We are not supposed to be in that space [the UN]
How the young are tempted and betrayed
into slaughter or conformity
is a turn of the mirror
time’s question only
–Audre Lorde, “Generation”
In May 2014, president Uhuru Kenyatta announced that the National Youth Service would be restructured to “effectively execute its mandate.” The National Youth Service was established in the mid-1960s—the official Act commenced on 1st September 1964. Those joining the service—“members”—were required to be male or female Kenyan citizens between the ages of sixteen and thirty. Enlistment was supposed to be voluntary.
The original legislation, revised in 2012, outlines the specific duties of the “members.” A few are worth noting.
15. Duties of members
Every member of the Service shall—
(a) perform such duties and carry out such training as he may be directed by the officers senior to or placed in command over him;
(b) obey and execute promptly all orders lawfully issued to him by the officers senior to him or placed in command over him.
16. Functions of Service
The functions of the Service shall be the training of young citizens to serve the nation, and the employment of its members in tasks of national importance and otherwise in the service of the nation.
17. Employment of Service in times of emergency
(1) The President may, during a state of war, insurrection, hostilities or public emergency, order that the Service or any part thereof be employed to serve with the Kenya Military Forces, or otherwise in the defence of the nation, whether within or without Kenya.
The position of Section 16 is especially interesting: the “Service” trains “young citizens” to work for “the nation.” Based on Sections 15 and 17, “service [to] the nation” consists of following orders from one’s superiors, be it the president or senior officers.
Those enlisted were forbidden from joining any trade unions, and the legislation contains an extensive list of offences for which one might be punished, including political dissent, causing “disaffection,” and “desertion.”
I learned about NYS from older family friends and relatives who were required to join the service. Under the former education system, where one completed high school at sixth form, those who qualified to attend public universities were required to attend NYS training. NYS was an attempt to discipline book-smart Kenyans. I listened, avidly, to stories about drills and runs, about standing under the hot sun for extended periods of time. A family friend fainted in the required manner: without bending her knees, knocking out her front teeth. If NYS did not discipline young, unruly minds—many went on to organize campus protests—it created a dangerous idea of power: how it works, how it circulates, how to wield it. We now inhabit the world of those trained by NYS—those produced by its logics and practices. Ads feature deputy president William Ruto as a proud alum.
According to president Kenyatta, the “new” NYS will ensure that “youth . . . [play] a key role in the country’s development agenda.” The NYS will help “mainstream youth in development.” President Kenyatta knows about the hold of the development imaginary. He knows that saying “development” halts all questions: after all, who would be against development?
Lost in the development talk is the banal fact that the NYS is a militarized organization, a space for producing extra bodies that the president can deploy. The NYS is recruiting 20,000 “youth,” planning to transform them into a militarized body whose first allegiance is to development as incarnated in the presidency.
Kenya’s solution to its “youth bulge”? Militarize it. Turn “youths” into weapons.
Last week, a group of 8 young people from Chicago, organized under the banner We Charge Genocide, traveled to Geneva to testify before the UN Committee Against Torture. They ranged in age from eighteen to thirty. They wore black t-shirts, more than a few had dreads. They spoke with an awareness that, as Malcolm London puts it, they were not supposed to be in that space. That the UN space was organized for career professionals dedicated to upholding rules and following protocol, dedicated to formal processes of managing affect and formulate people-unseeing policies.
They broke protocol.
They stood in protest as the U.S. government obfuscated and prevaricated. They walked out in protest as the U.S. government obfuscated and prevaricated. Their words spoke. Their clothing spoke. The images they held silently spoke. Their bodies spoke. Their movements spoke.
The We Charge Genocide team spoke against the U.S. at the UN.
I have been trying to think about the kinds of imaginations—world-imagining, possibility-imagining, life-imagining—required to organize a trip to the UN. To collect evidence, to arrange it, to have it translated (when required), to crowd-fund to raise money, to travel to Geneva, to speak at the UN.
I was trying to imagine a similar delegation from one of the many communities in Kenya where young men are murdered by the state, even as the state continues to criminalize those young men, classifying them as “problems.” Or, as now, trying to recruit them into its killing apparatus.
I suspect that few, if any, of the NGOs claiming to work with “the youth” would support such a delegation—ideologically or otherwise—precisely because such a delegation would reveal the insidious class politics of much NGO work: dedicated to providing employment to the professional and professionalized classes and, in that capacity, emphasizing the distinction between those who can be professional and professionalized and those who must remain “a problem,” a “youth bulge.”
Kenya—the thing that imagines itself as Kenya—does not know how to see young people. It does not know how to value young people. And it is precisely this unseeing and unvaluing that enables the state to figure young people as weapons and weaponized.
To figure young people as weapons or weaponized should never be mistaken for providing young people with fresh opportunities. This much-advertised NYS program continues to betray and undo young people. It continues to unimagined young people’s possibilities.
Last week, the We Charge Genocide delegation from Chicago reminded us, once again, that young people continue to reimagine the world, and that we need to listen.