbolic and even defiant gesture. It must be remembered that during the Moi regime, the KICC was considered the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) party’s personal property. Following the end of Moi’s rule, KANU was forcibly ejected from the centre by the new NAtional Rainbow Coalition (NARC) government in an acrimonious process. While the NARC government refurbished the centre and turned it into an enviable asset, the newly appointed Government Spokesperson Alfred Mutua started to broadcast frequent government briefings that were quickly regarded as cheap government propaganda. During the 2007 election, the KICC was the centre at which the ECK received poll results from constituencies in the country and then released them to a waiting press. It is from the KICC that Kivuitu announced Kibaki’s contentious win, days after delayed and irregular ballot counting. It is from the KICC that the government planned to quell peaceful protests against this ‘stolen victory’ through deploying General Service Unit (GSU) personnel, blocking off Uhuru Park for weeks on end. Uhuru Park is adjacent to parliament and the KICC, and was where ODM politicians and supporters had planned on having protest rallies to demand a transparent recount of votes cast. And, it is from the KICC that Ghetto Radio broadcast the plight of IDPs for those six days, attracting crowds from ghettos and slums of the city. In this way, the event brought ‘government’ closer to the people, for inspection and critique.
Fourth, during these six days, various personalities came in person to be interviewed. Among these were upcoming and established underground and independent Hiphop artists. These spoke on various issues of social justice, including what they thought the government should be doing with regards to the ‘IDP problem’ in the country. Brought up frequently was the contentious problem of land and irregular land allocation practices in Kenya. Some of those interviewed, plus those who spoke live just outside the glass studio, agreed that the issue of land in Kenya must be addressed, pointing out that the bulk of fertile land is owned by politicians. In the same vein, a member of parliament for Starehe Constituency, Margaret Wanjiru, also came for an interview, and those present came and watched her through the glass walls as she asked her colleagues in parliament to provide security for IDPs currently living in hostile areas, to allow for IDP camps to exist as workable solutions and finally, to increase the proposed KSh10,000 allocation to IDPs as resettlement payments.
Fifth, during the six days, there were food giveaways for women with children. This was also highly symbolic given the current food crisis in Kenya. Basic maize flour is unaffordable for most people, and is too expensive due to rising food costs. Maize is the staple food in Kenya, the highly nutritious and energy giving ugali a delicacy for practically all ethnic groups. Ugali is made from maize flour. There have been protests in the country due to the rising un-affordability of this staple. The minister for agriculture unveiled a new, 5-kilo bag of cheaper maize flour in December 2008, but this is yet to reach the people. Thus, the giving away to women with children of maize flour and sugar by the presenters was another symbolic gesture, and no less because this was done at the KICC. During a daytime broadcast hosted by Muki Garang, one woman came forward to collect her bag of maize flour and sugar and was briefly interviewed. She said she was an IDP living in a Nairobi camp, and had come to KICC because she had heard about the free giveaways on radio. She was, she said, going to make some porridge for her children. This was a key highlight of that day, demonstrating that the Glass House Experience was, indeed, achieving its aim and emphasising the plight of IDPs in the country.
The Glass House Experience in its totality worked to bring back the ‘forgotten’ issue of the 2007 post-election violence and internally displaced persons back onto the country’s collective memory. Many of these displaced people live in abject poverty, waiting for handouts from well-wishers, their futures uncertain. In and of itself, this is a human rights issue, for these are people whose very dignity as human beings has been stripped, contravening the tenets of the Universal Declaration. As such, only political will can resolve the issue of IDPs in Kenya, starting with the prosecution of the instigators of the election violence, named in Justice Waki’s report on the violence. As it is, some of these instigators are said to sit in present government, making the situation of these IDPs very uncertain. But even as the future looks uncertain, Hiphop culture seems to say that it will not allow the nation to forget, and the Glass House Experience certainly seems testament to this.