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Reflections

Fishers-of-Men: A Lamentation by Sam Opondo

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I

Listen
Our fishermen have always netted fish,
strange bodies,
and even stranger stories.
Stories of seductive mermaids and Mami Wata;
The terrifying Mokele-Mbembe,
and the Lochness Monster

With a Messiah
they caught all types of men,
and transformed the world to now say Amen
They also caught Nyamgondho’s wife…
the not-so-beautiful woman,
who transformed a not-so-wise fisherman’s life.
From the shores of the sea
they beheld the sign — Ichtus
and discovered the lyre of that great charmer;
That ‘fisher of men’– Orpheus.

These are just some of their fishy stories;
stories of water monsters and water deities
stories of sea beauties, and human frailties
stories that we cannot help but listen to
stories that help us listen to the silence within
Or the silenced ones without…
The silence that is yet-to-come

II

Look
As he rows his old Ssese canoe,
the fisherman tells a stranger water story
With quivering lips, and aching hips,
he tells of those who drowned on the land, and were buried in the water;
of those who tread the storied waters, and live in dread
of those who count the dead whose names remain unsaid

With hands trembling and hope crumbling,
he shows the baton that struck his daughter’s skull,
The same batons and bullets that turn fishermen into strange fishers-of-men
Look he says…when the fisherman dies, his baby cries,
when the baby dies, the mother cries…

III

Tremble

With trembling hands and a bleeding heart
He cast his net and hauled in a strange catch
A heavy bag that carries the truth of the land
In whose recesses, lie the excesses of the land
A bag denied the man with a sacred hand
The man and the girl, who still haunt the land

As he hauls a catch too heavy for his net to bear,
he mourns for souls that are too heavy to care
for souls that stare and dare to cheer
at the fisherman’s ire, and his perpetual fear

At the scared fishermen who remember how they cared,
for the floating dead of April 94, Rwanda
As they fished out men and omena from afar,
His scarred hands tremble and he mourns for the land
that cheers as it slowly turns into 1994 

IV

Mourn…

With misery and memories of Kagera’s deliveries,
He reflects with sorrow on today’s mysteries
In these familiar waters, he has fished and wished
In these strange waters, he has seen Fish-Men and bad omens
with a heavy heart , he beholds these heavy waters
that refuse to dissolve, the unresolved truths of the land

Clear waters that reflect the dictates of the land
bloodied waters when the state mutates and hate becomes our mandate
bloodied streets when killers of men, and counters of men,
turn fishermen, into fishers – of – men

So he mourns and protests and even meditates,
how the heavy hand turns ‘business men’ into killers of men
and fishermen into fishers-of-men
How it turns widowed daughters into witnesses by the shore
Who wait to see what the net will bring forth
For they know and hear every fisherman’s woes

He fishes and wishes …
That his dear lover and worried wife,
for all the uncertainty and sorrow of this life
will not tomorrow receive him as a fished-man
All bagged and netted by these part-time fishers-of-men

V

Follow

Follow Me and I will make you fishers-of-men
He is horrified by this familiar call
One that all fishermen clearly recall
And tremble for they know, that once they follow
once they learn how to catch and kill fish
once they like it…
it becomes easy to do it again
it becomes easy to follow…

He knows,
just like it became easy to catch fish
It will become easy to catch men
It becomes easy to kill fish … Once you follow;

He knows that once you see life as hollow
With or without skill, you will learn
With even a mere stone, or an Ass’s jawbone
to strip your catch to the bone

Once you follow;
You will catch the beautiful fish
You will stroke her rounded belly,
You will choke it by the gills;
scale it with a knife;
running all the way from its tail to its head
You will hang it on a hook;
weigh it, and then dry it

Once you follow;
You will smoke it;
salt it, and gut it;
First by sliding your knife into its anus
and then slowly through its abdomen, all the way to its head;

Once you follow;
With a sweating face, and a smile that lingers
you will part her abdomen with your bloody fingers;
You will pour out the roe…and call her a whore…
You will cut her family line,
as you pull out her filth-filled intestines

You…
yes you, with a smile
once you learn how to follow
you will rinse the empty cavity
and then…slit its sides;
and behold the rawness
and the freshness of its flesh
You will rub in the salt to keep its flesh fresh
And you will smile as it writhes in pain
For it is now almost ‘your time to eat’

He knows that once you follow
once you trivialize the human cry;
once you disregard the call of the fishers-of-men
who know one day they themselves might be fished-men
Then, ‘we’ all become potential fished-men

VI

Question…

He is tempted to follow but he tarries…

He listens as you dissect his fishy stories
He wishes you would not rub salt
into the fisherman’s bullet wounds

He hopes that you, once you apprehend his face,
you might want to pause and ask;
what kind of hunger , what kind of anger
makes one man turn his brother into a fisher-of-men?

What is it that makes the index finger point and accuse the distant stranger
Saying he is a danger?
What makes it wrap itself around the trigger and pull?
What is it that makes the parental hand cuddle one child and strangle another
Or wrap itself around the baton that dutifully crushes the baby’s skull

What sense of duty, what banal evil, what kind of upheaval,
makes it so easy for the long armed man to haul the body into a body-bag?
To cast the dead into the lake, to hide them…for ‘our’ sake
to try to dissolve them or to erase them

Question!

Then listen to the fisherman’s cry,he would prefer not to be
a fisher-of-men, a fished-man

VII

Doubt
As you listen to the fisherman’s story,
Will you put your fingers into their bullet wounds…all you who doubt?
Yes, he is a mere story-man, an everyman…
He probably does not know by name, those who they hauled in their nets
You doubt that these mere fishermen can tell one body apart from another
That these fish-men know the difference between the fish’s body and the human body

As he listens to your stories, he asks that you listen
otherwise …
All you who say that they are mere fishermen
Net-casters and stone throwers
You doubters who say;

Hao ni wala samaki
Ni watu wa hamaki
Hawataki Uthamaki
Ni machizi,
wako na hasira ya mkizi
Hao ni watu wa mawe na domo domo…

He asks that for one minute, you listen to yourselves!!
And then…imagine;
the horror of men and women who mourn when they haul in a human being
in nets meant for other beings
The horror of men and women who can tell apart the many species of fish;
kamongo and mumi,
omena and fulu,
ngege and mbuta
and now have to haul in a strange catch; One that tells them that they as fishermen,
They as fishers-of-men, are a lesser species of men

VII

Imagine…

The sorrow of this man
Of Men and women who know that this water body
is full of dead bodies. Full of spirits of the dead… Nyawawa
Spirits who are repelled by noise
Spirits who have gone silent
For they have now been joined by their wailing kin

Once you imagine, listen to those who mourn silently
Listen to those who refuse to be silenced

VIII

Listen Otherwise!

As he tells his stories,
Of killers of fish , who know the secrets of the killers of men
of children of the land, who, like Jonah of old,
are on the run…
are to be found not on the land, But in the belly of the seafaring beast
In the belly of the foreign body bag
Wet, submerged…hidden for three days

Listen…
He says to those who know the contents of their catch
Those who have inspected and counted
Those who have retorted
Those who have sorted and reported
Those who were sorted
Then into the water deported
And are now being hauled in like fish
Weighed like fish

He mourns, for he knows their ethical weight,
he mourns for the assumed weightlessness
Of those who have waited and searched
Of those who have wailed and sailed
Of those who have marched and been besmirched
and will soon tire of waiting

IX

Search

Listen and run, he says…

For those who have been told to wait might tire of waiting
Those who have been told to search
Might search elsewhere
They will not wait for the forensics
They might constitute another forum
and come up with a different form
A new forensic

Run…
For they no longer trust the truth-tellers
Or anyone who takes blood samples
Collects forms and brushes bullet cartridges
in order to tell them what they already know…
To tell them that they can’t determine what everybody knows
To tell them that the bodies in the bags drowned themselves
Just like they were told in 1990
that one could shoot themselves in the head;
pour acid on their body; and then set themselves ablaze…
in that order

He listens as people start telling their own truths
New and old prayers
Blood oaths instead of blood samples
They still brush the dust off their bullets
and dried blood off their blades

As they ask…
“How long will we listen as these experts and their fishy half-truths?”
“Why should we listen to experts of blood and numbers who tell us that some lives do not count? Or that
we should all be counted?”
Who tell us that some deaths do not count…who attempt to fix what, how many, and who,we are?
What are we to do with these lay eugenicists? These ‘techno-numerologists’? These demographic tyrants …who tell us that some people do not count?

X 

Believe

He no longer believes these expert truth-games
These experts who tell him that there is no need to know otherwise
That we cannot play other games. That we cannot live with others
…otherwise 

XI

Play!!

He remembers his childhood.
A different time and a different rhythm
He remembers the child he has just lost…
The pain makes him tremble.
He remembers a childhood game…
One he didn’t like much …
The song haunts him…he plays with the idea

Apart…Together… Across-apart-together

XII 

Wait

He has told you his story.
The fisherman’s story. The story of fishers-of-men

So we wait
We interrogate
Not all truths
Just the fishermen’s truth,
For our truth-games tell us that these fish-men are strange beings
That these strange fish-men have been weighed and found wanting
That these men who are not really men
do not count for much
That they are not worth listening to…

Are you afraid that if you listen otherwise you might learn something?
About yourself
About an other
About us
About…
Love
Just love

That when you listen to men turned into fishers-of-men
you might learn that we who are followers we are all potentially fish;
Bones, entrails, fresh and flesh.
We are all potentially gutted;
Hooked, salted,

We are all potentially predators and prey;
like Mbuta, that foreign big fish
we can create Darwin’s nightmares in our families,
In our familiar waters
That we, small fish, are a diverse ecosystem
Are not only part of this system, but can be apart from it

XIII

Immersion

The streets are burning, bloodied, so he immerses himself in the water.
Holds his breath…
A new baptism , he has done it all his life
But today the water is heavy, tepid, 37 degrees…painful

He invites you too, immerse yourself …
Not only in the water, but in the pain of the other,
Maybe the scales might fall off your eyes
So that we may see and listen to ourselves
That you may listen to these fishermen…
Amphibious men of land and water,
Men who know that we are all potentially fish;
healthy…delicious
beautiful…Rotten!!

Listen to these fish trappers
Men who have been trapped by other men
And are slowly being turned into man-trappers
Listen to men who know the difference between a hook and a net;
Not because they use it, but because it is wrapped around their neck
Men whose wounds warn us,
that when the net is cast far and wide
when the pond dries up, we will all be fish…
we will all be an accompaniment to bread
To ugali,
like nyama choma
But it will be someone else’s ‘turn to eat’

XIV

Swallow!

The lump in your throat. Feel what he feels.
Mourn for those who gloat
For those will not listen to the fisherman’s wish
Because he does not act as they wish
Swallow your pride…
If you will not listen to the fisherman, at least listen to the fish
They tired of the body bags, bloodied waters choking their body of water

Listen to the fished-man’s cry
For it is not our names that betray us
It our fishiness, our bodies
Our body bags
Our state
Our state of mind
That is what betrays us
That is what preys on us

XV

Attention

He is listening; looking; mourning; imagining; listening otherwise; swallowing his pride…he is trying to feel otherwise…trying to be otherwise.

But as he treads these bloody waters , it is made clear
that here,
some lives are no longer dear…
So he waits…

And hopes that…
As ‘we’ wait for the ‘next day of judgment’
As new batons hit new skulls
As more bullets pierce more flesh
As fish-men, those fish eating men run on the streets…

Do not only listen to the gunshots and business reports,
Listen to the fishermen’s lament,
Its specificity,
It can be your lament too
Maybe not today
Maybe not tomorrow…
Maybe it was yours yesterday
Maybe it will never be your cry
With empathy, listen nonetheless…

 

By Sam Opondo
Potential fished-man, potential fisherman, potential fisher-of-men

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Sam Okoth Opondo is Assistant Professor in Comparative Politics and Africana Studies at Vassar College N.Y. His research engages race, biopolitics, aesthetics and ethics in colonial, settler colonial and postcolonial societies with a focus on the dynamics of ‘mediating estrangement’ and co-habitation.

Reflections

Nairobi, Nairobae, Nairoberry

Cacophonous, labyrinthine, gluttonous, angry, envious, charming, paradoxical, mysterious, confusing, alluring.

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Nairobi, Nairobae, Nairoberry
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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!

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Reflections

The Enemy Within

Death hangs heavily over people with cancer – it is always there, reminding you of your mortality.

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The Enemy Within
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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.

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Reflections

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.

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Someone's Grandmother Just Died!
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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.

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