Huh. I am on strike.
After coming perilously close to being on strike twice at the University of Cincinnati in 20 years, and as a supporter of collective bargaining and unions, I find myself on strike at Kenyatta University in Nairobi. I was taken by complete surprise.
This fall at the University of Cincinnati (UC) I participated in negotiation tactics with the Board of Trustees and the College President as the faculty worked under an expired contract, fighting for healthcare and fairness from a cold college administration. I felt completely ignored at the two events I attended. It was a surreal exercise in others ignoring the elephant in the room: 100 faculty members begging to be noticed. I was insulted by the lack of respect and complete indifference I was given after teaching for 21 years at UC.
Yesterday at Kenyatta University I was asked “Are you participating in the strike tomorrow?” It was the first time I had heard a strike mentioned, and it took me by surprise. I said I would support my colleagues.
This morning when I awoke I checked the papers. No news about a strike. I went outside and spoke to people on the street. “Is the faculty on strike?” Not yet. I went back inside and worked. I checked the Daily Nation again. It said, ‘University Faculty are on strike.’ I went outside again and was told, ‘go back indoors, it isn’t safe.“ I could hear whistles blowing and I saw people running. Something was happening.
I read the following in the Daily Nation: “Notice, the strike is on, it is legal. Ignore the court order. We won’t appear in court at 10 am tomorrow. Don’t be intimidated. Launch the strike.” Then I read “The staff had converged at the university grounds, before they divided themselves into two groups. They said they would storm classes and offices to ensure that no learning took place.” I did not teach today.
But I did rehearse today. It felt like a covert operation. I met with my cast of 12 (kumi na mbili) and we agreed to move our rehearsal location. The faculty was massed across the road, and if they found us working, we could look like a class in session and would need an answer. Instead we went to Bishop Square to work, outdoors on the open grounds, while others played basketball, agreeing to pretend to look like basketball players if anyone asked what we were doing. We had a great rehearsal, but I could feel the strangeness of this event ‘strike’ all around me.
I have never been on strike before.
The students told me strikes in Kenya are commonplace. Students strike and faculties strike. There are strikes every year. The government threatens that strikes are illegal and then strikes happen anyway. The students are unfazed by the strike. They told me strikes are meaningless.
The reason for the strike? In 2012 a Collective Bargaining Agreement was agreed upon for salary increases and housing allowances, and the government awarded funds to Universities which have never been disbursed. The administration and the faculty are at odds because the administration has refused to pay the faculty and staff the money owed and promised.
I cannot teach. I am on strike. Huh. This is not meaningless to me. This happened in 24 hours without warning. My American sensibility tells me to take this very seriously. The Kenyan way has much more ease, and it always surprises.
Strike. OK. Sawa. I wonder when it will be over? Ah, let’s not think about that. This is Africa.