Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Shit Scoopers

*Warning: Graphic imagery ahead. Read on an empty stomach. #Kenya #Highschool #Pumwani
One day, true story, the toilets in the senior dorm broke. This was in one of the high schools I went to. A school that turned out to be a perfect fit for my mind.
It had no fence and no prefects and had the most beautiful view of fog cascading down the hills every morning right in front of our classroom. I thrived there.
Until one day shit literally hit the floor. The decades-old toilets in our dorm blocked and overflowed. The stench was unbearable. The Headmistress decided rather than overhaul the backed-up sewage system, they would have the students scoop the shit everyday.
There was a revolt, and girls went bang-bang on their desks. The administration came down hard and told us whoever does not comply with the shit-scooping fix will be suspended. That did it. Everyone went back to class and agreed to become shit-scoopers.
Except two of us. Maureen and I stood our ground, and we were summoned for interrogation and pending suspension. Facing the Headmistress in her office gave me an adrenaline high. I spoke with all the dare God ever gave me and said how wrong it was that the school is not fixing the toilets. I don't know what Maureen said, all I know was that we were not suspended, and the school agreed to fix the toilets "very soon."
Between then and "very soon", girls still had to take turns to clean the overflow of slimy goo, lumpy feculence, greenish-yellowish stench and rivulets of urine. Has it disgusted you enough? They had to look at it to clean it, and they had to scoop it all with buckets and without gloves. The toilets could not be shut because there was nowhere else to go to the bathroom at night. You cannot escape the system; you have to fix it.
Two things happened: One, the girls in that dorm honored the two of us rebels and gave us special beds next to the front door and farthest from the toilets. These were singles, not bunk beds. Two, the same girls exempted us from cleaning the overflowing feces. I suppose they felt we were ready to take the bullet of suspension for them.
But what I'll never forget was the humor with which one girl did her shit-scooping duty. She laughed and made rib-cracking jokes as she carried that bucket all the way to a pit outside. It was her way of getting through it. A very Kenyan way.
Kenyans laugh too soon. We laugh through shit we've been forced to carry. We carricarture the stench with rib-cracking memes that we share widely. We get sick from handling buckets of shitty maggots wiggling through every shitty situation. The middle-class carry the shit-buckets too-- loads of debt, expectations, keeping up appearances, getting robbed...
We wait for the next toilet-blockage so we can accept it and make new jokes all over again, which is just about every other day. Kenyans ease the tension too soon, and the value of tension gets lost. Tension creates energy, and energy diverted into a just cause gets things done.
But we surrender tension too soon because we think it wrong to show anger. We're embarrassed by the sight of those who express that tension - the activists - and we call them losers. Yet they are the ones who force systems to change. Carrying shit-buckets becomes normal for those who choose a civilized don't-get-angry response to tension.
I've been following the Pumwani saga, and I said-- there goes the civilized shit-scoopers who've been working tirelessly to make a long-ago broken situation work, and now they're being fired. And as sure as the sun rises, there will be rib-cracking memes on Pumwani Maternity. Its dead babies and dead mothers will continue getting scooped off the tables three times a week until Kenyans forget and move on to the next jokes-worthy tragedy.
Chris Ofili's feces-adorned "The Holy Virgin Mary", sold for $4.6 million. My take of this art that offended many prudes: There is sanctity in our shittiest tragedies that stare at us defiantly, in all their ugliness, daring us to clean them up.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Before 9/11 There Was 8/7

I was reminded that the 20th anniversary of the bomb attack in Kenya and Tanzania just went by. August 7th. Perhaps with very low-key commemoration. I saw an article in the Washington Post about Godec (US Ambassador to Kenya) saying the terrorists wanted to divide Kenya and US good relationship. Gobbledygook. That attack had nothing to do with Kenya.
It was a foreign war brought to African soil. Kenyans had no inkling on the rising tide of global terrorism. Local terrorism was a completely different animal — shiftas, cattle rustling and all. On August 7th 1998, Kenyans were going about minding their own business as they should, and suddenly, 213 of them and 11 in Tanzania were killed. A bomb blew up American embassies in both countries
Why was an American war being fought in countries thousands of miles away from America anyway? Easy answer to that can be found in history where powerful countries have the privilege of fighting their wars on other people’s soil.
It’s easier for a weaker enemy to target a superpower’s presence in less-secure countries, and many times, America itself has taken its wars to weaker countries. It’s like having dinner in your own home and going to shit in someone else’s bathroom because you don’t want the stink in your house.
All of Cold War between the US and then USSR was fought in Africa, Latin America and Asia. Citizens of countries like Mozambique who had no business taking up arms against each other in the name of Communism vs Capitalism went at it and slaughtered the daylights out of each other for years.
Ronald Reagan beefed up the war chests of mad butchers like Liberia's Samuel Doe to avoid a rise in communist opposition. Humble peace-loving Jimmy Carter fueled the brutal Somoza dynasty of Nicaragua. Five US presidents led a massacre of countless Vietnamese in a senseless anti-communism war. Meanwhile America thrived.
The Cold War was replaced by gwot (global war on terror), a well-orchestrated war machine that is still chugging along profitably. Unfortunately for the US, the gwot came with one of its most puzzling shockers- the use of American soil as a battleground on 9/11. Whether you take the conspiracy or no-conspiracy versions, that attack remains mindboggling and leaves American intelligence who dismissed obvious warnings with blood on their hands.
Remember by the time 9/11 came along Kenya and Tanzania had been tested as possible battlefields for gwot, an experiment that almost failed but later gained a measure of success very slowly, thanks to the ease of raising local proxy enemies through neighboring Somalia (enter Al Shabaab). Some devastating blows were dealt on innocent Kenyans, the worst being the slaughter of 148 University students in Garissa.
Kenya's current president gulped the kool aid on gwot like a champ. He waxed lyrical about our valiant troops in Somalia (who were either being used for racketeering in the charcoal and sugar trade or getting slaughtered). Kenya was outsmarted by Tanzania. The land of Mwalimu would have none of that send-our-troops to fight a proxy war they have no business fighting.
Meanwhile, America and all its power quickly diverted their 9/11 to Iraq and Afghanistan where hundreds of thousands of Middle-Easterners, and American troops (always the sacrificial pawns) died. Meanwhile astronomical profits were made by the US corporatocracy. Gosh, the money they've made.
Remember the famous words of General Smedley Butler: "War is a racket. It always has been. It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives."
So, after being tested as a battleground for a new type of war profiteering and losing over 200 citizens, Kenya’s innocent victims are still fighting for compensation through US Congress. Just to remind you, the same Congress made compensation a priority for its citizens caught in the gwot attacks anywhere in the world.
Had the dead and maimed Kenyans been Americans, they would have been cushioned by very necessary, deserved and available financial compensation. Ask them about their lives now, how they’ve struggled to make ends meet, loss of jobs, limbs, eyes, minds.
For the rest of Kenyans, victims of any violence are often too quickly discarded into a gaping void of willful disremember. We tell them "kaa ngumu!" That's on us. America made sure the world never forgets 9/11. The world does not remember 8/7.

L: Art by Carlos Latuff | R: Artist Unknown

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Beliefs and Bullshit: The Enduring Sting of Vicious Gospels

Fattening and Sickening

“During the mission period, 3 out of 4 of the coastal Indians perished. They’d lived well free, but as soon as we introduced them to a Christian and community life, they fattened, sickened and died” – a Christian missionary during the Christianization of the Native American peoples, The West (Burns).

My mind goes to the parallels of devastation in my own country, Kenya. I have observed so much of similar fattening, sickening and dying among present-day Kenyans/Africans who have clung to a debilitating form of Christian thought decades after the colonial missionaries left.

Not all Christian thought is created equal. It’s like wheat from the fields that is meant to nourish. Some gets chemically altered, bleached and reduced in nutrients so that eventually it fattens, sickens and kills; and some is harvested and separated from the chaff just right so that its consumption strengthens and liberates.

A Cesspool of Heartless Spirituality

But the modern-day industries that monopolize and process Christian thought have little to no good intention. They are no different from the missionaries of old who conquered and killed in the name of God. A lot of modified, bleached and poisoned Christian thought is imported from the American evangelical industries to African countries, now mostly through social media, and consumed largely by the poor. 

I receive these emaciated over-shared cookie-cutter posts daily by Kenyan friends on social media who seem clueless about the moral bankruptcy, greed and political machinations of the American evangelicals they keep quoting. If these Kenyan believers are aware of this cesspool of spirituality they keep feeding from, then they've been indoctrinated to not judge the messenger because after all God uses sinners. 

It's drinking from that same cesspool of spirituality that got Kenyan evangelicals singing the praises of America's dirtiest electoral politics and its outcomes as if the brutish victor were the reincarnation of Christ himself. They were told it's all in God's Armageddon plan and you Africans need to toe the line lest Jesus finds you unprepared. A truly vicious gospel.   

This vicious gospel is heavily sold by small faith traders (miracle workers, guilt-peddlers, moral police, end-times preachers and prosperity gospellers) who thrive off of selling a gospel that leaves others in greater suffering. Like drugs that dock at the port of Mombasa, seep ghostlike into society where unassuming consumers get hooked, sicken their minds and die while the shadowy kingpins sit pretty on a mound of dirty wealth.

Prayerful and Peace-loving Citizen

So much of the depression in poor communities comes with a particular way of thinking and spirituality that is itself the sting that carries the poison. A thinking that does not allow the believer to loudly claim power and personal responsibility to challenge what went wrong, what ails their society, and what should be done.

It’s a thinking that claws desperately at unseen spiritual forces that provide believers with the perfect excuses for not taking action towards healing and freeing their community from the ravages of calculated poverty and oppression. They leave it all to God. After all - they say - God willed them into these oppressive situations for his glory. And they have the bible to prove it. I would not wish such sickening spirituality upon the mind of a suffering enemy.

When some get tired of the boot on their necks and rise up in protest, you will find those infected with that debilitating strain of evangelization saying, “I’m not with those rebellious trouble-makers; I am a prayerful and peace-loving citizen and I’ll stay in my sanctified corner praying for calm to return for that is my portion.” As if there ever was calm in squalor and silent suffering.

Awakening

One would think that this sting afflicts only the uneducated hoi-polloi. Not so. Slum communities (or as some would prefer, economically depressed neighborhoods) in Africa are also home to hundreds of college-educated believers who feverishly share teachings from American evangelicals while their shacks burn in political turmoil and smolder in poverty.

Ones awakening does not come without the dare to respond to that gnawing voice in one’s conscience. It bids you read books from competing philosophies that you’re forbidden to read and scour through critical blogs that challenge your mind’s comfort zones. Find a leading critical thinker to follow on social media and challenge them to duels of thought until you’re no longer terrified of your own mind’s ability to think for itself.

If these resources are unavailable, go into seclusion and think alone for 3 days, making sure to fast from sugary-sweet prayers of desperation. Just you and the power of your self-healing mind. If facing your raw thoughts by yourself scares you, find a friend who thinks very differently from you; one you can trust to take you through critical thought without judgement, and spend some quality time together. Do this even while your chained mind is kicking and screaming against leaving the comfort zones built from years of being told what to believe and how to think.

"Angel Eating Devil's Food" Artist: Tex Norman, Oklahoma City, OK

Sere

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The Boy Who Brought Me A Touch Of God


The prayerboy:

Mohamed. Little boy back in Standard 4. All of 9 or ten years old. We were in the same class. Fast-talking little brat with a filthy mouth, loved to pick on quiet kids and called them names for fun. K***mako, macho kama gololi! Aaahahahaha! He would leave this one poor kid with big wonder-filled eyes blinking away tears.

Mohamed also had the voice of an angel, vocals powerful as ocean waves. We all knew that because he used to do the evening prayers at the township mosque. Sometimes I'd be sent to the market after school and every time I heard that piercing cry coming over the speakers-- Allaaaahu akbar... I'd stop and listen in a kind of trance.

It was pure, beautiful, spellbinding. I somehow knew there was divine essence in it when I had no cognitive understanding what the divine was.

The bully:

Mohamed and I walked the same path home from school. Only he stopped at Majengo where he lived and I went on towards the outskirts of the high school where we lived. I dreaded the times when we ended up walking that path at the same time.

One day he caught up with me and I crossed the road to get away from him and moved quickly ahead. He crossed the street, picked up a coconut shell from the ground and threw it directly at me. It hit me smack at the back of my head with bullseye perfection. What I remember the most is how loud he laughed. I turned around and he crossed the street again and scurried off to find another kid to bully.

The assault lingered on like acid in my mind because I wasn't able to smack him back. Soon after, dad was transferred again and we left that town. Mohamed became the vague memory of a mean boy, but the memory of his voice remained hauntingly beautiful. It was the second time as a kid I'd experienced bullying.

First time:

The first time I was ever bullied, I'd had the opportunity to fight the kid. I used to be a non-talking kid and this firecracker of a girl kept prodding me with her wiry fingers to see if I could produce a sound. She laughed gleefully every time I brushed off those poky tentacles.

One day I got fed up when she came at me during recess and I fought her off. I saw my little hands and legs going at her like a furious propeller all by themselves. But she had shins like a set of spanners which gave her an unfair advantage. We became friends quickly, and I still never said a word to her.

As long as I made the choice to fight back, incidents of bullying or being treated unfairly held no power over me. It was that coconut shell finding its target that lingered on far too long. Or maybe it's because I could not reconcile Mohamed the mean bully and Mohamed the boy with the voice of an angel who entranced me with a touch of God at a very young age every time he recited the evening prayer.
A Muslim boy in prayer. Photographer unknown


Saturday, May 12, 2018

Beliefs and Bullshit: First Letter to the 43 Tribes:

1.Greetings to the sisters and brothers living in Kenya. I urge you to think on this: that you have no business giving to a church if it does not have one or all of these three basics: a mission to feed; a mission to clothe; a mission to shelter. 2.Demand the running of soup kitchens because there are too many who go hungry everyday, even if you feed only ten per week. 3.Demand a collection point for hand-me-down clothing because there are too many ragged kids and families in the streets in need of some dignity. 4.Demand a system of identifying temporary shelters for too many getting kicked out of their homes for lack of rent and needing a hand up. 5.Too many Kenyans churches, especially in the cities, are day-clubs with cliques for those looking for belonging and a place for desperate souls to numb their sorrows, and the pastor is the club owner getting richer everyday as long as he/she keeps them high and hooked. 6.You cannot call yourself a church if you're not IN the world serving those OF the world. Neither can you divorce your faith from social justice. 7.Stop this "I'm just a passerby" theology that encourages apathy and makes you a silent supporter of those who steal and kill and use you for political gain. 8.Pretending to be not-of-this-world is making too many of you serial hit-and-run beggars who'd rather live through desperate indignity than confront the systems that use and abuse you. 9.We're all of this world until we breathe our last. Our well-being is intertwined, rich or poor. And always remember, you're stronger than you think, no matter how deep in the valley you are. 10.Greet all those in the family working so hard to make an army out of a valley of dry bones. Greet the youth who continue to take selfies and await an awakening to their collective power. Greet the mothers, whose love is pure, ever nourishing and deeper than the endless burrows of the anthills.



Friday, May 04, 2018

Beliefs and Bullshit: Things We Lost In The Flood of Salvation


The disappearance of intellectual wealth in African communities is directly linked to missionary work that killed professions such as storytelling, rainmaking and divination, all of which had seasoned experts, trade secrets and years’ worth of researched knowledge often dressed up in ritual for the consumer.

Secrets

Of course there were quacks and manipulators, and there was always incomplete research that was tested on consumers, a new herb that could either heal or kill. Life was its own lab. Rainmakers studied the relationship between the plants and the smell of the air, cloud formation, rhythm of the seasons. And when they came around like one of my grandfathers, Mghosi Tango who came from a long lineage of rainmakers, they carried with them a shekele  with which they consulted the gods. Believing in the spiritual realm did not mean their knowledge was not anchored in empirical study.

Grandpa Tango lost his mojo to a proselytization flood that ridiculed his trade, and also to the local brew that soothed the sorrows of those who found themselves without alternative expertise. Only a western education and salaried employment in a new Africa saved those who surrendered. Grandpa Tango had also been one of the keepers of the shrine at Msavulenyi, just up the hill from our home, and when he died, a lot of intellectual wealth was buried with him. Last I heard from my father, these keepers of the shrine were trying to revive their institution because it came with a lot of secret knowledge. What on earth did they know!

New rituals

The missionaries called all these bearers of ritualized intellectual wealth practitioners of ungodly trades, witches, and that included master storytellers. The salvation-bringers demanded the total annihilation of the African identity, if that was ever possible, and manipulated in their own rituals. Convert villagers partook of the holy sacrament -- the ritual drinking of a new deity's blood and the eating of his body. The priest would chant: the body and blood of Christ; the supplicants would respond: Amen, and eat a piece of bread with wine. The Catholic missionaries taught that the bread and wine literally became flesh and blood of the deity at the point of consumption.

Pentecostal missionaries taught converts to sing and shouted in gibberish not so different from the indigenous diviners' switch to strange tongues during intercession with the ancestors. Somehow these new rituals were supposed to be "holier", and the African ones "pagan". These missionaries really should have done what the Romans did while using Christianity to build empire. In the 4th century, the Romans incorporated the beliefs and practices of local people, like the feast of Saturnalia, which we all religiously celebrate as the birth of Christ. The failure to incorporate African traditions in to the new Christian faith resulted in generations of Africans with grotesque identity crises.

Cross Stitch artwork by Lisa Myers
Luke Skywalker and Nyange

Among the Wadawida (Taita), some of the best storytellers disappeared with the dawn of Christianity. Not everyone’s grandmother could tell stories around the fireside, and if they did, not all were master storytellers. Very few could create epic tales in the line of the Epic of Gilgamesh, The Mahabharata, The Iliad, and more recent ones like Star Wars. The epic journey of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars comes centuries after the equally entrancing epic journey of Nyange, a character from a tale among the Wadawida.

The complete Epic of Nyange is as long and complex in plot and thought as a Homeric poem, and finding someone who knows it in its entirety is like finding the rest of the Dead Sea Scrolls. My siblings and I had the privilege of knowing a master storyteller, grandma mѐ-Mwangi. She told us many incredible tales by the fireside in the homestead where my father and his siblings grew up. One was the Epic of Nyange. My sketchy recollection takes me to Nyange’s encounter with tricksters who tested his wit; malicious characters who broke his resolve; bullish encounters that drew him into physical fights, and yes, I remember the song he would sing:
Nyange mpuke,
Nyange mpuke,
Nyange kamakamaka,
Nyange puka mndu,
Nyange puka mndu.

Army of the Lord

So long was the tale of Nyange that I almost remember it taking hours. It took that rare breed of artistry to remember it, perform it with spellbinding mastery, and perhaps recreate intrigue with each telling, as was the nature of orature. A lot of grandma mѐ-Mwangi's works are lost through frayed memory. The only other places they were stored was a tape-recording I lost, and a Swahili translation of some of the tales that my big brother did, and that too was lost.

I never heard grandma mѐ-Mwangi say bwana ukaso (the Lord be praised), the common greeting among believers in Taita. Maybe she never got saved, which would explain her remarkable retention of all that intellectual wealth and her love for practicing it when she could. Saved griots shunned everything traditional. Not being saved in Taita, especially for an elderly person, makes one a rebel of sorts, a conscientious objector who will not serve in the army of the Lord! You can’t spit in any direction and not hit a believer in Taita. And maybe, just maybe, we will one day recover some of the precious things we lost in the flood. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Leaf That Fell On My Shoulder

One day I was coming home from school, all of ten-and-a-half little me. Then a lone leaf just came dancing its way down from a tree and landed on my shoulder. I did not think anything strange like- this leaf has been sent! But I do clearly remember thinking- A leaf! In a way I had never thought of any other leaf falling on my shoulder.
I also recalled having been told that if a leaf fell on your shoulders it means you'll receive a letter. I never gave it a second thought though. I was too young to give second thought to anything. My biggest think in my little world at that very moment was putting my school bag down and getting to play bladder and kati with the rest of the neighborhood kids till sunset. So I get home and my mother says to me- You received a letter! Blow me!
For a split second my child's mind exploded into a cosmos with ethereal possibilities, and just as quickly surrendered the awesomeness of that moment; a split-second moment filled with entertaining notions of life's fleeting surrealism that has words like superstition and dejavu coined out of it. Instead I took in the more tangible, graspable awesomeness of the moment - receiving the first letter ever in my little life.
I stared at it, wide-eyed. White envelope with blue and red stripes around the edges, my name on it, dad's office address and a real stamp on it. Written by someone, to me, mailed and delivered. Wow. If I could package that moment in my childhood, its worth could very well be in the same line with the wonder of Livingstone's first gaze upon Mosi-oa-Tunya - which he passed off as the "discovery of Victoria Falls", but that's a beef for tomorrow.
I opened it. It was from my big sister who'd gone off to boarding school that year. I don't even remember the content - maybe about how she must place her morning slice of bread on the desert plate and never on the big plate or a prefect will see her grievous crockery violations with the compound eyes at the back of their prefect-heads and book her -50; maybe about omnipresent Sr. Gemma who could see noisemakers in a classroom and late arrivals at assembly and sun-baskers in the yard all at the exact same time; maybe about the bell that rang at 5:30am for you wake up and screw your head on and it rang again at 9:30pm for you to screw your head off and put it to bed...
I don't recall the content, but I never forgot the receiving of that letter. And the lone leaf that foreran its arrival.
Mosi-oa-Tunya  -"the smoke that thunders" (Victoria Falls) on the Zambezi River
Sere