Sep 20, 2021

Mawazo Writing Africa

Writing about the main

This cruel handling of a street vendor reeks of class bias

During slavery in America, captured runaway slaves were chained by the wrists and pulled behind a horse. In some cases, slaves suspected to have committed a crime would be dragged on the ground by a horse until they were dead.

In 1998, in rural Texas, two white supremacists tied a disabled black man to the back of pickup truck and dragged him to his death. In 2019, after many years on death row, the convicted killers were executed in a Texas prison.

Recently, in Kenya, Kisumu City askaris (county law enforcers), dragged a woman hawker from the back of their pickup truck. Miraculously, though part of the woman’s dress was shredded, she escaped with only scrapes and bruises. This dragging of a human being in 21st century Kenya has similarities and dissimilarities with the historical practice of dragging blacks in America from behind horses and trucks.

First, the dissimilarities. The askaris did not tie the woman to the back of the truck; an askari in the back of the truck held on to her hand as the rest of her was dragged on the ground. Also, the action was not racially or ethnically motivated. The askaris were not acting on deeply ingrained racist hatred. They were carrying out an arrest pursuant to a law prohibiting hawking in the Kisumu City Central Business District.

However, the extreme cruelty of the askaris and their total disregard for the woman’s humanity have disturbing echoes of the historical cruelty towards black people in America. Many white Americans of the time believed that blacks were inferior beings ranking on the same level as monkeys. The monkey chants at black players at football games in Europe is testament to the persistence of that racist belief, despite being debunked severally by genetics.

The askari action was conditioned by class bias — belief that poor people are less of human beings. It is a belief that is deeply ingrained in officialdom in Kenya and which manifests in a myriad of ways. For example, police arresting politicians and the wealthy use kid gloves but rain blows on the poor when arresting them. In government offices, the poor are made to wait interminably for services. In our cities, the poor are reminded that they don’t belong here by security guards and barricades. By contrast, European cities are people-friendly with numerous parks and pathways. Security guards in these cities guide people rather than intimidate them. In our cities, security guards outside buildings and hotels wave in people who smell of money and chase away anyone who reeks of poverty.

In the end, inhumane treatment of people because they are poor is the same as inhumane treatment of people because of their race. The pain of the victims is the same.

If there is any positive outcome of the dragging incident, it was that the head of the Enforcement department of the Kisumu City took overall responsibility and resigned. A first in Kenya.

Tee Ngugi is a Nairobi-based political commentator