Kedolwa Waziri: Our Bodies in Protest

The first time I came across Julius, I was working at a bookshop along Mama Ngina Street. I was going back to work from my lunch break, when, amidst the midday CBD bustle, I heard his voice. He was standing a few meters from the bookshop’s entrance, placard in hand, which read, ‘Corruption is as bad as colonialism. Colonialism never really ended,’ and talking in 360 degree rotations, speaking on neocolonialism, corruption, liberation and pleading with passersby to lend him their ears. I listened to him for a short while from across the street, completely awed and immersed, then rushed back to work but not before I snapped a quick picture of him, since I had by then already used up my half-hour lunch break. That afternoon, I was lost in thoughts of what Julius was doing, his one person protest, a singular voice speaking truth to power in the middle of the business district, the sun high and ardent, and what it really means to carry truth and protest in our bodies.

I believe protest is born of dreaming. Dreaming beyond the nation-state, beyond the policing of our bodies, minds and relationships, beyond the carceral system, beyond everything that bounds our hopes and movements in fear, beyond the systems, both global and local, that silence, kill, destroy and seek to arrest our lives in small, stagnant, piteous permanences. We protest in disapproval and refusal to fit our dreams within the confines of the state. We protest to say we are dreaming in action, with and for each other, and to say that we will keep dreaming. Our protests are our dreams in action.

I saw Julius a couple more times on different streets in town, always around my lunch break. If you have seen Julius, you know his signature light brown coat, a noticeable contrast to his deeply grave and affecting message. I would later learn that Julius is part of a group of hawkers, hence the Light brown coat, and that his friends hold down his business and sometimes contribute the resources that allow him to come to town and speak truth to power.

Meeting Julius in July was one of the things I look back on with wonder. Although he has been doing this work for years, seeing him last year in July, right in the middle of planning the Saba Saba march of our lives felt momentous. On 7/7 itself, after a round of tergas and several cat-and-mouse chases around town with the police, I saw Julius again right in front of KCB Kencom, placard in hand, his voice far reaching, even amidst the chaos of the day. I was with a friend, and I told her that I wanted to go talk to Julius. I introduced myself, said that I had seen him a couple of times, and because he had no knowledge of what exactly was happening, I told him about the march. Standing there with Julius, lamenting over extrajudicial killings, over the overt infiltration of the police in our movements, over the attempts to silence us, connecting our struggles and our protests, was a woman that had been with us since we gathered early in the morning in front of the National Archives, where we had been surrounded by riot police. She was with us when we held hands singing protest songs, she stood by me as I handed out masks to fellow protestors, taking one herself, and she would also be with me when I later got arrested.

The woman, who had remained largely silent, was nodding, making sounds of lamentation each time we spoke of the evils of the government, she clicked in disgust when we cursed the police for taking innocent lives, agreeing that the violence meted upon civilians was unnecessary, and she ran for cover with us when a teargas canister was thrown in our direction. Ironically, because of the COVID-19 Pandemic, the little protection that the masks gave us against the effects of the teargas went a long way in sustaining momentum, even though I would at times feel choked under my mask.

The last thing I remember right before getting arrested was reaching into my fanny pack to look for my inhaler. At the benches opposite the Kencom stage, I was giving out masks from a big bag of donated cotton masks when several teargas canisters were thrown, making sure that none of us could see anything, and so began another round of running in several different directions. Right around the corner leading up to Aga Khan Walk, I was arrested by two male police officers, and as the cloud of teargas was clearing, I could see the woman who I earlier thought was a comrade pointing at me, stating that I am one of them, a police-hating one at that. It was my first time getting arrested at a protest, so I was shocked, but not as shocked as I was when I realized that the woman who had been trailing me all morning was a pig in plain clothes.

I was led to the police pick up, now having been handed over to my former comrade turned policewoman, who threw me, not in the back of the car but in the back seat, where another police woman, who was in uniform, was seated. They laughed and high fived across me once I was seated and firmly squashed in between them. I looked back to see that Julius had also gotten arrested and along with other comrades, had been thrown in the back of the car.

My heart was pounding. I felt small and suddenly isolated. I thought about all the things that we had discussed in the months of planning. I thought about the peoples’ petition and whether it would make it to Harambee avenue. I thought about my friends still at the protest, about my family, and strangely, about turning a corner in town and seeing Julius, about how much his protest gave me zeal and vision, and I wondered if I would live to see him again. Sitting in between these policewomen made me feel twice as scared. I was an internal mess, every bad thing I could think of felt two times more likely to happen, still my system was in too much of a shock to outwardly express my fears. I kept calm as the car was recklessly driven, ignoring all traffic rules, the siren blazing and the policeman who was driving insulting people on the road. I made peace with the endless possibilities of how my day could end, not sure whether I would be alive to see another day.

In the moments I was in the police vehicle, I felt my body get heavier, saturated with numerous different feelings and thoughts. Although I could see what was happening around me, I wasn’t really taking any of it in. I remember seeing a teargas canister in my former comrade’s purse and I chuckled a little, earning myself a shove from her colleague ‘Unacheka nini msichana? Funga hiyo mdomo.’ I thought, ‘she had that canister the whole time she was marching with us’ and at that moment it was both the most ridiculous and hilarious thing I had experienced that day. My body grew heavier and so did my breathing and soon, all external sounds were drowned out and I could hear very clearly, the sounds of protest that had accompanied me all day. In many ways, I left all of me at the protest, and there was a kind of peace that washed over me, grounding me in what that day meant for myself and everyone who was protesting.

Exactly seven months before the protest, on January 7th, I submitted my final undergraduate project where I researched and wrote an extensive paper tracing the history of identity systems in Kenya, the origins of Huduma Namba and the future of citizenship and belonging, examining on the future of marginalization in the digital age. As part of my research and duty as a member of the Nubian community, I attended all the National Integrated Identity Management Systems (NIIMS) public participation forums, sat in all the court proceedings surrounding Huduma Namba and read and watched everything I could find on the same. At the end of my project, I was exhausted. Even though I had been studying and following the conversations around Huduma Namba, I would get shocked and heartbroken anew because of the many unknown and unbelievably evil layers to this proposed and most likely to be implemented digital system.
In 2019, I wrote a small statement in ‘Many worlds, Many Nets, Many Visions,’ a collection of critical voices on internet governance by Humoldt Institute for Internet and Society. In my statement, titled ‘Tyranny by Database in Kenya,’ I wrote that; ‘Digitalization of identities in Kenya, coupled with the blatant lack of data protection laws and data security, is at present a tool to further entrench institutionalized discrimination and exclusion. It has the potential to undermine the rights of all Kenyans, and marginalized communities are especially at risk.’ My thoughts on Huduma Namba have not changed. It is by design a carceral technology, and a systemic tool for the advancement of tyranny and ushering Kenya into an era of institutionalized digital fascism.

In the same year, I wrote about my first hand encounter with the exclusionary state, where I recounted my experience of attempting to obtain identification as a Kenyan Nubian. Although the piece is mostly a personal account, it speaks to the plight of inclusion. I wanted my story to say, ‘look, the state is choosing to exclude some people, when everyone should be included, when everyone should be afforded their right to an ID card, thus the right to belong.’ At the time, justice looked, sounded like and seemingly embodied inclusion. Throughout my ID application experience, all the humiliating processes that I went through made me feel othered, sidelined, they made me feel left out, and I remember thinking that I never want anyone to ever have to feel what I felt. Even after obtaining my ID, I had days where I would be crippled by the fear of not belonging, that my participation in community could be taken away at any moment, because I had seen first hand, that the kenyan government is the negotiator of who belongs and who doesn’t, and for some of us, to earn belonging, we must bargain with our lives.

In an interview with Mshai Mwangola for the Elephant journal, Mwende Gatabaki, who is described as a digital transformation pioneer and revolutionary, details how, in 2014, she was personally commissioned by the President to come up with a digital identity infrastructure to curb terrorism after the 2013 Westgate terrorism attack. As the interview progresses you learn that the idea was to micro-surveil Kenyans and all persons living in Kenya through an integrated identity system named ‘Umoja’ that traced and recorded all human transactions. Essentially, the government and all sectors of the government would have in their hands all the minute details of each person’s life in the name of counter-terrorism and national security. What’s worse, the system was also motivated by an effort to create a new kind of property by registering collateral in moveable assets, such as vehicles, farm animals and companies.
Towards the end of the interview, Gatabaki details how this project was eventually sabotaged by the government, where she was essentially ghosted (she cites political mistrust and negative influence upon the president by outside forces) and the whole thing silently disappeared. By now Gatabaki’s project must be sounding familiar. In 2018, Nanjira Sambuli, an expert in technology and governance, tweeted in response to this interview; ‘Mwende Gatabaki knows her stuff, and may be the person to deliver the digital transformation in our public sector, that she very passionately discusses here. However, I’m glad that didn’t pan out; that kind of system in the hands of an oppressive Govt would’ve been a disaster!’ Unfortunately this came just months before an infrastructure very similar to Gatabaki’s, was rolled out, what we now know as ‘Huduma Namba.
Huduma Namba, under the National Integrated Identity Management System (NIIMS) is a form of carceral technology both figuratively and literally. As it stands, if it is rolled out as is, it will make permanent existing issues in the current identity systems, further deepening marginalization and the issues around existing on the margins of society. Beyond that, the proposed penalties of imprisonment and hefty fines for anyone who attempts to transact in more than 15 civic political and social aspects of daily life without this number will see to it that the most vulnerable and disenfranchised populations end up in even more vulnerable states of existence, either in debt or in prison. This, against the backdrop of the privatization of prisons means that for the government, neither fixing the existing identity systems nor adhering to the court’s proposed adjustments is not only the easier route, it is critical in the building of the prison industrial complex dubbed ‘The Kenya Prisons Enterprise Cooperation.’ For the private prisons to be profitable, they will need cheap labor, which needs more people in prisons, which needs increased incarceration.

There can never be justice in inclusion where the thing we want to be included in is designed, managed and run by violent state systems. In 2019, I thought state inclusion meant belonging. I thought state recognition meant justice, visibility and freedom when in reality, this is not the case. Huduma Namba has laid bare the delusion of inclusion. While it locks out millions of marginalized Kenyans, it also has the potential to marginalize others who might have otherwise believed that they are safe from marginalization. In January of last year, the High Court stopped the implementation of NIIMS ordering that the exercise can only proceed after a regulatory comprehensive framework is put in place to address exclusion and data privacy. The High Court found the data privacy framework wanting and lacking, so in typical GoK fashion, there was a rushed process to come up with a mediocre data act which gives powers to the Cabinet Secretary of Interior and Coordination of National Security to access data from any electronic device and introduces hefty penalties for anyone who refuses to comply; which circles back to the possibilities of increased incarceration.

Mwende created something that would be used to criminalize and surveil people under the guise of making Kenya safer. In a follow up tweet, Nanjira states; ‘We can’t be ceding more power to a Govt that oppresses her citizens, that systematically erodes the tenets of the citizen-state relationship, by giving them more tools for surveillance, oppression, or worse.’ Further down, she states; ‘The challenge ahead for luminaries like Mwende, is not if and how they can serve their country. It’s what systems they’d be perpetuating, or disrupting, applying their expertise to public service. A cross-generational wahala.’
Whether she was aware or not, Gatabaki laid the foundations of Kenya’s carceral technology. In her book, ‘Weapons of Math Destruction,’ Cathy O’Neil outlines the various ways Big Data increases inequalities and threatens Democracy. O’Neil reminds us that despite their reputation, algorithms are not neutral, having been informed by human biases. She emphasizes that ‘Algorithms are opinions embedded in code.’ To leave a big data infrastructure of that proportion in the hands of the Kenyan government (we all know the kind of opinions they hold) is a sell out to all Kenyans. Such a system, which neatly organizes, reinforces and makes permanent the doctrine of fascism, structural oppression and criminalization of life is sinful. When we say #DivestNIIMS, we are not simply calling for a rejection of a new identity system, but rather for a stop to a mass integrated system that will see to it that the effects of the existing extractive models that suffocate our lives are made absolute and omnipresent.

The Saba Saba march for our lives was an all encompassing march that carried a lot of pain, a lot of lamentation, a lot of hurt, a lot of grief, a lot of hope, a lot of dreams, a lot of cries and most importantly, the march carried our lives. The original saba saba protest demanded free and fair elections, and subsequent marches have held the same dream; that of freedom and liberation, for a society that is people centered. Police brutality, extra-judicial killings, demands from marginalized communities, LGBTQIA+ rights and COVID-19 demands were some of the prominently named grievances of the march, though the range of injustices that were taken to the streets were boundless, because our lives are boundless and the violence, oppression and suppression impressed upon our lives by the Kenyan Government are boundless.

Every year, the Kenyan Police infiltrate Saba Saba, and every year, nobody knows the real reason why the pushback against this one day of the year is so prominent. Even last year, the police officers that I interacted with in close proximity all repeated the same thing,’that they have been sent to stop Saba Saba trouble makers; vichwa ngumu.’ I believe that the state is deeply afraid of the symbolism of the date itself; 07/07. It is a date that upholds and reminds us of the people. Every Saba Saba is a fight to exist in a world that is not so bureaucratic and the police respond in a manner that is so bureaucratic, as if our worlds exist outside of each other. The Saba saba march of our lives also holds our protest against Huduma Namba and any other system that will have us existing as digits. While we are protesting against the dehumanization of not wanting to be seen as numerical recipients of oppression and exploitation, the state is protesting against the symbolism of 07/07, against the ritual of freedom-dreaming.

Last year we witnessed a series of numerous protests around the world, with at least ‘one new significant anti-government protest every four days.’ From the Black Lives Matter protests in the US which stretched over many months, to the protests of Hong Kong, Chile, Iran, Thailand, Lebanon, Poland, Venezuela, Sudan, Peru, France, Uganda, Belarus, the #EndSARS protests in Nigeria and the Nicaraguan protests that have stretched over six years. A common and recurring theme was blatant excessive use of police force on protestors, evidence that oppressive regimes are struggling to remain relevant, resulting in using methods of instilling fear in efforts to silence the masses.

If 2020 taught us anything, it would be that we protest as a means to sustain our lives, as a means to preserve our dignity. We protested in spite of a global pandemic, in spite of and against police violence, in spite of the many ways we are killed everyday, if anything because the pandemic is magnifying injustices and inequalities, it also amplified the people’s voices in demanding for better.

Article 37 of the Constitution of Kenya provides for freedom of peaceful assembly and states that ‘every person has the right, peaceably and unarmed, to assemble, to demonstrate, to picket, and to present petitions to public authorities. This means that we have the right to refuse prescribed ways of being that shrink our existences and write new ones. Over the years, many Kenyans have taken to the streets over various issues, injustices and abuse of human rights, and every time, our protests get violent only when the various police units arrive, throwing teargas, firing live bullets and beating innocent Kenyans. All of the time, citizen and student organized protests are met with some kind of twisted protest from the state; like in the case of Saba Saba, where we were protesting police violence while it was being unleashed on us, or when we protest human rights violations while our rights to protest are being violated.
Last year, we also saw unnecessary police violence used under the pretense of ‘enforcing stay at home orders.’ In many countries around the world, innocent people were killed at the hands of police. In this twitter thread, I say that global governments have a whatsApp group, in an effort to demonstrate the similarities in how state sponsored police violence operates. In Kenya alone at least six people (that we know of) were killed by police during the first ten days of the dusk to dawn curfew imposed on March 27th. Police officers shot and beat innocent people way before the start of the curfew. Two years before the pandemic and subsequent lockdown and curfew, a nation wide conducted survey revealed that most Kenyans believe that the biggest threat to their lives is police violence. In 2017, an Amnesty International report said that of 177 reported cases of police killings in Africa, 122 of them were in Kenya.

A couple of weeks ago, a dear friend messaged me asking about abolition and Kenya’s prison systems. She was wondering who were the most prominent voices speaking on these two topics, and if any were contextualising these conversations within our colonial history. I pointed her in the direction of The Museum of British Colonialism, whose mission is to restore and make visible suppressed, destroyed, or underrepresented histories relating to British colonialism. Most recently, MBC collaborated with Afrcan Digital Heritage in a project that documented, mapped and reconstructed Mau Mau camps around Kenya many of which were repurposed into boarding schools, a haunting legacy considering the carceral nature of our school system. I mentioned this particular project to her, as less of an answer to her question and more of a comment on possibilities, that there are people like Chao Tayiana questioning colonial legacies, viewing time as a circular space, connecting our pasts with our present, to map out the future and make possible alternative worlds where we are less fragmented from ourselves. Chao’s conversation with Christine Mungai on this during the Multimedia Installation of Mau Mau era detention camps late last year at Baraza Media Lab is worth a watch.

While Huduma Namba might sound new, it is actually a fulfillment of colonial era pipe dreams to have a single comprehensive document for Africans in Kenya. On January 25th 1956, the then AG Secretary of Labor and Lands wrote a letter suggesting consolidating every Kenyan’s records into a single comprehensive document. I came to learn about this via Dr. Karen Weitzberg’s twitter. The document was supposed to incorporate registration particulars, payment of poll tax, and other documents that the African was required to carry such as the domestic service and permits to reside in urban areas. In the words of O’Neil, ‘Big Data processes codify the past. They do not invent the future.’

From the 1915 – 1920’s Native Registration Ordinance to the Kipande System of 1947, to 1980 when the post colonial government started issuing IDs to women, to the first, second and proposed third generation identity cards between 1995 and 2011, this article by Juliet Atellah details the evolution of identity systems in Kenya, up until 2019 when Huduma Namba was introduced. Atellah’s article helps in bridging the gap between Kenya’s past and Huduma Namba. The importance of work like this, and what Tayiana is doing with the Mau Mau era detention camps is, beyond defragmenting our lives, that it allows us to be un-mesmerised by things like Huduma Namba, which when uncloaked is a colonial wet dream. In forming these connections, we are able to critique, refuse, name and protest these violences.

While I had to tell my friend that there is no singular or distinct voices on abolition in Kenya, in my response to her I was encouraged by the fact that in the months and days leading up to Saba Saba, many of us spoke about abolition in various social media exchanges, connecting our dreams of abolition to the failures of police reforms, and systemic facelifts. I told her, and I believe, that the conversation on police and prison abolition in Kenya is largely specific to our generation. This sentiment does not take away from my appreciation for older intellectual and revolutionary spaces and voices that have informed many of our methods of resistance and what we fight for. From the blueprints that are fundamental to our protest, we build upon, we expand, we mould, we create new shapes, new channels, and we forge forward. Both my friend and I concluded that we are going to come up with an abolitionist framework, theory and practice for ourselves, something that I believe we are already doing.

In July, days after the Saba Saba march for our lives, I became aware of numerous state planned evictions that were scheduled and illegal by way of the government ignoring court orders. The past month, thousands of people in Ruai and Kariobangi had been made homeless with government bulldozers rolling in at night. We watched as people cried on live television, begging the president to have mercy on them, to think of their children who had to shelter under trees. This all happened as Nairobi county was under Covid-19 lockdown and curfew, barring movement for those evicted. We watched with renewed horror a few days after the demolitions, when the government further gave a directive to destroy the tents that had been donated to the Kariobangi evictees, saying that the land belongs to the Nairobi Water Company. The government is threatened by collective care, and they continuously strive to destroy systems of mutual aid and solidarity. They tell us, we can not march, then they say we cannot help each other, all to say, we cannot live except by their rules, so of course we push back. Of course we march. Of course we protest.
In protest to the evictions, which we would later learn that the demolitions are to pave way for water and sewerage facilities to serve Northlands City, dubbed “city of the future” a Kenyatta (president’s) family investment, I co-wrote this Curse-chant with a sister-friend as an acknowledgement of our connection to our ancestors, our many freedom-loving, freedom fighting ancestors, from the Mau Mau to Wangari Maathai to the dead whose names we do not know. This chant was also an invitation to all Kenyans to rage with us. Protesting does not only look like taking to the streets. We carry everything that we believe in in our bodies. Our bodies are our first sites of protest. We protest with the defiance we carry in our bodies, we protest when we uncloak injustices on twitter, we protest when we care for one another, when we encourage each other to dream, we protest when we say, ‘Defund, Dismantle, Demilitarise, Disrupt,’ not as slogans but as complete prayers. We protest when we refuse to be enchanted by false histories, when we say Kamau wa Ngengi Snr never fought for independence. We protest when we document injustices, when we name our pain, when we make the truth heard.

We protest to protect our spaces for dreaming, imagining, hoping and being; we protest to push back at the deaths we are forced to live through, to demand justice for those who lose their lives at the hands of the state, we protest as grief. We protest to cry, and to enlarge the possibilities of belonging, we protest to say ‘we are here, as we should be.’
We protest to say, ‘fuck Huduma Namba’ and ‘fuck the carceral state,’ in recognition that state inclusion means more othering, more fragmentation of communities, more separation from one another. We protest not to say, ‘fix huduma namba to include everyone then roll it out,’ but to say, ‘abolish Huduma Namba, abolish the state as an institution of societal organization and control, abolish the state because the concept of states is inherently violent. We protest to say ‘we are here, building communities for and with each other.

We protest to pull forth our dreams to the here and now, to say abolition is a possibility, in this moment. To say that the police can and should be defunded and disbanded. To say the death of the nation-state is a valid dream to have. To say that dreams of burning it all down are worth nurturing. We protest as a practice of connecting the ‘how’ and ‘when’, in saying that we are committed to the ongoing collective non-linear journey of reimagining our lives.
We protest because if we do not, the carceral state will become immortal.

We protest as a practice of naming. To name our pain, our struggles, our triumphs, to vocalize what we hope for, yearn for and pray for. In both lamentation and praise, we protest as a practice of Amen-ing, to say, ‘may it be so’ to our demands and to our dreams.

We protest in the tradition and spirit of remembrance; to align our dreams to the dreams of those who came before us, as a practice of expansion. To say, we are creating the possibilities not only for this work and the vision-dreams to happen, but also for the spaces that will hold these possibilities, for the paths, the journey and for the arrival of our dreams, whether they happen in our lifetime or not. We are keeping the paths tended, always expanding, always making room for infinite possibilities, imaginations and dreaming.

We protest to say that we are committed to each other, to collective care, love and in sustenance of our lives.
We protest in the name of love and in the spirit of care. We protest to keep alive the tradition of radical love, radical care and radical justice.

We protest to teach the black babies to dream.

What happened in between our arrival at the Central Police station where we were held for more than 8 hours to our release moments before the then 9pm curfew is still something that I cannot talk about, so I will skip to when we were finally released. I was relieved to see Julius and everyone else. I was back to work the following week, using different routes to get to work to avoid the place where I was arrested. The central business district in general looked and felt weird for a couple of weeks. I still get chills along the length from Kencom to Aga Khan walk and when I can, I avoid this route.

I met Julius that same week opposite Hilton Arcade, this time on my way to my lunch break. We talked for quite sometime and exchanged numbers with promises to keep in touch which we have both followed through on. My protest does not look like Julius’, and yours might not either, but what he does has taught me so so much on the numerous ways in which we protest for each other and for our communities. I think of what he does not in wonder but in appreciation. So far, in 2021 I have already seen Julius once next to the Dedan Kimathi statue, still speaking truth to power.

All this to say, our protests are limitless and interconnected. Our protest is an act of love, of defiance, of care, of dreaming, of solidarity, of joy, of hope, of abolition and of creating. We are the consorts of everything that our freedom fighting and freedom dreaming ancestors prayed for and we are here, bold, rude and dreaming still.
We protest in the name of love and in the spirit of care. We protest to keep alive the tradition of radical love, radical care and radical justice.

Always and forever, ‘May all the despots, tyrants and dictators perish in our lifetime.’

Kedolwa’s story appears in the print issue of drr issue 3, Asphyxia. Get your copy here.

Kedolwa Waziri is a writer, dreamer, and community organizer at Trans Queer Fund Kenya. She is a student of radical social movements, her work lives at the intersection of social justice, art, and feminist politics, and is an emerging voice on histories of marginalization, identity, and digital justice.

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