The Kenyan Hunger Games

Philanthropy and celebrities are not enough to remedy the inequalities that persist in Kenya.

Nairobi, Kenya. Image credit Amy Ashcraft via Flickr CC.

About a month ago, Jeff Koinange, a leading news anchor and household name in Kenya made a fervent plea to Kenyans on behalf of his 13 year-old guest, Bianca Wambui who had been diagnosed with breast cancer but could not raise enough money for treatment. In an hour, 2.4 million shillings had been raised.

The comments on the tweet by Citizen TV announcing the success of their fundraiser were varied and ranged from praise of Koinange and tweets by people moved by the generosity of Kenyans. However, like a dark cloud on a sunny day, one comment asked, “What about the other Bianca’s out there?” A question which brought to the fore the unsustainability of philanthropy as a method of healthcare management.

In 2015, Denis Onsarigo ran a story titled “Desert of Death,” an expose of toxic waste dumping in the 1980s carried out by an American Oil Company, Amoco in Marsabit County in Kenya during an oil exploration mission. Buried in pits dug in the earth was toxic mercury and arsenic that percolated into the water table and contaminated the drinking water in the wells. The residents and livestock drunk the poisoned water and it began to slowly kill them. The rate of throat and stomach cancer increased and in 2011, two residents were referred each week to hospitals in Meru town or Nairobi city for a biopsy. Most of the time, the residents could not afford the transport or medical bills for treatment.

But this skewed form of existence, where one’s life or death depends on the philanthropy of others, who determine whether or not your story is worthy of a prime-time feature, does not only end with medical stories, it extends to how one earns their daily bread.

These are the hunger games of capitalism where the sponsors or overlords are corporates like Safaricom or Coca Cola, or individuals like SK Macharia, who owns Citizen TV. Their scouts are Jeff Koinange and other influencers who have the clout to lift your life from poverty or fund raise a lifesaving medical procedure.

To see just how pervasive this analogy is, look at the format of popular game shows like East Africa Got’s Talent. The participants showcase their talent to a team of judges who decide whether or not their talent qualifies them for the next round bringing them closer to USD$50,000 cash prize, which could mean a lot of things to the participants, such as better housing, education, healthcare, professional nurturing of their talent and so on. Never mind that their labor power, which is their talent is uncompensated while Citizen TV which airs the show in Kenya makes their cut from advertising, meanwhile Rapid Blue, the South African Company that produces it, rakes millions through sales of the show.

In July, the story of Kevin Obede, a first-class Actuarial Science Graduate who was living on the streets due to unemployment grabbed the headlines on prime-time news. It was tear jerking story. Though his pain and hopelessness were not uncommon among many other graduates around the country, within a week of the story airing, he was flooded with job offers.

On the #IkoKaziKe—a twitter hashtag that helps Kenyans hunt for work—the number of graduates looking for jobs far outweighs the job listings and #unemploymentdisasterke, the testimonies of “tarmacking” (slang for job hunting) can scare you into accepting whatever job is offered to you. Pictures of graduates holding placards of their qualifications in traffic becomes a game of who will spot you, take a picture of the card, post it on social media and when it goes viral, then the job offers come flooding in. But then the participants in the “game” became too many and the posts and pictures lost their effectiveness so they turned to TV. One feature by Koinange and you have unlocked the level of prosperity that is otherwise unreachable in the average person’s life.

Another example is KCB Lion’s Den. Here, aspiring entrepreneurs pitch their businesses to a team of judges—the “lions” who are a group of successful business moguls who have the cash and know-how of what it takes to succeed. As the prey, you have to impress these “overlords” or corporate sponsors who have the power to turn your life around.

There is nothing wrong with competition, but if the ground is uneven, is it now a fair fight or simply playing God?

In the Hollywood film, The Hunger Games, the Capitol—the wealthy city-state of the center of the world—stages a series of competitions involving the 12 districts in a fight to the death scenario where the winner gets access to a better life than they lived in their districts. The games were set up by the Capitol as punishment to the 12 districts who had staged a rebellion years before. The districts are kept impoverished and each year, a boy and a girl from each district are put forward as representatives or tributes in the games. If one has sponsors who give you gifts critical to the winning of the games, then you have a better chance of making it. It is a competition for your humanity and the odds are unevenly stacked among the poorer districts in comparison to the wealthier district 1 and 2, who train their tributes for the games from birth.

We should think of the “districts” as the Northern Frontier Districts, the rural areas and urban settlements. These were areas that were marginalized during colonialism and remained marginalized during flag independence and beyond, when our country’s founding leaders entrenched colonial violence by taking for themselves the land that belonged to the peasant farmers who had been dispossessed during colonialism, and later on through structural adjustment policies by the World Bank and IMF that heralded the neoliberal era.

Wambui came from Huruma, a ward in Mathare constituency. Mathare first started as a quarry where commercial stone mining took place. Most of the miners who worked at the quarry also lived there in caves hewn out of the rock. Later on, the British colonial government allowed them to build shacks. During the state of emergency, the crackdown of Africans suspected to be part of the Mau Mau mostly affected Mathare as it was believed to be the center of the Kenya Land and Freedom Army, also known as Mau Mau. Their homes were demolished during the raids. Even after the war for independence, the new government led by Jomo Kenyatta did nothing to make the lives of those who lived in Mathare better, and instead asked them to go back to the rural areas as they made Nairobi look like a slum. Yet, where was the land? Had they not come to Nairobi because of precisely this reason—to find an alternative livelihood after being dispossessed of their ancestral land?

As you can see, one can draw parallels between the dystopian Hunger Games in Panem—the fictional country were the games take place—and the Hunger Games of capitalism in Nairobi.

Therefore, if you do not get a sponsor who will help you win at the games, you will die of cancer like the residents in Northern Frontier Districts who have to choose between sustaining their families or paying for cancer treatment, and who do not have the smartphones to ask for funds from well-wishers or get on Koinange’s show, or sink into debt as you struggle to pay a medical bill in, or travel back home empty handed if your talent or idea does not please the judges of a reality game show. Perhaps the biggest irony is that these shows serve as weekend or weekday evening entertainment for the workers in the “districts” before they wake up to serve capital. For them (the workers), the taste of hope stays fresh on their tongues and the thought, “If only I get on the show,” are carried like a prayer until the next opportunity to be on a primetime reality show to share their story. The corporates like Safaricom that sponsor the shows are absolved of the crimes of their exploitation of labor and complicity in this cruel capitalist system because they made one person’s dream come true on a game show.

At the end of the day, it is a zero-sum game between capital and labor. A game where capital is always the winner and doles out the “spoils”—healthcare, right to dignified work, food to whomever is lucky and whoever wins in the diabolical game of life in Kenya.

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