Thursday, May 21, 2020

Love and Half a Side of History

When I was 11-and-a-half I fancied a boy. I remember exactly why. He was the only one with a book bag that was graffitied. I did not know then that I was attracted to things creative, but there it was, Boy X and his green canvas backpack. 

On it were the letters IBEACO, huge blocks of letters sketched out with a red border and completely coloured in with blue ink. The longsuffering intensity it must have taken to use ballpoint biro pens. I was so impressed by the owner of that creative intensity that I experienced my first crush.

It meant nothing to me that Boy X was impressed by the history lesson Mrs. (I forget her name) had taught us-- about the British company that had owned a chunk of land they would later call Kenya. The company's name was Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEACo).

Mrs. (I still don't remember her name), would always say "AibeakoOo" with such authoritative inflection that Boy X took it upon himself to immortalize it on his school bag. She also taught us about Tanzania and Kenya struggles for independence. But there was nothing impressive there because we were taught the word "maumau" was synonymous with hairstyles only worn by what my Dawida people call "weke mwabangi".

Mrs. (I'll never remember her name) also liked saying "Tippu Tip", that Arab guy who I thought was the only person who bought and sold all the slaves. The teacher either left out the lesson on American and British slavers because the book ran out of pages to publish more history or our syllabus only covered East Africa where Arabs controlled that trade.

In any case, the effect was that throughout my life until I got to college the image of the slaver in my mind was an Arab guy dressed like a Mukorino. I can attest that I saw many a high school play on stage that depicted the slaver as this Arab character. I wasn't the only one with funny heroes and villains in my head.

Sir Henry Morton Stanley was our discoverer without whom we would never exist, and Dr. Livingstone-I-presume was the bringer of our sin-cleanser without whom we would all burn in hell. Susi and Chuma were his good slaves for whom we thanked God.

These characters loomed large in our minds, perhaps the reason we idolized the West. Boy X's pride in his IBEACO graffiti had to have a foundation. No city kid in their right colonized little minds would sketch Mau Mau or Maji Maji on their book bag. What would their civilized parents say? "Unavuta nini siku hizi, eh?!"

Third term came around, and Mrs. (I surrender the struggle for memory of her name) took us on a trip to Parliament buildings in Nairobi for Civics class. We sat on those mheshimiwa seats and I swung my little legs above the ground as she told us that government had three arms like an Ogre. Completing my final year of primary schooling in that city school afforded me this rare experiential learning.

But I still did not have the first clue how to make friends with city kids who wore wrist watches and stuck out their elbow with sophistication to look at the time. Boy X never got to know that for a whole school term I had a crush on him and his book bag.

South African school kids. Credit: Masterfile (Royalty-Free Div.)

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Death Of A Milkman

From my observation of the people getting caught up in a strange euphoria of Moi nostalgia and the unfolding deification, I'd say it's not the continued undeath of Moism gagging people from speaking the truth. It's people themselves. You've got 3 groups:

1. The hoi polloi and the soul-weary: They streamed in in the thousands to pay their last respects. Most were idle anyway. There's an unemployment rate that still stands at 40%. The underemployed and the hustlers who work sixteen hours and live hand-to-mouth are weary. Their souls are frayed and famished and long for any national tragedy that can bring them a sense of pride and belonging in a place that chews them and spits them out. Even if it's the death of the man whose boots crushed their necks. If I've been waking up to go sit idly at Jivanjee Gardens and catch the daily afternoon show starring the street evangelist, and then suddenly a big death happens, I'll happily follow my fellow hoi polloi tribe to go see the new show. I'll jostle for front-row position along Uhuru Highway, and I'll be filled with perverse satisfaction that I belong to a country that can show off such pomp and circumstance. In that moment, I'll find myself pulled in to the welcome euphoria, shouting with the masses-- Nyayo! Nyao! Nyayo! And those sitting in the comfort of their homes watching TV will say- Look how beloved he was.

2. The beneficiaries of Moism (and this can be anything anyone wants to consider life-changing-- from school milk, quarter-system, our-time-to-eat beneficiaries, etc..): These are people who want to hear no evil and refuse to imagine the man could have been anything less than an angel. This group has willed themselves into a state of denial. It's amazing to watch. Like one of those fascinating creatures on National Geographics that magically transform themselves to cope with their environment or gain self-preserving advantage. If Moi's atrocious deeds are brought up, they will find every which way, however ridiculous, to discredit those who bring them up. They will argue with the passion of a court poet to diminish the horrors of Moi era. There are records of human rights abuses you can't argue with, and thousands of people are still alive with unresolved memories of what happened. These things were not imagined, but this group will tell you they didn't happen, at least not in the way you say they did. Do dictators do good things? Absolutely. By all means, mention them, but don't use them to erase the truth or alter history.

3. The Forgive-and-Forget group: These are mostly Kenyans who are doing well. Hard work and strategic relocation from Kenya (y'all diaspora Kenyans mourning untruthfully) has put them in a place where they can afford to forget and tell others to forgive and move on. These are also people who were not directly affected by Moi's cruel regime. The most that ever happened to them was getting harassed by police and asked for kitu-kidogo. Even if they know evil things happened, they can easily block that out since they didn't wear the shoes of those caught up in ethnic cleansing, torture chambers, losing a job to a mtu-wetu... Empathy demands you walk in another's shoes and speak up, but for those with life's comforts, speaking up is tedious and interrupts a good life. So they strike a deal with themselves and say: Everybody has a dark side, even you, so forgive and forget... Justice means nothing to this group. Strangely, they will be very clear-minded about Zim's Mugabe, Sudan's Bashir, Cameroon's Biya... Selective empathy is as callous as calculated suppression.

The ungagged truth-tellers in our midst are few. Guard them like you guard the last egg in the fridge. Until they multiply.

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 |