I want to make a number of inflated claims, useful despite—or because of—their inflation. If nothing else, they may prove interesting, or provocative.
My generation of Kenyans entered into the material world of politics through milk. I know little of the actual legal machinations, but in my fuzzy memory, the narrative goes something like this: at a certain point, the government provided free cartons of milk to all primary school children. It was acclaimed, at the time, as one of baba Moi’s achievements, evidence that he cared about the nation’s children, about the future.
Consuming milk became a deeply ideological process, marked by ethnic and class politics in ways that continue to resound. The milk, it was claimed, had been laced with hormones, designed to stimulate premature development; it was a form of ideological poison, others said. Moi was plotting against the Gikuyu through milk.
We did not just consume milk. In so doing, we confirmed or affirmed our allegiances, multiple and conflicting though they were.
We designed strategies for disposing of the milk. The toilets were crammed with full packages, the garbage cans leaked white. We identified students who loved milk and generously shared our own packages. We stuffed our bags with leaky packages, only to throw them away at home.
We were learning to be subversive, though we would not have termed it that.
While the memory of what we believed remains quite clear, the source of those beliefs remains vague. In those years when the most reliable whispers seemed to come from the shadows, asking for verification seemed irrelevant.
To ask about the question of milk consumption in Kenya’s primary schools through the 1980s is to ask how children come to be political agents, how they understand material signifiers as politically significant, as markers of allegiance, keeping solidarity with their families and friends. But also to understand the ambivalence created by complicity. What, for instance, did it mean that some teachers insisted we consume the milk? How did facial expressions convey our limited agency? What did we think about those who consumed their milk eagerly, even hungrily? What did it mean that those who hated Nyayo milk eagerly consumed KCC milk, as though the two were not distributed by the same company? (Were they? Memory fails.)
We might phrase this issue another way and ask what it means that the most significant material practice that all school-going Kenyans of a certain age participated in was drinking milk. Were we being nurtured? Or permanently infantilized?
I want to change register here, become slightly more academic.
Might it be possible to read these experiences of milk consumption as fights over competing definitions and practices of parenting? In drinking Baba Moi’s milk, were we being taught to esteem the national father over our biological parents? And what kind of lesson was this?
How, that is, did consuming milk become an ideological struggle over various kinds of kinship: ethnic or multi-ethnic over national? Or private, biological over public, ideological? And how successful was this lesson? What were we learning about the national deployment of kinship tropes?
One might venture an answer by noting that after “mzee” and “baba,” our current president is Emilio.
And because it’s what I do, I want to register the queer resonances of Moi’s milk. There is, to be sure, something quite perverse (perhaps perversely delicious) in the image of the nation’s father (breast)feeding a nation of children.
Other connotations are quite illegal.
I have suggested to a friend that our collective stories about Nyayo milk might make a fascinating project.
That work remains to be done.