If you’ve ever built anything – even a humble grass hut – you know the pride of the achievement. But equally as important is the pain you would feel were someone, even the State, to raze it to the ground. Human beings leave three things behind when they meet their maker – progeny, property and ideas.
Property includes the “monuments” we build or acquire for ourselves like residences and other forms of real estate. We associate these “monuments” with our success in the temporal world. We think they demonstrate our superiority over others. For men in particular, buildings are phallic – they symbolise manhood. That’s why demolishing a building is for many of the male gender akin to castration – an act of “de-manning.”
In common lore, neutering a man is the definition of negating one’s manhood. In a world ruled by male patriarchy and machismo – where financial and material braggadocio are kings – a man without property is nothing. He’s a failure, a moral zero. Even in pre-colonial African societies, which sometimes we idealise because of nostalgia, your social status as a man was calculated by the head of livestock you owned, or how many kids you sired and provided for. The male identity in pre-capitalist and capitalist milieus has been deeply defined by property. Property denotes power and authority. But not simply power and authority in a vacuum. It’s power to dominate, to exploit, to oppress, and suppress “lesser” men, women, and children.
I know this is painful. But they don’t pay me to be polite, be afraid to think, or shrink from speaking the truth. Virtually all societies on earth are patriarchal and misogynistic. Men call the shots. That means they lord it over women and children. But not all men call the shots.
The vast majority of men are oppressed by other men – the so-called alpha dogs. Let me be clear, and make a controversial point. There’s nothing natural about this sad state of affairs. It’s possible because economic, political and social systems – and ideologies – have been constructed that way. Socially constructed. That’s why the Catholic Church doesn’t permit women priests. It’s why Islam has very few female imams.
My point is that the private and individual ownership of property – real estate – is an integral part of male psychology and psychosis. Psychosis because it’s a disease of the brain. But it’s fact. That’s why men fight for political power so they acquire, or protect, property.
Which brings me to Kenya. Most men – and women – who have acquired property in Kenya have been connected to the State. They suckled at the breast of the State. Virtually all have been senior public figures. The State in a post-colonial country like Kenya – a so-called banana republic – is a golden goose that lays all eggs. Oligarchs and kleptocrats bestride the country like colossi. They grab land everywhere. And put up buildings.
It becomes a matter of life and death when those buildings are pulled down. Their owners breathe fire. They threaten Armageddon. They curse to the high heavens. They may even hatch nefarious plots to harm those executing the demolitions. Damn the law, they say.
It doesn’t matter whether they bribed to get a “legal” permit or title deed to put up the structure on public land, a beach or riparian territory. Even though they corrupted public officials to get the permits, they feign victimhood. How can they be punished when the “regime of the day” allowed them to build on public land, they cry. Governor Ferdinand Waititu of Kiambu would rather the river was “moved” to spare the building.
We will never rise above a banana republic if we don’t become a rule of law State. We can’t make it to middle income status. We need to tame our manhood. We need to stop “en-gendering” property with masculinity and treating as an extension of our cojones. We need to defang the state of male mandibles. We need to rethink our legacy, of the three things I said we leave behind when we exit the earth – progeny, property and ideas. Of the three, let’s pay more attention to progeny, for those who want and can have children, and ideas. Let’s strike property off the list. I am not saying property isn’t important. But let’s not worship it.
For me, the success of the current campaign to demolish, or repossess, properties built on public or riparian land would be the creation of a new norm. Of course powerful men – and the occasional woman – should not steal public land. Let’s preserve our environment. The campaign will succeed when our society becomes less dangerously depraved and obsessed with money and property. Let’s remember Mark 8:36 – “[f]or what does it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?”
-The writer is SUNY Distinguished Professor at SUNY Buffalo Law School and Chair of KHRC. @makaumutua.