Friday, August 20, 2021

Beliefs and Bullshit - Confessions of a Miseducated African

I made this confession during a symposium on Pan-Africanism this past Tuesday. What did religion teach you that you later came to know was a terrible lie? Me? That we as Africans are a cursed people. I hang my head low just saying it again. Give me a minute to lift it out of this pit of miseducated shame.

There's a play three of us wrote, Pambazuka Afrika (1995), and in there was a character who explains that Africans are in turmoil because of the curse of Ham. Look it up if you're not familiar with this biblical spin where the Semitic deity produced black people for the express purpose of eternal servitude.
I did not script this part of the play, but I did not question it either. I did the final editing, and I saw nothing wrong with it at the time. We were young and severely miseducated. Rebel-minded as we were (the church banned us for our unholy storytelling), we were still poisoned, and we passed on this poisoned teaching to thousands who came to see the play and never once questioned that part of the script.
Only one person had the guts to question me. Rev. Phyllis Byrd. That woman opened my eyes and gave me water! She saw the play, summoned me to her office at the All Africa Conference of Churches in Westlands, and pointed out just how wrong and twisted that part of the script was. The script also showed the veneration of ancestors as evil. She pointed out too that that was a terrible act of self-hate.
This was my introduction to liberating Black theology, thanks to an African-American woman who settled in Kenya and built a home there. And she loved the arts, had been an off-Broadway actor herself. She went ahead and got us flight tickets to Addis Ababa to stage the play there before an audience of thousands, including Desmond Tutu who hugged my cast and said how he was moved to tears. By then, I had removed the offending teaching.
Let us remember that South Africa's Dutch Reformed Church helped built the pillars of apartheid upon this doctrine of the Curse of Ham. This teaching found its way into many post-colonial African churches, and African Christians preached it enthusiastically decades after independence.
You are a cursed lot, you are a pagan nation, the only favored nation is Israel, and the only way out for you [Africans] is individual salvation... I head this preached eloquently from the pulpit of Nairobi Pentecostal Church, by a Kenyan theologian with PhD and a professor at University of Nairobi.
This is preached in different ways across many pulpits every Sunday. It has made many go for that certain brand of personal salvation that makes for the most selfish individualistic sanctimonious prudes. This brand of salvation makes middle class church-goers think they have broken their personal curse of Ham.
You should see them sing Oh precious is the flow that makes me white as snow. And don't question them about the image of Jesus at the back of their minds as they sing that hymn. He's blue-eyed and blonde and they're not ready to paint him in their own cursed image.
I do not laugh. Look, everyone is entitled to their own spirituality, and if you're really lucky, your bullshit will be called out. I have become a better human precisely because someone was wise and brave and caring enough to point out the bullshit I was fed at a young age when I craved special belonging.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

African Grief on an American Ballot

So we all know the Kubler-Ross 5 stages of grief-- shock/denial, anger, bargaining, grief/depression, acceptance. In politics, seeing people get stuck at denial can be unintentionally hilarious. Just read their timelines. That happens when you are not prepared to lose.

The first night of counting votes when I saw Republicans leading, I skipped right to grief where I nursed my wounds for 5 seconds and went to bed in total acceptance. I was ready for four more years of what Stacy Abrams called "the Orange menace of putrescence". Giiirl! Well, by morning, millions of early voters' ballots which are usually counted last turned the tide. MAGAnazis went nuts. Denial hit them like a hurricane.

To be fair, you also know those in denial need to go through their schtick-- rant and rave and poke gloating eyes with pitch forks and file every law suit possible. Everything legally acceptable is their right to test. This is a great stress test for a democracy that actually needs it. It can either break the system of build it stronger.

Glitches that used to be too inconsequential to worry about could be fixed. Like how often to purge voter rolls of dead voters. One can vote today and die tomorrow. Happens many times when millions of people vote.

I look forward to seeing all these other claims of fraud. I've worked the polls through three elections, which entails going through thorough training on the system in my State, and I know one thing: You don't rig American elections at the ballot. It's stupid. You will get caught. You will go to jail. I'll talk about how American voting system gets rigged in a minute.

First, this part here is especially for Kenyans who say they have no doubt rigging happened if so many people voted early. They're seeing things through the lens of Kenyan elections where a ballot box changing hands even once is sure to be disappeared or quadrupled and someone gets killed along the way as numbers get cooked in realtime.

So dear Kenyans: Manual or electronic, the voting systems in the US is awesomely water-tight. Cases of illegal voting are usually mistakes, like voting absentee and deciding to still go and vote again in person because you aren't sure if your vote was received. Usually you will get a notification, and the voter rolls will indicate you voted already. A resident status person thinking they have a right to vote can also attempt to do so. They won't get far.

You could try to use a dead person's name but when you go to vote you have to prove you are that dead person. Even in States where IDs are not required, you have to recite the dead person's address, age and the elections official has to look at you and determine you're telling the truth.

At our precinct some years back, so the story was told, a man tried to do exactly that, but he was much younger than the dead person. So the election official called the elections judge, and at that point the would-be voter ran away. Elections crimes in all states are serious. That's why these cases amount to a negligible 0.0025%.

So I can't wait to see the evidence the Republicans present. I want to see what fools these are who manufactured thousands of ballots out of thin air at 4am and brought them in full view of observers. And other imagined schemes. It's laughable, but let the courts hear them out. Please note that these courts are packed with Republican judges. This will be fun.

So here's how American elections are rigged. It's done between election cycles through gerrymandering and voter suppression. That's where you create rules and regulations through the legal system to make it very difficult for a group of people to vote. Google Operation Eagle Eye as an example. It was a Republican voter-suppression hit job.

There are many others through the years, especially against black people. Voter suppression is an ever-present reality in the US. That's why fighting for voting rights is always a continuous exercise. Remember the most recent voter suppression was when the current president tried to cripple the Post Office to reduce the number of early voters. That failed spectacularly. Early voters turned up in droves.

Back to Kubler-Ross's cycle of grief and ridiculous sorrows. All you going through the stage of denial in this political drama, you'd do well to not get stuck there. Especially you Nigerian and Kenyan ultra-White evangelicals, mostly Nigeria-- y'all even had a street parade for someone who called your country a shithole. It was a wretched and pitiful sight. You coiled your African tails and accepted you are shit, in your words "he spoke the truth".

Listen here. If an American president uttered an anti-Semitic slur, watch the wrath of all Jews across the globe descend on him, and rightly so. If a famous person publicly called African Americans the n-word, said person's career would come to a screeching halt in a second, and rightly so. That's because these labels come from a history of subjugation and indignity.

But you African groveling in the putrescence of an American strongman, when do you learn to stand up for your dignity? You whitened African evangelicals. I know your mother's village, but you sound like you come from bible-belt Mississippi with your American white evangelicalism that quite frankly still thinks of you as a slave, at best a cleaned-up ape. Please, do not to go on a pilgrimage to Paula White's birth place. The Klansmen will hang you from a poplar tree.

Cross-breeding spiritualities can produce grotesque results in an individual. We children of colonization's mind-capture understand this fact with great empathy. Tell you what, if you must do Jesus, stick to the revolutionary compassionate Jesus of two loaves and five fishes. I like that one. The white evangelical one you have embraced is weaponized against you. Remember that.
A grotesque face that to me represents the results of blended spiritualities against self. *Artist: A Basquiat perhaps?

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" (weed smokers).

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.

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

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Death Of A Milkman

So Kenya's retired 24-years-a-dictator president is dead. Daniel arap Moi. 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 worship 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 (all you 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.