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Why the 'Hustler' narrative has gained traction in Central Kenya

By XN Iraki | June 29th 2021
Raymond Kuria, the People’s Empowerment Party aspirant (right), withdrew from the Kiambaa by-election in solidarity with the ‘Hustler’ nation. He later met Deputy President William Ruto at the latter’s residence in Karen, Nairobi. [DPPS]

Why should a region that has given us three presidents be the hotbed of ‘Hustler’ narrative? Why should an area seen by outsiders as rich and affluent embrace this narrative with open arms? Why is this narrative finding such a fertile ground in Central Kenya, the backyard of the current president? 

This might appear to be a paradox, but it is not. We could even ask in whispers where else we would have expected the narrative to find a home. 

The warm reception to the ‘Hustler’ narrative exposes a number of realities in the Central region, now dubbed Mountain. One is history. 

If you remember, the region was the epicentre of the Mau Mau war against colonialism. This war tore through the fabric of the society, setting brother against brother. There were men and women who supported the colonial government, and those who were against it went to the forest to fight. When Independence came, those who sided with the British had an upper hand; they had gone to school and were in good stead to take up positions in government and practice the nascent capitalism. 

The rest had few skills to enable them to take up positions in government, or start enterprises.

Back to the present, the Mau Mau generation may be gone, but they might have passed the stories to the next generation. To be fair, the freedom fighters got land they had fought for, and this significantly reduced their bitterness against those who collaborated with the British and with the Britons themselves. The schism between British supporters and freedom fighters is only talked about in hushed tones in Central Kenya. I shall do the same in this article.

But after three generations, the land that the freedom fighters got - mostly in Nyandarua and some other sections of former Rift Valley Province - has been subdivided, turning the new owners into real ‘hustlers’. In traditional areas of Central Kenya (Kiambu, Nyeri, Murang’a and Kirinyaga), land was long subdivided into the smallest possible pieces.

There is another hidden undercurrent in this region; succession. Women, including the married ones, are inheriting the scarce land. While that is enshrined in the law of succession, it has been slowed by tradition among other communities. But in the Mountain region, women empowerment is at another level, as evidenced by children using their mothers’ names as surnames. The spectre of married women selling their inherited land to the highest bidder, leaving their brothers with less land, is a disaster waiting to happen.

Add joblessness, and it becomes evident why anyone offering hope and economic solution to this region is welcome. 

Beyond land, the gap between the rich and the poor is more pronounced in this region than others. Ragged capitalism is the norm; you are essentially on your own. Even brothers and sisters find it hard to help each other. In other regions, there is safety in social capital espoused by high decency - relatives take care of each other.

The Covid-19 pandemic, just like soil erosion after the rains, exposed the economic reality in this region, seen as affluent by the rest of country. Political entrepreneurs (or are they speculators) are eager to point out the inequality and nostalgia of the good old days.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) is another reason why the region is receptive to ‘Hustler’ narrative. The region feels that its key proponent helped the region get the presidency in 2013 and 2017. They feel indebted to him.

The other factor is the feeling that the presidency does not trickle down to the ‘hustler’ level. A lot of Central Kenya people feel that despite it producing three presidents, they have not felt its impact and would want to try an alternative this time around. The president was probably aware of this when he stated that two communities had given State House a tenant for 57 years, and that probably it was time for a change. 

Less spoken about is that Central Kenya has its Diaspora in the Rift Valley, which makes Mount Kenya people feel that the key proponent of the narrative is one of their own.

The other reason is that the Kenyan elite know the dictionary meaning of ‘hustler’. The street definition is different; a ‘hustler’ is a self-made risk-taker, able to take care of his/her family against all odds and without the support of the government and other institutions. The real ‘hustler’ is very proud of himself! When called ‘hustler’, they don’t see that as an insult, but a compliment!

Finally, the orphan syndrome may be driving the narrative in Central Kenya. The ‘hustlers’ feel there is no safe pair of hands to take care of their interests after Uhuru Kenyatta leaves office.

That political vacuum is being exploited by political entrepreneurs and speculators. Other regions seem to have political “succession plans.” Which begs the question: What coded message did voters send by voting in a ‘Hustler’ candidate in Rurii Ward seat in Nyandarua and Ruiru parliamentary seat in Kiambu?

Finally, until a counter-narrative to the ‘Hustler-Dynasty’ narrative is developed and shared, the current one will keep getting more adherents. Some say it is hard to get a counter-narrative because the ‘Hustler’ is based on pseudo-truths and some hard reality.

The author teaches at the University of Nairobi  

[email protected]   

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