Friday, 27 September 2013

Ramadhan Conversations (I) - first featured on

In mid October 2001 I almost quit being a TV producer intern after only 4 days on the job.  I was in tears, it was lunchtime and I was rapidly swallowing cold beer after cold beer in the heat of Mombasa. I wanted to quit, right after I slapped the living excrement out of my camera man.
I was only 23 years old, a mom to a three year old boy, my own mother thought I was going to be Christian Amanpour and I was an intern for Reuters News service. Let’s just say I had just had the mother of all mornings. I was inhaling my beer that way because I had just escaped a lynching. Jesus wept.

2 days earlier, my senior news producer had told me in a cold, disdainful voice to “*expletive* go and find supporters of Osama Bin Laden among members of Islamic Party of Kenya, *expletive*”. 2 weeks prior to this, the US had begun bombing Afghanistan.  So off we went to Mombasa; I and two experienced journalists to pick up a feature story for the news service. We spent the Friday morning talking to Sheikhs and Imams at Sakina Mosque. I will never forget one of the Sheikhs, a cross-eyed fellow who sincerely just gave me funny looks. I am guessing it’s because we were with a white text journalist. Something about her just made him cross.

We waited outside while the cameraman took images of Muslims in prayer inside the mosque and snippets of cross-eyed yelling to high heaven about the demonic  terror of the FBI. Now here is where really I should have been paying attention, but it was in Swahili and the guy was cross-eyed so you know, I just fiddled with my microphones and the nifty Nokia my camera man owned. As soon as the service ended, a flood of Muslim men came outside and one guy, out of the blue just approached us. 

“You are FBI!” he screamed at my white colleague. Before I could even react, she laughed, thinking he was joking. He slapped her right across her face, HARD. I was so shocked and dropped the microphone and by the time I picked it up, a group of young men were pushing and slapping us. The text journalist managed to hand her business card to the accuser, and he saw that we were journalists with Reuters.  So he nods his head and says, “Hey! It’s ok! They are journalists!” but it was too late. The crowd had already been riled up by cross-eyed and now Mr. Slapper had set off a chain of events. During this whole melee, I accidentally speed dialed our Nairobi office and the Senior Producer heard us screaming. So he frantically calls the Nation offices in Mombasa and his contacts in the police force. Meanwhile the cameraman has rushed out and got us into a vehicle and somehow, somehow the main Imam got the crowds to let us leave.

So here I was, swallowing way too much liquor for lunch, angry as hell at the cameraman for being inside the Mosque instead of outside so we could have left sooner, and quitting. In all of that horrible excitement, I only had one question in my head: WHY?

Why did they do that to us? Why were Muslim men attacking women journalists, on a Friday, outside their own mosque?

This conversation is the beginning of the explanation behind what happened to me, and what has happened to our Muslim brothers and sisters in Kenya, in the name of counter- terrorism. 

To understand Islam in Kenya is to go back in time to the very history of this former colony; to a time when the only literate people in East Africa were Muslims. Long before the colonial government even began forming, the Muslim community at the coastal region already had a fully integrated Islamic based system and civilization; education, economic and social matters all united in one faith.

When the missionaries arrived they discovered that the only literate people they could rely on were the Swahili people who served them as clerks. As the missionaries moved deeper inland, they inadvertently also facilitated the spread of Islam inwards, as their own clerks would share their beliefs with the people they met even as the missionaries shared theirs. 

As a counter active measure designed to begin the process of dehumanizing and alienating Muslims, it became decree that anyone who was Islamic was illiterate, despite the exact opposite being true, and that anyone who did not speak English was uneducated. The idea was to supplant the knowledge already being passed on to the different ethnic communities and force them into western and Christian education that was inherently designed to enslave and misinform the people such that they can only become workers. 

This measure is typical of the war on Islam; a measure that rides on ignorance, and the spread of fear and mistrust of anything Islamic. Since that time and even with the development of the colonial and later “independent” Kenyan government, the systematic tactic is to alienate and dismantle the Islamic systems and way of life among the people. The result of this systematized dismantling of a culture, faith and way of life is that Muslims were utterly separated from their own ethnic communities upon saying the Shahada; this separation ensured that Muslims live completely ostracized from society by design. They become disinherited and loose connection with their people.

During the Bomas draft of the new Kenya constitution Professor Wangari Maathai proposed and pushed for a total 120 ethnic communities living within our borders to be protected in the tenets of the constitution. The fact of the matter is, regardless of what ethnicity you were born with, once you are a Muslim in Kenya, you are an entirely difference set of human species and are treated as such. 

There has been a systematic build up of oppression on Muslim communities but two very significant world events set into motion the present circumstances that that Muslims around the world face, a dark and inhuman age all in the name of counter-terrorism. Those events are the US Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the Twin Towers bombing in the US in 2001.  In the coming weeks, I will explore the sequence of events and actions taken by the Kenyan government in the name of counter-terrorism that in fact oppress Muslim communities and have led to the radicalization of some by reason of reacting to being terrorized themselves.

Ramadhan conversations ( IV): Xenophobic Kenya - featured on

Somewhere in Ganjoni area of Mombasa there is a graveyard where I and my friends would go from time to time, to visit their dead relatives.
By the way, it was an eerie place. During the day, the beautiful sun shining shyly in between the head stones; I was so respectful, I knew that messing with the dead would mean a sure punishment. We would go there to pray; me and my friends, to pray because my buddy’s daddy had died. I remember when my friend, just in standard 4 like me, died. I cried the whole week, knowing she will end up in a place I was scared of.
My mom thought I had been watching too many scary movies.
Friday the 13th was a hit with my older brothers that week.
It HURT. Still does.
We, little children, young as I was, would sneak in among the graves. I let my beautiful little friends grieve, and tell their dead grandparents, their dead parents and their dead sisters and brothers their little stories. It was heart breaking; horrible, but oh so peaceful.
It was normal. Normal to sneak into a grave, normal to talk to a dead relative, normal to feel connected.
I know HOW people die; WHAT they did to the state government that led to their death I just don’t know.
After September 11th 2001, there were increases in oppressive measures mostly orchestrated by the CIA in Kenya and mandated by the Kenyan funded Anti-Terrorism police. Islamic NGOs including the Al-Ibrahim foundations from the kingdom of Saudi Arabia were forced to conform to this “new world order” and some, in fact several, Arabian based NGO’s stopped functioning in East Africa.
There were claims in the west that these institutions were harboring terrorists. The Islamic way is vastly different from the western way; where as in the west, one is “innocent until proven guilty”; in the East “one is guilty until proven innocent.”  And so, the allegation that an NGO like Al- Haramain International harbored the so-called terrorist Faisul Abdallah Mohammed remains a permanent stain to this day.
Following the 1998 bombings of the US Embassies in both Kenya and Tanzania, there was a crackdown on Islamic institutions in Kenya under duress. You must remember that the government of Kenya at that time gave no amenities or services to Islamic communities in Kenya, so they received some humanitarian relief from Islamic NGOs.
When it comes to the confessions of the alleged “terrorists” in Kenya; this is what I am told, grimly. “Faisul was killed, so we cannot tell if these allegations were proven.”
1999-2001 was a prelude to a very dark period in Kenya; during this time there was a free reign in for CIA operatives in Kenya and around the world.
They would just come and pick up people.
All suspects of the 1998 bombing were tortured and rendition before they ended up in the black holes in Europe. Nobody questioned those abuses, or the legacy of those actions. The families of suspects were brutalized; nobody challenged these actions.
After 9/11 Counter Terrorism measures were firmed up by decree. A vicious system was put in place; an Anti-Terrorism Squad created by Kenya Police that was well funded by the US, Israel, Britain and France. Thereafter, extrajudicial measures were taken against “suspects”, which included:
Detention without trial
Extra-judicial Rendition
Extra-judicial killings
These measures further radicalize Muslims because by detaining entire families; torturing, raping and interrogating them, the PUBLIC feel hunted.
You feel hunted because someone wants you to feel that way. THEY WANT YOU TO FEEL THAT WAY.
At this moment, there are investigations being conducted by Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch. Severally, the Kenyan government has been berated for human rights abuses; mainly torture and forced disappearances. Unfortunately, this is the Mondus Operandi in the counter terrorism narrative internationally.
In a country, as fragmented as we are, ETHNICALLY, does it mean that we can split ourselves even further apart by fragmenting ourselves religiously?
It is no secret that the Kenya government has since independence pushed policy that is both Xenophobic towards Muslims but also towards certain ethnicities. A matter seemingly as simple as issuance of identification cards becomes a cold and disheartening war against people who are Muslims.
This is 2013 and the 21st Century. We can stop crying at graves, and we can stop hating each other. We can end decades of xenophobic tendencies towards Muslims and other ethnicities in schools at work and in social and political gatherings and organizations. We can bloody GROW UP.  It’s time to be fair, and to be just.

Ramadhan Conversations (III) Counter- Terrorism Among Somali - first featured on

There is something so unique about Somali people. They have a great sense of humor; I suppose it’s their way of making sense of the myriad bizarre things that happen in the world. I was once at the OB-GYN’s office once when a Somali couple came in. The man was carrying a new born baby and the woman was behind him, carrying the baby’s nappy bag. She was covered from head to toe, but when she walked in she lifted her veil or niqab so we could see her face.
“Here is a present for you!” says the father, smiling cheekily.  The receptionist smiles and says, “Mashallah! What is his name?”
“Barrack Obama,” Says the wife. That nearly killed me, I laughed to tears.
This cryptic sarcasm is definitely a Somali thing – Soon after the Kenya Defense Forces invaded Somalia, Major Emmanuel Chirchir found himself in a twitter war with some very amusing twitter handles claiming to be Al-Shabaab. “@Emmanuel Chirchir – you are using made in Kenya vehicles that’s why you can’t catch us.” The joke there is the fact that Kenya does not manufacture any vehicles, for those who don’t know.
It’s truly sad, thus, that these same Somali people have faced the most brutal forms of tactics in the name of governance in Kenya and as Counter Terrorism measures.
You must understand that even in the pre-colonial period there was not one territory that had as large an ethnically homogenous population as the Greater Somalia, rendering them a uniquely unified entity among whom the tactic of divide and rule would take a more personal and intrinsic nature than how it inevitably worked among colonies like Kenya which was ethnically diverse.  So the division of the greater Somalia into the territories that now constitute Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia which includes the former British, Italian and French Somalia, never went down well with the Somali people. This division of territory is a source of the conflict in the Horn of Africa to this day.
By the 1960s, as Kenya approached independence, a secessionist movement was born among the Somali people, mostly out of a desire to reunite with their kinsmen and fellow Muslims and also out of a fear of being marginalized in the new nation. So the Somali population in Kenya was pushing for the annexation of the Northern Frontier District to Somalia. At the time, majority of the Somali people voted to be joined to Somalia, but this was overridden by the Kenyatta government. What followed then was a civil uprising that was viciously and violently quelled by Jomo Kenyatta’s administration – They referred to the Somali as Shifta and declared all of them bandits and criminals who must be exterminated. This ensuing conflict led to a state of emergency being declared in the Northern Frontier District and the territory was deemed “a closed area” and remained that way for decades. Though the initial secessionist movement was eventually crushed, the Kenyatta government thereafter viewed all Somali with suspicion and any attempt to politically organize them was subsequently crushed as well.
To contain the Somali, the government applied a divide and rule tactic; they would instigate clashes between the different clans of the Somali people. These clashes and internal conflict have taken on a life of their own, to date, there is still a lot of insecurity and violence in the area.
This government fear of the Somali people was based on two fronts – they are ethnically homogenous and are also religiously united. The Kenya government has time and again applied very violent tactics in dealing with the Somali people, causing them to organize themselves around their faith as Muslims.  The Somali people became so radicalized due to their oppression that they even went so far as to declare Jihad against their tormentors, thus inviting the wrath and disdain of the global anti-Islam brigade.
It was only much later that President Moi reached out to the Somali people after a Somali general Mohmoud Mohammed helped to crush the 1982 coup. Moi brought the Somalis to the fore as he rallied the smaller Kenyan ethnic communities in response to the threat he felt from the larger ethnic communities whom he believed were against his regime. But this amiable situation did not last, as the ingrained government attitudes towards the Somali people and their brutal tactics were revived after the events in Nairobi of the 1998 bombings of the US embassy and were exacerbated by the 2001 September 11th bombing of the Twin Towers in New York.
Once again, the Somali people as a wholly Muslim population became suspects. By this time, the situation in Somalia had deteriorated extensively; without a recognizable government, a thriving black market trade and proliferation of illegal arms across the Kenyan border made the Somali people even greater targets for human rights atrocities by the Kenyan Government.
To date, the Kenyan government tactics employed by US and British funded agencies like the Anti-Terrorism Police include rape, plunder, vandalism, torture and incarceration of entire families. More importantly, the Kenya government is guilty of flagrant disregard for the rights and freedoms of their citizens and this is most wickedly expressed in permitting CIA and FBI agents to perform Rendition. Rendition is just a fancy way of saying KIDNAPPING.
Rendition is the illegal extradition of “suspects” from one jurisdiction to another with the intention to extract information and also subject the suspect to a judicial process in a country or state where the laws are conducive with the overall objectives of the US government’s War On Terror. Because nobody has noticed, or rather no one reports these abuses and extractions, a lot of Muslims and in particular Somali people have disappeared into black holes in detention facilities mainly in Egypt and Europe.  Once rendition occurs, the suspect is tortured for weeks or even months with the aim of extracting information that will lead to even further arrests. Most of the people picked up by the Kenya Anti-Terrorism Unit are community leaders or activists; people who are deemed dangerous because they seek to raise awareness and also to unite their communities under the Islamic Faith. The fact is, on any given day, in any part of Kenya, a Muslim can be arrested and disappear forever.
With the support of the Kenya government’s own law enforcement agencies, and the full knowledge of members of our judiciary, our political leaders and even some members of the press, Kenyan Somali people have been subjected to incredibly inhuman conditions, torture, rape, violence, mental and physical anguish, and through all this, and despite all of this, the Somali people still manage to rise, in faith and hope. Somalis are – AMAZING.

Ramadhan Conversations (II) - first featured on

The first friend I ever made in Mombasa Primary school was this tiny girl called Salwa. Salwa was a Kenyan of Yemeni Arab descent; small, even smaller than me, and I am only a few inches taller than a midget. We were quite the pair, always together, always getting into trouble. She was a little lady, I was an unabashed tomboy, try as she might, she couldn’t get me to stop climbing everything and picking up everything. “Yuck! Betty!” was her constant scream at break-time. I loved the look on her face when I picked up millipedes, and also how she ran away laughing. 
My first memory of Ramadan was when Salwa refused to eat my break with me. “I am on Saum.” My first lessons on Islam were taught to me by a very solemn Salwa. “Never ever put the Quran on the bottom, Betty, put it on top of your other books.” Up until that point, I did not realize that her hijab was part of her Islamic identity; I always thought that it was because her hair was so long so she had to cover it to protect it from getting dirty. 
I grew up in Mombasa with Muslim friends, of all ethnicities and it never ever occurred to me that I was a “foreigner”. But I am Kikuyu, and my family had moved to Mombasa just before I was born, so we were indeed alien to the coast.
The issues of non-coastal people inhabiting the coastal region has progressively become a highly contentious matter; a situation so volatile that in 1992 there were the first attacks on “watu wa bara” by militants who wanted them to return up country. 
This attitude is entirely contrary to the culture of the coastal people and Muslim communities; theirs is a non-resistant and welcoming approach to strangers and foreigners. For this turn of civility to occur, there were indeed historical injustices inflicted on the people of the coast. 
When the missionaries first arrived at the port of Mombasa, they were met with non-resistance; it was the nature of the Africans and Muslims to be welcoming, to share what they had, and to ensure that the visitors were comfortable. The missionaries found that the most advanced settlements were among the Muslim communities; towns complete with sewerage, sanitation and water delivery systems and building made of stones with beautifully crafted wooden doors. Naturally, the missionaries would turn to the Waswahili people to serve them as clerks, because they were the ones who were literate. Indeed, the entire region of Mombasa and greater parts of the Coast were under the rule of the Sultan of Zanzibar - a government that based its rule on Islamic principles fully entrenched with education, financial systems and judiciary. The Wali were the administrators, and the Kadhi courts dispensed justice. The con was to trick the coastal people that they would retain that system. 
This is indeed the story of Islam in all the colonies in Africa – that the Islamic systems were dismantled through cruel trickery and sometimes even violence from the colonialists.
As the missionaries advanced inwards, the Waswahili would establish “Majengo” settlements; miniature administrative towns that were complete with sanitation and ablution facilities. The Majengo settlements were found wherever the missionaries and later colonial administrators needed to set up office. The name “Wastaarabuni” came to imply a civilized people, as the Majengo were indeed the most civilized settlements to be found, complete with Wali and Kadhi court systems as was the norm with Islamic communities. With the proliferation of the Majengo settlements came the advancement of the Islamic faith among the ethnic communities living near those settlements. Islam spread as far north as Mandera and Wajir, and as far west as Mumias.
It became clear to the missionaries and early colonialists that the spread of Islam was entirely contrary to their own objectives and so certain decrees became part of their design to curb and control the Muslims. Because Islam was gaining dominance, the claim that Islamic education is illiteracy was a tactical development in an effort to formalize the colonial administration. Since that time, the absolute absence of Islamic education in Kenya’s educational system has been enforced. With the exception of Islamic Religious Education as a sole subject in classrooms, there is an absolute dearth of any sort of Islamic knowledge being passed on as far as government, jurisprudence, culture or economic systems are concerned.
 On the whole, everything Islamic was dismantled even at the coast and especially in the constitution – there was an absolute disappearance of the Wali and the Kadhi courts were restricted to dealing with the Muslim communities’ family laws. In all this, the Christian Church was actively pushing for the exclusion of anything Islamic in nature including the Kadhi system, education, wali system of administration and economics. Indeed the church till today is influential in blocking Sharia system of banking, rendering a lot of people incapable of accessing credit. 
A significant factor to disenfranchising Muslims in Kenya and especially at the coast was the fact that even in the Majengo settlements the colonial administration would refuse to give title to the Muslims. The same goes for the coastal people; they to this day hold no title to land that they have inhabited for centuries. This is a deliberate design to deny economic power or development and to keep the Muslim community totally marginalized.
Without title, one certainly could not lay claim to the very land their houses stood upon. Even after independence, as President Jomo Kenyatta redistributed titles to the indigenous people, the coastal people were not accorded titles. Instead, people from up country, “Watu wa Bara” were allowed to settle at the coast and later acquire title deeds even though they were not the original inhabitants. This is the grave crime that especially the Gikuyu people at the coast are guilty of. 
This sort of economic injustice and unfair acquisition of land was epitomized by Coast Provincial commissioner, Eluid Mahihu, the very representation of the “Gikuyu” grabbing mentality; a man who was the living definition of a “foreigner” and who was both a corrupt person and also the face of the church. His was a double injustice – as he acquired property through grabbing of land, he hid himself as a “pious” elder of the Presbyterian Church of East Africa. Indeed, over time, the P.C.E.A church has become predominantly Kikuyu and the activities of criminals among the congregation silently ignored. 
The hypocritical actions of church leaders have directly contributed to over all tensions and mistrust between the coastal people and “Christians” from other parts of the country. Indeed, where as once, the coastal people could identify themselves separately as Muslim and non-Muslim, today they identify themselves as one community regardless of their faith because to date they remain squatters on their own land, impoverished and marginalized. 
Without title one cannot borrow money, and certainly cannot develop anything on land that they do not “possess”. This is the essence of the poverty at the coast, the source of animosity among the coastals towards “foreigners”, whether white or African. From Vanga, near the border of Kenya and Tanzania to Kiunga at the border of Kenya and Somalia, the title deeds are owned by “foreigners”. Well. Not ALL titles. Just as in any civilization, among the people of the coast of Kenya, you will find the Collaborators, the Puppets, and of course, those closest to the centre of power. They too, acquired title.
 The claim is that these absentee landlords are people from Saudi Arabia and Yemen; the truth is that these landlords comprise of Kenyan nationals who acquired title through corrupt and unjust means. So called absentee landlords are just a camouflage for a select few, foreigners from up-country and actual foreigners to acquire property at the coast and turn the coastal people into squatters in their own land.
To date, Muslims remain impoverished and excluded because of their faith for two reasons – their faith does not allow usury or transactions with interest and they do not own title to property.
It is within these circumstances that the Kenya government thus seeks to enact a “War on Terrorism” that is targeted at the Muslim community; where as a search for suspects of other crimes results in only those suspects being arrested and detained, Kenya’s counter- terrorism tactics involve raiding, arresting and detaining entire families, blatant criminal vandalism, plunder, rape and extra-judicial killings. In Kenya, ALL Muslims are terrorism suspects. 
That this is going on within our borders, with the knowledge of our spiritual and political leaders is a testament to how deeply ingrain our collective hypocrisy and bigotry as a nation. WE are the terrorists!