Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Rethinking Lumpens in 2005...

Onyango Oloo Revisits the Decades-Old Debates on the Elements Déclassé...

Members of the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA), which was started in 1987 as a small self-help project to organize their own sport and slum clean-up activities. L-R: Jecton Obure, Peter Karanja, Franklin Shelimba, Elisha Abongó, Collins Omonchi, George Nange, Stephen Muchoki, Martin Magua, and James Waithaka

1.0. Guess Where Most Kenyan Urban Dwellers Live in Today?

How many people live in Nairobi?

Two million? Two and a half million?



What is 60% of 2,000,000?

Is that sixty times two million divided by one hundred giving us an answer of…let me scratch my head vigorously as I battle cluelessly for the correct answer.

Since I am such a dimwit at simple calculations like that, I reach out without shame, and without batting an eyelid for this online calculator and hey presto, I can cheat in a way I was never able to thirty five years ago when Mwalimu Moses Shumwe in my standard four class in our rural primary school of Luanda in Kisa Location, Kakamega District in Western Kenya would give us these "difficult" problems to solve as part of the weekly "surprise" "mental arithmetic" quizzes that I ALWAYS FLUNKED miserably and was therefore always one of these kids who were ordered to go out of the class room and come back with a sturdy cane. Mr Shumwe (the man had the “reddest” eyes this side of Mzee Jomo Kenyatta) would then order us to follow him outside instructing us to form a circle with our little fimbos ready. At the sound of his whistle, we had to start chasing the person in front of us, caning them on their legs for about two minutes until the firimbi sounded again. We would now change direction, and NOW the pupil you were caning a minute ago had a chance to give you some direct feedback whether you were hurting them or not.

Like always, I digress, taking you tangentially with me on one of my infernal time travel backwards.

Is this the correct answer one million two hundred thousand people by any chance?

Who knows?

Let us make the dangerous assumption that I got it right this time around.

One million two hundred thousand women, men and children are the number of people who live in the teeming slums of Nairobi.

Nine hundred thousand subsist in sprawling Kibera.

Five hundred thousand survive in Mathare.

Eighty thousand eke out an existence in Majengo.

Do the numbers add up?

Apparently NOT!

I told you to be wary of my wobbly math!

That is already one million, four hundred and eighty thousand and we have not even counted all the other slum areas in Nairobi...

I mean we have not even touched

Dandora in the Embakasi Division of the Kenyan capital. And I am not talking about the estate. I am referring to neighbourhoods like Canaan, Baghdad, Shashamane and Gitarimarigu.

I have not mentioned Kangemi, Githurai nor have I spoken of Gatina in Kawangware or Mukuru which squats between the Mariakani Flats and Golden Gate in Nairobi South "B".

I am yet to say anything about Kambi Moto in Huruma.

Nor have I taken you on the tour below through Korogocho:

Press on this link for more information on some of the groups working in Kenyan slums.

2.0. The Lumpenization of Kenyan Society

By the way, did you know thatTWO MILLION Kenyans are facing starvation right now, in late April 2005?

Did you also know that at least 36,000 Kenyans toil under slave like labour conditions in our country's Export Processing Zones?

Here is an excerpt from the UNDP Report on Kenya issued in 2004:

Kenya's third human development report finds that poor governance is a leading cause of lack of human development in the country. Economic stagnation, dire poverty and social inequalities are the result of continued corruption, inefficient management of public resources, and the exclusion of the poor in the development process. The report finds that transparency and accountability are lacking in Kenya's government structures. In effect, it encourages a people-centered approach to better governance in Kenya and highlights the importance of participatory governance for growth, poverty reduction and sustainable human development. [NB: Principal contributors to that report were: Dr. Rosemary Atieno - Team Leader (Institute for Development Studies);Dr. Winnie V. Mitullah (Institute for Development Studies);Dr. Walter Odhiambo (Institute for Development Studies);Dr. Karuti Kanyinga (Institute for Development Studies);Mr. John Njoka (Institute for Development Studies)and Dr. Gilbert M. Khadiagala - International Consultant (Johns Hopkins University)]

The 2001 UNDP report on Kenya had the following comment on addressing social and economic disparities for human development:

In Kenya, access to social, economic and political opportunities is far from equal. The Report probes these inequalities to discover the main causes, looking at income and employment, social development and access to social services. This theme is particularly pertinent given the current decline in economic performance and the associated increases in poverty and unemployment. The Report finds that the human development situation in Kenya has been declining since 1990 with a fall in life expectancy, per capita income and school enrollment. Most significantly, there are great regional variations in HDI, calling for broad-based rural development policies. The Report also recommends policies to ensure equality in the distribution of resources and opportunities across regions and to all vulnerable groups. As a result of these strong policy ideas, the Report is now used widely as a reference tool in Kenya and has been cited in the media, the donor community and the UN system.[Principal Contributors:Prof. Dorothy McCormick - Director (Institute for Development Studies);Dr. Rosemary Atieno (Institute for Development Studies);Dr. Walter Odhiambo (Institute for Development Studies);John Njoka (Institute for Development Studies)and Dr. Mwangi wa Githinji (Florida Atlantic University)]

Below is a statement issued in June 2003 by Peter Maina Mbugua, a retrenched Kenyan worker:

I, Peter Maina Mbugua residing in Mombasa, Kenya has worked for 19 years with Kenya Power & Lighting Company (KPLC), the only distributing and transmitting company of electricity in Kenya. I was employed as a junior staff after which I joined the Trade Union. For 13 years I was rank and file Member of the Union where I was also active in various industrial struggles. In 1996 I was elected Branch Committee member of the Union and two years later, I was elected Branch Chairman. I became vocal in campaigning for the rights of workers in Coast Province. I was later elected Regional Vice Chairman of our Central Organization of Trader Unions (COTU).

In 2001, I was elected Executive Branch Secretary and contested for the National Deputy General Secretary but was rigged out and later dismissed through retrenchment. During my time in the Labour movement, I participated in activities related to labour matters such as organizing demonstrations, strikes, labour day celebrations, Education of workers, sensitization of workers etc. Due to my activity activity in the Union, I lost my job in March 2002 in a well organised retrenchment scheme that victimized activists.

To highlight a few of your questions in the best of my knowledge, I will state as follows: - The period of retrenchment started in 1995 in different versions and in 1998, workers began to be dismissed under a Program of "reduction of staff". Major reasons that were given for the retrenchments were medical, poor performance and discipline. However, victimization and political reasons played a big role in the retrenchments. The retrenchments were co-ordinated by people in the government. The government, through the Permanent Secretaries co-ordinated with employers and Company management to retrench workers. These retrenchments were the direct results of IMF and World Bank programs.

At the moment, workers are trying to reorganize themselves to sue both the government and companies. Retrenched workers are demanding that they be reinstated while they also want compensation from the government as a result of loss of income due to the retrenchments which have cause great suffering to families of the retrenchees. Top government officials and Company managements do realise the difficulties facing retrenchees. In the process, they are trying to avoid the issue of reinstatement and compensation. They have also blocked the media from highlighting the crisis. In cases where there have been media breakthroughs, the reports have been distorted thereby giving a different story from what is reported by the workers.

The state of the retrenched workers is pathetic. Workers have died out of frustrations following abrupt loss of income, others are sick while others like myself are experiencing difficulties due to accumulated frustrations. There was no clear negotiations before the retrenchments and what this means is that workers were not paid their full dues. The problem is that our Union was colluding with representatives of all affected Industries to get rid of all Trade Union activists as a way of silencing the workers especially those who were opposed to the retrenchments. It is notable that strong Unions like the Local Government and Teacher's Unions did not experience any retrenchment of their employees because from their strong bargaining bases, the Unions kept threatening the government with massive actions by workers from their Unions. In our case, there were small isolated protests which died due to lack of political support.

Our future is gloomy because the current government is against any move aimed at bringing the issue of retrenchments on the political scene. We are trying to organize retrenched workers in different industries and form a strong body. However, this needs a lot of time and support from friendly organizations. We also need to get a way of getting information about our struggle in the media together with help with legal matters because we are intending to take court action. We don't have much options in the face of limited resources. We have an idea of running a parallel congress to fight for our rights and to use it to try and change the way things are running at the moment. The retrenchees have elected a representative to help in coordinating work for the realization of the following demands:

1. Payment of dues and compensations for years of work.
2. Payment of Pensions and provident funds which have not been paid despite the fact that workers qualify for them.
3. Amendment of the law so that workers can be paid their social contributions before attaining the age of 55 if they lose their jobs for any sort of reason.
4. Abolition of the IMF/World Bank sponsored retrenchments Programs that are creating a lot of suffering to many families.

Currently I have managed to coordinate retrenchees from my industry (Electrical) and we are meeting regionally once every week and Nationally every fortnight. We are also in the process of seeking a Court order to be allowed to sue the government and Kenya Power & lighting Company and our lawyer has told us that we have enough ground to win the case. We need to do a lot of lobbying locally and internationally. Locally, we have managed to create awareness among the public but this is not enough as we are operating with very limited resources.

We are also looking into possibilities of how we can get progressive MPs to take up the matter and raise it in Parliament. This will not only help to bring our plight in the public lime light but will also go a long way to give our plight a national exposure. We are appealing to individuals, locally and internationally to show solidarity with our plight. We are appealing to the International Working class Movement to give us support because we are suffering. We are ready to struggle because we have no other option. The prospects of starving to death as a result of the retrenchments are very alive and since we have nothing else to lose, we have decided to get organised as a way of addressing our problem.

Yours faithfully,

Retrenched Worker in Kenya.

Source:from the Kenya Socialist Democratic Alliance website.

Have you ever heard of an organization called the Future in Our Hands?

How about a Kenyan called

Romulus Wandera?

Well, here is your golden opportunity to have a once in a life time introduction-courtesy of Onyango Oloo. Just stop clucking your tongue and click here already, ok?

When I first became a Marxist-Leninist close to a quarter of a century ago, one of the technical terms I was immediately introduced to was the concept of the lumpen-proletariat.

Here is how an online encylopedia explains the term. And for good measure, here is how a MARXIST dictionary online defines lumpenproletariat.

I am bringing this up because one of the most celebrated ideological polemics among African leftists was over the revolutionary potential of the lumpenproletariat that some refer to as the elements déclassé.

Franz Fanon, the radical Black psychiatrist from Martinique who became part of the Algerian national liberation movement wrote his famous Les damnés de la terre(better known in English as Wretched of the Earth) in the early 1960s, a couple of years before he died of Leukemia. Unlike the traditional Marxists, Fanon invested all his hope in the African lumpenproletariat rising up to create a new reality in Africa. Fanon was a gifted writer as you can see from the conclusion to his classic, his magnum opus:

Come, then, comrades; it would be as well to decide at once to change our ways. We must shake off the heavy darkness in which we were plunged, and leave it behind. The new day which is already at hand must find us firm, prudent and resolute.

We must leave our dreams and abandon our old beliefs and friendships of the time before life began. Let us waste no time in sterile litanies and nauseating mimicry. Leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe. For centuries they have stifled almost the whole of humanity in the name of a so-called spiritual experience. Look at them today swaying between atomic and spiritual disintegration.

And yet it may be said that Europe has been successful in as much as everything that she has attempted has succeeded.

Europe undertook the leadership of the world with ardour, cynicism and violence. Look at how the shadow of her palaces stretches out ever farther! Every one of her movements has burst the bounds of space and thought. Europe has declined all humility and all modesty; but she has also set her face against all solicitude and all tenderness.

She has only shown herself parsimonious and niggardly where men are concerned; it is only men that she has killed and devoured.

So, my brothers, how is it that we do not understand that we have better things to do than to follow that same Europe?

That same Europe where they were never done talking of Man, and where they never stopped proclaiming that they were only anxious for the welfare of Man: today we know with what sufferings humanity has paid for every one of their triumphs of the mind.

Come, then, comrades, the European game has finally ended; we must find something different. We today can do everything, so long as we do not imitate Europe, so long as we are not obsessed by the desire to catch up with Europe.

Europe now lives at such a mad, reckless pace that she has shaken off all guidance and all reason, and she is running headlong into the abyss; we would do well to avoid it with all possible speed.

Yet it is very true that we need a model, and that we want blueprints and examples. For many among us the European model is the most inspiring. We have therefore seen in the preceding pages to what mortifying set-backs such an imitation has led us. European achievements, European techniques and the European style ought no longer to tempt us and to throw us off our balance.

When I search for Man in the technique and the style of Europe, I see only a succession of negations of man, and an avalanche of murders.

The human condition, plans for mankind and collaboration between men in those tasks which increase the sum total of humanity are new problems, which demand true inventions.

Let us decide not to imitate Europe; let us combine our muscles and our brains in a new direction. Let us try to create the whole man, whom Europe has been incapable of bringing to triumphant birth.

Two centuries ago, a former European colony decided to catch up with Europe. It succeeded so well that the United States of America became a monster, in which the taints, the sickness and the inhumanity of Europe have grown to appalling dimensions.

Comrades, have we not other work to do than to create a third Europe? The West saw itself as a spiritual adventure. It is in the name of the spirit, in the name of the spirit of Europe, that Europe has made her encroachments, that she has justified her crimes and legitimized the slavery in which she holds four-fifths of humanity.

Yes, the European spirit has strange roots. All European thought has unfolded in places which were increasingly more deserted and more encircled by precipices; and thus it was that the custom grew up in those places of very seldom meeting man.

A permanent dialogue with oneself and an increasingly obscene narcissism never ceased to prepare the way for a half delirious state, where intellectual work became suffering and the reality was not at all that of a living man, working and creating himself, but rather words, different combinations of words, and the tensions springing from the meanings contained in words. Yet some Europeans were found to urge the European workers to shatter this narcissism and to break with this un-reality.

But in general the workers of Europe have not replied to these calls; for the workers believe, too, that they are part of the prodigious adventure of the European spirit.

All the elements of a solution to the great problems of humanity have, at different times, existed in European thought. But Europeans have not carried out in practice the mission which fell to them, which consisted of bringing their whole weight to bear violently upon these elements, of modifying their arrangement and their nature, of changing them and, finally, of bringing the problem of mankind to an infinitely higher plane.

Today, we are present at the stasis of Europe. Comrades, let us flee from this motionless movement where gradually dialectic is changing into the logic of equilibrium. Let us reconsider the question of mankind. Let us reconsider the question of cerebral reality and of the cerebral mass of all humanity, whose connexions must be increased, whose channels must be diversified and whose messages must be re-humanized.

Come, brothers, we have far too much work to do for us to play the game of rear-guard. Europe has done what she set out to do and on the whole she has done it well; let us stop blaming her, but let us say to her firmly that she should not make such a song and dance about it. We have no more to fear; so let us stop envying her.

The Third World today faces Europe like a colossal mass whose aim should be to try to resolve the problems to which Europe has not been able to find the answers.

But let us be clear: what matters is to stop talking about output, and intensification, and the rhythm of work.

No, there is no question of a return to Nature. It is simply a very concrete question of not dragging men towards mutilation, of not imposing upon the brain rhythms which very quickly obliterate it and wreck it. The pretext of catching up must not be used to push man around, to tear him away from himself or from his privacy, to break and kill him.

No, we do not want to catch up with anyone. What we want to do is to go forward all the time, night and day, in the company of Man, in the company of all men. The caravan should not be stretched out, for in that case each line will hardly see those who precede it; and men who no longer recognize each other meet less and less together, and talk to each other less and less.

It is a question of the Third World starting a new history of Man, a history which will have regard to the sometimes prodigious theses which Europe has put forward, but which will also not forget Europe’s crimes, of which the most horrible was committed in the heart of man, and consisted of the pathological tearing apart of his functions and the crumbling away of his unity. And in the framework of the collectivity there were the differentiations, the stratification and the bloodthirsty tensions fed by classes; and finally, on the immense scale of humanity, there were racial hatreds, slavery, exploitation and above all the bloodless genocide which consisted in the setting aside of fifteen thousand millions of men.

So, comrades, let us not pay tribute to Europe by creating states, institutions and societies which draw their inspiration from her.

Humanity is waiting for something other from us than such an imitation, which would be almost an obscene caricature.

If we want to turn Africa into a new Europe, and America into a new Europe, then let us leave the destiny of our countries to Europeans. They will know how to do it better than the most gifted among us.

But if we want humanity to advance a step farther, if we want to bring it up to a different level than that which Europe has shown it, then we must invent and we must make discoveries.

If we wish to live up to our peoples’ expectations, we must seek the response elsewhere than in Europe.

Moreover, if we wish to reply to the expectations of the people of Europe, it is no good sending them back a reflection, even an ideal reflection, of their society and their thought with which from time to time they feel immeasurably sickened.

For Europe, for ourselves and for humanity, comrades, we must turn over a new leaf, we must work out new concepts, and try to set afoot a new man.

Even communist atheists like Onyango Oloo believe that politically, Frantz Fanon was a PROPHET who foresaw many of the catastrophes of post-colonial Africa when most of the continent was still suffering under the yoke of orthodox colonialism. Perhaps even more pivotal than his concluding chapter is this lucid dissection of and dissertation on the pitfalls of national consciousness in contemporary Africa.

It is when he talks about "Spontaneity: Its Strengths and Weaknesses" in the second section of Wretched of the Earth that he runs into headlong confrontation with Marxist-Leninist because many of us still believe that Fanon had a naive overestimation in the potential of the African lumpenproletariat to overthrow the Kenyattas, the Mois, the Kibakis, the Siyad Barres, the Mobutus, the Abachas, the Idi Amins and the Eyademas.

Here is not the place to get into a detailed critique of Fanon's love affair with the lumpenproletariat. If you read James Petras' critique of the so called 'Post Marxists' you get a bit of the flavour of where communists come from when they are grappling with left leaning radical and revolutionary NATIONALISTS like Frantz Fanon.

What fascinates me however, as a Kenyan Marxist writing in the early 21st Century is the way the globalized capitalist economy has lumpenized the working class itself; in fact in many African countries, it is not only the proletariat that has been lumpenized, but large sections of the petit-bourgeoisie and other middle strata.

You do not have to read this in a Leninist tract:

Just open your eyes and look around.

I remember when I was a kid commuting between Mombasa and Nairobi to visit my relatives who lived all over Nairobi- I had cousins living in Landi Mawe and Muthurwa, aunties in Madaraka estate and Jericho, uncles in Lavington; other cousins in Kilimani, Kileleshwa, Parklands and Westlands. I remember visiting my dad when he was a senior prisons officer during my school holidays and seeing his cook, his shamba boy and I do not what other help- and yes, prisons officers had prisoners cutting their lawn and doing other domestic duties. In short it was a very sharp contrast between my working class relatives and my middle to upper middle class relatives. Do those demarcations still exist? I do not live in Kenya- but certainly I saw a remarkable change when I was last in Kenya. More and more "middle class Kenyans" are struggling to remain in the WORKING CLASS in terms of their standard of living while many workers have been retrenched. I have relatives who have never held formal sector employment in over ten years and are forced to the jua kali and other sections of the so called informal economy( more like the REAL ECONOMY) to survive.

And this is NOT a cute anecdote from Montreal.

It is the overwhelming reality all over Africa and the Third World. More and more people are becoming lumpenized. The so called "Shanty Towns" are dwarfing the downtowns of Nairobi, Lagos, Johanesburg, you name it.

The other day, I was hanging out at one of my favourite spots online- the website of my comrades in the South African Communist Party.

I came across this very interesting discussion document that they produced in early April 2005.

It is titled,Towards a Marxist approach to the struggle for Sustainable livelihoods.

Here is the relevant excerpt that I wanted to bring to your attention in the context of the current digital essay:

The pre-dominant, trajectory of globalising capitalism over the last 25 years has seen the rapid destruction of subsistence rural economies, mass urbanisation of populations AND (paradoxically) structural adjustment inspired de-industrialisation, growing un- and under-employment. While capitalism, uniquely as a mode of production, has never offered full employment (relying on a reserve army of labour), the present restructuring of work forces (especially in the Third World) is unprecedented in scale and character. The one-third of the world's urban population (itself now one-half of all the world's population) living in vast slums throughout the Third World defies... in both its scale and in its nature the older 19th century terms of "labour reserve army" or "lumpen proletariat"...

Are modern, contemporary realities making us rethink the old demarcations between the proletariat and lumpenproletariat?

Who is a worker today?

Many people talk no longer of East and West, but of North and South. But even this hemispheric shift in terminology is lazy and superficial. Because there IS a NORTH in the South and a SOUTH in the North- in other words, if you go to Nairobi you find the Biwotts, the Delamares, the Sajjads, the Rundas and Mountain Views coexisting with the Ochiengs, Achiengs, Muriuki and Nanjalas in Korogocho, Githurai and Kibera. There are First World lifestyles in the city of Nairobi, just as there is Third World squalor in New York, Toronto, London and Marseilles.

In one of the strangest twists in the brain drain-brain gain saga of African intellectuals in the metropoles of world monopoly capital you find very highly educated academics clutching doctorate degrees subsisting as part-time non-tenured university staff in campuses increasingly driven by the demands of the Pfizers, the Microsofts and the Monsantos. These scholars are being lumpenized, plain and simple. And we know that scores of them thought they were "escaping" to America, Canada, Britain, Australia, Germany, France etc from the lumpenization and proletarianization of their colleagues back in Nairobi, Eldoret,Maseno,Ile Ife, Lusaka, Dar es Salaam, Makerere, Addis Ababa and Witwatersrand.

Anyone who has taken a ride in a taxi in any of the major North American cities has probably spoken to a driver who used to be a top engineer, senior manager, doctor, architect etc back in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, India, Egypt, Senegal, you name it.

How many factory workers in Canada, Italy, Spain,Germany and Norway once lived in Kizingo, Mbaraki, Nyali and other middle to upper middle class suburbs of Mombasa, Nairobi, Nakuru, Kisumu and elsewhere?

All over the world, people of colour migrating from to the "North" to escape the lumpenizing tendencies in the "South" find themselves being welcomed with open arms to the inner cities of the West- with many of these stunned new arrivals wondering whether it was worth all that effort to bribe and cajole their way past the increasingly fortified borders of Fortress Europe and Fortress America.

How many of us are already Portfolio Workers?

Here is an interesting study by the Canadian Labour Congress that is worth poring over...

3.0. What Does This Have to Do With Fighting for Democracy in Kenya?


As a Marxist-Leninist I have been calling over and over again for a class-based approach to coalition building and building new political networks.

But in order to have that class based approach, we must all look at how the Kenyan society is being affected profoundly by the forces of globalization. Our old notions of who is a worker and who is middle class are being challenged by stubborn new realities. To cite just one example. Those of us who have been part of the Canadian working class since our arrival on these shores are often amused when we read our brothers and sisters back home denounce us for living in the lap of Western luxury- when everyday we grapple with the mazimwi of systemic racism, the djinns of capitalist exploitation, the mashetani of globalized indifference and the ghouls of far right xenophobia. When we hear fat cats like Karume, Dalmas Otieno and John Harun Mwau call on Kenyans abroad to come back home and rejoin the wananchi in nation building we wonder when THEY last ran into a real mwananchi face to face.

It is late and my bed seeks to hold up my back, so I will pause here. What I am mulling over right now are some of the insights contained in that South African Communist Party discussion paper on sustainable livelihoods. If we could only customize its lessons for the newly emerging Kenyan national democratic movement that is arising like a phoenix reborn from the ashes of the Kibaki led NARC betrayals...

Has my thinking shifted since I wrote this other essay in 2003?

You are the reader.

Tell me.

If you managed to get this far, that is.

Onyango Oloo

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