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'Hustler movement' is not a new phenomenon

By Babere Chacha | February 4th 2021


Today, I would like to look at the hustler-dynasty rhetoric and the possible implication this ‘movement’ may have on future trajectories of Kenyan political life.

No one has spoken earnestly about hustlers and dynasties more than William Ruto, a “chicken vendor” who rose to become deputy president. He has shaken the nation by positioning himself as a “hustler” pitting himself and his followers against “dynasties” or people with enormous wealth.

He does this political indoctrination with the promise of a glorious government that will take care of what I call the subalterns; mama mboga, wasee wa mkokoteni, hawkers, salonists, touts, boda bodas, taxi drivers, second-hand clothe sellers, shoe shiners, drivers, kiosk owners, small-scale traders and generally those who hustle every day to put food on the table.

Organised ‘hustler movement' is not a new phenomenon. In Kenya, the Mau Mau movement was inextricably the history of the struggle for the return of lands that had been expropriated from 'hustlers' at gun point by European empire-builders, commercial companies and settlers—the dynasty.

In a study of the English working class, EP Thompson admonished historians to rescue the “casualties of history…from enormous condensation of posterity”. His tone is well captured by the oft-quoted line from the preface of the Making of the English Working Class.

He said: "I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the obsolete hand-loom weaver, the utopian artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity (in other words-the hustler)”.

This was Thompson’s attempt to add a humanist element to social history, being critical of those who had always turned the working class into an inhuman statistical bloc. Those people were not just victims of history, and that is why he displays them as ‘people being in control of their own destiny’.

The phrase history from below as coined by Reymaldo Clemena Ileto is another case illustration, too describing history as composed of the stories of the ordinary people—the hustlers. Defined by Trevelyan as “the history of the people with the politics left out”, Samuel Huntington notes that history prides itself as being concerned with ordinary people rather than privileged elites, with everyday things rather than sensational events”. Martin Luther King calls them “those that have been left out of the sunlight of opportunity”. 

All these presupposition leans towards a post-colonial paradigm known as the subaltern. Subaltern, like hustler, denotes a person of inferior rank and is a term used in post-colonial studies to refer to those who lack agency in society and have limited access to social power—the marginalised, those in lower working classes, the poor, the exploited, the minority, the neglected, and the voiceless.

Ranajit Guha and Dipesh Chakrabarty locate peasant identity and consciousness within the conditions of rural India in terms of the relationship of the peasantry to dominant economic and political groups.

This concept too has an ecclesiastical trajectory which positions Jesus within this circle of debate. Jesus was penniless preacher, a son of a carpenter, a Galilean peasant, who had only one garment and as such he would today be considered as a ‘hustler’. He sought tirelessly to end poverty, to feed and house the needy and to heal those in need, and he attempted to lead a peasant revolt, though refrained from armed, political opposition to Roman authority, he was indeed a revolutionary in another sense.

He proclaimed that the kingdom of God belonged to the poor, the oppressed and those that laboured hard. He said repeatedly that he had come…to proclaim good news to the poor…proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind…to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

Such credo demonstrates that Jesus saw the world in terms of class struggle. But in the end, the crowd asked that Jesus be crucified and Barabbas, a notorious thief be set free.

With our nation struggling and responding to the bitter challenges of depression, political instability and the Covid-19 pandemic, and in a society marred by deepening divisions between the rich and poor, most Kenyans find themselves in a state of despondency, apathy, helplessness and confusion.

Anyone therefore who takes advantage of this background and identifies with the poor by promising them hope and introducing ideas such as a class struggle, then the possibility of a euphoric following of such a person is very high. The current crises therefore have become deus ex machina for Ruto’s so-called "wheelbarrow conversation".

We should not be a surprised if in future we experience a form of social revolution in which the working class (hustlers) will attempt to overthrow or openly defy the bourgeoisie (rich).

Furthermore, it is evident that revolutions occur when long-term socioeconomic development is followed by short-term and sharp economic reversals as has been triggered by Covid-19. When sharp reversal in economic fortunes comes, ability to obtain goods declines while the peoples’ expectations as to what they believe they should be able to obtain continues to rise…all you need is someone to mobilise and spark off a protest.

Dr Chacha teaches history at Laikipia University

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