The biggest frustration for a rational thinking Kenyan, is the flimsy justification of extra-judicial killings by the police.
Whether it is the Wagalla Massacre (they provoked the government), displacement and killing of Kikuyus during our tumultuous electoral cycles in the 1990s (they should know how to vote), or the state-sanctioned shoot-to-kill of the Mungiki (they are a menace), it always escapes me why we bother having a functional government, with a well-paid judiciary where showing up for work on the most important day is not necessary.
Or think about the use of excessive force and inexcusably, using live bullets on demonstrators who are not satisfied with the outcome of an election annulled by the Supreme Court.
To a section of Kenyans, the demonstrators in Nairobi, Kisumu and Migori, should be deterred using force because they destroy property. When we have people, who value property more than human life, we have a problem.
We sunk Sh 216 billion to the security docket last year. We invested in police trucks, water canon trucks, tons of teargas and rubber bullets, presumably. The various policing units, we hope are trained well in armed combat and handling riots. Why is the use of live bullets still an option?
Few people ask that. To many, if a live bullet can end a demonstration, and we go back to “our normal lives”, the better, because “business is suffering, and we can’t politick all year around”.
Yet politics determines our lives. The best question we can ask, is why are Luos ready to demonstrate, what justifies their anger that even a live bullet cannot stop them.
Unless you sufficiently understand the history of Kenya and how marginalization works, you will not understand why some communities are bandits, some sympathise with terrorists, and why the Northern Frontier will always be a hotbed of violence that our police and military will never adequately contain. And yes, you will never understand what makes the Luos angry, constantly agitating.
The 2017 elections have claimed more than 60 lives according to the Human Rights Watch report on the elections. Those killed include a 6-month toddler, a 10-year old girl playing in their apartment balcony, and several young men, some pulled from their homes at night, and killed and blanketly condemned as destructive protesters.
The Luo body is denigrated by the state, stripped of its life, and has been at the receiving end of state brutality, time and time again.
To the State, and its apologists, the Luo are a handful lot. We know the stereotypes: they are anti-business, violent, and difficult to appease. The Jubilee Party Vice-Chair David Murathe told KTN news network,
“The opposition (read Luos) have nothing to protect. They have no stakes in the economy.”
How come in Kenya, some people have a stake and others, don’t.
Murathe was trying to justify the use of excessive force, because where he comes from, property ranks higher than the sanctity of human life. To Murathe and his ilk, connecting poverty to protest is intellectually taxing.
It is an erroneous assertion that the opposition is anti-business and pro-Jubilee people are pro-business and prosperous.
Nigerian writer, Chimamanda’s Adichie’s said in the much-publicized TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story, “Stereotypes are not necessarily untrue, as they are incomplete.”
The single story of the disorderly nature of the Luos, with a penchant for destruction, enabled by the cheap soundbites that our aptly labeled ‘Githeri Media’ goes after when tracking protesters, has made it possible to justify police brutality and violence.
When police talk of forestalling violence during elections, sadly it means sending police trucks to NASA strongholds mostly occupied by the Luos, whether in Nairobi (Kibera and Mathare) or Kisumu, Siaya and Migori.
We were here in 2007. We saw on live TV as an unarmed young man was shot dead as he protested a dubious election outcome. In 2013, the police did everything in their power to ensure that violence did not breakout, but it was more muted and creatively contained. But we never solved the problem of conducting credible elections, neither did we learn to have a more inclusive government.
And in 2017, inevitably we were going to end up where it all begun: in 2007 with a disputed presidential election.
But this did not begin in 2007. The two politically dominant communities, Kikuyus and Luos, did not begin their political competition today. It started long before the pre-Independence days, even as the colonialist tried to drive a wedge between them. But they buried their difference for the good of Kenya.
A history of marginalization
What makes the Luo constantly agitate for their rights stems from the diseased body politic of Kenya. If we learn to see it as a quest for equality, not just for the Luos, but for every Kenyan who suffers from the silly government policies, corruption and nepotism, it will bring us closer to relating to the humanity of the Luos.
The Kikuyus and Luos came together and their unity was instrumental in kicking out the British colonialist. But we got our independence at the height of the cold war, like some countries in the world, the president and vice-president would ideologically drift apart, and the seeds of marginalizing the Luos were planted, and so was the seed of agitating for their rights.
After independence, 40-odd tribes found themselves lumped together in an experiment called Kenya. Some of the communities had a head start. Walter Rodney, in ‘How Europe Underdeveloped Africa’, outlined how the colonialists annexed productive parts of the country, developing them, and by the time they left, the places had schools, churches, hospitals and basic infrastructure. And to date, such places are still far advantaged, no amount of denial can erase the fact.
In 1965, Tom Mboya and Mwai Kibaki, then in charge of the Ministry of Economic Planning and Development wrote a simplistic paper, Session Paper No. 10 that will guide Kenya’s faulty development agenda for the next 45 years.
The paper simply adopted the colonial system where areas with the most abundant natural resources, good land and rainfall, transport and power facilities and where people were receptive to and active in development would receive more government funding in the hope that profits from such areas can be offered as loans to less productive areas.
This was obviously a primer for regional development disparities that will haunt the country for decades to follow. This was made the worse by the nepotism that governed the conscience of the founding father. Areas that were resource poor, or in opposition were doubly sidelined.
That precondition of developing areas that were ‘receptive’ to development was to be used to politically control areas that were amenable to the whims of the ruling elite. Former president, Daniel Arap Moi, famously said, “Siasa Mbaya, Maisha mbaya.” And this was a justification of sidelining the Luos and other communities that were either in opposition or didn’t have arable land or any resource the state could extract.
At the very heart of politics, as Harold Laswell aptly defined it, is who gets what, when and how. With a firm grip on power by the Kikuyu elite and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga leaning left, the marginalization of the Luo started shortly after independence. Luos with potential to take power and change the course of the Luo trajectory were assassinated; Argwings Kodhek and Tom Mboya died in that troubled decade of the 1960s.
Luos generally settled in opposition, especially after the brutal assassination of Mboya and events surrounding the shooting a dozen protesters in Kisumu on October 1969, when President Kenyatta went to open the Russian Hospital. So ironic that 48 years later, police were breaking into people’s homes in Kisumu, shooting and killing Luos, unsparingly. What is vexing is that the Luos who are usually killed are unarmed, and when armed it is the crude stuff like a stone, an odd metal, yet police are trained in armed combat and can easily disarm and violent protesters with an array of options. Use of live bullets is positively revulsive.
Then came the 1982 coup, where Luos were part of the top ranks, behind the short-lived and misguided coup. Many were jailed and executed after the coup. And the second president found yet another justification to sideline Luos.
By 1990, another Luo, one of the few serving the government at the top, was brutally assassinated. Even though Robert Ouko was in the government, and not much of a popular figure among the Luos he was still their illustrious son and his death was definitely a reminder of government hostility towards their community.
Ouko’s death happened towards the end of the Cold War.. The West changed tune and started advocating for multiparty democracy in Africa.
With both Luos and Kikuyus in opposition after President Moi’s twelve years in power, their collaboration given their population would have effectively ended Moi’s regime. The initial dalliance of Jaramogi and Matiba and other Second Liberation leaders, was a good move, but selfish interests overrode the common agenda, and the three major opposition forces participated in the elections separately, efficiently giving Moi another 10 years, until the opposition came to its senses in 2002, where again, Kikuyus and Luos would collaborate to save Kenya from a dictatorship.
By then, the Luos had been marginalized for more than three decades. Raila Odinga’s brief cooperation with President Moi in the late 1990s and early 2000s did bring a few goodies to the people of Nyanza, with the Kisii-Kisumu Highway getting a much-needed facelift. Kisumu was made a city, with too much fanfare and, cosmetic as these changes were, Luos did taste, what being in government felt like.
Then 2002 came, and Kibaki got to power and disregarded the MoU that brought him to power and effectively ended the Kenyan dream. And in its place, he entrenched a terrible ethnic cronyism that restored the old GEMA elite network that Moi’s 24 years of presidency scuttled. In record time, we would see banks, universities, and businesses owned by the GEMA community start to flourish, even as Luos, and other marginalized communities were kept at bay from key state jobs. Instead marginalized communities were asked to be content with tokenisms, like the Constituency Development Fund (CDF). Most communities were kept from the center of action, until the 2010 promulgation of the New Constitution entrenched devolution, did many communities start to feel as part of Kenya, since they could get a slice of the national cake.
Legally, devolution only guarantees counties 15 per cent of the action. The remaining 85 per cent is still up for grabs and cause for clamor for presidency.
When we read that the president has cancelled Sh 2 billion coffee debts in Kirinyaga, or Sh 1 billion to Miraa farmers, or the government spent Sh 61 million to build a State-of-the-Art fishing factory in Nyeri, people will agitate for similar opportunities. Other parts of Kenya rarely get the same treatment.
When the president gets to bail other communities’ dead industries, it is for political expediency. But even so, what is the point of reviving Mumias, when cheap sugar is imported or smuggled, rendering the efforts of farmers futile.
The carnage of dead sugar industries in the country’s sugar belt, has robbed many people in Western Kenya their wherewithal. The killing and privatization of industries such as KICOMI by the Structural Adjustments Programs and other economic programs that favour cheap imports at the cost of our industrial economy have played a big role in rendering the Luo poor.
And it is poverty that makes them agitate for a piece of Kenya. It is easy to say, if it is not only the Luos who are poor, how come other tribes are not as violent?
For one, it is the Luos who have the critical mass to agitate, and that is why other communities that feel marginalized too, usually rally behind them. Besides marginalization in each community manifests itself differently. In pastoralists communities, banditry thrives, early marriages are common and there is high levels of illiteracy. In the Coast, secession calls by outfits such as MRCs (Mombasa Republican Council), the drug abuse scourge, child prostitution, are red flags of what marginalization can do.
Culturally, the Luos are outspoken and have always been an open society, where anyone can speak truth to power. Everywhere I have been, I meet Luos who cannot keep quiet in the face of injustice. Like the one-time honorary member of Black Panthers Movement, Stokely Carmichael said, “the secret of life is to have no fear, it is the only way to function.”
Luos have been so marginalized that fear is no longer an option, that is why no amount of gun-toting, trigger-happy policemen will silence them. They have infected other Kenyans to fight for their rights, and on Friday after the October 26 presidential rerun, we saw the same brutality being extended to Bungoma residents.
Luos Lives Matter
Regardless of how you relate with Luos, whether you found them repulsive, loud, or annoying, their lives matters. Each community will have certain traits, some likable, some disagreeable, but it is this diversity that makes our lives richer.
A people’s collective behaviour is a product of long-held customs, filtered through history, nurtured by their environment. Since we don’t share similar environments, we are likely to be different in our outlook of life. But these differences are smaller compared to similarities.
Luo parents want their children to succeed as much as Kikuyu parents want their children to succeed. No parent wishes to see their son killed by the very person they expect to protect their child.
If their way of life is at variance with how you lead your life, the least you can do, is not to wish them harm, or cheer the police in their murderous spree. Police brutality in a country like ours spares no one.
Like Chinua Achebe said of Igbo, in tackling the Igbo persistent Igbo problem in his evergreen collection of essays The Trouble with Nigeria, “The Igbo are a necessary ingredient to the modernization and development of Nigerian society. It is neither necessary or possible to suppress them. Nigeria without the inventiveness and dynamism of the Igbo would be a less hopeful place than it is.”
The same can be said of the Luos. Overt and covert exclusion of the Luos, and other communities from key government posts and resources will always make them agitate and will never give a government peace until they are made to feel part of the country.
It is really that simple.
By Silas Nyanchwani
Silas Nyanchwani is a Kenyan writer and social commentator.
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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.
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