By Fred Mbogo
Published May 29, 2013
The history of protest in Kenya is quite colourful. Though violence may be its ugly side, the anecdotes surrounding how streets become stages for the performance of drama backed by song, rich costuming and humour must pique the interest of cultural enthusiasts.
Pigs have lately entered the fray. They have become the sweeteners of a performance that mocks, taunts and dares the powers that be to pounce on innocent and unarmed citizens marching against greed.
On May 14, 2013 Kenyan protesters attracted the world’s attention when they paraded a pig and its piglets on the streets of Nairobi, just outside Parliament. The animals became part of the demonstrations when they were served blood (presumably cow’s) which they satisfactorily licked throughout the protest. Apart from the shock tactic that threw the police into a state of helplessness, at least for the first few minutes of the pigs’ arrival, the idea was brilliant in its likening Members of Parliament to pigs. The protestors could not be ignored. The pigs pricked many Members of Parliament whose beliefs about the dirt they carry came through in their expression of anger.
But why associate pigs with greedy Members of Parliament? It’s simply because of the popular idea that pigs have insatiable appetites. MPs, in a similar vein, have shown that they always must eat where they haven’t sown. They constantly increase their pay at will; at least historically every newly elected parliament has prioritised its pay in its deliberations.
The current Members of Parliament–the 11th since independence in 1963–who were sworn in barely two months ago after the March 4, 2013 general election started their duty to the people by a demand for a pay increase. Shamelessly, they argued that their status as leaders must be matched by their earnings. They received unbelievable support from Francis Atwoli, the leader of the umbrella labour union—Central Organisation of Trade Unions—who should ideally be on the side of the lowly paid workers. While the lowest paid public servant in Kenya earns US$88 per month, the annual average pay in the country is US$1,700. MPs earn way above ordinary workers, what logic is there then in their getting support to earn even more?
Protestors printed the names of some MPs on the pigs. This appeared to anger MPs of the Muslim faith; pork is a taboo in Islam. The pig is deemed unclean. Stories abound about how it can only survive in dirty environments. It can be likened to the dirtiest of animals including cockroaches. So, it is understandable that MPs of the Muslim faith could show anger over the idea of being likened to pigs. But of course the retort was that if one behaves like a greedy pig then why shouldn’t he expect to be likened to one?
But Christians have their interesting pig stories too. Some demons pleaded with Jesus Christ to be sent from some violent men coming from tombs into a herd of pigs, for example. The pigs then dashed madly into the sea and drowned. In today’s age of animal rights, perhaps Jesus could be seen as having been a little too anti-pig. He must have had a very low opinion of pigs in the whole societal set-up.
To sink so very low in society is also to live with and eat what pigs eat as the Christian story of the prodigal son who eventually repents suggests.
Yet, perhaps the best image of the pig in relation to the greed by the Kenyan MPs must be in George Orwell’s novel, Animal Farm. The pig characters in Orwell’s novel liberate the animals of the farm from the tyrannical farmer and proceed to create an oppressive regime of their own. The MPs appear to have done the same. Getting elected after promising to lead their people in the fight against poverty, and unemployment especially, the MPs once in power hold the same people to ransom. They shout themselves hoarse in their demand for higher pay while the people who trusted them with their votes suffer in the bottomless, hopeless pit of poverty. So, like the pigs of Orwell’s farm, these MPs have set the best portions for themselves and thrown the inedible parts of the rich food to those who elected them.
From a cultural perspective then, the pig protestors had a well thought-out strategy. They had funding and a committee that sat and thought of how best to irritate the powers that be. Consequently, they scored big as all they became a major news item even in international circles. Of course they also received quarrelsome comments from animal rights activists but on the whole theirs was a remarkable show of how big the protest ‘industry’ has become in Kenya.
Graffiti has become a popular tool for protestors too. In the most popular of the images, Members of Parliament were likened to vultures. Kenyan graffiti artists led by Boniface Mwangi, employed interesting approaches of anonymity at first to spread their political protest messages. In a rather guerrilla-like fashion, the artists seemed to be all over Nairobi scouting for ‘unoccupied’ public walls on which to express their angst against the greed vulture-like politicians. Nairobi residents would wake up in the morning to the images of vultures on the walls all over town. These messages were an awareness call to citizens before the 2013 general elections and targeted sitting Parliamentarians.
With time dramatic protests in Kenyan streets have come to be associated with specific names. Okoiti Omtata’s approaches easily excite passions. His 2008 “protest for justice”, where he chained himself to a pole at the gates of Vigilance House (Kenya Police headquarters), was quite a spectacle. As a one-man demonstrator on that occasion he raised interesting problems for the police who had to find ingenious ways of unchaining him. Again, this guerrilla tactic served to spice up the drama as police were caught off guard. His protest brought the Kisumu issue to the fore where police, while quelling riots, were caught on camera shooting an unarmed protestor to death. The chaining was an apt symbol of how justice has been locked up in a remote space within the cloud of police brutality.
It is the plight of the Rev Dr Timothy Njoya in the 1990s, though, that certain images of protest become quite disturbing. The violent manner in which the cleric from the Presbyterian Church of East Africa was treated during President Daniel arap Moi’s era is difficult to erase from memory. The drama of the beating elicits fear and revulsion at the same time. But Dr Njoya has continued to be part of demonstrations in Nairobi. He was part of the pig protest that marched towards Nairobi’s Parliament buildings.
There is the anecdote of one of the first protests in the streets of Nairobi after the 1922 arrest of Harry Thuku by the British colonial government. Women, led by Mary Nyanjiru, quickly formed groups and challenged the men to give up their trousers if they couldn’t fight for the release of Thuku. This challenge brought thousands of people onto the streets who marched to what is now Nairobi’s Central Police Station. The play on masculinity was employed effectively as the crowd that turned up certainly had many men among them who became part of the large number of people that lay dead when force was used to quell the demonstrations. Men with guns shot at the protesters from the balcony of the Nairobi’s Norfolk Hotel.
Fred Mbogo, Ph.D, teaches in the Department of Literature, Theatre and Film Studies, School of Arts and Social Sciences, Moi University, Eldoret, Kenya.