You don’t know me, but the first thing I’d like to say is that I’m sorry. I’m sorry that our country let you down and put you down before you learnt the beauty of dreams. Come to think of it; I’m struggling with dreams these last few days, at least good dreams for Kenya.
I got to know of you the day after the IEBC (election organisers) announced that Uhuru Kenyatta (the president) had won the election.
Before I go on, let me introduce myself. I’m a 44-year-old man who lives in the relative comfort of Nairobi. Well, that comfort all depends on what side of the highway you live in, what you earn or even what tribe you are from. I doubt we’d ever meet, but your name is now known across the land and even in some parts of the world. I got to know of you the day after the IEBC (election organisers) announced that Uhuru Kenyatta (the president) had won the election. There were other presidential candidates, but Baba had lost. This was not your baba, but Baba and I’m sure you’d heard his name being tossed around Nyalenda quite a bit. Many had hoped Baba would win; this was his last chance. You see, he had tried twice before, but it was not to be. Such is the nature of siasa in this country. I don’t want to open old wounds, I’ve accepted and moved on. Anyway, Baba lost again, and many were disappointed, some very angry, and they took to the streets to vent. Serikali stepped in to stop this venting with even more rage, but they had rungus and teargas to assist their anger. The cockroaches had company that night. Serikali descended on your neighbourhood Nyalenda, and also on Kondele, Manyatta, Obunga, Bandani, Nyamasaria, and Mambo Leo. Like you, Kisumu was not allowed to sleep that night. Hearts were heavy, and tears were forced out of people’s eyes. If you felt your eyes sting and you struggled to breathe, it was serikali. Ok, it was tear gas, but tear gas that was bought by serikali. Your parents say this all happened in the dark of the night. Boots were knocking on doors, lives threatened and bullets not mosquitoes sang that night. Your baba, is a strong man, for he tried to protect all of you but once the tear gas was thrown in your home, he rose like Samson in the Bible and took down the door so that you all could not choke. But with the door open, it allowed the rain to begin. And then it rained and rained and rained. This was not ordinary rain though; it was violent, wooden and hateful. It was that rain, that took you back to sleep. Your little house stormed! Fortunately, you didn’t hear your mama’s anguished scream for too long, or feel your sister’s trauma or see the helplessness of your father, as he learnt first-aid on you. He had to give you life again. Even serikali feared, but they did nothing, so they fled. Only the night knows what was in their hearts at that time. You eventually ended up at Aga Khan Hospital after two hospitals said they couldn’t help you. Aga Khan is a good hospital. Consider yourself lucky. Otherwise, your sleep would have ended on the streets. That is how we got to know about you, Samantha Pendo. That night when Kisumu was forced to cry.
We all went into a state of tension. Tension for you and the country. Our kuras have become like that. We pray for peace, vote peacefully, go home and watch tv mfululizo, pray that our choice wins and then we either cry or celebrate. After that, we fight or attempt to fight. Then we move on. Unga calms us down; blows and burnt tears are not food.
The cockroaches had company that night. Serikali descended on your neighbourhood Nyalenda, and also on Kondele, Manyatta, Obunga, Bandani, Nyamasaria, and Mambo Leo. Like you, Kisumu was not allowed to sleep that night.
But this time round there was you in the picture and another girl, Stephanie Moraa in Mathare here in Nairobi. She rested too after a bullet went to find her on her family balcony. She was only ten years old. But there was you. We were introduced to your shiny forehead, that amazing smile, your chubby cheeks and that little red dress. You were only six months old, a kadonye. But you were caught up in the madness of Kenya that even we don’t understand. We hoped and prayed you would get better, but you still slept, and then we were told you rested. That broke me. I remember seeing your baba on TV, trying to be so strong telling the world that you had gone. He was Samson brave again, demanding justice, but getting choked up in emotion. Joseph was valiant but broken.
I questioned many things after that. Questioned this country and my country men. Can’t we vote without blood? Can’t we vote without hate? Before the elections, we see people down on their knees praying for the nation, but those same people will not raise their hands up for justice, even your justice! What is haki our ngao? I hear people even had the audacity to blame your mama and baba for your death. Some claim that you were used as a human shield! What mother would do that? They don’t know that Linser had two miscarriages before you were born. They don’t know or recognise that you were called Pendo because your parents believed that you were a gift of God’s love. They don’t know you but only see your parents’ heritage. Hawa watu wako hivyo is what they would say. Why can’t we just be Kenyans? It’s a real pity, nyathi, child, that the only time we come together is when a national tragedy occurs. Our warmth and kindness know no bounds, but after that, we go back to our cocoons. I wish we had more equalisers than elections; that would make us share our spaces more. Where our flag would continually fly in our hearts and not just when we win in athletics or rugby! Maybe that would have happened in your time?
Our kuras have become like that. We pray for peace, vote peacefully, go home and watch tv mfululizo, pray that our choice wins and then we either cry or celebrate. After that, we fight or attempt to fight. Then we move on.
We dread Augusts here, and this one is no different. Coups, bomb attacks, school and airport fires, Likoni police attack, plane crashes, rail and bus tragedies and you. Pendo, you have joined Mzee Kenyatta, Masinde Muliro, Kijana Wamalwa, Martin Shikuku, Mrs Michuki, Karisa Maitha, and Father Kaiser, in having this ‘jinxed’ month as the one you rested. Pendo you have also joined another rank of Kenyans who lost their lives thanks to our heated and fractious elections. A PEV victim that will see no justice. I have no faith that the officer who rained on you with his club will face the book. He has a higher ngao that will protect him and his kind. Our polisi have an amnesia like no other. And maybe eventually we too will forget about you, just like them. Me included, but I hope this letter will remain to preserve your memory. I know your baba, mama and sister will not forget you, Samantha Pendo Oloo, for you brought love into that house near the road in Nyalenda.
At times, I think that maybe you are the luckier one. You will not know the disappointment of being judged by your name or tribe, religion or even who you love. You see, as Kenyans, we love to box people, and hence we limit the individual. If one chooses to do things differently, ‘Hatumwelewi,’ they lament. You are free from being caged by people’s narrow perception.
You see, we have developed a stupid mantra that will keep us mired (forgive the big word) in this place unless we change. Accept and move on, accept and move on. It might even replace our national motto, harambee. Our pulling together to this state of inertia (kutodo) will make us ignore our history, and we will therefore not learn from our mistakes, and that is why we get mesmerised by the scandals and shidas that recur. Apathy, be plenty in these borders.
At times, I think that maybe you are the luckier one. You will not know the disappointment of being judged by your name or tribe, religion or even who you love. You see, as Kenyans, we love to box people, and hence we limit the individual.
Pendo, I’m sad that we have become a nation that is afraid. Afraid to change, afraid to learn, afraid of difference, afraid of the individual, afraid to appreciate and afraid of one another. We have chosen to hide in an ‘Africanness’ that doesn’t go beyond our borders. Religiosity, prosperity and conformity are our walls. Pendo, you were born into one the most beautiful countries in the world. It’s a pity you didn’t get to see it. We are far from being a great nation. We are pulling apart rather than pulling together.
The other day I had gone to the City Market to buy a few things, and there was a group of women holding gunny bags and negotiating for something that I initially couldn’t see. I got to discover that they were negotiating for fish carcasses to cook and sell. You see they were several women, and you couldn’t miss them. Their dresses were wrapped in kangas, handbags in one hand, and a gunia in the other. Apparently, there was a shortage of fish in some of Nairobi’s neighbourhoods. They were haggling, Nairobi hustle style. There was a gentleman next to me who asked one of the shop attendants, “Hawa Wajaluo wanalilia nini?” That’s how I got to understand there was a fish shortage. There was a judgemental ‘othering’ tone in his question, and that annoyed me. He didn’t see their struggle nor respect how cooking fish carcasses was how they made a living. He didn’t see their inability to buy whole fish. He only saw their Luo-ness. Maybe because they all were buying fish, so they were Luo and in his head that was enough for him. We are ‘othering’ one another more than ever.
Pendo, all my talk has made me tired, because I’m thinking too much about a situation that I fear may not change. I still want to believe in Kenya, but at times it’s so hard.
I hear some people have given up on Project Kenya altogether. What is Kenya? Who is Kenya? To be honest, there are many different Kenyas in our Kenya. I realised we are a country of the KKK. Kula, kura na kabila or kula kila kitu, we stopped being the nchi ya kitu kidogo. Kitu kidogo still lives you empty. We have an insatiable appetite for more. Insatiable is like when you were nyonyaring from your mama, and the milk in one breast was not enough. You get?
Pendo, all my talk has made me tired, because I’m thinking too much about a situation that I fear may not change. I still want to believe in Kenya, but at times it’s so hard. We as adults of Kenya often say we want to do good things for this country, but that is where it starts and ends. Child, I don’t want to be one of those people who only act with their mouths, and I know I am not alone. We just need to find one another.
Pendo, rest in your innocence. Rest in your peace, because you are the one who has gotten to see Canaan.
By Kevin Mwachiro
Support The Elephant.
The Elephant is helping to build a truly public platform, while producing consistent, quality investigations, opinions and analysis. The Elephant cannot survive and grow without your participation. Now, more than ever, it is vital for The Elephant to reach as many people as possible.
Your support helps protect The Elephant's independence and it means we can continue keeping the democratic space free, open and robust. Every contribution, however big or small, is so valuable for our collective future.
Nairobi, Nairobae, Nairoberry
Cacophonous, labyrinthine, gluttonous, angry, envious, charming, paradoxical, mysterious, confusing, alluring.
Nairobi. A cacophony of matatu hoots and booming bongs from church bells. All in inexplicable harmony. Like a Beethoven piece. A muezzin’s melody moves the ummah from a minaret here, a bus conductor — shouting from the most pimped out mathree — moves umati there. A hawker here. An ambulance there. But there’s also a silent monotone. The sound of hope dying. Of someone stealing two billion every day, of the clock going tick-tock from your 9 to 5. There’s that saying: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? But what if it’s in the middle of Waiyaki Way? Just because someone thinks giving us an expressway will absolve him of war crimes. While in reality, all it does is leave all the marabou storks homeless.
Nairobi. A labyrinth of lipstick-stained shot glasses and semi-filled ashtrays. Where a party starts regardless of where the limbs of the clock point. And only ends when everyone is browned out and on the brink of calling the one that got away. Nairobi is looking for coins during traffic because you want to help the beggar, who is patient enough to receive the donation before snatching your phone. It is being stagnant in that same traffic for long enough to buy crisps made with transformer oil and served in compact disk wrapping. And like clockwork, you put the window back up because Nairobbery isn’t just a play on words. But the ones that hurt the most are the conmen, because nigga I trusted you!
Nairobi. Where gluttony is second nature. A kaleidoscope of too much gold tequila and too many smokie pasuas. Of good pasta and wine in overpriced restaurants. Of ramen noodles and pre-cooked meat. Where nothing is ever enough. We drink and eat to our fill because life sucks. Why wouldn’t it? Our last president’s advisor was the bottom of a Jameson bottle and our current one’s advisor is Jesus. The spirit guides the nation either way, I guess. But still, Nairobi tastes like chances and do-overs. It tastes like anxieties and aspirations and I know it doesn’t feel like it but today you omoka na 3-piecer then one day you omoka, for real.
Nairobi. Reeks of piss and thrifted clothes. Fresh bakeries and Subway. Old currency and that one cologne every man in their early 20s wears. Smells like fighting your titans and sending a million job applications. Nairobi. Where you can go weeks without a lover’s touch but only days without a cop grabbing you by the wedgie into a mariamu because you shouldn’t be idle as you wait for your Uber outside Alchemist. Because of course in that time you should take up a sport, play an instrument, solve world peace, et cetera.
There are few occasions when pride will linger. Like when Kipchoge finishes a marathon in under two hours. When Lupita wins an Oscar. The hubris you feel when your copy makes it to the billboard on UN Avenue. Or when your lame joke gets five retweets because Kenyans on Twitter will massacre you if you think you’re the next Churchill. Orrrr that one time we were all watching Money Heist and so gassed that Nairobi was one of the characters.
Sadly, Nairobi pride also comes in with its individualism. Everyone is out here on their own trying to get some bread whether they’re in the upper class getting baguettes and rye bread or in the lower class getting Supaloaf. I get it though, the city doesn’t let anyone rest from the grind and the hustle and the drudgery. And the wealth gap is bigger than Vera Sidika’s bunda. But ironically, the city is a paradox. An optical illusion. Sometimes the people are so ready to convene in community that it kinda revives the fickle hope you have in humanity. From safe spaces to fundraisers to a simple hearty conversation with your Uber driver.
And there’s obviously that murky feeling of greed that comes from 90 per cent of our politicians. When you’re at the bottom of the food chain it’s called hunger, but the higher you climb the more you want and it becomes indulgence. Greed makes them say and do all kinds of things. Like apologising to Arab countries that are exploiting Kenyans because they don’t want to be cut off. Y’all know any juakali guys we can commission for guillotines? – Heads gotta roll. Because how will I steal cooking oil and flour and end up in a cold cell but they’ll steal billions and end up with a second five-year term?
I think wrath is the most Nairobi-esque of the cardinal sins. We’re angry at the police. At the government, at global warming, at nduthis, at KPLC, at Zuku, at Safaricom, at KCB, at each other. Agonizingly though, our anger fizzles out as fast as it blazes up. I don’t think we’re ever angry enough.
And then there’s the envy. You know you’ll get there eventually but that gets lost in translation when you see someone with better because that sparks something in you even though we are all on different paths at different paces. Whether it’s a BMW or an airfryer, the question stays: Why not me? And also I’m personally jealous of the people who’ve managed to move out of Nairobi to Naivasha, Watamu or wherever. It feels like they’ve figured their way out the maze while I’m still at a dead end wondering whether I can just hop out the sides. Doesn’t matter what it is, our eyes are as green as the parks and spaces we so desperately need in this godforsaken city.
Nairobi. The city of miniskirts and cheers baba jackets. Lust dripping down the sides of our mouths because we can’t seem to contain it under our tongues. I don’t even know why people bother to go to Vasha for WRC when they live in the city of sexual debauchery where the only thing that’s on heat more than the sun is whatever’s between people’s legs. Where even Christian Grey would pause and do a double-take. Where ropes aren’t just for skipping and leashes aren’t just for dogs. If you find ordered love in the city, you must have saved refugees and orphans in your past life. This is the city where the flesh is truly willing.
You know that intense sloth-like feeling when you wanna wake up for Sunday brunch at Brew Bistro or K1 and then later watch Hamilton race at around 4 when all the mimosas have hit your head and you’re surprised that your wig is still intact? Or the next day when you’re trying to get out of your covers and you’re thinking about that beastly Nairobi traffic you’re about to face and all you can do is tweet “Nimewacha pombe mimi”. Truthfully though, other than that and a few other instances, the pace is too fast for me. I just wanna be in a dera next to the beach drinking a passion caipiroska and eating viazi karai cause why are y’all always running?
And y’all are way too fast when coming up with new words too. There’s like a million words for currency, ass, sex, sherehe, et cetera. Truly, there is a certain linguistic je ne sais quoi when it comes to the Nairobian’s language. It stops being a transaction of random syllables and begins to become an understanding of feelings, emotions and behaviour. I, especially, like how we knead it into our art. We sneak it into our music and get phenomena like gengetone.
We compress it into our films and get Nairobi Half Life. We squeeze it into our visual pieces and get Michael Soi. One thing about Nairobians is we do not cower in silence, we have words to say and we shall say them. Even if that means running a president out of Twitter. That’s why our writers are as staggeringly sensational as they are. Ngartia. Sookie. Grey. Muthaka. Laria. Abu. And those are just my friends, dawg.
But it’s not just the writing. The fashion. Rosemary Wangari. Nicole Wendo. Samantha Nyakoe. The music. Mau from Nowhere, Vallerie Muthoni, Karun, Maya Amolo, XPRSO. Just a Band. The films. The painting. Muthoni Matu. Zolesa. The architecture. The cinema. The theatre. Too Early for Birds is back! et cetera. Man, I gotta tell ya, when God was cooking up the cauldron of this city, he went hard on the talent. Quote me on this: a lot of exceptional creatives from this city are gonna hit the world with a head-splitting bang in a couple of years.
Nairobi. Despite the crowds, the queues and the poor drainage, it still has a charm. Mysterious. Confusing. Alluring. Despite the fact that you can only truly enjoy the Nairobi experience if you’re a bird or an expat, me I love it still.
Nairobians, keep sinning, keep winning!
The Enemy Within
Death hangs heavily over people with cancer – it is always there, reminding you of your mortality.
So, this is what happens when a doctor tells you that you have cancer. The first response is disbelief (how can this be true?), followed by anger (I don’t deserve this, I never hurt anyone), and then a deep sense of grief and loss (what will I miss when I die, and how will my loved ones cope without me?)
They say cancer is the result of pent-up anger and resentment. Apparently, years of holding on to these emotions make your cells misbehave and become toxic. Cancer cells end up eating up healthy cells, leaving the body so full of poison that it collapses from lack of vitality. The jury is still out on whether lifestyle choices generate cancer in the body because people who lead healthy lives seem to be as prone to cancer as those who don’t. Nonetheless, when you find out you have cancer, your first reaction is to blame yourself. It is sort of like being told you have HIV. (Was I responsible for this? Was I reckless? Should I have used a condom?)
Friends and relatives will tell you that breast cancer is beatable, that they know so many women who had breast cancer and lived healthy lives years after treatment. What they don’t tell you is that all the literature points to a short life expectancy after the discovery of cancer. The chances of recurrence are high, even with chemotherapy, mastectomy or radiation, the traditional methods to “cure” breast cancer. I have read studies where women who had chemotherapy had an equal chance of recurrence as those who didn’t. So, death hangs heavily over people with cancer – it is always there, constantly reminding you of your mortality.
Most people are so afraid of cancer that they can’t even say the word. The receptionist at an oncologist’s office actually asked me what kind of “C” I had – never used the word cancer. Yet she deals with cancer patients every day. Another oncologist I consulted couldn’t even make eye contact with me and rushed me through a diagnosis I couldn’t understand, perhaps believing that my cancer was contagious?
The thing is that cancer is not like any other disease that can be cured through surgery or drugs. It requires months of treatment and constant monitoring. It’s not like having malaria or a broken bone. It is like having an enemy residing in your body, hostile, predatory, waiting to pounce at any moment.
It seems a positive frame of mind is critical in recovering from cancer. I got calls from women who told me they bounced right back into their lives after months of treatment as if nothing had happened, that I mustn’t believe all the literature, that I should get all the treatments done and go back to living a normal life. They didn’t explain to me why they have been working from home since their treatment started and since their so-called “recovery”. Others are more honest about their experiences. A South African women called to tell me that her experience with chemotherapy had damaged her heart, and she is on life-long medication that makes her urinate every few minutes, which means she can no longer work in an office. Instead of destroying the cancer, the chemo destroyed healthy cells in her heart. She is cancer-free but now disabled in other ways. Another friend told me her aunt died not from the cancer, but from the chemo.
What the doctors and the optimists don’t tell you is that both chemotherapy and radiation have debilitating impacts on your body. They literally are poisons injected into your body to kill another poison. Sort of like a vaccine but not quite because they do not boost your immunity. Both chemotherapy and radiation therapies involve weeks of hospital visits that cost an arm and leg. Nausea, burns on your body, fatigue are common side effects.
A friend from Boston who has studied alternative ways of healing from cancer (including not getting any treatment at all) tells me that each woman with breast cancer has to make an individual choice about what kind of treatment she should get. Doctors trained in Western medicine will be quick to put you on chemotherapy and the other treatments without giving you other options. Desperate and eager to cling onto life, the patient with cancer readily accepts any treatment, not realising that not only is it a very long process, but very costly as well. Mental preparation and psychological support are also necessary before embarking on the long and arduous journey called cancer treatment. People become life-long patients; some recover well, others not so well. Some women opt for no treatment, preferring to lead a good quality of life before the disease ravages the body.
I am looking at alternative methods of healing, including Pranic healing that works on your energy fields and chakras. So far it seems to be helping me, but only time will tell if I will be a success story. I have certainly started eating more, and those dizzy spells in the morning seem to be getting rarer.
The biopsy results are not yet out, so I am still not sure what the oncologist will prescribe, but in Kenya, the modus operandi seems to follow the same script: mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy or radiation and some kind of hormone treatment. Am I ready to go there? Not sure. Women who lose their breasts speak of feeling like an amputee; the loss of an organ that defines their femininity impacts their identity and self-esteem. Others are more casual about losing their breasts, (“It’s just fat,” one woman told me). `
The other thing about cancer is that when you have it, you think of nothing else. Everything is a blur. Someone wants to make small talk, and all you want to do is look the other way or scream. (Can’t you see I have cancer? Do you really want to discuss the weather?) You think about your life in vivid film shots. Your past suddenly comes into sharp focus, both the happy and sad days. You begin questioning the meaning of life in ways you never did before. Cancer prepares you for death the way a fatal car accident doesn’t. Is sudden death preferable to dying slowly because you can’t see it coming? Not sure.
But let me not be the purveyor of doom and gloom. The reason I am writing this article is that I have learned wonderful things about myself and other people. One of the things I have learned is that people can be kind and generous when they know you are in pain. People I don’t even know and have never met have sent me good wishes, prayers and even money for my treatment. Friends and family have sent food and offered accommodation. An Indian friend called to say that if I opted to go to India for treatment, I could stay in his home for as long as I needed. These generous and kind offers have literally brought tears to my eyes.
What I also learned is that my life’s work has not been a waste, and that my readers love and admire me for my writing. I didn’t realise I had inspired so many people, not just in Kenya but around the world, through words I have penned. That is a really important things for me to know and hold onto right now – to realise that I had a gift that I used well, and which helped others. And to know that when I go, my writing will live on.
I also learned that life is very, very short. So, we must not postpone the things we need to do. If your job makes you unhappy, quit. If a relationship is toxic, leave it. If people around you are making you feel bad about yourself, walk away. Surround yourself with people who love and cherish you. Love is very important for human survival, so distribute it freely. Be kind and generous. This thing called life is temporary, so enjoy every moment and live it as if every day is your last.
Someone’s Grandmother Just Died!
It is painful to always have to consider the feelings of others while legitimate calls for acknowledgement of racial injustice and reparations are consistently ignored and dismissed.
Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, I watched the televised service at St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh attended by the royals and various Scottish dignitaries, as well as the many hundreds who came out to pay their respects or to be a part of this historical event.
As I watched the outpouring of public emotion, I couldn’t help but wonder what emotions the queen’s death would invoke in those whose lives have been blighted because of the British colonial policies that killed millions and left a legacy of misery and disenfranchisement in countries far too many to name.
At first I was saddened by the news. But then came the reactions of global figures the world over, with some proclaiming outright that Queen Elizabeth had been a guiding light, a symbol of hope and stability in the world. One broadcaster went so far as to say “She was everybody’s grandmother.” My problem was that she wasn’t mine.
My grandmother, born in 1923, was just three years old when the Queen was born, my 81-year-old mother told me when I called to get her reaction to the news that the Queen had died. “She would’ve been 99 years old today if she had she lived,” my mom said. I could hear the emotion in her voice as she remembered her mother. My grandmother died in 1983; she was 59 years old. I was then just 18 years old. I said, “Mom with all the things we know about the racist systems that have kept Black and Brown people oppressed, I really don’t know how I want to feel about the death of the British Queen.” Never one to mince her words, my mom replied, “She was a human being, and we, well you know, we mourn the loss of any life.”
Yes. She may have been a grandmother to many but to me she was a symbol of institutionalized racism in its clearest form. Images of British dynasty have been present in the education of every American who has gone through the public school system since the Second World War during which the United States allied with Britain in their quest for global power and dominance. Yet here was the evil of the Crown being portrayed in the media—as it’s always been portrayed—as providence, something divine. As I listened to a special broadcast by the popular British talk show host James Corden talking to an American audience about the Queen’s passing, his tone struck me as odd: “She will be missed, she was everybody’s grandmother,” he said, going on to tell us how well she had served the country and the world.
As I was listening to Corden and wondering why I was so irritated by his outpouring of emotion, it dawned on me that racism moves from generation to generation, falling back on the old practices of how to colonize a nation: You teach them to love you more than they love themselves. Racism survives because the symbols of racism never die. We carry the symbols in our hearts and in our minds and once we have identified with them, we seek to justify their existence. While I could empathise with those that felt a special connection to the Crown, what I realized and felt most immediately, was the insensitivity I received as an African American who bears the scars of the legacy of slavery that has made the British Empire one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world today.
The next day I watched the funeral procession move through the streets of Edinburgh, the commentators conveying the solemn mood of the people who came out to pay tribute to their Queen. All the while I couldn’t see past the 1989 image of Princess Diana hugging a child suffering from HIV/AIDS. On her first unaccompanied trip overseas, Princess Diana spontaneously broke with protocol and showed compassion towards a suffering Black child with all the world watching, at a time when the stigma of HIV/AIDS was as bad as the disease, and Blacks were being impacted the most and no one else seemed to care. Diana’s humanity helped solidify her reputation as the “People’s Princess” and it radically changed the way AIDS sufferers were perceived.
While the news played on I thought about two recent exchanges I had had in Amsterdam, just outside my front door. The first exchange took place in a cafe.
I was sitting at the bar having a coffee. Another Black male of Surinamese origin was sitting a couple of tables away. It was midmorning and we were the only ones there. In an attempt to start a conversation, as men do, he asked my opinion on the war in Ukraine. I told him I thought it was crazy, all too unreal. The white Dutchman behind the counter leaned over and candidly shared, “I don’t give a shit about the war in Ukraine.” I didn’t speak again and left the bar so abruptly the young brother asked, “You leaving?” I was in no mood to have that conversation so early in the day, having experienced the backlash of the “Black Lives Matter” protest with the counter-narrative that All Lives Matter; I’ve learned that sometimes it’s better to just hold one’s peace and walk away. (It literally is your peace.)
Shortly after that incident, a couple of days later, I had another encounter that made me realize that we simply can’t afford not to care. I had wandered into a tool shop on the corner of my street that looks more like a men’s gift shop inside than a hardware store selling nails, drills and plywood. Behind me walked in a man who apparently knew what he wanted because we reached the cash register at the same time, he with a power drill in his hand. I moved aside to let him be the first in line, not sure if I was done.
The Dutchman behind the counter seemed not to have noticed that the man with the drill wasn’t Dutch and didn’t speak the language. But to his credit, he did know what he wanted: the drill and a bag in which to put the canisters of spray paint he had already placed on the counter. Being familiar with Eastern Europeans, I assumed the man was Polish and asked “Polske?” “No! Ukraine!” he said, then, smiling, added, “Close.”
“Hij wil een tas.” He wants a bag, I said to the clerk; bags are not automatically handed out after a purchase these days. The clerk then understood and reached under the counter. I was pleased I could help and the Ukrainian was happy as well. To my surprise, as I placed my items on the counter, the Ukrainian tapped my shoulder and offered a fist bump.
I say all this to say of the human condition that people appreciate what they understand. And sadly enough, we rarely think about injustice until it is visited upon us.
Whose permission do we now need to talk about racism and the policies that still impact us today? Africa and the African diaspora’s historical issues are and always have been about racism and this is why members of this group, my group, will always hold a contrarian view when the West attempts to compel us to join them in their moment of grief. My grandmother died in 1983, at the young age of 59, in a small southern town next to a river; there was no horse and carriage, no media. The British Empire once covered the whole world, a dominance that was achieved through suppression and oppression. Many atrocities were committed and entire communities decimated under the authority of the Queen. I was raised never to speak ill of the dead because they aren’t here to defend themselves but I will submit this: it is painful to always have to consider the feelings of others while legitimate calls for acknowledgement of racial injustice and reparations are consistently ignored and dismissed. Where is the same fervour and energy for those issues that matter to us?
When we as Black people keep the peace, we empower the presence of the historical lie that we are inferior and thus require control. When we remain silent we allow the systems of the institutions and the prejudices that block our collective growth to thrive. Why should we care about the death of the Queen when the Queen has stood for the oppression of our people? Why should we be guilt-tripped into silence, into not speaking out about the dead, into not pursuing our freedom? When will our emergency, the issues that impact Black and Brown people, become a top concern for the White world? When will I be able speak without fear of being branded just another angry black man, angry for what I don’t have that others do?
Sad as the Queen’s death is to those that survive her, honouring her service is a symbolic gesture that must be contextualized because, for many, and not just in the UK but all over the world, the English monarchy is a symbol of oppression. I recently listened to a podcast in which a Black podcaster scolded an guest who said this of the Queen: “She is the symbol of colonialism and racism for many; however much we want to romanticize the Queen of England’s long reign on the throne as a stabilizing force on earth, she has also allowed many human rights violations on her watch”. The podcaster’s response was a classic putdown, “Why do Black people have to always bring up racism? Someone’s grandmother just died!”
Racism endures because when we identify with its symbols, we will do anything and everything in our power to justify and defend them.
Politics1 week ago
The Campaign that Remembered Nothing and Forgot Nothing
Politics2 weeks ago
Why Azimio’s Presidential Petition Stood No Chance
Politics2 weeks ago
It’s a Nurses’ Market Out There, and Kenyans Are Going For It
Politics1 week ago
Lagos From Its Margins: Everyday Experiences in a Migrant Haven
Long Reads6 days ago
The Lion, the Gazelle and the Mountain: Migration Tales of the Cattle People
Op-Eds1 week ago
War of the Worlds: Africa’s Next Great War
Op-Eds6 days ago
Will Ruto Resist the Temptation to Marginalize Civil Society?
Politics6 days ago
Moving to the Metropole: Migration as Revolution