Friday, November 15, 2019

Kenyan Diaspora's Eyes On The Prize


On November 14th, Kenyans in the diaspora woke up to the sweet sound of good news. One of us, Mwende Mwinzi, had won a battle fought hard and tenaciously against sleek and slippery cats of the political jungle that is Kenya. These were Members of Parliament, some of them suspected to be dual citizens, who had determined that Ms. Mwinzi must relinquish her American citizenship in order to serve as Kenya’s envoy to South Korea.

What a slap in the face that requirement was! But the courts found that this demand by the vetting committee was not in line with the constitution. Mwende can be any one of us, except she has worn her Kenyan patriotism on her forehead daringly, consistently and without apology. Her resume and accomplishments for and in Kenya are a matter of public record.

Like most diaspora Kenyans, she has her own family in the US, and it is inhumane to ask any Kenyan to cut off ties with family in order to serve. Her victory is ours too. It is an acknowledgement that Kenyans everywhere deserve a chance to use their God-given abilities to serve and thrive. It is a chance that we can pass on to generations of Kenyans to come.

What does this victory mean for diaspora Kenyans going forward? It gives us hope that the constant agitation we raise against attempts at excluding fellow Kenyans from civic and leadership participation is never in vain. It gives us hope that the yet unrealized battle to implement diaspora voting rights for all Kenyans abroad is a victory awaiting around the corner.

It reminds us that agitation starts in the mind of just one unsettled soul that will not take an injustice sitting down. Often, this sense of agitation is shared by many when the issue is about the exclusion of a people. But when one stands up and refuses to be shouted down as Mwende did, as Kenyans abroad did when we won the battle for dual citizenship, others who understand this struggle join in.

If anyone wonders why Kenyans living so far away keep fighting for civic inclusion and for opportunities to serve as Kenyans and for Kenya, it is because exclusion is painful, especially when it comes with contempt and deliberate machinations to keep you out. All marginalized Kenyans will tell you exclusion is really painful, unfair and unjust, and it’s upon us to ensure that the least of us becomes a part of us. Only then can we begin to understand the idea of African nationhood.

For those who say that this issue was about constitutional definitions of terms such as “state officer”, a reminder that while the court ruling may have been about constitutional semantics, the battle was about erasing discrimination. Beyond definitions of who an envoy is as per the Constitution, this was about the human variable that causes us to ask: Is this fair, is it humane, is it proper to snatch the scalpel from the surgeon just because the law might say that surgeon should not have been born in country X?

This victory is the continued removal of discriminatory provision against worthy Kenyans no matter where they live, where they were born or what other citizenship they hold. This victory is also about evolving as a nation and boldly clutching on to the lessons of growth where we make laws and policies that serve our best interests and our humanity.

And because short history of diaspora Kenyans proves we have never shied away from a battle larger than self, we are looking to up the ante on the implementation of voting rights. It is not enough that the constitution allows us to vote. The current situation is like getting the rights to sleep in the warmth of your mother’s house but being denied the key to enter that house. We hold sacrosanct the right and responsibility to vote and understand fully the power of one vote. That day will come soon when all Kenyans, no matter where they live, will matter, and will belong. 




Monday, October 21, 2019

The Black-and-White of American Belonging

We got there and weren’t sure which of the two houses was the “last on your left” as per instructions we got. They both occupied that same curved stretch of bay at Cape St. Claire. We decided we weren’t going to come out of the car until we were absolutely sure of the house our friend had invited us to for lunch.
Let me explain.
When we were entering the town, we saw kids and their parents gathered at a sports event at a field. My husband asked me- You see anyone black? No, I said, scanning the lily-white crowd as we drove by at a crawling speed. No one around the rest of the neighborhood looked like us either. You get that way in America. You scan your belonging.
So by the time we got to the place of our invitation, our minds had reached that unspoken place of acute caution. We did not need to discuss it. We felt like deer in hunting season, tuned to every snap of a twig in the woods, heartbeats held down by guarded breath. We were a black couple in an all-white neighborhood. And we were not safe.
We knew that our sighting causes white folk heightened anxiety. It’s a very long and sordid story, America will tell you. This is October 2019, and I, an African in America, I found myself caught up in this psychosis of white melanophobia.

I clicked the lock to open the door and heard my husband’s voice snap with urgency- Honey, we’re staying put in this car!
He’s a black man, and he wasn’t taking chances. He asked me to text our friend and ask which one of the houses it was. It seemed the ghosts of Botham Jean, and Philando Castile, and Sandra Bland… were staring us in the face. They knew how a moment of pure innocence can turn fatal.
We sat and waited for our friend to text or call back, knowing that the longer we sat the more suspicious we looked. I said- Isn’t it disturbing, knowing that someone could be watching us from any one of those windows and calling 911 to report two strange black people… We’re both quiet.
I fill in the black silence, stretching the scenario- And the police come, and all hell breaks loose…
I stop talking. We both stare at that scene as it plays out in our minds. There’s need for comic relief. I say dramatically- There’d better be someone filming this! Preston laughs and takes his hands off the steering wheel, raising them high with equal flare for the dramatic to show the imaginary police he’s not carrying a weapon. I laugh hard, hollow, and stop. It hurts. There’s a wind in our ears. A chill the color of chalk.
Preston says- We’re going to drive out and look for the address while still in the safety of the car. I nod in agreement. We start to back out of the ungated and fenced-up driveway, and then I see the address we’re looking for. We’re relieved.
We look out and see our friend come out to the porch. I open the car door, fill my lungs with the ocean’s air and call out.
She waves with a big smile. She’s with a friend we had last seen at our wedding years back. They’re both the color of friendship. We’re safe. And we later tell them this story as we lounge around enjoying freshly baked cookies and coffee and welcome the cuddle-up chill of Fall together.

Monday, September 02, 2019

Mythologies Of Labor

In Christian mythology, labor is a curse. A punishment to humans for disobedience. Deity curses the land so that men shall forever toil in difficulty until the day they die. It's a rather grim outlook on labor.
In some African mythology, labor is a gift. One of the Yoruba deities, Ogun, gifts humans with iron from which they make tools of labor. Blacksmiths, farmers, mechanics, surgeons... those who use iron tools, see their labor as divinely predetermined.
In Capitalist mythology, the laborer is a tool. It is meant to sharpen itself and labor to produce maximum profits until it is retired and discarded. Phrases like "cog in the wheel", "daily grind" and "race to the bottom" are derived from this outlook on labor.
"Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you..." - Book of Genesis. Too many laborers return home daily with the weight of sorrows on their shoulders and fulfill this curse. "I hate my job" is perhaps the most common phrase spoken in homes at the end of the day.
But it is not an unseen force beyond our control that makes our labor punitive. It is fellow humans who create oppressive systems of labor. The history of human labor proves that we often have to organize and mobilize against these labor systems that deplete human dignity.
The sweat of our brow, our mind's constant toiling, and the midnight hours of our soul's creative labor can and often do bring us immense joy and a sense of purpose when the conditions are just and fair. It's always in our power to change the mythology that doesn't work for us.
On this day of laborers, I hope we find time to redefine our labor so that it honors us, even if it comes with some measure of pain; fulfills us, even if we had little choice in determining what job to take; and reflects our worth as a human being; even if we are working for someone else.
Ogun Collection, by Jose Bedia, Cuban artist who depicted the god of war and iron; the Orisha of blacksmiths. Bedia also honored the metal workers from West Africa who built the railway in Cuba while enslaved.

Wednesday, August 07, 2019

How I Overcame the Distress of Death

It's the way Sula dies-- sorry to give away this bit of the story, but I assure you, it won't spoil Toni Morrison's "Sula" for you. The way that woman dies changed my life. It shifted something in the core of me; helped me resolve death and dying in a way nothing ever had.
For most of my childhood and teenage years, I had a very difficult relationship with death. I knew what it was but I did not understand it. It unnerved me, disrupted my mind's balance.
Whenever it was whispered that someone close enough had died, I would observe the unsettling transformation of affected adults. A strange sorrow would descend, a shroud of darkness, a hollow wind hanging about.
It all caused my body to break out in reflex mild tremors until I would fall asleep, exhausted, my mind tired of trying to make sense of something no adult had ever bothered to explain to my child's mind. Looking back, it was an intriguing manifestation of the psychosoma. My husband would say- that's just the Mk brain.
In later years as a grown-up, I got to telling some of my friends who became parents to make sure they have the death talk with their kids. Whatever your beliefs, have a nicely packaged explainer speech for the young ones, especially those with extra-sensory emotional perception.
Tell them what it means for life to end, why adults cry, what to do when you hear a primal scream or the haunted mourning of grief-stricken grown-ups.
Because if you don't introduce them to death gently, your child's mind will touch the rim of that terrifying hollow and spiral down a bumpy black hole. This used to be my young mind's constant spiraling.
The most shattering I remember was when a schoolmate died within 20 minutes of getting bitten by a black mamba. On a gorgeously lazy Saturday afternoon as girls "beat stories" under Mwarubaini trees. She had gone to get a comb from her locker so her friend could braid her hair, and on coming back, the mamba struck. The school van came quickly, but a mamba is a mamba. That night, I had a very difficult time making sense of death and its attendant darkness. It seemed as if my mind blew a gasket.
Then one day I read Toni Morrison's "Sula". I had a habit of reading books left lying about by older humans. I saw Sula die beautifully, unspectacularly, a death astonishingly ordinary. As if she had simply paused to think. Sula dies and her thoughts never stop. She opens her eyes on the other side with an ordinary thought. Wow! If I were to pick my five life-changing moments, coming to the end of Sula's life would be one of them. Awesome!
I never got tremors again when whispers of death came visiting. In fact, I clearly remember following dad to see a beloved pastor's wife who had suddenly died. I was nearing the end of my teens then. Again, the compound was filled with that dreadful mourning that felt like a bottomless pit. Only this time I had no fear of it. I looked at the peaceful lady and wondered what she was thinking on the other side. I stood there in total composure as dad wept with the women.
Morrison introduced me to consciousness when I did not have a word for it. That realm of becoming god if you dare, if you dream, if you die. It was a gift of sanity.
Gelede Masquerade of the Yoruba - A celebration of the power of female ancestors and women elders. Photo credit: Unknown. Asé

Monday, June 24, 2019

Fear, Freedom and Fences


When a generation of youth is blind to the sacrifices of the shoulders they stand on, they become a boot on other shoulders and start a new cycle of oppression.

Back in 2015, I had many personal conversations with the youth of Kenya that left me numb. The collected layers of calloused tragedies from insecurity, hunger, poverty... had become their wretched norm. 

This is going to be a rip-off-the-bandaid reflection. No time to blow on your wounds. Bite on something.

Kenya has a massive population of youth, bigger than any time in history. But they will not rise as a united force to support those who stand up against their oppression. They are old enough to understand that this is a responsibility they cannot shirk.

But they are filled with fear, primal survival and self-preservation. Kill or be killed. They flock to churches to share in the warmth of desperation and pray for miracles. They lament pitifully, sarcastically, laughingly.

They post nice pictures and pretend all is well. They surrender to the intoxicating mtu-wetu syndrome one election cycle after another. Like a street child and his bottle of sniffing glue. 

They become thugs in poor neighborhoods and steal and kill other poor Kenyans. In the cities, they have perfected methods of manipulating, maiming and robbing unsuspecting people.

They line up for new shiny things like Huduma Namba thrown at them by the government like chaff thrown at chickens to keep them off the good feed.

They scoff at the words "revolution" "fight" "stand up"... because they feel judged for not answering to the collective. They shout back with "You don't understand my suffering..." Tell that to all those whose shoulders you stand on.

Praying for the country is NOT a revolutionary act unless millions of you are gathering to pray against the oppressor. But Kenyan oppressors join their oppressed at prayer rallies. "Tuombe!" They say. What an orgy.

You'd rather believe that a benevolent force beyond you put the oppressor in office and you had nothing to do with it. You have refused to question this lazy, ruthless and illogical belief. So you become the boot of oppression on your children's shoulders by consciously upholding and spiritually legitimizing oppressive forces.

The greatest minds that ever changed the world, including those you have turned into gods and messiahs, were revolutionaries who refused to comply with oppressive forces. Noncooperation is at the core of nonviolent revolution. Revolutionary moral change is not about guns and goons.

Cooperation with governments that have sponsored killings, disappearances, betrayals, sustained poverty, theft and hoarding is the farthest thing from godliness. Fear and only fear keeps you waking up at the crack of dawn to line up for the next shiny thing that a rogue government throws at you when all around you are the festering sores of a nation. 

But for many, their attitude is - what do I care if those festering sores are not on my body? I'm an individual, not a people. Some say, “I’m doing just fine, better than Americans, I’m thriving in Africa...”

For the nouveau riche, you need to shake off that comfortable individualism that makes you think you’re ok if you can just protect your success with the tallest barbed wire, steel gate, electric edge, glass-shards top, thick brick fence. There's no freedom where there are prison-like fences of middle-class trauma. 

For the poor and oppressed, you need to shake off that cowardly individualism that makes you think you can change things on your own if you just pray hard enough, work hard enough, beg enough, manipulate enough. 

Kenya is a population of 50 million manipulated by a paltry few because the majority have chosen the foolish and cowardly comforts of individualism and all its hidden trauma. 

Just remember, evolution is a heartless scalpel. It will scalp off willful cowardice and reduce to unmemorable extinction those who refuse to rise. If you must die, die with some dignity. Die with your fist up.
(Photo by Hana Jakrlova | www.hanajakrlovaphoto.com)


Wednesday, June 05, 2019

The Girl Who said Today Is Today

Story Story! - Story come!
In one of the high schools I went to (those were the days one graduated from secondary school to high school), we were not allowed to speak Swahili. Only English.
The reason given was because since the language of instruction was English, and the national exams were set in English, we needed to get used to understanding English. Every Sunday the Christian girls held a loud service singing praise to Jesus and getting saved. But to tell you the truth, we needed Ngugi wa Thiong'o to save us from our colonized minds far more than we needed Jesus to save our souls.
If you were heard speaking Swahili, you would be handed a disk which you would wear around your neck until you passed it on to the next Swahili-speaking victim. At the end of the day, all those who had touched the disk would be punished. You did not want to be the last one with it because you would be punished the next day too until you passed it on.
So one day... eh? I tell you, I have no idea how it happened. I spoke Swahili. Mimi! As far as the Queen's language is concerned, I had maringo mingi sana in that particular school. Kwanza I had come from a Nairobi school, so there. Fake Us-guys airs.
Then I enjoyed twisting that Queen's language in my tongue from daybreak to light-out as if I was being paid per word. Uncommon words that I discovered in Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas, Anand's Coolie, Shakespeare's King Lear... were retained in my head like a shoal of fish caught by a diction net. When I spoke them, I was simply enjoying my catch of the day. I never feared that disk.
Until this one day- pap! The damn disk was slapped on me. I was marked. Like Hester Prynne and her scarlet letter. So I went hunting for a Swahili-speaking criminal to dispose of the disk. It was hard! But no way I was going to bed with this thing.
Then I saw these two girls in deep conversation, just the kind of intensity that could not be communicated in a third language. I could smell Swahili! When they saw me approach, they went quiet. But one of the girls just needed to say something to me. She knew me. Seeing me wearing that disk deserved a fitting comment. She should have laughed at me and let it go. But nooo!
A snide remark was burning her up but her mind refused to translate it to English. She blurted it out with complete uswahili -- a waving of the hand with its middle finger arched forward just so -- "Haaa! Today is today, if you say tomorrow you are chitngi!" Pap! I slapped that disk on her right away.
She protested angrily, still struggling to balance between her mind thinking in Swahili and her tongue being forced to speak in English. "Hee! I didi noti!... I didin'ti noti!"
I argued back, "You did, you did! You said Chitngi!"
She wasn't having it. She shouted back, "Aa youuu! Chitngi izi an Englishi word sure!"
I wasn't keeping that disk. I fought back., "No! The word is Cheating!"
She was trying to say something you just cannot translate to English: "Leo ni leo, msema kesho ni mwongo" (direct translation, "Today is today, if you say tomorrow you lie..." or as the Brits taught us, "...you cheat"). She was trying to say that today was my day, and if I ever thought tomorrow would never come for me, well, here it was. I was at last a criminal for speaking Kiswahili just like the rest. She clicked her tongue and took the disk in defeat.


Saturday, April 06, 2019

The Prefects

*This blog is a personal account of the past, an exorcism of sorts, and does not seek to target any specific individuals.

Power:

They were only 16, give or take a year. But so powerful were they their mere appearance caused dread in girls no matter what we were doing. You could be sitting quietly during study hour and see a red sweater pass by from the corner of your eyes and your blood pressure suddenly rises. Most of us have forgotten that dread, but the effect of bizarre, unfair and extreme punishments remains, like an old scar that has created a limp in our personalities.

They carried around power like a hammer that was too heavy for their untrained muscles to carry. So it often came down and smashed the fingers of those they felt needed to be punished. They did not mean to be cruel. They were only 16. They were just being true to the duty of prefecthood that had been placed on their small child shoulders. They were used by an administration that somehow thought cruelty shaped character.

The prefects were the victims of adults who never taught them the nature of power. They were only 16, and that was too heavy a burden to place on a child without proper training. It is not fair, because no child at the age of 16 should be given a chance to test out the drunken joys of unhinged power. Some turned sour and punished their way out of their own pain. There are many adults in power right now who are clueless about how to handle power, and they wreak havoc on citizens every time. How on earth were 16 year-olds expected to know?

Punishments:

They had girls kneel on hot tarmac cooked to a boiling point by the tropical sun, their hands raised up as the punishing prefect kept a hawk eye on them, daring them to drop their hands. They had girls sort sacks of rice for endless hours, their eyes getting into a blurry pain as they flicked through grain after grain like sorting out sand on the sea shore, removing tiny black stones so that it felt as if the mind was drowning, backs broken from the pain of bending over a sea of rice at the end of the day.

They put girls out in the field to clean a long drainage all day long on empty stomachs, and forced to redo the punishment if the inspecting prefect so much as saw a smudge of imperfection. They forced some girls to travel back to school during holidays to do punishment for a whole day, no matter how far you lived, failure to which you were punished for five consecutive days when you got back to school, and you missed all the classes for those days.

I did all this, even the holiday punishment part. My dad asked me, “Why do you have ‘Holiday Punishment’ marked on your report form?” I said: “A prefect crossed me.” I had challenged a prefect and her ego had caused her to give me maximum booking. Minus 50. Dad said, “You mean she crossed this way and you crossed the other way?” I knew right there and then that my dad was secretly always on my side. He made it funny and it lifted the weight of being a disappointment off my mind. He wasn’t going to get me on a bus 7 hours to Nairobi to do punishment for crossing a prefect. I ended up doing five days of slashing grass when I returned to school. My desk mate took notes for me for all those days.

I could handle being punished, zap it off with a joke. I couldn’t handle seeing my sisters being victims of overzealous prefects and cold administrative power. We were three sisters in the same school. I had seen my big sister cry over being unfairly punished, and to me there wasn't a more conscientious human that her. I had seen my other sister sick with malaria for days in the hostel, neglected without doctor's care. I remember how angry I felt when I learnt that one girl had chipped her tooth and quickly been whisked home for special care because the deputy Headmistress was her relative. Meanwhile, my sister lay sick in bed for days. Of course it wasn’t the chipped-tooth girl’s fault.

Looking back, that was a great deal of anger to bottle in for a child. I carried those sorrows with me like an open wound in my chest. I was only 15. Since my first protest at the age of 10 over black kids being forced to drink all milk that Indian kids did not want – that was in Aga Khan Primary School in Mombasa – I knew I internalized injustices easily. I had taken all my “maziwa ya nyayo” packets and poured them down the sink in the hallway, all the time hoping the teacher will see what I was doing and confront me. She never noticed. It’s not that I didn’t need the milk, but that I hated the obvious discrimination. Indian kids were the “whites” in our black lives. One of the best experiences of Precious Blood was the administration’s deliberate creation of material equality while in school. We never knew or cared who was rich or poor. Traditional bullying was non-existent. The excessive punishments by prefects were a product of untrained power.

Surviving:

When I was barely 14 and in Form 2, the deputy Headmistress told me I was provocative, a word I first learnt from her. When I was in Form 3, I was suspended for sneaking out to buy a pack of Marie biscuits. A prefect had spotted me that early morning down at the gate and sounded the alarm, leading to a sudden stampede by other prefects hunting me down like hound dogs hot on the heels of an escaped criminal. When I was in my final year, the Headmistress, a German nun, summoned me and told me my graduation testimonial will not be good. I have never picked up that document, good thing she warned me.

I also came to the brink of leading a strike when I stood at the window of the school's top-floor hostel rooms and shouted my voice hoarse over the Nazi-style running of the school. As I spoke, some girls gathered down below and listened, and I felt a strange kind of power. The story made it to other schools, I don’t know how. I know this because years later a Starehe Boys alum said to me, “I heard about you! You led a strike!” I wish I had, I said.

I was tired and angry over seeing students faint so regularly. Acute stomach ulcers became a common ailment. The stress was overwhelming. We were vessels being seared in the furnace of cruel academia so we could get As. Sure enough, the school was always right at the top in academic ranking. What parent wouldn’t want their kid going to this exclusive school! I think I did not catch the fainting and ulcers like so many girls did because I didn’t bottle up the stress. I resisted, I complained, and I developed a wicked sense of survival humor.

Heads held low:

One day, a prefect who had graduated came by to visit no one in particular. She was idle and I suppose missed the school. But she was powerless, and I think unprepared for the feeling of being a nobody. She had been one of the mean ones. I noticed how she constantly looked down. When she had power, it had not fazed her that she was disliked. But they weren’t all power-drunk. In fact, I hardly remember the prefects from our senior year. Mostly, I remember the ones from when I was in Form 2 and 3. I remember the one who said to me, “Who do you think you are, the queen of Sheba?” I swear she said that! I was so tickled. I must have confronted her.

When we got to senior year, Form 4, the prefects were my classmates. Either they were uninterested in the games of power or I had become too immune to their ways by then. Or perhaps they punished the lower classes more. I don’t know. Some, I remember clearly, did not reflect the dark nature of wanton power; they remained friendly. They breezed through that heavy responsibility of prefecthood with a quiet discomfort. Years after graduating high school, I ran into another mean one at the airport. She had been a class ahead of me. I’ll never forget how she looked down, just like the one who had come to visit. Ashamed. Power had scarred them too.

Excelling:

Fast-forward. Most of these girls have done phenomenally well, in spite of Precious Blood. Getting A’s gave many the advantage of climbing a very steep Kenyan academic ladder. But I think resilience, discipline (yes, the school can take some credit for making us perfectionists) and a sense of competitiveness that came with simply having attended a certain school, gave us the drive to become who we are. We have bonded, even with some of the prefects.

Years bring wisdom and maturity. But so much else remains. That emotional limp that never goes away. Memory about neglect and overreach that should never have happened, some that destroyed lives. Only recently, I've heard one of the teachers has been offering profuse apology for his role in gleeful torture-discipline of the girls. I don't know if this is true, but it's enough relief to imagine it being true. Years bring awakening to those who have a heart.

Perhaps in my next blog on Precious Blood chronicles I shall talk of the music we made, the food we shared on parents’ day, the hockey games we won and celebrated through the night, the depth of sisterhoods we built, and all the old jokes that still floor me with punch-drunk laughter whenever I sit down with an old friend. We were only 16.

Precious Blood's music program can be traced back to a revolutionary nun called Sr. Mary Dominica (later left the convent and reverted to her name, Catherine Belmore), who first got us into the music competition, taught us how to play the guitar, clarinet and melodica, then in her own way, fought to change the stressful way the school was run. She suffered for it and quit.