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End of Empathy in Kenya

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End of Empathy in Kenya
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Presently, you can divide Kenyans into three groups.

There are those who are ambivalent, unsure of which political direction the country should take, trusting neither the Jubilee side nor the NASA side, even as the unity of the principal is under intense scrutiny following the no-show of the three other principals for the much-hyped ‘swearing in’ of Raila Odinga as the ‘President of the People’.

Second, are the loyal supporters of the government, who despite any misgivings, have some hope, however forlorn that Uhuru Kenyatta will deliver on his promises, that he has christened “Four Pillars.”

Third, are the implacable supporters of Raila Odinga, the thousands who filled Uhuru Park to witness his swearing-in, and the many who explicitly or implicitly support his disruptive antics as continues to fight electoral injustices.

The latter two categories of Kenyans hardly see each other eye to eye. The middle-class among them may be civilized and restrained, but their dinner table talks are frank and clear about their mutual distaste for each other’s political choices. Outside the middle-class, it gets a bit cruder.

If you watched online activity during the charged swearing in, most Jubilee government supporters online dismissed Raila Odinga’s supporters as Zombified, swum in schadenfreude when the three principals failed to show-up, effectively turning the ceremony into a ‘Luo Affair’ as a senior government official told me last November.

The game now is over, next is to make every demonstration look like a Luo affair and Kenyans will go back to their normal lives,” he told me, in an informal set-up (Ruracio), obviously, tongue-in-cheek. But as a Jubilee supporter, he felt that they had outmanoeuvred, one last time, and hopefully one final time. It is common among Jubilee fans to gloat about their unbeatable numbers, unparalleled business acumen and everything to rend credence to elections that one-half of the country for the fourth time feels that are not fair.

So, you have gloating on one side and grumbling on the other. But the grumbling has gotten louder and more militant, while the gloating cautious, made the more uncertain as Jubilee’s dubious policies begin to ruin the country. It is a constitutional lawyer Wachira Maina who captured it best in an article in the Daily Nation when he said,

“Mr Odinga’s problem is that his base is now more militant and intransigent than he himself ever was.”

The swearing in, even though deemed inconsequential, was cathartic, to his base, and a nuisance to the Jubilee side, that craves for sense of normalcy in the country often interpreted as no protests. Crime, deteriorating health sector, the ever-increasing cost of living, badly managed education system hardly concerns them.

The environment needed for a reasoned national conversation is now permanently fouled as no side will listen to the other. We are now so numbed, even something as humane as blood donation appeal provides a useful window into how Kenyans now look at each other.

***

On September 2, 2017, a day after the shocking annulling of the 2017 presidential election, Carol Radull, the celebrated sports presenter, made an urgent blood donation appeal on Twitter for Grace Wangui Mwangi who was hospitalized at the Kikuyu Hospital.

In good times, many people would have volunteered to donate the blood, without questioning the tribe or the background of the patient. But September 2, 2017 was not a good time to make such an appeal. Reading the responses to her appeal was jarring.

Ashikoye Omune responded.

And Zablon though it was the best time to crack his sarcasm.

There were other many responses, so crude, so heartless, so crass, so bereft of any shred of human decency, it was galling. Most were jabs at the perennial obsession of Central Kenyan politicians with the subject of circumcision, which even the soberest politicians from GEMA hardly ever criticize.

It was difficult to process the dumb and numb comments.

Yet, those responding with irony, cheap sarcasm to the appeal carried in their tweets certain undertones that if you stopped to think for a second, did not exist in a vacuum. They were a product of injustices and abuse, real and perceived. We all look for a chimney to vent our frustrations. And the appeal provided a channel for some frustrated NASA supporters to parade their frustrations.

Any sensible tweet, calling for restraint and common sense was drowned in the odious smoke of hatred from what were mostly NASA supporters from Luo Nyanza.

It is true when the state released the police on its citizenry, mostly of Luo extraction, comments by some people who support Jubilee approved the use of whichever means to contain the protesters. While there were those who obviously opposed to the use of excessive force, most were ambivalent, and some preferring to keep quiet.

When Daily Nation reported the shooting of three protesters in Kisumu, Mbugus James wanted more:

And Bony Kamau was full of compliments.

And Macharia Mwangi knew who the protesters were.

***

Political comments in the blogosphere and social media provide a useful window into the soul of the nation. If we can use our usual stupid marker of literacy-the ability to speak and write in correct English-you will notice most of the people commenting are learned, with university degrees, no less.

***

The mutual disdain between Kenya’s two most politically active communities, Luos and Agikuyus has deteriorated to such despicable levels, it is disgusting. Education in this case, hardly thaws prejudice, opening an avenue of tolerance and celebration of diversity. Learned people on either side of the politic divide are so prejudiced,

The most ironic thing is that when the two communities work together, they always lift Kenya to a higher ground; think of 1963, 2002, 2007/08 (the risky power-sharing deal) that gave us the new constitution.

Given other communities rally behind on either community depending on which side of the bread of their tribal chief is buttered, we end up with either pro-Luos tribes and pro-Kikuyus tribes.

There is a bigger picture, indeed, a political ideology behind the tribal arrangement. The two communities that have held power since independence are more conservative in their politics, keen for resources not to be redistributed. The rest usually are more liberal and socialist, advocating for a fair redistribution of the country’s resources. But all this is lost as tribal chiefs pursue their selfish interests instead of the larger good.

In such an environment, it is impossible to have a conversation about national values, and what makes us Kenya, the best country in Africa if you ask me.

Since 2007, our general elections have been flawed in the favour of one side and to the exclusion of the other. Whereas, in some cases it is purely a question of perception, the recalcitrant refusal of the ruling elite to address the root cause of the problem has made a bad situation worse. Every successive flawed election puts the country on the edge, and now we are hanging on a cliff so precipitously, just one nudge and the country will tumble down.

It is easy to dismiss the people who comment online as idlers whose thoughts and ideas have no real consequence. But as a fairly educated man, with a Masters, and middle-class (for argument sake), I have participated in conversations, online and offline that usually shock me. When I travel to the village and talk to the villagers, their comments about the Agikuyu community scare me. The comments belie a deep-seated antipathy towards Kikuyu that grows with every flawed election.

Back in Nairobi, when I have a candid talk with my Kikuyu friends, you know those dinner table conversations in safe spaces where people can afford to be painfully honest, it is always discomfiting when they lay down their fears and explain why they coalesce around their preferred candidate.

“When Kalonzo stands in front of a multitude and declares ‘we ask Mt Kenya people to lie low’ we are left with no choice but vote for someone we can trust,” a Douglas Kanguru, a Public Policy expert says, citing Raila Odinga’s obsession with the land question in the country. As the people who received the largest brunt of the colonizer’s brutality, displaced from their ‘ancestral land’ and even further dispersed after we became independent, and also the recipient of the worst brutality meted on a community in election-related violence since 1992, they have little choice but stick with what is convenient, Kanguru argues.

But this only tells half the story. The ugly truth that is hard to discuss, creatively blockaded by those in power until kingdom come is the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that may address some of the historical injustices that are the root cause of our growing antipathy towards those of a different politic persuasion. The land question is the thorniest.

In several WhatsApp groups that I belong to, especially those from college colleagues, the love is not lost between the members of the two political divides. Again all the members in all the groups are educated to university level. But the level of discussion reveals the pain and trauma that people carry with them. Virtually since August, most groups have banned political discussions. In most groups many people left, before group leaders decided to ban politics. Others maintaining a stony silence adopting the “Accept and Move on” philosophy, finding political conversations draining and becoming more and more numbed.

As a middle-class fellow, I may not pick a machete and hack someone of a different political persuasion to death. But if some ethnic chauvinist arranges a fundraising drive to donate money to empower an army of young men to protect my community’s interests, I will find myself obliged to pay, in the pretext of self-defence.

When the Nairobi Business Community came to prominence at the height of NASA’s call for demonstration, I accompanied my Kikuyu friend to a hotel in downtown Nairobi to meet another lady for some transaction. In the introductory small talk, of course the Nairobi Business Community featured prominently. Mistaking me for a Kikuyu, and feeling safer, she said, she was extremely happy that the Nairobi Business Community had flexed its muscle, scaring those (insert expletive) away. Business was now good. And she fully supported them.

Objectively, I held nothing against her. She did not know what she did not know. We all like expediency. I am sure if another vigilante group surfaced on the NASA side, it would receive implicit or even explicit support from the NASA supporters such what happened in Kawangware.

What most people, surprisingly even the most educated, hardly know is that the vigilante groups that communities and political parties turn to for protection when the police fail, share one trait: both are disenfranchised young men, with nothing to live for and they are all products of the bad politics played by both sides of the political divide. If indeed successive governments, were the governments of the people, by the people, you will not have millions of young men on either side of the political divide ready to pick a machete and descend on fellow countrymen.

The cowardice of the country’s elite to confront these problems head-on, instead of using the problems to divide the country further has made us emotionless towards each other’s plight.

Prof. Anyang Nyong’o wrote a powerful essay in The Star in the aftermath of the 2017 election arguing, that a poor woman in Limuru has the government to blame more than a Luo in Kisumu for her plight. Ditto a poor Luo man in Kisumu, his enemy is the government and not another community. Yet, not everyone can see these things this way.

When you have empty political heads with no better vision to sell, preaching ethnic prejudice and hatred all the time, the result is feelings of marginalization and entitlement, adding fuel to a state of permanent conflict. With agitation and aggression on one side, and the other side becomes defensive. This stretches emotions. And elections provide a chance to correct the notion of dominance and marginalization. When they are flawed, or perceived to be flawed, the agitation persists.

Now, we are all out of patience. Shortly after the Rwandese genocide, where nearly one million people were killed in 100 days, Gregory Stanton, then the head of Genocide Watch presented a briefing paper to the United State Department of State identifying the “8 Stages of Genocide”. They include,

  1. a) Classification: where people divide themselves in the narrative of US versus THEM. We already have the “42-against 1” and its many variants.
  2. b) Symbolization: whereby people are labeled with lowly references. The competing communities have monikers to identify pariah groups in their eyes. Both political sides of the divide use certain references, often in derision, whether it is Moses Kuria’s obsession with circumcision, or those in NASA who perceive Kikuyus as thieves, the labeling is getting stronger and stronger.
  3. c) Dehumanization: When one group denies the humanity of the other group, equating the members of the other groups to animals, vermin, insects or diseases. Not to overemphasize, but increasingly seeing the humanity of others with a different political view is becoming impossible.
  4. d) Organization: Stanton argued that genocide is always organized, using special army or militia, trained and armed. We may not yet have organized and trained militia, but militias are a part of political organization. A friend from Central Kenya told me in 2013, “Never again shall we be caught unawares, like in 2007. We will permanently be ready and vigilant.”
  5. e) Polarization: Polarizing propaganda, made the worse by the advent of fake news was evident in the 2017 election, another indicator of the dangerous road we are traveling down.
  6. f) Preparation: At this stage victims are identified and separated out because of their ethnic and religious identity. In 2017, we saw the Luo community targeted both in Nairobi and Nyanza, with the state enjoying the monopoly of violence and no awards for guessing where the strings were being pulled from. Various vigilante groups like those that wreaked violence in Kawangware are a harbinger of how things can turn ugly at the snap of a finger.
  7. g) Extermination: killers at this stage are so numbed out, they will not see the humanity of those being killed.
  8. h) Denial: the perpetrators deny committing the crimes or underplay their role.

When you look at these stages, you can see we are at a stage where we have dehumanized our political rivals and refuse to see their humanity. Empathy only exists in a few rational voices.

For now, silence works. But deep within, people are demon-possessed, and soon or later, the true colours will surface. We may wish to ignore, maybe some of us are a bit melodramatic, but reality has a way of blindsiding one, before slapping the illusion out of folks. By then, it is usually too late.

 


Featured response to this article by Dorcas Sarkozy, a blogger.

RE: The False Equivalence in the lack of empathy among Kenya’s many tribes.

FALSE EQUIVALENCE: An argument that simultaneously condemns and excuses both sides in a dispute by claiming that both sides are (equally) guilty of inappropriate behavior or bad reasoning. While the argument appears to be treating both sides equally, it is generally used to condemn an opponent or to excuse one’s own position.

EMPATHY: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another; (1) the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another, (2) the imaginative ascribing to an object, as a natural object or work of art, feelings or attitudes present in oneself:

There is a piece in the online publication “The Elephant” titled “End of Empathy in Kenya” by Silas Nyanchwani that on the surface reads like a thought-provoking and balanced analysis of a very worrisome trend (lack of empathy) currently pervading Kenya but upon further cogitation, IS part of the worrisome trend.

The writer cites several clips from social media – Facebook, Twitter and reader comments in a local daily (Daily Nation) as evidence of this lack of empathy some Kenyans have towards one another.

He does so via a 2400-worded piece that effectively rehashes some known/common stereotypes Kenya’s various communities have of one another; that Luos have of Kikuyus and vice versa.

This he does without broaching head-on, the elephant in the room.

As a result of this crucial omission, deliberately or otherwise, the writer evenly apportions responsibility for the inability of Kenyans to empathize with one another, the glaring imbalance of power dynamics between the main antagonists, the Kikuyu and the Luo, notwithstanding.

For the record, the elephant in the room is the responsibility that comes with having power: political, economic AND military power.

I have previously alluded to a modicum of schadenfreude the writer is pointing out, but I would like to believe that I have usually done so as a cautionary tale of what happens when one refuses to assign responsibility where it most resides and chooses instead to tie themselves into a knot justifying or rationalizing why glaring obviosities are different depending on who is involved.

To illustrate the foregoing phenomenon, consider the differences in characterization and reactions when Uhuru Kenyatta cautioned Kenyans against “selling their land” and when Raila Odinga did the same thing.

Somehow the former’s “advice” was seen as an illustration of his business acuity; his understanding that “land is a factor of production”.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uE3088jpqkE

Conversely, RAO doing the same thing – to the Masaai in Kajiado – was seen as illustration of his “belligerence”; that he was “advocating ‘violence’ against persons not indigenous to the region i.e. Kikuyus”.

https://www.the-star.co.ke/…/2…/06/17/uhuru-tells-off-raila-over-talk-of-land-invasion_c1581163

Or when the 2017 Madaraka Day Celebration held in Nyeri degenerated into a celebration of the region’s (and Uhuru’s) culture replete with use of exclusionary language instead of the national celebration the day is meant to denote.

Readers will recall that attempts to call out the ethnicization of the national event (and snubbing of RAO) was characterized by commentators and supporters of Uhuru Kenyatta as the usual (and unfair) “demonization of the Kikuyu” by people “who are jealous of the tribe’s many accomplishments and rich culture”.

https://www.nation.co.ke/…/440808-3954512-122fx9…/index.html

Throughout Kenya’s post-independence history, one side and one side alone has had all three permutations of power:

The Executive.

All four Kenya’s presidents – from Jomo to Moi, Kibaki and now Uhuru – have controlled political power.

While military power is a function of the office of the president i.e. as the commander-in-chief, Kenyatta Pere & Son, Kibaki and Moi have also used their office i.e. political power to accumulate inordinate amounts of wealth i.e. economic power.

As famously offered by Mao Tse Tung, “power grows out of the barrel of a gun”.

Abraham Lincoln, America’s 16th and arguably its most famous president offered a different take on power. That, it, power, tested a man’s true character.

Kenya’s leaders have proceeded to use their monopoly of these variants of power, unfairly and with impunity, AGAINST those who dare challenge or stand up against their respective regime.

Mr. Nyanchwani knows only too well the outcome that overwhelming military might brings to bear in the fight for empathy or as Homer famously said, “woe to the vanquished”.

Might makes right – even when the mighty is wrong!

You get a sense of the writer’s bias – wittingly or unwittingly – in the second and third paragraph in his characterization of the role played by two of the three groups he identifies as being present in today’s Kenya.

Kenyatta’s supporters are seen as “loyal…..who despite any misgivings, have some hope….(he) will deliver on his promises…..christened “Four Pillars.”

Raila’s supporters, true to form, are characterized more ominously as “implacable….who filled Uhuru Park to witness his swearing-in, and the many who explicitly or implicitly support his disruptive antics…”

(The third group consists of those who are ambivalent, unsure of which political direction the country is headed.)

Language is a powerful tool.

When well-used (or mis-used), it can create equally powerful imageries that add to, placate or challenge existing perspectives/paradigms or stereotypes people have of one another.

From the opening few paragraphs, not to mention the title of the piece, the writer chose/chooses to either add to or placate the stereotypes Kenyans have of the two antagonists – Luos and Kikuyus.

Kenyatta’s supporters are “loyal”, have “some hope”, for “promises christened”.

Conversely, Raila’s supporters are “implacable”, “explicitly or implicitly support” his “disruptive antics”.

Disruptive antics?

Being at the vanguard of Kenya’s fight for the very values that allows Mr. Nyanchwani to pen his views, however questionable some may feel said views are, may be “disruptive”. However, the fight for a free, fair and transparent electoral process not to mention an end to corruption and impunity are not “antics”.

Asking to verify the accuracy of the vote tallies inside the IEBC server is not “foolish”.

Insisting to understand why corruption and impunity has been so rife in two Kenyatta governments – father and son – is not an “outrageous” request.

Standing up to a militarized law enforcement apparatus armed with the best-in-class riot suppression gear with nothing more than one’s strength of conviction and stones is not “amusing behavior”.

“Antics” is defined as “foolish, outrageous” and “amusing” behavior.

https://www.google.com/search…

While the article touches on a close relative of the elephant in the room, it does so almost as an afterthought; this without identifying, by name, those who are simultaneously responsible for creating the problems AND also able to fix what is at the core of the country’s instability.

The writer points out that the oftentimes deadly struggle between Kenyans was precipitated, then exacerbated by the country’s refusal to address its mélange of historical injustices that are the root cause of the growing antipathy they have towards one another; towards those who hold different political views.

He then offers that of all the historical injustices facing Kenya, “the land question is the thorniest”.

Those who have acquired land, oftentimes through nefarious means, also control the levers of military/law enforcement power.

These are the same people who have benefit/ted from pillaging resources from the various communities throughout the country – throughout Kenya’s history. In so doing, these individuals have accumulated economic power while simultaneously angering those whose communities were pillaged.

It is the clamor for the “power” of self-actualization promised at/by independence; by the dangled but unfulfilled promises of “matunda ya uhuru” that have Kenyans angry; angry at one another and angry at their government.

Until those standing on the opposite end of the barrel of a gun can walk a mile in the shoes of those facing the barrel of the gun, they will not empathize one with another.

This is particularly true if those holding the trigger believe that their stations in life are a function, not of malevolent machinations, but of an abundance of benevolent (divine) happenstance.

The false equivalence is that both sides of the divide are culpable in the lack of empathy the article alludes to.

It is a false equivalence because with power comes responsibility and power comes from the barrel of a gun and one side has a monopoly on guns.

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Silas Nyanchwani is a writer and journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

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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Reflections

So What is an African Immigrant Today?

Anti-migration policies against Africans and a general climate of persecution against foreigners in Europe and North America are sending African migrants to new destinations such as China, Turkey, the Middle East and even South America.

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So What is an African Immigrant Today?
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I was 24 when I fled Rwanda for the UK in 2007. A successful political reporter, I had just been made head of the flagship investigative pull-out magazine The Insight, whose work was gaining the admiration of many inside Rwanda. I also ran a weekly column, The Municipal Watchdog, writing about topical social issues, and was filing for Reuters, Al Jazeera, Xhinua, as well as the Associated Press. This was my life, and I loved every bit of it.

Meanwhile, some 4,000 miles away in the UK, and in my case Glasgow, a city that had now become home, a dangerous and sustained campaign against people like myself was taking shape. Britain was in the tenth year of a Labour government, and while the party had transformed the country’s economic fortunes, a particular kind of malaise was beginning to set in. Desperate for power, opposition party politicians (mainly Conservatives and UKIP) as well as sections of the media were starting to whip up public anger over two issues: immigration and welfare. Debates around immigration were getting nastier, often with racist undertones. The BBC broadcast The Poles are Coming, a 50-minute television documentary and part of the White Season Series in which filmmaker Timothy Samuels set out to interrogate the growing narrative against immigration.

“You don’t have to go far these days to find a little slice of Poland or Eastern Europe in your town,” he says, before adding, “But for some in Peterborough it’s all too much.” The film cuts to a crowded doctor’s surgery and school before a visibly irate middle-aged British man retorts that Peterborough is “completely and utterly swamped”. Seconds later, a town councillor chips in to say that the country has had enough of immigration.

I remember watching the documentary in my one-bedroom flat in Glasgow, and feeling scared. There is a tendency to think that asylum ends the day you become resettled. While this is somewhat accurate, it is far from the truth. The loneliness, the worry about all the things left behind, family and friends, keeps one wondering. Nothing is ever certain. It also depends on one’s specific threat. I know of people, myself included, who continue to look over their shoulder years after we were granted protection – because the truth is, you can never be sure. The question that kept coming back to me was, if this is how Eastern Europeans are treated, the majority of them white with blue eyes and so able to blend in, what chance is there for us Africans?

After all, I was already living in a high-rise building, with all sorts of neighbours, some of them active drug addicts or recovering addicts. But life goes on, and indeed it did. Despite the occasional noise, I got on well with my addict neighbours and was never subjected to insults or troubled in any way for the six months I lived in the flat.

A common misconception about those of us seeking refuge is the almost universal condemnation as to why we didn’t seek protection from the first safe country we entered. “France is a perfectly peaceful country, they could have stayed there,” I have heard people say of those crossing the Channel in dinghies. There are of course a myriad reasons why people may not avail themselves for protection in certain countries despite passing through them. People want to settle in countries where they have a local connection – friends, relatives, or because they speak the language.

I passed through Uganda, Kenya, and Holland before landing at Heathrow. In my asylum interview, I was asked why I did not seek protection in Uganda or Kenya. My answer was always the same: Rwanda continues to have very good relations with its neighbours, and in the case of Uganda, they share a border. The possibility of being harmed is increased the closer you are to the country you fled, and the better its relationship with one’s host country. Besides, there is no legal obligation for refugees to claim asylum in the safe countries they pass through. Declining to do so does not disqualify them from refugee status.

People want to settle in countries where they have a local connection – friends, relatives, or because they speak the language.

Most of these conjectures are built around a lack of understanding of the diversity of African migration. Anyone following debates on migration from Africa to the Global North might think that the burden is too much. But as studies have shown, this is not true. As The Elephant has previously reported, most African migration remains on the continent. Around 21 million documented Africans live in another African country, with countries such as Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt being some of the main destinations. Targeted anti-migration policies against Africans, implemented in part through stringent visa policies, and a general climate of persecution against foreigners in Europe and North America, have seen would-be African migrants head to new and more receptive destinations such as China, Turkey, the Middle East and, in some cases, South America.

From my own experience as a former asylum seeker, I know that migrants are not necessarily fleeing war or poverty. Those who saw me land at Heathrow on the morning of 22 July 2007 might have thought I was another African immigrant, escaping poverty and disease. But the truth is that, like the majority of the people who make it out of Africa into Europe and the Americas, I wasn’t. If anything, I was part of the African elite that is able to cut through the stringent visa requirements, can afford the pocket-busting airfares, and is able to take risks to come to countries where, whether they are seeking asylum or not, they are not exactly sure of the final outcome of their case. To the suffering Africans, this is often too much of an outlay, especially so when the country next door or the country a few countries north or south can welcome you and provide sanctuary for less than the cost of a UK visa. When it comes to migration into the Global North, Africans will only migrate if they have the ambitions and resources to make this happen.

Around 21 million documented Africans live in another African country, with countries such as Nigeria, South Africa and Egypt being some of the main destinations.

In the lead-up to the Brexit vote – which was heavily influenced by what those campaigning to leave the EU kept referring to as uncontrolled immigration – there were more Eastern Europeans in the UK than migrants from Africa or Asia combined. Yet the entire campaign was dominated by discussions about illegal immigration – deliberately painting the picture that the country was being swamped by foreigners, many of whom were already subjected to some of the most stringent visa requirements. Even Nigel Farage’s infamous Breaking Point poster, which was correctly reported to the police as inciting racial hatred, was deliberately punctuated with brown faces as if to emphasize the point that white migration is OK, non-white not as good.

I was having a discussion with one of my neighbours a few weeks ago – a son of Irish folk who migrated to Birmingham, England, in the 1950s. He has only been to Ireland twice in his life and while he considers himself Irish, he doesn’t think he is regarded as Irish. He speaks with a Birmingham accent and has lived in the South East of England for over 30 years now. I do not believe him to be racist but some of his views could be very easily construed as racist towards “these foreigners that can’t stop complaining”.

“Why is it only young men that are crossing the Channel?” he asked. “If the situation in their countries is so dire that they have to flee, why are they leaving behind their family? Would you leave your wife and children to be killed or even raped? I wouldn’t.” When I asked him what he would do if the only money he had left after selling most of his possessions was enough to transport one person out of a family of four, he replied: “I don’t know but I would have to think of something”. And when I pestered him to tell me what that something was, he responded: “I don’t know.”

And herein lies the folly of the dangerous migration rhetoric that has been carefully promoted by right-wing politicians with the help of an increasingly agenda-driven media. A son of an Irish couple, who left Ireland for a better life in Birmingham, and were most likely subjected to discrimination as IRA sympathisers during the Troubles, has grown up to Other those doing exactly what his parents did all those years ago. “We can’t let in everyone,” he says. Except we are not.

This article is part of a series on migration and displacement in and from Africa, co-produced by the Elephant and the Heinrich Boll Foundation’s African Migration Hub, which is housed at its new Horn of Africa Office in Nairobi.

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