Sunday, December 15, 2013

50 Years by the Riverbank

I’m home, taking a walk around Kwa Jombo village in Mwatate, Taita, on Jamhuri Day. I encounter a sudden piece of paradise, children blissfully playing soccer on a dry riverbed, completely oblivious to all that hullabaloo about Kenya@50. No celebratory bells have tolled for them.

A child's paradise, Kwa Jombo, Mwatate, Taita
The land is a gentle green, the air so fresh you could grow an extra set of lungs just breathing it in, the hills show off crowns of mist as if waiting for me to bow down and pay homage, not a spec of the dry dust that chokes up the hopes of many a farmer’s beaten brow.

It has been raining, but the waters haven’t come this far down the riverbed yet. Only a month ago, the tongues of Taita mothers were feverishly ringing up a host of prayers for the rains. The hills responded with a steady downpour, making the season more festive that the ritual ceremonies of a certain nativity tale, more hopeful than the suspect promises of a nation’s jubilee.

I instinctively raise my camera. I love this Jubilee generation, age 0 to 15; they have no problem being photographed. In fact, they invite the camera with gusto, unlike the older Kenyan generation that can smite your sorry neck and its attendant head right off of your shoulders for taking a random harmless picture of them. I go click-click, imbibing the moment, thinking; a child’s paradise in the midst of Jamhuri day's shadowy revelries dotted with a nation’s uneasy successes, squeezed out of festering wounds left unattended for 50 years. These kids will make it alright.

The next day, I walk by the same spot to see what Kenya looks like the day after its 50th birthday celebrated with international pomp and cheap spectacle. The riverbed is flooded! The daily rains have burst its banks. The place is impassable. People are gathered on either end, discussing the furious waters, their about-town business suddenly truncated. The pikipiki taxis can’t take their passengers any further, and the fare has to be renegotiated. I stand there and start going click-click, the children’s forlorn faces looking on at the loss of their riverbed playground that had made a perfect field only yesterday. I call my mother.

The dry playground now a raging river
“Mao, I’m stuck across the river. I can’t get home.” Even grown women become babies when they know mama is around to solve the impossible.

“Wait just a little while, the tide will ebb enough for you to cross.”

“I don’t think so, the waters are furious at something,” I say.

“No more than half an hour. The accumulation from the hills comes in a flood but disappears pretty quickly beneath the sand in the lowlands.”

My mother was confident, unmoved by my concern. So were the people around. One woman had earlier lost her shoes to the river, but she was still poking the river belly about with a stick, as if she were agitating an errant python to give up her footwear. In a moment of surreal expectance, I watched for a minute, half expecting the river to vomit out a pair of Bata sandals from its riparian jaws.

Shoelesss Superwoman river-crosser poking the river belly
Stories flew about, of a drunken man who went gobble-gobble down this very river, fished out dead-sober the next morning, never survived to tell the tale; a woman who lost her footing at this very spot because she did not know she needed to wade through the sandy bed without raising her feet, and down she went flailing frantically, primordial instinct calling out to the ancestors at a moment of deathly crisis. Had she called out to Jesus, one woman said authoritatively, she might have survived. Nuh-uh, I wasn’t crossing this beast, for I too would most certainly call out to my ancestors.

I wanted to tell the children that it’ll be alright, that those who have been here before them know the ways of their land, their rivers, their hills, their winds, rains and scorching suns. They know that any disaster will eventually dry out at its tyrannical source or dissipate beneath the protesting sands that receive its rage, eventually pouring out the waters of discontent into the oceans.

The children, contemplating turning the waters into another paradise
I thought, many are the waters of a present national discontent, and like the river sands, the people, heavy with unresolved burdens, will rise up to quiet down that which brings death, damage and disappointment, leaving only that which nourishes. They must look up, even as they flail about trying to keep a steady footing, and notice that the farmlands are still the greenest green, the dry northern bellies bubble with oil and buried lakes, and right here in Taita, the wilderness teems with gemstones, the ranches await joyful toiling, the hills stand steady, a fortress of protection and cultural privilege.

It wasn’t long before the first person dared a crossing, a lady at that, while the men looked on in trepidation. I even dared a young man to cross, told him if he’s washed away we would know not to cross. He didn’t think it funny, and he spat out the crushed pieces of his twig toothpick with umbrage. I kept my dry river humor to myself. After the daring lady triumphed, an influx of men followed, crossing the river chest forward, wading through the waters with exaggerated sumo-wrestler waddle, acting as if they started it all. Miss Missing Shoes crossed to the other bank, looked back at me, and asked:

“Would you like me to come back and cross you over?”

“Yes, sure.” I said. I indulged Superwoman and her shoeless self to display her heroism. From the moment I arrived at the river bank, my mind had been racing a thousand miles trying to figure out how I could mobilize this community to build a new bridge. It was a doable task, but I knew it would take a heck of a lot of people-tact and unwavering leadership. I learnt later that dad had actually initiated that very move, bringing a truck-load of stones for the bridge’s foundation. But he’s old, and he needed the young leaders to take the baton and run with it. They never did.

After being crossed over, with Superwoman holding my hand and no CNN to capture the moment, I looked back and saw that the children had now jumped into the river, not to cross but to play in it. The waters had ebbed, and they created a new game with what the heavens had wrought, a child’s paradise.

December 12, 2013
The mountains respond to mothers' prayers for rain.
This is the majestic Rock of Mwangoji, one of five humps that make up the glory of Taita Hills

Saturday, November 30, 2013

No Goodbyes

Last night, grandma's Jesus swung down his sweet chariot and carried my uncle home. We watched it come down in a long night of vigil and a long day of sorrow, anguish, questions, acceptance and abundant, abundant love, surrendering him with family, hand-holding and hugging, song and prayer. 

He was a one-of-a-kind uncle, an achiever for whom becoming ivy-league educated Dr. Anthony Mbogho, an Art Historian and a teacher in the NY school system came through sheer drive, belief in his own abilities and a dedication to work and family. You did it all with no special privilege, just bare-knuckle struggle. The funniest stories about him as a child told by my aunt still play in my head like comedy reruns that never get unfunny. I'll tell them, by and by. 

Friends, I believe somehow we're all connected. So send a quiet thought/prayer to uphold his wife and children whose sorrow is beyond words, and all of his larger family. It's been a long hard fight against pancreatic cancer. Go on, Jombi. Paint the heavens. Michelangelo ain't got nothing on you. And teach Monet a thing or two (o, sure, your '03 exhibition, "After Monet" at Columbia would have him thinking twice about his style!). 

But of course, my best memory is you walking me down the isle. I best say goodbye or else I won't stop writing just to keep from crying.


For one living in a foreign country that I also call home, I testify to the power of community and to the truth of "utu" (in Kiswahili), or ubuntu; that milk of human kindness that still nourishes the collective African soul wherever it settles. In joy and in sorrow, I have been both a recipient and a giver of this milk, and I hope it never runs dry in our hearts. By far, giving is the sweetest.

Monday, August 26, 2013

A Letter from a Kenyan Abroad

A response to Bikozulu's "A Letter to Kenyans Abroad"

For a long time I’ve fought the itch to respond to blogs, tweets, status updates and newspaper articles from Kenyans at home that bash Kenyans abroad for their accents and attitudes. I had decided it’s too trivial. Until today when “A Letter to Kenyans Abroad” arrived on my wall, twice, then twice again, demanding to be read. And I did. Time to scratch that itch.

Bikozulu starts off well, then degenerates into a rant of castigating Kenyans in the diaspora for being o-so-obnoxious. Some Kenyans at home have taken to carrying around a big stick canning their diaspora brothers and sisters at every turn for defiling a certain doctrine of Kenyanness. Thanks largely to Bikozulu’s letter, I have summed up their ten commandments for Kenyans abroad.

  1. You’re not allowed to have an American or British accent. 
  2. Don’t criticize your country’s dirty politics. That’s the way it is.
  3. Stop pointing out the crippling poverty in your motherland. That’s the way it is.
  4. It’s sacrilegious for you to speak of a foreign country as “home.” It turns your ancestors in their graves.
  5. Stop asking for quality time with us when you visit; we’re busy and we’ve moved on from you. 
  6. If you want to make a difference, come to Kenya. Stop that diaspora rights nonsense.
  7. You’re not allowed to use the phrase “when I was in…” or “back in…” with reference to a location in Europe or North America during conversation with a Kenyan at home. 
  8. We are allowed to insult you for flipping burgers and scrubbing toilets abroad because… remind us, didn’t you go to get a PhD?
  9. You’re not allowed to criticize a Kenyan at home for poor work ethic. That’s the way it is here, respect us.
  10. No matter how long you’ve lived in Europe or the US, maintain an authentic Kenyan accent. (A variation of 1st commandment.) 

So let me start with the 1st, 7th and 10th commandments, by far the most irksome to Kenyans at home when broken. A year or so ago, there was a news item about a certain white lady who had lived in Lamu for only a year and mastered Kiswahili perfectly, complete with the Lamu indigenous accent. What was interesting is how so many Kenyans in Kenya, including the journalists, were awed by her effort and achievement, holding her up as an example for other Kenyans whose Kiswahili is questionable. But a Kenyan abroad speaking excellent English with a decent command of the British or American accent is considered arrogant, false and somehow a rejecter of his/her African heritage.

The stuff of inferiority complexes by colonized minds still amazes me. It is what I see every time I see reactions to Kenyans abroad speaking with some degree of a western accent. Yes, some consciously work at it, either because in their workplace they bear an obligation to be understood (I’m a teacher, language is my tool, and to be understood is my responsibility), or because it simply makes life easier to do what the Romans do while in Rome. Some acquire accents overtime, subconsciously, in varied degrees. That does not mean they lose your identity. It is true that Kenyans abroad acquire a deeper pride in their ethnic and Kenyan identity, some speaking Kiswahili for the first time, and those who were born here learning their mother tongue with pride while Nairobi kids could care less.

Now, some claim, with a chest-thumping, that they don’t have an altered accent after living abroad for decades. False. Even a Kikuyu with the heaviest Kikuyu accent somewhere in Boston will subconsciously slip in a “tomayto” here, a “callege” there, a “Canerricat” (Connecticut) too.  There’s nothing to it. And if while in Kenya you slip into your diaspora-acquired accent, don’t ever apologize for it to puzzled Kenyans ready to write you off as a fake. You are the sum of your experiences. Because I’m fully aware of this attitude, before I visited Kenya after a long period of absence some years ago, I warned my family, “my accent is significantly tainted.” I’m also able to switch back and forth between accents, depending on who I’m talking to. I know a lot of diasporans have this dexterity. Did you study Darwin?

And yes, Kenyans do pick up accents from other parts besides Europe and North America. I can point you to Kenyan friends who settled in India, Nigeria and Tanzania and came back with the various accents. But Kenyans at home just choose not to highlight it. Go figure. You don’t even have to look beyond Kenya. My Taita aunts, married and settled in different parts of Taita, now speak with accents from that part of Taita. But do we tell them they’re being arrogant? No. Only if they settled in America and spoke with an American accent, then they deserve our wrath.

As for commandment 7, it belongs to the same category of inferiority complexes displayed by those who think it arrogant for a diaspora Kenyan to speak of foreign (read, Western) places in conversation. See, I’ve told so many stories starting with “when I was in Kakuma refugee camp…” and tell of what I learnt about bravery beyond human comprehension from the “lost boys” of Sudan, and never once did I receive a judgmental look. But the minute I start a story with “when I was in New York…” Kenyan noses are squinted upwards, eyes rolling back into insular heads as if I just farted nerve gas. C’mon Kenyans.

Commandment 2, 3, 6 and 9. Reading Bikozulu’s repetitive tag, “that’s the way it is”, as in, you have no right to change our status quo, is really telling of the “outsider” attitude directed at diaspora Kenyans. Kenyans abroad criticizing Kenya is seen as insulting someone else’s mother. Get over it, Kenyans, we’re Kenyans too, and we too have a fierce responsibility to hold our politicians accountable and our fellow Kenyans responsible for conduct that builds a country. The corruption sucks, the poverty stinks, the matatu menace is barbaric, the roads suck (don't brag to me about Thika Superhighway, a mere 50 km stretch that leaves another 8,900 km of principal highways in need of similar upgrading, and 63,000 km of interurban roads crying for attention; we made one step in the right direction, don't act as if we've arrived).

The insecurity on city streets we once walked is still unacceptable, even more now that we have experienced greater safety in foreign countries. We want the good socio-economic experience we’ve had abroad to be available in Kenya too; uncongested transportation, social services for the poor, clean neighborhoods…and for the well-off Kenyans to care enough about the lives of slum-dwellers in their backyards. Yes, we will tweet and blog and status-update from our diaspora perches until you hear this. Even as we have in our own diaspora midst shameful incidents of tribalism of the worst kind, our failings and foibles do not allow you to exclude us from the privilege of being part of Kenya’s journey, in critical speech and action.

And while we’re on this topic of criticizing each other, there really ought to be a deodorant revolution in Kenya. Why is it that the minute you land in Kenya, the foul smell of human armpits hits you? You walk about the streets or ride a matatu and wish you had a gas mask. Or if an elevator full of people somewhere in the US is reeking of stale sweat, I'll bet you all my diaspora remittances the culprit is definitely the newcomer diaspora African at the corner. Our collective reputation is fouled up. Yup, I said it, yes I did. My African peeps, man. Style up. Please don’t tell me about poverty and choosing between soap and food. Dignity is important. Martin Luther King actually made such a call to his people, told them to stop stinking, that working hard for long hours with little pay does not mean neglecting personal hygiene, and to date, you won't find any black person all funky, even in the heat of summer, the poorest of black folk in America smell good! Heck, Richard Pryor probably said it best, “Don’t just wash you’re ass hole, wash your whole ass.” Let’s take care of the total package of who we are, not just one aspect.

On commandment 6: The world is now a kaleidoscope of each other’s influences, and claiming you don’t want “American” solutions is myopic while America itself seeks all kinds of ways to get stuff from Africa for its own growth, from culture to human and material resources (yup, they harvest human brain power through the green card “lottery” every year). The Romans built their civilization upon a borrowed Greek culture and a borrowed foreign faith that later became Christianity. So diaspora, go ahead with your exposed selves and influence change for the good of our country. And yes, Mr. Bikozulu, I can actually sit in Starbucks and effect change. It won’t come in one tweet, or one blog, or one electronic transmission of funds to Kenya from my cell phone. It will come from a concerted effort of using all the tools I have in the diaspora.  In fact, diaspora has contributed to change and continues to do so.

On commandment 8: Kenyans go through a lot in the diaspora, few have it easy all the way. Don’t gloat over those who go through flipping burgers and scrubbing toilets while working towards their school fees or just to pay rent. It’s these very same Kenyans that send money home, haba na haba. Some have made a business out of it, no kidding. You can find Kenyans running cleaning businesses that have done so well they’ve bought homes. I speak of people I know personally. A Kenyan banker I spoke to recently left his “big” job for a taxi-driving business. Labor which Kenyans at home consider menial can be turned to gold. It's attitude that counts. It’s time Kenyans at home kicked the habit of equating success with white collar jobs. And yes, some of succeed, some don’t. Such is life. A little encouragement would go a long way.

Finally, a touchy one for me, is commandment 4. About calling a foreign country home. I’m a transnational citizen. Kenya is my home, my birth country, the land of my family, extended family and ancestors. I also have a home in the US (not a house, a home). I very easily and naturally, without skipping a beat, speak of “going back home” when I’m in Kenya, referring to the US. I have no apologies for that; I and millions of other human beings for whom the concept of home is not limited to your ancestry, the origin of your name, the sound of your accent, or a certain cultural definition of “home” that is held sacrosanct by your people. We know that in Kenyan cultures, even the cities are not your home, only your ancestral land qualifies for the title. I understand where Bikozulu's emotional but unenlightened chastising is coming from. Brother, some of us long released ourselves from the shackles of that cultural straitjacket that does not allow you to belong anywhere outside of your ancestral home or country of birth.

Kenya is still the abode of my constant agitation. I will care about what goes on there till the day I die. My spirit will continue to roam around the hills of Taita all the waking days of my life. Yet none of this stops me from staying active in my neighborhood committee in Baltimore. This is home. I seek solutions to crime, overgrown sidewalks and career opportunities with as much passion as I do for Kenya. This is home. I cared about the Trayvon Martin case, the Ravens winning Super Bowl, and wonder loudly if Mayor Rawlings-Blake really cares for inner city Baltimore. This is home. I take the train to Washington DC to teach, attend countless meetings and socialize. This is home. America has nurtured me, annoyed me, loved me, grown me. In most likelihood, I will be buried here. This is home. Don’t tell me not to call it home just because Kenya is home too. And should my family move to Italy or Rwanda or China, I refuse to live a suspended existence of non-belonging because I’m not “home”. I will plant and harvest the crop of my dreams there too and make a home in that country. That, my friend, is quintessential diaspora experience. I treasure it.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The March of Mules

Sight Savers was about two miles from where we lived in Nairobi. One could walk down hill for about an hour along the stretch of Mbagathi Way, or take a matatu from Kenyatta Market. When I sauntered into this organization and asked for a job from out of the blues, I had zero expectations because I was there on a totally different mission; to enquire on what kind of services they offered to the blind.

There was a lady at the reception desk. She was one of the Project Managers at the organization. She said, come tomorrow. Just like that, I had a job. The good lady pulled it out of her ear for a total stranger dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. And so the next day I started work at Sight Savers’ Resource Center where I helped organize their research material. To my delight and gratitude, it was temporary, and would allow me to make some good money to finance my hustle as a budding playwright and director. I took no joy in prolonged corporate servitude.

I chose to get to work by walking the two-mile distance every morning and back home. I did not want to have to push and shove with the masses that jammed up the busses and matatus. I thoroughly detested that part of public transportation where you became nothing but one of hundreds of potatoes in a sack, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t move. You boarded with clean shoes and alighted with mud all over your feet on a rainy day. No, thanks, I’d rather walk.

I was psychologically ill-prepared for my walking-to-work experience. I should have been warned, prayed for and counseled. Up until that first day of my walk from Golf Course Estate to Sight Savers, I had never really known what the word “masses” meant. I had written about it in my college papers with academic authority and educated ignorance. Now I came face-to-face with the masses. They started flowing out of the cracks and crannies of Kibera like an invasion of human cicadas.

They marched silently along Mbagathi Way, and I marched with them, shoulder to shoulder, breath to breath. With every step they increased in numbers - hundreds, nay thousands, until they felt like a swarm around me. Not a single good-morning was uttered, not a smile, not a grunt, not a nod; just a steady march of chiseled chins, battered boots and fractured spines tired of holding up the weight of shattered dignities and distended dreams. I was shaken to the core. I lived in Nairobi and never knew this side of life existed. I knew, but I didn't know.

As I was slowly engulfed by this sea of broken humanity heading towards their daily labors at Industrial area, jua kali sheds, road-side kiosks, hawkers’ alleys and hustlers’ dens, I started to suffocate. The air was dunk with unsurrendered sweats and decayed hopes. I was trapped, without any place to go except move with the masses, march with the mules; move with the masses, march with the mules; move with the masses, march with mules…

I found myself trying to catch the faces, perchance to see a wrinkle of hope, a resolve to survive, and when I did, my heart raced ahead of the march with shear excitement. I recall getting home in the evening and writing the poem, “Faces.” I so badly wanted to etch for eternity, somewhere in poetry, the humanity therein, the drop of dignity that still clung to a beaten brow, the snap of a defiant spine that would one day march to a beat all its own. I will tell their story; I will tell the world.

Now this old memory from a far-away land comes rushing at me like a river broken at its banks. I'm in another world, thousands of miles away from the sidewalks of Mbagathi Way. I'm a lot older. Today, a Mr. Jacobs who was laying cable in the heat of Washington, DC's summertime said to me, “I’m a mule. I work long hours, six days a week, sometimes seven, for minimum wage. On the day I get to rest, I feel lost, like a slave looking for his master. That is a sick mind.” Yet some call him lazy for seeking government help to supplement his family's nutrition, relief in rent, healthcare he cannot afford. I caught a stone in my throat. I said goodbye, but I have no problem finding this man. He streams out of American homes every morning in the thousands, nay, millions. A march of mules.

That Strange Headline, "I'm A Gay"

My newsfeed has this past week been dominated by a particular post shared over and over, a Kenyan news article with the headline, “I’m a gay.” I wondered if the journalist was just grammatically challenged or he/she thinks “a gay” is just a thing, an object, like saying, “a book”.  What happened to the “person” at the end of it? 

So the subject of that grammatically or conceptually awkward trending headline was a famous Kenyan radio talk-show host. I once caught his show on an early morning matatu-ride in Nairobi; he’s excellent. The comments that accompanied this post were varied. On one hand, acid hatred, god-waving bible-quoting slayers, “Africanist” gay-deniers… On the other hand, some thoughtful, calm and non-judgmental comments. The bad far out-weighed the good.

For me, two incidents came to mind: first, a brutal attack - with kicks, punched and broken bottles - of three ladies in Nairobi whose grievous “offence” was their sexual orientation. They were even thrown in jail. I recall wincing even more at the visceral string of “they deserved it” comments. Cold, cold I tell you. But I remained silent. My excuse? I was not in Kenya, too far removed from the incident; It's not relevant to my life; I did not identify… This, like many other cry-for-justice incidents I read about, went into my not-my-battle bins. I should have said something. I would so hope the world would come to a stand-still, gasp in horror for a split second, if the jagged edges of a broken bottle are shoved up my behind because someone hates the color of my skin, the sound of my African tongue, the origin of my ancestry, the gender of my person... 

The second incident that came to mind was a few years ago when I was asked to translate for a team of Tanzanian community health workers attending a National Institute of Health conference in DC. I knew it wasn’t necessary because Tanzanians understand and speak English, and I was far from as competent in Kiswahili as our Tanzanian cousins. They birth, eat, live Kiswahili. But the job was paying well, and so I took the week off work to do this gig. I was in for a treat!

A conference presenter used the term “gay community” a lot in one particular session. So here I was about to translate it to my team for the first time and I had no idea what to say. Every time I got stuck they had been my wonderful teachers, and I had learnt a lot of medical terms in Kiswahili. My role had switched from translator to student, and I was having a great time. But this time they watched me with amusement. The only term I knew was the word “shoga”, whose classical Swahili meaning is “friend”, but over time, it has become a derogatory reference to “gay.” I asked them what positive terminology they use for this community.

One of them helped me out and said, “watu wanaofanya mapenzi kinyume cha ubinadam.” I said nooo, really?? It directly translates to “people who engage in sexual activity against human nature.” This was a long phrase the community of health workers had come up with to “compassionately” identify the gay community in Tanzania so they could provide services without discrimination. "But the phrase itself defeats the purpose!" I whispered loudly while the presenter went on humdrum about microbicides. 

The team was most puzzled by my reasoning. It was obvious to them what "human nature" called for. “Kwani wao si binadamu?” (Aren’t they human?”) I whispered even louder. “Wacha ukenya!” (stop your Kenyanness!), one of them admonished. Tanzanians characterize Kenyans as obnoxiously questioning of authority. I was questioning nature, the ultimate authority. I determined I'd rather be nature's student than nature's police. I think that nature, in all its dynamism, laughs in our faces all the time while we try to police it. We demand that we punish, ostracize or force-fit those who "don't fit in". I imagine that in Mother Nature's eyes, She who has created such astounding diversity in life, the ostracizer is the outcast.

My Tanzanian teachers still boasted of their work as bridge-builders to a shunned community. Thing is, their "against human nature" phrase was conceived from a negative meme, much like that Kenyan news headline, “I’m a gay”, with its indefinite article “a” that qualified gay as a thing, an object, and could therefore be treated without humanity, with detachment, with kicks and punches, prodded with broken bottles… 

Throughout history, the objectification of a people has gone a long way in enabling the stripping of their humanity, permissible to damage and destruction. Silence destroys us all.