Lena Grace Anyuolo describes the hunger games of capitalism in Kenya. In this diabolical world where the sponsors of jobs and healthcare are corporations, or rich individuals and media personalities who have the power to deliver life from poverty or fund-raise for a lifesaving medical procedure. Anyuolo is scathing about a form of existence where life or death depends on philanthropy or whether or not your story is worthy of a prime-time slot on TV.
By Lena Grace Anyuolo
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 guest, 13-year-old Bianca Wambui who had been diagnosed with breast cancer but could not raise enough money for treatment. In an hour, 2.4 million (US$23,000) shillings had been raised.
The comments on the tweet by Citizen TV announcing the success of their fundraiser were varied and ranged from praise for Jeff Koinange or people being 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?’ This brought to the fore the unsustainability of philanthropy as a method of healthcare management.
In 2015, reporter Denis Onsarigo covered a story, Desert of Death, an expose of toxic waste dumping that had been carried out by an American Oil Company, Amoco, in the 1980s 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 each week were referred 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 S. K. Macharia who own Citizen TV, and 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’s Got 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 US$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 labour power, which is their talent is uncompensated while Citizen TV which airs the show in Kenya and Rapid Blue, the South African Company that produces it, rakes millions through sales of the show. Citizen TV also profits from advertising due to the ratings 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. His pain and hopelessness was the story of many other graduates around the country. Within a week of the story, 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 Jeff Koinange and you have unlocked the top 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 at the centre of the fictional 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 Province, the rural areas and urban settlements in Kenya. These were areas that were marginalised during colonialism and remained marginalised 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. These farmers had been dispossessed during colonialism, and later through structural adjustment policies by the World Bank and IMF that heralded the neo-liberalism era.
Bianca Wambui came from Huruma, a ward in Mathare constituency in Kenya’s capital, Nairobi. 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 on Kenyans suspected of being part of the ‘Mau Mau’ – the Kenya Land and Freedom Army (KLFA) – heavily impacted Mathare as it was believed to be the centre of resistance in Nairobi. Their homes were demolished during the raids. Even after the war for independence, the new government led by Jomo Kenyatta did nothing to improve the lives of those who lived in Mathare, 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 Province who have to choose between sustaining their families or paying for cancer treatment. The poor do not have the smartphones to ask for funds from well-wishers or get on Jeff Koinange’s show, they sink into debt struggling to pay a medical bill, or travel back home empty handed if their 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 waking up to serve capital. For these 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 prime-time reality show to share their story. The corporates like Safaricom that sponsor the shows are absolved of their exploitation of labour and complicity in this cruel 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 labour. 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.
Lena Grace Anyuolo is a writer and social justice activist with Mathare Social Justice Centre and Ukombozi Library. Her writing has appeared in Jalada’s 7th anthology themed After+Life and The Elephant.
Featured Photograph: The judges on East Africa’s Got Talent (Citizen TV, 13 July, 2019).
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Thank you Lena for this brilliant article! Such a powerful and compelling metaphor you have given us, and also an excellent history of Mathare and the ways in which colonial history continue to shape most of the present we all live in. This is now a great teaching tool we can use in our classes! Keep up the great work comrade!