Sex Tourism in Kenya: Don’t Blame the Poor

February 18, 2016 § Leave a comment

In conversations about poor young Africans in Diani engaging in sex tourism with older, rich white men and women, the typical explanation I get from fellow middle-class Kenyan peers places the blame entirely on the poor. I’d like to address some of the stereotypes about the poor that I keep hearing:

“They are just lazy. If they really wanted, they could work.”

Work where? There are no jobs in Diani. Tourism is the backbone of Kenya’s economy and most of the coastal region is almost entirely dependent on tourism, particularly Diani which has no other industries. And now in its 5th year, Kenya’s war in Somalia has led to the devastation of the tourism industry. Retaliatory attacks at the coast by Somali militants has made the tourists afraid to come. Several hotels have closed, many hotel workers have lost their jobs and crime is on the rise.

“If the poor would just take responsibility for themselves, all their problems would go away.”

What about the government’s responsibility? We need to stop scapegoating the poor for the failures of the Kenyan government in providing all Kenyans with the basics we need. Poverty is not caused by a lack of effort or priorities. The major factors that contribute to and keep people in poverty are systemic and actually not in their control.

“Everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.”

On the contrary, I think that the rich and poor end up where they are mainly because of the opportunities they have in life, rather than due to personal successes and failures. The poor are poor because they lack opportunities and good jobs, not because of individual failings or poor work ethic.

“In life you just have to work hard.”

Most rich people I know got to where they are mainly because they had more opportunities, not because they worked harder than others. Yet we congratulate the wealthy for their hard work while blaming the poor for not working hard enough. We ignore statistics that clearly indicate that you are more likely to be rich if you were born rich and insist that the poor could do better for themselves if only they tried.

We forget that poor children have all the odds stacked against them. A child born into poverty has to contend with inadequate food, healthcare, education and crime-ridden neighborhoods. And even if she does try her best, very few opportunities will be open to her. Therefore chances are she will forever remain trapped in a low-wage job that prevents her from improving her life. And this cycle will repeat itself in the next generation.

While I’ve met lots of people who’d love to stop being poor, I have never once met anyone whose childhood dream was to be poor when they grow up. A little more empathy and compassion is therefore in order for those denied what they deserve by a system of inequality. As humans we should want to help the poor, not vilify them. A good place to start doing this is by changing the language we use to describe poverty and inequality.

A Kenyan Feminist’s Objection to Women in the Military Hierarchy

October 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

As a pacifist feminist who has protested Kenya’s war in Somalia, I cannot applaud the recent appointment of Fatumah Ahmed as Kenya’s First Female Brigadier.

Last August, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta appointed Fatumah Ahmed as Kenya’s First Female Brigadier of the Kenya Defense Forces (KDF). Fatumah Ahmed was promoted from a colonel to a brigadier as well as appointed the managing director of the Defense Forces Medical Insurance Scheme.

Ahmed’s appointment has generally been viewed as a win for feminism by feminists themselves, with the National Gender and Equality Commission (NGEC) hailing it as a “milestone” and praising the President for the appointment. NGEC Chairman Winfred Lichuma deemed the appointment a promotion of gender equality in the management of the affairs of Kenya.

“For the first time, Kenya has a woman brigadier who is all-rounded, competent and qualified to serve in our disciplined forces. This is an empowerment to marginalized groups in the country,” said Lichuma.

Ms Lichuma acknowledged the appointment as a way to integrate women into male-dominated sectors, urging the State to borrow a leaf from Ahmed’s appointment and ensure it brings women on board to serve in key decision-making organs.

I’m a feminist myself who certainly believes that women should enjoy equal access to career advancement and jobs in all spheres. Kenyan women are already part of the military and the appointment of a Kenyan woman to this rank just means that they are able to get as much credit for risking their lives as men do.

Nonetheless, while the appointment is deservedly a feminist victory, it is certainly a mixed one. On one hand, achieving equality for Kenyan women in military leadership illustrates just how successful feminism in Kenya has been in one of its key missions: achieving equality.

Military leadership is, in a sense, a defining male role. And exclusion from the military hierarchy, has, in turn, been a defining feminine trait. A policy that acknowledges the participation of women in, and capacity for military leadership, is, therefore, an important assertion that we are not our gender roles. It demonstrates that women truly can do anything, and must be allowed to do everything that men can do.

But here’s the thing, feminism has never been just about equality. While many feminists advocate the need for women to enjoy equal opportunities as men, many still advocate for the need to criticize male patriarchal ideals and values. And one of the male patriarchal ideals and values that has been consistently questioned and criticized by feminists is war.

Fighting has always been a habit of men, not women, a difference that has been developed over time by practice and law. Throughout history, the majority of human beings and animals have been killed by men – not women.

Yet, as many female soldiers and female politicians have demonstrated, women can be just as attracted to warfare as men. The satisfaction, ,necessity and glory of fighting – which I as a pacifist feminist woman do not understand, feel or enjoy – is clearly not restricted to that one gender.

That said, while the history of war may not be entirely male, it has overwhelmingly been male. And this fact is not a mere anomaly; it is a pattern that deserves our attention. Yes, we can view the exclusion of women from the military hierarchy and say, “This is unfair; women must be allowed to lead wars.” But we can also view that exclusion and say, “If half of humanity has been excluded from warfare, maybe it’s because fighting is an exception rather than the rule, an aberration rather than a necessity.”

The satisfaction, necessity and glory of war are often linked to masculinity, the need to prove one’s moral worth as a man. From one perspective, this too is the reason why it’s important for women to be allowed inside the military hierarchy. Its because war is the standard for moral action, and Kenya’s status as an ethical nation is today linked to its people’s willingness to fight and die in a “righteous” war.

If this is the case, if our morality is tied to battle, then women must lead in warfare if they are to be honored and valued as moral actors. When war is so integral to the moral experience, those who are not warriors cannot be deemed equal. That is why modern-day feminist cultural icons like Onyesonwu are often warriors. And it’s also the reason why equality in the military has been such an important goal for numerous marginalized groups. Women leading wars are a tremendous boost for feminism and gender equality. It will also get increasingly hard to justify discrimination against women now that we are openly leading the fight and dying for our country.

Kenyan feminists can then draw moral force from the Kenyan military. But this moral force comes at a high price. That price is the moral force itself: acquiescing to war as the moral force and the moral standard.

Judged by the experience of women, war has long been found to be wanting. However, Kenyan feminism seems at ease in judging the experiences of women in relation to standards of empowerment that are traditionally male – of which military leadership is a particularly good example. Such judgment leaves no room for feminist criticism of war and militarism.

The tragedy of Fatumah Ahmed’s appointment is that Kenyan feminists have lost one more justification to protest when our daughters and sons are sacrificed on the moral altar of war. Is having a woman rise up in Kenyan military ranks really worth the lives of our sons and daughters lost in war?

Remembering Lumumba

July 2, 2015 § 3 Comments

Patrice Lumumba was born 90 years ago today on 2 July 1925. Lumumba was the first democratically elected Prime Minister of the Congo (today known as the Democratic Republic of Congo). He led the Congolese independence struggle that ultimately wrested the reins of power from the Belgian colonialists.


(2 July 1925 – 17 January 1961)

Within ten weeks of being elected, Lumumba’s government was deposed in a coup. He was subsequently imprisoned and assassinated on January 17, 1961 in a plot orchestrated by western powers: United States, Belgium, France, Britain and the United Nations, in cahoots with local leaders.
Rest in Power.
Here is the last letter Lumumba wrote to his wife before his assassination:

My dear companion,

I write you these words without knowing if they will reach you, when they will reach you, or if I will still be living when you read them. All during the length of my fight for the independence of my country, I have never doubted for a single instant the final triumph of the sacred cause to which my companions and myself have consecrated our lives. But what we wish for our country, its right to an honorable life, to a spotless dignity, to an independence without restrictions, Belgian colonialism and its Western allies – who have found direct and indirect support, deliberate and not deliberate among certain high officials of the United Nations, this organization in which we placed all our confidence when we called for their assistance – have not wished it.

They have corrupted certain of our fellow countrymen, they have contributed to distorting the truth and our enemies, that they will rise up like a single person to say no to a degrading and shameful colonialism and to reassume their dignity under a pure sun.

We are not alone. Africa, Asia, and free and liberated people from every corner of the world will always be found at the side of the Congolese. They will not abandon the light until the day comes when there are no more colonizers and their mercenaries in our country. To my children whom I leave and whom perhaps I will see no more, I wish that they be told that the future of the Congo is beautiful and that it expects for each Congolese, to accomplish the sacred task of reconstruction of our independence and our sovereignty; for without dignity there is no liberty, without justice there is no dignity, and without independence there are no free men.

No brutality, mistreatment, or torture has ever forced me to ask for grace, for I prefer to die with my head high, my faith steadfast, and my confidence profound in the destiny of my country, rather than to live in submission and scorn of sacred principles. History will one day have its say, but it will not be the history that Brussels, Paris, Washington or the United Nations will teach, but that which they will teach in the countries emancipated from colonialism and its puppets. Africa will write its own history, and it will be, to the north and to the south of the Sahara, a history of glory and dignity.

Do not weep for me, my dear companion. I know that my country, which suffers so much, will know how to defend its independence and its liberty. Long live the Congo! Long live Africa!



When French Troops Raped and Sodomized Starving, Homeless and Orphaned African Boys

May 31, 2015 § Leave a comment

In December 2013 when conflict broke out in the Central African Republic, France swooped in to “save the day” by sending soldiers to its former colony. Just over a month ago, a UN report was leaked detailing sexual abuse of children in the CAR by the very same French troops.


The report detailed the rape and sodomy of starving and homeless young boys by French peacekeeping troops who were supposed to be protecting them at a center for internally displaced people in the capital Bangui. The boys, some of whom were orphans, were sexually exploited in return for small amounts of food, water and money. In one case, a 9-year-old boy described being sexually abused with his friend by two French soldiers when they went to a checkpoint to look for something to eat. The soldiers forced him and his friend to carry out a sex act. The child was so distressed after the assault that he fled the camp in terror .

Harrowing stuff. But just as worrying were the various responses to the report from the UN, French authorities and the mainstream media.

UN Response

The United Nations responded to sexual abuse by its peacekeepers by suspending the senior UN aid worker who chose to disclose the report to French prosecutors, after the UN’s failure to stop the abuse.

The response by the UN shouldn’t come as a surprise. When it comes to sexual abuse by its peacekeeping forces, the UN has previously been known to embark on witch hunts against whistle-blowers; politicize the issue despite its urgency; and display an appalling disregard for victims.

Ignore, deny, dissemble and cover up is the UN’s instinctive response to sexual violence in its ranks, as demonstrated by its past failure to act over pedophile rings operating in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and allegations of sexual misconduct by its troops in Burundi, Liberia and Haiti.

The pervasive culture of impunity that prevails at the UN should raise serious doubts as to its credibility in managing world affairs.

Media Response

Many media outlets chose to portray this sexual exploitation of African children by peacekeeping forces as a “sex-for-food scandal”. This is nothing new. The media similarly covered as “sex for food” stories past incidents of peacekeeper child sexual abuse in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone (2002); the Democratic Republic of Congo (2004); Liberia (2006); and the Ivory Coast (2011).

Yet children cannot legally, let alone morally, consent to sex. When an adult has sex with a child, this is rape not “sex”. For the media to describe it as “sex for food” implies that the soldiers were merely compensating locals with food for transactional sex, rather than acknowledging what they were truly doing to vulnerable children.

The ultimate danger of such antiseptic reporting is that it will deny the victims the necessary attention, indignation and outrage that could generate public interest, mobilize activists and institutions and ultimately bring about positive change. The only beneficiaries of such downplayed media coverage are the UN and French authorities, whose ongoing policies get to proceed more easily without interference due to concern over their politically inconvenient victims.

The media must refrain from attempts at minimizing the gravity of sexual abuse crimes. When peacekeepers force African children to perform sex acts for food, or for any other reason, this should be covered by the media as a “child rape scandal”.

French Government Response

In response to the scandal, the French defense ministry issued a statement which read in part that:

“If the facts are proven, the strongest penalties will be imposed on those responsible for what would be an intolerable attack on soldiers’ values.”

The French government would have us believe that the perpetrators of these heinous crimes against children were merely bad apples, when in fact they were exhibiting the toxic values and ideals of militarism that are encouraged and rewarded in militarized cultures. To become a soldier you must unlearn consent and empathy. You need to dehumanize in order to kill – which is what ALL militaries everywhere train their soldiers to do.

The French soldiers showed no empathy towards the starving boys desperate for food. They instead exploited victims who could not consent to sex, dehumanizing them before and during the rape. The French soldiers were doing exactly what they were trained to do.


When the story of sexual abuse in the CAR first broke out, many around the world expressed their shock that peacekeepers would “take advantage of desperate people they were supposed to be protecting.” However, the fact that sexual abuse by peacekeepers has happened many times before, points to the existence of a pattern that begs to be looked into. It’s time to stop treating peacekeeper sexual abuse as anomalies or random, isolated occurrences, and begin to recognize the deeper issues at play. Until we begin to address the root causes of such incidents, this will happen again, and soon.

It’s Time for Kenya to End Its Occupation of Somalia

December 7, 2014 § 6 Comments

Just days after a deadly attack in which the Somali militant group Al Shabaab killed 28 Kenyans on a bus from Mandera, a new raid by the militant group in the town left 32 people dead. In the first attack, Al Shabaab gunmen commandeered a bus leaving Mandera, and separated non-Muslims from Muslims who they then proceeded to shoot dead. The militants said the massacre was in response to Kenyan Muslims being “attacked in places of worship and in their homes.” In the weeks leading to the attack, the Kenyan government had ordered the closure of four mosques in Mombasa, with police shooting one person dead and arresting more than 200 Muslims.

In the second attack the heavily armed Al Shabaab operatives struck at a miners’ camp at dawn, and again separated the non-Muslims from the Muslims before shooting dead and beheading 36 Kenyans. In claiming responsibility for this second attack, Al Shabaab said it was carried out in response to:

(a) “Kenya’s occupation of Muslim lands and their ongoing atrocities therein, such as the recent airstrikes on Muslims in Somalia which caused the death of innocent Muslims and the destruction of their properties and livestock,
(b) As well as the continued suffering of Muslims in Mombasa.
(c) As Kenya… kills innocent Muslims,
(d) Transgresses upon their sanctities and throws them into prisons.”

The militant group went on to promise further attacks, should the Kenyan government fail to address these issues.

A Record of Failures

Since October 2011 when the Kenyan military invaded Somalia, insecurity in the country has spiraled out of control, with attacks that largely target non-Muslims on killing sprees, becoming common occurrences in Nairobi, the coastal region, and parts of North Eastern. Earlier this year, close to 100 non-Muslims in Mpeketoni, Gamba and Hindi areas of the Kenyan coast were killed by Al Shabaab militants.

Following the assault on the Westgate shopping centre in September of last year, which left over 70 dead, the Kenyan government responded by putting forth various security strategies that have since proven to be failures. First, they instituted the ‘Nyumba Kumi’ (know thy neighbor) ten houses initiative. This concept is based on dividing homes into groups of 10, with the household members holding each other accountable by sharing information on any suspicious activity. While appearing neat in theory, the concept proved impotent in foiling the ever-mutating Al Shabaab attacks.

After the Mpeketoni, Gamba and Hindi attacks, the government then instituted Operation Usalama Watch. This involved the large scale state-led ethnic profiling, scapegoating and collective punishment of the entire Somali community for the crimes of a few. During this operation more than 4000 Somalis were arrested and detained at Kasarani stadium in dehumanizing conditions. Rather than improving the security situation, this security sweep touched a raw nerve, exacerbating the already tense relations between the Somali community and the state.

Kenyans Continue to Die

Acting under the umbrella of the African Union Mission to Somalia (AMISOM), a regional military intervention in Somalia that included African soldiers from other western proxy countries and client states, Kenya assisted in pushing Al Shabaab out of Mogadishu. A further push took away Al Shabaab’s control of the port city of Kismayo, which in turn diminished the capacity of the militant group by denying them their core source of revenue. Following this success, the Kenyan government and military were quick to pronounce the defeat of Al Shabaab to Kenyans. But this was a deadly exaggeration.

As we can see from the Mandera attacks, despite its diminished capacity, Al Shabaab has had no problem whatsoever in carrying out attacks in Kenya. If anything, these recent attacks are a sign that, to the militants, Kenya remains vulnerable and open for staging even more “spectacular” attacks.

Moreover, the Al Shabaab strategy of bleeding Kenya through multiple attacks in far-flung vulnerable areas like Mandera will only contribute in making the country look increasingly unsafe to outsiders. As we speak, Kenya’s tourism industry continues to suffer the negative effects of western travel advisories issued following the Mpeketoni, Gamba and Hindi attacks, warning westerners not to travel to certain areas in Kenya due to security concerns.

Deeper Issues

Ever since Kenya invaded and began its occupation of Somalia, Kenyans from all walks of life – commuters, the poor and rich, miners and policemen, Somali, Kikuyu and Luhya – have all suffered the effects of insecurity. From bomb explosions to grenade attacks, massacres and ambushes – more and more aspects of the daily lives of ordinary Kenyans are being impacted by this violence that only continues to spread. As with previous attacks, the Mandera attacks have left the nation shaken, sowing fear anew in a country that is sadly growing accustomed to sophisticated attacks of murderous brutality.

The attacks by Al Shabaab have also laid bare deeper issues and fundamental problems that Kenyans face, which have nothing to do with the militant group or even the conflict in Somalia:

(a) Politics of fear: The Kenyan political elite thrive on manipulating the public into supporting their harmful policies through scare-mongering and the exaggeration of threats in order to instill fear.
(b) Politics of ethnicity: Even after Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for the Mpeketoni attack via live broadcast, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta instead blamed internal politics, dissidents and outlawed groups, claiming that a specific ethnic group had been targeted. This move was characteristic of the polarizing ethnicity that continues to plague Kenya.
(c) An incapable police force: The failure of all the security strategies implemented by the security agencies charged to protect Kenyans is a sign that Kenya’s police force lacks efficient investigative abilities.
(d) An unprofessional and undisciplined army: Following the Westgate massacre, CCTV footage of looting by Kenya Defense Forces (KDF) was released, serving as evidence that the Kenyan military lacks integrity and consequently the capacity to bring about lasting peace to the region.

What Kenya Needs to Do

Even as the perilous Al Shabaab threat looms ever larger in Kenya, the government seems hell-bent on leaving Kenyans vulnerable to more shocking violence. In response to the latest Mandera attack, President Kenyatta addressed the nation saying: “We will not flinch or relent in the war against terrorism in our country and our region.” He then moved to fire Cabinet Secretary for the Interior and Coordination of National Government, Joseph ole Lenku, while accepting the resignation of the head of police, Inspector General David Kimaiyo.

However, this move to change security personnel is just a political sideshow to divert the attention of public from the true cause of the spiraling attacks: Kenya’s continued presence in Somalia. It’s time for Kenyans to realize that it’s not the policy-implementers like Kimaiyo and ole Lenku that are the problem – it’s the policy itself of continued occupation of Somalia.

Firing ole Lenku and having Kimaiyo resign will not solve our grave national security problem. To prevent more Manderas, the Kenyan government must define its Somalia exit plan. All efforts at countering the Al Shabaab security threat must be linked to a clearly defined strategy for exiting Somalia. The current policy of an open-ended stay of KDF in Somalia has only led to mission creep. And now Kenya, once posturing herself as “liberator” has been transformed into an invading occupier.

While some of my fellow Kenyans may find it admirable when our President talks tough, this dogged insistence on remaining in Somalia is not sustainable, given the growing insecurity within our borders. As Kenya’s indifferent politicians continue with their tough stance, and instead use this key national security issue to score political points, Kenyans continue to die. The adventures of KDF in Somalia and every other security measure have not only failed to improve security and stop Al Shabaab attacks, but seem to have worsened the already grave situation. The only way to guarantee the safety and security of all Kenyans is by the Kenyan political leaders mapping out a strategy to end the occupation of Somalia.

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