Posted in Commentary, Kenya

What the 2019 census reveals about Kenyans

The questions asked during the census exercise have been quite revealing — but not in a way many of us have thought of.

Depending on where you live, you probably found some questions odd or unnecessary. We even joked about it on social media. Someone wondered out loud on Twitter why the enumerator found the need to ask if he owned a TV and yet she could see it right in front of her.

Another city dweller found the question about owning cattle a little amusing. I personally remember pausing for a few seconds before responding to a question about owning a canoe (I don’t). I, too, joked about this on Twitter and Facebook.

Humor as a shield

For Kenyans living in the city, especially the middle class, many of the census questions felt out of touch. Yet instead of realizing that these questions ought to teach us something about the rest of Kenya, we chose to laugh and meme our way through the oddities.

We used humor to shield ourselves from the realities of the stark inequalities in a supposedly “united” Kenya. We do this a lot. Just check out the hashtag #KoT on Twitter. If we are not raging about a foreigner who has disrespected our country, we are making fun of the ridiculous levels of corruption within our own borders.

One man’s joke is another man’s lifeline

The census questions say a lot about the reality many Kenyans still live in, a reality that we cannot afford to joke our way out of confronting. The way a Nairobi resident felt about answering “no” to whether they owned a car is the same way someone in rural Kajiado felt about not owning a “cow”. Except that in Kajiado, the feeling was much worse and the implications of that reality much more devastating.

Owning a canoe in the fishing villages around Lake Victoria does not make one the butt of a joke. To some (who own it) it is a means of sustenance and a mark of great privilege,  while to others (who don’t) it is a mark of failure in life. One man’s joke is another man’s lifeline.

While you are wondering whether to classify your home theater system as a radio or part of your TV, someone in a slum not far from your apartment complex does not even own a portable radio. Another in a remote village in West Pokot doesn’t even see the need to because his area doesn’t receive a radio signal.

I spent a few days earlier this month in Mosiro Ward in Kajiado County where I came face to face with the reality of child marriage and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). To many of us in Nairobi, the term FGM is often relegated to hashtag activism and the horror story that occasionally shows up on our TV screens.

The girl child as property

Yet, to many girls as young as 10 years old in Mosiro, this is a reality they have to live with — a rite of passage that defines them and earns them a place in their society. FGM is not a matter of choice or opinion for many of these girls, it is as natural to their life experience as menstrual cramps — they know to expect it and they better be ready to endure it.

I hate to imagine how many fathers glanced at their pre-teen daughters when the census enumerators asked if they owned a cow. Because to many of these men, bringing a girl into this world is an economic investment that guarantees a bump in the number of cows you own. It is sad that there are still communities where the question of whether you have a child and whether you own cows sounds like one and the same question.

This is nothing to laugh or joke about. For each property-related question that you answered “yes” to, there are millions of Kenyans who answered “no” and still many others who were too ashamed to confess their lack. Yet this is why the census exists, to reveal the needs in our society so that the government can make informed decisions regarding resource distribution.

A call to confront the inequalities

Isn’t it ironic, then, that instead of getting angry about the basic things we own that our fellow countrymen can only dream  about, we find ourselves amused? Is our conscience this seared? The opposite ought to be the case.

The question about your level of education should provoke you to care about access to education (or the lack of it) for hundreds of thousands of Kenyan children.

The question about the number of children you have should provoke you to care about the infant mortality rate and what we can do to stop preventable deaths in the country.

The question about how you earn a living should provoke you to care about the rising rate of unemployment in Kenya and the tone-deaf advise college graduates get about becoming entrepreneurs instead of getting a job.

While you were wondering whether to classify as a “habitable room” your guest room and the SQ that you have converted into a study room, there is someone who was not even sure what to call the shack they live in.

As I write this, the Kenyan drought management authority says that more than 2.5 million Kenyans in at least 11 counties facing starvation as drought and hunger situation gets worse. This is not just a food-related census question to respond “yes” or “no” to, it is a matter of life and death.

This is what census 2019 reveals about Kenya — or at least it ought to. I hope that when the results are released in three months, we will use them to confront these issues, call our local government representatives to account, and do something to make our neighbor’s world, and not just our own, a better place.

Posted in Commentary, culture, The 4th Dimension

Why we should fundraise for weddings

A good friend of mine turned 30 the other day. So her fiance and friends decided to throw her a surprise party. Those who could chipped in to make the day a success. We also bought gifts to take to the party and did our best to keep the secret until the big day.

Nothing strange with this arrangement. Makes perfect sense. We also held a similar surprise party for another friend who was leaving the country to study abroad. People raised some money and organized the party. Totally normal affair.

So how come the topic of raising funds to celebrate the permanent union of two friends evokes so much emotion and debate today? Why has it become anathema for a couple to raise funds for their wedding?

The wedding fundraiser controversy

For the longest time, I’ve been on the never-raise-funds-for-wedding camp.  I was easily among the people who, in principle, thought that it is inappropriate to ask people to give you money to have a lavish wedding. People should learn to live within their means, especially now that they were getting into marriage. Furthermore, a wedding, unlike a funeral, is not an emergency, right?

The logic seemed pretty clear… until it wasn’t any more. I realized that the reason we find it so controversial that people raise money for their weddings is not because something is wrong with the couple, but because something is wrong with our understanding of what a community is.

“The reason we find it so controversial that people raise money for their weddings is not because something is wrong with the couple, but because something is wrong with our understanding of what a community is.”

I used to silently agree with those who spoke against raising funds for a wedding. We believed that those who did so to have an extravagant wedding were “idolizing the wedding”. This aversion to such actions was further confirmed by people who would borrow loans to fund a wedding.

“A wedding is about the couple, it is their marriage after all,” we would argue. “The people you are killing yourself to impress with your big wedding will not be there when your marriage is in a storm”

We would applaud and admire the couple that went super scrappy on their wedding day and never borrowed a dime. Even more noble was the couple that resisted the peer pressure and the force of society and walked into the AG’s (Attorney General’s) office to get it over and done with.

However, even though I saw the logic of that line of thinking, I secretly and silently worried that I would not be able to fund the kind of wedding my fiance and I desired — nothing fancy, but even a normal wedding was a costly affair. I was reluctant to ask people to help me fund my wedding (though standing on this side of the wedding, it hits me that I was only able to have the wedding I did by the grace of God and the generosity of others).

A radically different view

Today, I hold a radically different (and hopefully obvious) view, though not entirely so. Nowadays I believe that the scrappy wedding is the anomaly. The AG-visit-no-wedding is the aberration. And this is where the analogy of the birthday party comes in to help.

Although I now fully support fundraising for a wedding, I disagree with the insistence that the couple should be the one to take out loans or ask people to give them money for a wedding. It is sad that we have pushed marrying couples into this corner. Like the birthday party, a wedding ceremony should be the initiative and responsibility of the family and friends of the couple.

I disagree with the insistence that the couple should be the one to take out loans or ask people to give them money for a wedding. It is sad that we have pushed marrying couples into this corner. Like the birthday party, funding a wedding ceremony should be the initiative and responsibility of the family and friends of the couple.

If a wedding is indeed about the parents and the community, as we like to say, then the parents and the community should come together to make it a reality for the couple. The couple should only be consulted on their preferences for the wedding, and even these are not hard conditions as the family and community should tell them what they can or cannot afford.

So how come we seldom think of weddings the same way we think of birthdays and work anniversaries and other parties that we throw for our family members and friends? I can think of two reasons:

1. We live in an overly individualistic age

Even though we understand weddings to be merely ceremonial, we still think of them as the couple’s affair. This is partly an overreaction from the now outmoded practice of arranged marriages. In the past, when parents would choose marriage partners for their children, the parents were also responsible for the wedding.

The young man and woman never spent a dime. Weddings were community affairs. The two families invited and worked together with relatives and friends to celebrate (and fund the celebration) of the union between the two families. Today, we want the superficial image of a community (the wedding guests) without the responsibilities of the community (owning the wedding).

This is not entirely the fault of the community. It is also the fault of the couple planning to get married. We have become islands. People don’t even know we are about to get married, or if they do, we make the wedding a personal affair and bride/groom-zilla our way through every detail.

Marriage is no longer seen as a rite of passage worth celebrating, but a business contract between two people with zero accountability/submission to the larger community. You might as well fund it yourself.

2. The commercialization of weddings

Since we believe that our marriage is no one else’s business, we end up making our weddings a spectacle, tweaked to impress and gain social capital. We may not want people to contribute towards our wedding, but we will definitely make sure they are impressed by our wedding.

So we find ourselves in this precarious position where we want to host 500 guests at a fancy venue and feed them all and make sure we do it without asking for a dime.

No wonder weddings have become commercialized. They are now one of the ways we make our mark in society instead of being one of the ways the society makes its mark on us by acknowledging that we have taken a step worth celebrating.

What makes a marriage covenant significant was not always the signature in the government document, it was the family and friends who gathered together to say “we acknowledge this step, we celebrate this union, and we are doing this to show you that we are for this marriage and not against it. We support you and we will always be on your team.

A celebration

We like to say that a wedding is a celebration. If a wedding is a celebration of marriage and a celebration of the couple, then it makes sense that the family and friends of the couple take responsibility for the wedding. Why should a birthday inspire such a meaningful and thoughtful community participation when a wedding doesn’t?

Finally, on that popular funeral comparison. We always like to say how a funeral is an emergency but a wedding is not. This is how we justify raising funds for a funeral but not for a wedding. What we miss in the process is that the dead person is not the one raising the funds. They can’t do it, duh. It is their family and friends who come together to do it.

Sadly, even this sad aspect of life has been tainted by our atomized society and we now see funeral fundraisers as about the person/friend/colleague who has lost a loved one. We see our contributions to funerals as being about the person who is raising the funds rather than being about the dead person. If a funeral is indeed a “celebration of life” or a “send off” party as some of us like to call it, then the family and friends are coming together to plan and fund the party, without the invitation of the dead person

Similar thinking should apply to a wedding ceremony. The couple, having declared their love for one another and their intention to get married, the community should take over. The couple should only avail themselves to the witnesses of their wedding and (hopefully) their marriage.

Yet I am afraid this may all be wishful thinking, considering the rate at which meaningful communities are dwindling in our current society. It is worth thinking about though. For the Christians, I propose the local church as a good place to start this shift in thinking.