Goats, sheep and the masses
Compared to reporting by the foreign press, Kenyan mainstream media was understandably restrained in its coverage of Monday’s cost-of-living protests (Maandamano).
The coverage of what happened at a farm owned by former president Uhuru Kenyatta was particularly striking.
‘Intruders invade former president Uhuru Kenyatta’s family land, loot and destroy property’, said The Standard.
‘Looters invade Kenyatta family Northlands farm, steal livestock and attack journalists’, reported the Daily Nation. The Business Daily was the most stiff-upper-lipped, declaring that ‘Armed groups breach Kenyatta family-owned Northlands City, loot property’.
The Daily Monitor in Uganda, and The Citizen in Tanzania, though from the same stable as Daily Monitor, enjoyed more creative freedom. ‘Looters descend on Kenyatta family farm, steal livestock’, the Monitor reported, and ‘Monday of high drama as gangs storm Kenyatta farm, Raila’s company’, The Citizen offered.
The Citizen’s text was quite colourful: “Dozens of goons yesterday invaded an expansive land owned by former President Uhuru Kenyatta’s family at Kamakis on the Eastern Bypass in Nairobi and looted property...
“A similar attack was reported at gas cylinder-maker Specter East Africa, a company linked to the family of opposition leader Raila Odinga, who is leading anti-government protests.
“The Kenyatta land was invaded by a gang wielding machetes and clubs around 9 am yesterday. They stole sheep, cut down trees and burnt bushes as others did mock sub-division, seemingly with the intent to grab the property.
“The motive of the invasion is yet unclear. There were no police officers to eject the gang from the property…on which the Kenyattas plan to build the multibillion-shilling Northlands City…guards watched helplessly as the mob cut down trees and lit bonfires.
“We are sons and daughters of Mau Mau, and we are here to claim what we believe is ours. This land is too big, and we shall divide it into several pieces because we also want a share,” said a member of the gang, alluding to the group that fought for Kenya’s independence from British rule.
“The gang went on a looting spree, stealing and butchering sheep and goats at the farm. Some sold the slaughtered animals to motorists along the highway for as little as Sh2,000.”
On social media, as the images of the invaders with goats and sheep strapped around their necks spread beyond Kenya, one of the discussions was about “Africans’ obsession with livestock”.
There were racist-tinged posts about “agrarian Africans” and how even in revolutionary moments, we are all about “the simple things of the stomach”.
We last saw vaguely related scenes in Sri Lanka during cost-of-living protests (especially the scarcity and cost of medicine) in 2022, the largest to sweep the Asian country in decades. One of the targets of the protestors’ attack was the presidential palace. They took it over for hours.
They swam in its sumptuous pool, took showers, played on the beds, watched TV and took drinks in the kitchen. Though their target was different, in that it was a sitting, not former, president, the underlying grievance against the political class was the same. However, they didn’t carry anything away.
There were disturbing things about the scenes at Northlands farm, and it would open the gates of hell if it grew as a form of property redistribution in Kenya, but there still was a signal hidden in there.
The cynics and crypto-racist are right: the demands by the majority of the masses, even when political factions are not mobilising them, are still very basic; a few kilogrammes of meat, firewood, a packet of maize flour, a small plot to grow vegetables, salt, sugar, a bottle of paraffin, a bar of soap, a jerrycan of water.
Like past and, possibly future Maandamo Mondays, with all the best and worst faces, this last one and the scenes at Northlands City were about many stories. The question is how far deep we are willing to look.
A mwananchi has to be extremely deprived for him or her to accept to face the possibility of a police bullet in a protest because of the cost of unga.
He also has to be desperate to see as a great opportunity the chance to invade a political opponent’s farm, steal a goat, and slaughter it on the roadside to sell to by-passers for Sh2,000.
Assume the pro and anti-Maandamo sides were in Sri Lanka and broke into and took over a swimming-pooled State House or the estate of a member of a rich political dynasty, and before them was a swimming pool, luxurious showers, grand sofas and a fridge full of food. What is likely to happen? Would they do as their Sri Lanka peers?
Highly unlikely. They might fight over the food, so they can take some to the hungry family they left at home. Very few, if any, would jump into the swimming pool because they can’t swim. Many more are likely to draw the water and carry it away. And they will grab the beddings and curtains and load up the sofas to take away. That is their greater need – and our political tragedy.
Mr Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the ‘Wall of Great Africans’. [email protected]