Ultimate Frisbee

Last Saturday I joined a group of children and youth from Luckysummer and Kariobangi for a game of ultimate Frisbee at the Nairobi arboretum. It’s the first competitive game of any kind I have ever participated in. My participation in the game was actually very good to the amazement of many of my friends.

But this post is not about that. It is about what goes in one’s mind to enable them to catch a disc that is at them. For one to catch the disc the brain has to solve complex math problems and it does this in real time and without them knowing it is doing it.

The disc is thrown. You run to catch it. To do this you need to solve some incredibly complex problems. You have to see the disc. You have to recognize it. You then have to combine two different images that are slightly offset from each other in order to calculate where the disc is in three dimensional space. You have to compare several observations of the disc’s position as it changes over time to calculate how fast it is moving. You have to calculate the force of gravity and how it will cause the discs’s path to curve. Then you must compute a path that you can take that will cause you to intersect the discs’s path through space at the time the disc will be arriving in the space you occupy. You must compute how quickly to move your hand and how far, in order to line it hand to intersect with the s discs’s path.

This is hard. It requires real-time computation on an extraordinarily complex level. This complex calculation is done at the same time as you are constantly computing the forces of gravity on your body and the correct counteracting forces of your muscles just to hold you upright. And you must do all these calculations nearly instantly, while constantly monitoring the ball’s flight and adjusting for wind or other disturbances in its flight trajectory.




I learned that Jared – a child in my school that I have know for more than four years – had died on the night of Friday July 20, just as I was about to go to bed. As I lay on the bed that night I cried. The next morning as I visited with his family I was all tears. As a parent, I found myself projecting the family’s loss onto my situation. How would I deal with such a loss? The following Monday at school I went to his class saw an empty desk where he used to sit and his name on wall and tears filled my eyes. Every time his name has come up during our meetings or when visiting his family to plan for his burial I have found myself overcome with grief and fighting tears. That’s a lot of tears for me and it has surprised me and those around me. I don’t show my emotions easily.

But strangely crying has helped me sort out my emotions during this difficult period. It has helped me deal with emotions that I would ordinarily rather not deal with. And in a way I do not fully understand it has helped clarify my mind – helped me keep perspective.

Voting for the Devil you Know: Kenya’s 2017 election

An insightful analysis of the just concluded elections in Kenya by Nic Cheeseman, Gabrielle Lynch and Justin Willis


On 11 August 2017, Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) announced Uhuru Kenyatta of the Jubilee Party (JP) the winner of the presidential election held on 8 August, with 54.2 percent of the popular vote and turnout of almost 80 percent of registered voters. Kenyatta’s re-election has been disputed by opposition leader, Raila Odinga, and the National Super Alliance (NASA), who – in the days following the polls – made a series of allegations, some of them apparently mutually contradictory. This included claims that the vote transmission system was hacked and, separately, that the “real” results leaked to the opposition by an IEBC insider placed Odinga ahead of Kenyatta. Shortly before the final results were announced, the NASA chairman then led a walk-out of their party agents from the national tallying centre, while the chief agent, James Orengo, declared that NASA would not go to court to challenge the result, but seek other “constitutional means” – which seemed to leave street protest as their only option. Most recently, on Sunday 13 August, Odinga called on people not to go to work until a further statement was made on Tuesday 15 August, while Orengo called for people to prepare for mass action.

Prior to the election, many opposition politicians and supporters had been confident of their victory. Principal opposition leaders and parties had come together behind a single presidential flagbearer, and campaigned on a populist ticket that included a promise to address historical injustice and socio-economic marginalisation, create jobs, and lower prices. In contrast, the ruling JP called upon Kenyans to elect them for a second term on their claimed track record of security provision and economic development, and promise to create more jobs. The election also took place in a difficult socio-economic context. This included high food prices, a shortage of maize flour or unga (the national staple), rampant corruption, high un- and under-employment (especially amongst the youth), an increase in extra-judicial killings, and a cold war between the government and prominent human rights organisations, which called into question the governments ability to provide security and development. For many in the opposition, the dire economic situation, combined with the newfound unity of the opposition, Odinga’s record of struggle, and NASA’s populist campaign, was reason enough to believe that the NASA wave would be unstoppable.

However, while Kenyatta’s margin of victory is bigger than most had expected, it is by no means implausible. A number of opinion polls had put Kenyatta slightly ahead in the final weeks of the campaign, and the results are closely in line with a sample parallel vote tally conducted by a group of domestic observers – the Elections Observation Group (ELOG) – which projected a Kenyatta victory of 54.0 percent with a margin of error of +/- 1.9 percent.

Critically, Kenya’s results management process had been designed to remove any element of suspicion, and to defuse allegations of rigging through transparency. All of the relevant forms, from polling stations and constituencies, were to be posted online and available for public scrutiny. However, at the time of writing, this had not yet happened, so the exact results cannot be verified. Nevertheless, no hard evidence has yet been provided to counter the fact that the opposition failed to achieve the political tsunami they had predicted at any level of the elections in which Kenyans voted for six separate levels of representation.

Instead, JP managed to make significant inroads into several NASA strongholds, securing a majority in both the National Assembly and Senate; while JP or JP-leaning candidates won 28 of 47 gubernatorial races.

How did JP manage to do so well despite the socio-economic context?The answer lies both in the shortcomings of the opposition’s campaign and in the strategy adopted by the JP.

First, while the multiple parties of the NASA alliance agreed on a single presidential candidate, in many places they contested against each other at the local level. By contrast, Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto had converted their two party coalition from 2013 – the Jubilee Alliance – into the JP, integrating a number of other smaller outfits along the way. This had the advantage of generating a more efficient campaign with a common slate of candidates. As a result, local party structures and local aspirants for the members of county assembly (MCA), member of parliament (MP), senate, women’s representative, and governorship, and their networks were all effectively harnessed to campaign for Kenyatta’s re-election, and vice versa.

In addition to building a more effective political vehicle, the JP invested heavily in its strongholds and potential swing areas, but also did not neglect the strongholds of its opponents. In the latter, they seem to have made effective use of the localised campaigns of aspirant MCA’s who usually had little hope of winning, but perhaps sought other rewards for increasing the president’s vote in their own backyards.

The ruling party also reaped significant benefits from the power of incumbency as local administrators and officials helped to campaign for candidates at all levels, benefiting from the use of state resources, in direct contravention of the electoral rules and regulations. In this way, civil servants were openly drawn into the JP campaign, and government vehicles were used for it; while the principal Jubilee candidates evidently had ample money to spend.

However, even more important were local perceptions about who was best placed to foster economic stability and development. Politics in Kenya has a strong ethnic logic. Kenyatta and Ruto hail from Kenya’s largest and third largest communities respectively and, while many Kikuyu and Kalenjin were angry about the economy – and particularly about high food prices, insufficient jobs and corruption – many felt that their interests would be better catered for under the leadership of one of ‘their own’, rather than under the leadership of ‘other’ communities who might redistribute resources away from them and ‘their communities’.

Even outside of the Jubilee strongholds, the government ran a highly effective campaign that emphasised its achievements to date – such as local electrification and road projects – and which also questioned the opposition’s capacity and intentions. In this way, much was made of corruption in NASA-controlled county governments and also of the limited development records of leading NASA figures – all of whom had been in government at one point in time or another.

Finally, but far from least, an effective social media campaign cast Odinga as a dangerous individual who would divide Kenya and cause chaos. This message drew upon the history of the 2007 election when Odinga’s rejection of President Kibaki’s re-election triggered post-election violence, which led to the death of over 1,000 people and displacement of almost 700,000 others. Odinga may have inadvertently lent strength to this narrative through his decision to constantly challenge the integrity of the IEBC in the run-up to the election, and by his comments on land and other resources

For example, in June 2017, Odinga hit the headlines for his statements to a British journalist that he would dismantle white-owned ranches in Laikipia County if elected; while at a rally in Kajiado he urged Maasai not to sell land to outsiders “who have come to invade” and to look forward to 8 August as the “third and final revolution”. Moreover, while Odinga argued that he had been misquoted with respect to Laikipia, he defended his comments in Kajiado. JP politicians were quick to criticise this rhetoric as hate speech and incitement, prompting heated debates on social media about what an Odinga victory would mean for those with land and property outside of their ‘home’ area. This was then interwoven with other controversial issues, such as Odinga’s stance on rent. For example, on the occasion of the presentation of his presidential nomination papers to the IEBC at the end of May, Odinga promised to lower the cost of living in 90 days if elected by targeting food prices and rent. Almost immediately, claims were made on social media that this constituted support for demands by rent-payers for lower rent and for a periodic refusal to pay rent; positions which have historically been associated with significant violence.

In this way, JP were able to use some of Odinga’s own statements to play into a long-running trope in which he is depicted as a harbinger of division and political instability. That JP were able to do this despite both of their principal leaders having been charged with crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Court prior to the 2013 election – with the cases later collapsing amidst claims of witness intimidation and bribery – demonstrates the extent to which this narrative has taken hold in pro-government strongholds. When seen in this light, the results leave Kenya’s opposition, and its supporters, in a difficult place.

NASA’s accusations of electoral malpractice resonate with many of their core supporters who understand them in the context of a history of election manipulation, and who bitterly resent what they see as the long political and economic dominance of central Kenya and the Rift Valley. However, a refusal to go to the Supreme Court and more explicit appeal for a general strike, and call for people to prepare for mass protests, is an extremely risky strategy.

First, it increases the potential for loss of life. A day after the results were announced, and in the absence of significant protest, the Kenya National Commission for Human Rights already estimated that 24 people had died from bullet wounds most likely inflicted by the security forces, and noted that they were seeking to verify additional deaths and injuries. This came amidst reports of security officers cordoning-off certain parts of Nairobi and Kisumu, and of beatings, shootings and rape – a heavy-handed response to limited protest, which reflects a culture of impunity, where many people (and particularly poor young men) are shot by police on a regular basis; the extent to which young residents of informal settlements have been cast as actual or potential criminals; and extensive security preparations ahead of the election in the wake of claims of inadequate preparation in 2007. Second, if NASA do refuse to go to court and attempt to mobilise mass action, any unrest that results will be used by Odinga’s rivals to further demonise his leadership and his coalition.

This reality means that NASA finds itself caught between a rock and a hard place. Having set out to undermine the credibility of the elections, their most hard-core supporters expect a strong response. Failing to deliver risks being perceived as weak, but taking on the might of the state would represent political suicide for Odinga and some of his closest allies, and would likely go hand-in-hand with a violent security lockdown of certain opposition strongholds. It therefore seems likely that for the millions who really believed that the election would bring political and economic transformation and lead them out of unemployment and high prices – as Odinga put it – into Canaan, the outcome of the election will be a deep disappointment whatever happens at this point. Thus, while the electoral process, and the results, currently look much more credible than any since 2002 in the absence of hard evidence to the contrary, they still leave the country deeply divided, and with an opposition weakened by electoral loss, and with diminished credibility beyond its core constituencies.

Nic Cheeseman is Professor of Democracy and International Development at Birmingham University. Gabrielle Lynch is Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Warwick and Chair of ROAPE. Justin Willis is Professor of Modern African History at the University of Durham.


This Vexes me terribly…

My work at HoL is a passionate endeavour that, for the most part, brings me joy and fulfillment. It gives me a sense of purpose. But there are times when it leaves emotionally drained and overwhelmed.

Today was one of those days. I got to my house plopped on the couch and zoned out in front of the television. Later I went to the kitchen fixed myself a drink and the cried. I cried for Richard, a diabetic boy in grade one who is seriously sick with a throat infection. I am a father and I want for kids at HoL what I want for my own kids. But the situation at the moment is such that there is nothing I can do to help. And so over the last four days I have seen this boy’s health deteriorate to the point that as i write this note he cannot get out bed or even speak.

This vexes me terribly.

Before I die…


In my year in review for 2015, I wrote that I was learning to enjoy summarizing each year as it came to a close. This has not been true for 2016. I struggled with words as I sought the right way to say what I wanted to say. In the process, I have written and re-written countless material which for one reason or another didn’t feel quite right. The words and my feelings didn’t seem to come into alignment. So, today I sat down for the umpteenth time and told myself that instead of a summarizing 2016 I was going to write the first two things about the year that came to mind.

I had to get this post done today.

So, the first thing.

In 2016 I was entangled with a person who is incredibly negative. To them nothing I do seems right. I tried my best to remain positive but the negativity was driving me nuts and we would argue constantly – sometimes very intensely.  One such intense argument degenerated into a physical confrontation that left me shell-shocked. Never before in my life had I ever been in physical fight and in that moment, something had broken in me that had once been good. I was dislodged from who I believed myself to be and found myself in a place emotionally that I didn’t want to be. So, for the rest of the year I set myself on the path of healing. I figured I had a choice to make. I could let this person’s negativity control me or I could accept that they are what they are and the circumstances were what they are. I couldn’t change much of these things; but I could change myself and my attitude. Once my attitude changed, nothing this person said or did affected my emotions.

The lesson I learned from this is that there is no reason to argue with people that are constantly dissatisfied or complain. In instances when we argued I would get angrier and angrier with each word. I was reacting instead of responding. Worse still I allowed them to influence my feelings and behavior and in doing so handed my power over.

Other people’s thoughts are not our responsibility and we should be protecting our own inner space, that’s the space we have full responsibility over. But protecting our inner piece does not mean excluding ‘negative’ people around us from our lives – especially when such people are close relatives. In my experience, it has meant understanding myself and setting boundaries so that the presence of ‘negative’ people does not dislodge my stability or authenticity. This requires an ability to be generous, tolerant, and clear-headed at the same time: a unifying presence.

Now the second thing.

In mid-2016 I read about a wall installed in a public place in New Orleans that invited passersby to reflect and write their stories of things they want to do before exiting this earth. I have since learned that this wall was created by Candy Chang after experiencing a personal loss. I loved reading the responses on the wall and throughout 2016 checked what people were writing on different walls around the world (Similar installations have been made throughout the world).

Naturally, this turned the focus on me. As I read responses by others I wondered what mine would be on such a wall. As a result, I was constantly thinking about death. Perhaps because of a certain health challenge. Then in July 2016 I attended Grandma Grace’s funeral service in Muranga and the priest spoke about death saying …worrying about death is not only useless, but also makes one miss out on the life they’re living right now. He said that although it is …scary and unknown, letting it run your life was to be dead while still living. We are all going to die so do not fight the inevitable… He continued.

I found this words illuminating because there was a time when the thought of death would trigger some profound feelings of loneliness and fear. For some reason after hearing these words I gradually came to a place in my heart where I accepted that at some point death will happen regardless of how safe or health I try to be, what gods I pray to, or what science I trust in.

The lesson here is simple, I am going to die. But for now, I’m alive.

Lastly, my response on before I die board would be:

Before I die I want to love more and fear less.

I want to learn to meet people where they are and love them as best as I can.

Fueling the Intiative

I first visited Kariobangi in 2008 as part of a team that was conducting a baseline survey for a water and sanitation project by Church World Service. For the next 4 months working in the area I was struck by level of poverty in the area. Kenya was just emerging from brink of catastrophe following post-election violence occasioned by disputed 2007 presidential elections. A lot of public and private property had been destroyed in the chaos and the situation was extremely dire for many people. But there was hope, many organizations had rushed to the area to help and it seemed that at last the violence had shone a spotlight on the grinding poverty that had persisted in the area for decades unnoticed.

When I returned to the area after almost a decade – this time to work for Hands of Love – I was surprised to learn that although the situation had somewhat improved, poverty abounded still. This unfortunate continuity made me wonder what had happened to all those promising initiatives in 2008 that were supposed to empower the community and eradicate poverty.

In the last two years, I have tried to uncover why these initiatives failed and I am learning that a majority overlooked the most practical and powerful resource available for fighting poverty – poor people themselves. They failed to see people for who they really are viewing them instead as helpless. I believe this is wrong. Poor people in Kariobangi know what they want.  I know this because I have had the opportunity over the last two years to observe HoL parents, many who live in extreme poverty, collectively and individually unleashing their ingenuity and tenacity to create their own solutions. From organizing small table banking groups to help each other start small income generating projects or pay school fees for their children; to forming groups that watch over the neighborhood kids as their parents go to work; to making and selling crafts either individually or as groups. These people show up every day and do their best to support themselves and their families. They are not helpless instead they are caught up in what Ben Wisner in his book At Risk, call ‘depravation traps’ – conditions that severely limit their participation in decisions that affect their lives as well as their access to resources and information.

What we ought to do, I think, is  work to remove this ‘traps” and then fuel their initiative. Instead of imposing solutions or directing, or even empowering we should just add fuel to the already burning flame that they have.

Hurrah for the Next Man to Die

I had a rich relationship with my Late grandfather. My own dad being largely absent from my life, grandpa was the only male influence I had growing up. One of the many things he taught me was never to miss weddings or funerals of friends or those who are evenly remotely related or connected to me. So last so on Tuesday 7th July, though not feeling well, I dragged myself out of bed and made my way to Kiriani, Muranga, Central Kenya for yet another burial. This time grandma Grace (My grandfather’s cousin) had passed on at the age of 87 from a cardiac arrest.

Kiriani and the larger Mathioya district has a special place in my heart. My maternal grandparents were born here. Every time I am visiting and a place or some geographic feature is mentioned, I am almost always able to retrieve from my memory a story that they especially my grandfather told about that place. Location 14 as the area was known during the colonial times lies on the slopes of Aberdare Ranges. It was at the heart of Mau Mau struggle – Kenya’s independence struggle.

Last year when I was doing research for the book I have been writing since forever about my grandfather’s experience in the struggle grandma Grace was very helpful providing useful insight and perspective on many sections of the story. I meant to visit her this year but I kept postponing and now she is gone. What a shame.

Anyway she received a fitting send off. With members of Mbari ya Ihungu (Ihungu’s Clan) travelling from far and wide to pay their respect.

Fare thee well Grandma Grace.


I have been working in Kariobangi for nearly two years now. In this time, I have been witness to both good and bad things and I have learnt a lot. I have witnessed acts of generosity and kindness on a monumental scale and I have also witnessed acts of cruelty. Today I will reflect on two acts of violence that really shook me.

Walking to work on 29th April 2015 I happened upon a group of about 15 people who were seriously beating up a boy. I could tell that the boy was between 10 and 12 years and the first thing that came to mind was whatever he has done he does not deserve the beating. I quickly learned that he had stolen food and the people beating him were owners of nearby food kiosks. I was angry. This is one of the very few instances I have felt an urge to punch someone. Seriously, how could grown men – 15 of them – gang up to beat up a child. I knew I had to intervene, but I was afraid they would turn on me – as it often happens with lynch mobs. But as a teacher and a father I knew it was my duty to do something. So I stepped into the group grabbed the boy, and speaking a few octaves above my usual voice – and with as much authority as I could muster – I told the group I knew the boy and I was going to pay for the food he had stolen. “He is a child and what you are doing is wrong” I continued. Luckily they obliged and I was able to take the boy with me to the Centre where I work. It turns out the boy is an orphan living with two older siblings, on their own. He told me they had not had food the previous day and that is why he was stealing. What this boy needed/still needs is love and care and an opportunity to get an education, not a beating.

The second act of violence happened last Saturday. I had gone to work earlier than usual and the security man informed me that a man had been killed in an area where some of my colleagues and a lot of the families we work with live. So naturally I went to it check out. What I saw was the cruelest thing I have ever seen. There was a middle aged man in a kneeling position both his legs broken between the knee and ankle and twisted outwards, his throat slit, disemboweled and a rope around his neck in what appeared like a hanging. The whole scene looked like a ritual killing. This scene has had a big impact on my psyche and the last few days I have been unable to think straight. I keep wondering who he was and who killed him. I am vexed by the fact that the people who killed him may never be brought to justice. And once again this encounter has got me thinking about death and the fragility of human life. This has made me feel deep gratitude for the time I have. And it is bringing more clarity to the things that are meaningful in my life now.

Kariobangi has taught me that it is a cruel cruel world we live in, but that is not all it has taught me. It has also taught me am ready. Ready to make a difference – in my community and in other people’s lives. Ready to stand for what I know to be right. That every day I have opportunity to affect another person’s life positively, this I think is important, it makes my life meaningful.