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Reflections

Our Dreams Are Valid

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Our Dreams Are Valid
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On March 1, 2018, two weeks after its release, Black Panther movie was approaching a billion dollars in ticket sales. 10 days in, the movie leapt past the $400 million mark in domestic box office in the USA and over $700 million across the world. That is Stars Wars territory but with an All Black Cast to boot in a Marvel feature. This is the movie equivalent to the US Dream Team, at the 1992 Olympics at Barcelona. Never before had a finer group of talented basketballers come together and when they did, they took the world by storm. Black Panther is having its dream team moment as the showcase for black excellence and representation in cinema.

Black Panther is a beautifully shot film. The fictional country Wakanda is rich in detail. The central story is about belonging and heritage. Ryan Coolger, the 31-year-old African American director looks at Africa with a different set of eyes and response to this film in Kenya has been tremendous. A film is big when people pack theatres weekend after weekend and even during the weekdays to experience the magic of the big screen despite our home entertainment movie culture.

Black Panther is a tale told by Africans about a place far away that they call home. In some respects, an African dream inspired by Marcus Garvey’s rallying call to the African diaspora, “ Look to Africa, where a black king shall be crowned for the day of deliverance is at hand”. Ryan Coolger said in a Rolling Stone interview that Black Panther explored what it meant to be African.

From the inside looking out, Black Panther checked some heavily referenced “Poor Africa” stereotypes typical of the outsider perspective. Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wanaina in his popular essay “How To Write About Africa” offered some satirical advice.

In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country.

Readers will be put off if you don’t mention the light in Africa. And sunsets, the African sunset is a must. It is always big and red. There is always a big sky.

Black Panther gives a lot of prominence to the word tribe to describe the different people of Wakanda. The term tribe was used as a tool in the colonial policy of divide and rule. The enlightened way to describe native micronations in Africa is by their name, the Igbo, the Xhosa, the Turkana, the Shona. It is unnecessary to qualify African ancestry with the word tribe.

The Hollywood attempt at standardizing an African accent has to be resisted. Regional accents serve as a better representation of diversity. Accents can be assigned regionally as say speaking English with a Xhosa inflection. Then of course, every authentic African themed movie must end with a sunset scene and the Black Panther did not disappoint.

Away from the nitpicking, it is easy to forget that Black Panther is a film written for 10-year-olds and an adaptation of a comic character introduced in 1966, the same year that the Black Panther Party for Self Defense was founded in America. The politics of the movie was bound to stir debate on racial dignity and self-determination. This is a picture frothing on the brim in its commitment to celebrate African heritage. A counter superhero story brewed in an African pot. Black Panther has provoked an identity discussion about what it means to be African and it happening between Africans in the continent and in the diaspora. I have gotten swept up by the pages of analysis and reviews, drawn into debates about the representations of race in American cinema and the complexity of a black African identity.

I started going to the cinema in the 80s back when Nairobi had a vibrant movie theatre scenes. The cinema halls Kenya, 20th Century, Nairobi, Odeon, Cameo, Casino were within a 100m radius of each other in downtown Nairobi. They were two drive-in cinemas, Fox Drive on Thika Road and Bellevue Drive-in off Mombasa road. The 80s were rough years. Structural Adjustment Programmes and austerity set off an exodus to the West and with the rise of an authoritarian regime in Kenya, we looked to cinema for that much-needed escape from the frustration of the daily life pounding our parents. There was hardly ever any black representation on the big screen and when black people were shown they were typically in subordinate roles to the white lead. The big movie depictions of Africa were afflicted by Tarzan’s jungle fever. Africa and her people were backdrop props to foreign stories. The big African themed movies of my 80s were “Out of Africa, Gorillas in The Mist, Sheena, Queen of the jungle ( A blonde haired white woman riding a zebra through the savanna). Africa was a vast space where majestic game roamed free, peppered with noble savages and subservient labourers in pressed white khaki uniforms pledging loyalty to the benevolence of their white masters.

The first movie I encountered that challenged this stereotype was “ Coming To America” and it stood apart in the 80s for its leading men Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall and James Earl Jones. Coming To America is a romantic comedy about an African prince from the fabulously wealthy kingdom of Zamunda flying across the Atlantic in search of love. The prosperity of the fictional Zamunda kingdom was contrasted with the squalor that characterised the black underclass in Queens, New York. It parodied the African American ignorance of the African experience and introduced the radical idea then of sophisticated Africans appalled by the backwardness of American culture. There was an underlining satirical element to Coming To America. Africa in the Afro American consciousness was a place of poverty and primitive existence but within it existed oases of affluence, prosperity hiding in the open. In the kingdom of Zamunda and Wakanda, a glorious Africa thrived yet its story remained unknown in the Western worlds.

In the 80s, VCRs, video cassette recorders were all the rage and we started getting access to what was then the blaxploitation genre, with it stereotypical crime and violence themes. Spike’s Lee ( Do The Right Thing) and John Singleton’s ( Boyz N The Hood) became my most influential movies in this space and they helped raise awareness of systemic racism in America.

One time, I went to a video hall that screened martial arts and combat movies and settled to watch the legendary Bruce Lee in Enter The Dragon. I remember the crowd cheered when Jim Kelly with his Afro came into the scene as if to say, finally our own black kung fu master. They were hardly any black people in major roles and had no access to African cinema.

From then, I started consciously seeking out Afro conscious characters in the 90s who had multi-dimensional lead roles, among them Wesley Snipes (New Jack City), Denzel Washington (Malcolm X), Will Smith (Men In Black), Samuel Jackson ( A Time To Kill), Laurence Fishburne ( Just Cause), Whoopi Goldberg ( Sarafina) and Angela Basset (Waiting to Exhale).

The excellence of these pioneer cast of black leading men and women were crucial counter-narratives to the childhood images I was exposed to on the big screen of an African race defined by tragedy and backwardness. In the first decade of my life, Nelson Mandela was in jail. Apartheid was alive in South Africa. Steve Biko was brutally murdered in police custody. Samora Machel was assassinated. Thomas Sankara met the same fate within a year. There was civil war and coups in one half of Africa, brutal dictators in the other including Kenya and a devastating drought in Ethiopia. In America is where we sought black excellence. Collin Powell was making history as the first African American Joint Head of Staff, Jesse Jackson was running for President and the Oprah Winfrey show was nationally syndicated. These were our little black spots of brilliance in a world of global excellence that was lily white.

Compare these depictions to the past decade(post-2007), for the African child growing up in the continent. The president of the United States was a black man. The most beautiful woman in the world at least according to the People’s magazine in the world is black. The most recognizable liberation icon, is a black South African. Among America’s top TV hosts is a black South African. The top sports stars, from athletics, through to tennis and formula one are black. A biracial woman born of a black mother is about to marry an English royal. The biggest movie of the time, has an entirely Black cast with multidimensional and strong female characters and is dedicated to a theme of blackness. The dreams of one generation have become the reality of another.

Movies have served as crucibles for the dreams of black excellence. Black Panther is a movie that celebrates dreams and speaks to the power of re-imagining of black heritage in all its shades. At the centre of this black renaissance in American cinema is a cast of strong, dark-skinned African sisters. Which brings me to the influence of Lupita Nyong’o who plays a Wakandan spy and the king’s love interest named Nakia. The strongest appeal for someone born in the 70s of the Black Panther was its African representation. It is this same pride that I felt when Kenyan actors started to be cast in big-budget Hollywood features. Edi Gathegi (Twilight), Benjamin Otieno (Tears of The Sun) and Charles Gitonga Maina (Air Up There).

In 2013, Lupita Nyong’o strut into the global limelight when she won an Oscar for the supporting role, at the 86th Oscars for her performance in 12 Years A Slave. She delivered full bodied tributes to her mentors and crowned it off with the quotable line,

“No matter where you are from, your dreams are valid”.

Indeed, she was living the dream of any actress who cut her teeth in Kenya. In 2009, I met Lupita at the Story Moja literary festival at Impala Club in Nairobi. She was an unknown in the local art scene, save for local prominence of a family name as the daughter of a well-known politician, Professor Anyang Nyong’o’. Lupita was presenting a small documentary, titled “In My Genes” about living with Albinism in Kenya. It was certainly not the biggest thing happening at the festival. She was one among many young Africans hustling hard in an industry that did not give too many breaks. She had previously worked as a production crew member for Fernando Meirelles‘s The Constant Gardener and Mira Nair‘s The Namesake. Lupita was superb as Ayira in the television series Shuga and there was little doubt that she was an exceptional talent with her stand out role in the series. It seemed then, a tall order that a girl of her dark complexion would crack the black ceiling of American cinema. Perhaps, her look was only good for a representation role as the latest exotic African beauty on a fashion runway.

Then came along, Steve MC Queen’s historical drama 12 years A Slave and we say the rest is history. In one moment, Lupita became the first African, Kenyan and Mexican (Afro Mexicans exist) to win an Academy Award. Back home, we argued with movie-loving friends whether Lupita would inherit the curse of black success. The Kenyan public relishes in cutting tall poppies down to size, something that celebrated TV host Jeff Koinange once described as the PHD syndrome, Pull Him or Her Down. When success descends after hard labour, especially the nature that involves international accolades, one is advised to keep their head bowed. You might be big in Hollywood but back in Nairobi, one must not forget their humble beginnings.

Lupita’s body of work in the last 5 years since she won the Academy Awards is impressive. She has had a very good run in Hollywood so far and progressively risen in stature. For the pioneers in the arts like her, she cannot afford to lose focus because the pressure of excellence is not negotiable. It is important to the dreams of millions that she succeeds in line of work.

It is part of the deal with black excellence in the arts and twice as hard for women. Big dreams come bearing huge responsibilities and you can only get used to it. Be prepared to be celebrated and then eviscerated the moment you slip from grace.

Still, the significance of Black Panther is in its representation. Ryan Coolger talks of his own personal dream of representing black people in screens around the world. President of Marvel Studios Kevin Feige said this about Coolger in an Entertainment Weekly interview, “He’s making this movie for his 8-year-old self,”.

The entire Black Panther cast breathes new life into the connections between Africans and African Americans, the coming together of a black Diaspora scattered by forces of imperialism to dream up a counterculture reality, as Wakandans. The African diaspora ensemble includes Lupita from Kenya, Danai Giriria from Zimbabwe, Daniel Kaluuya from Uganda, Florence Kasumba who is German-Ugandan, Winston Duke from Trinidad and Tobago, John Kani and his son Atandwa Kani from South Africa, Letitia Wright born in Guyana and Isaac de Bankolé from Cote d’Ivoire.

Daniel Kaluuya, who plays W’Kabi in the film (and who was born in England to Ugandan parents) talks about coming home to Uganda and getting transformed by the subtle reality of seeing blackness in new light, from the president down to the cleaner. This seemingly simple act of representation has been consistent in inspiring prominent African American personalities for decades. Legendary standup comedian Richard Pryor talked about how a trip to Africa changed his perspective in 1979.

“I went to Kenya, and while I was there something inside of me said, “Look around you, Richard. What do you see? I saw people. African people. I saw people from other countries, too, and they were all kinds of colors, but I didn’t see any “niggers.”

Barack Obama talks about a sense of belonging on his first trip to Kenya in 1987, in his memoirs “Dreams of My Father” upon an encounter with a total stranger at the Jomo Kenyatta International airport who recognized his surname.

For the first time in my life, I felt the comfort, the firmness of identity that a name might provide, how it could carry an entire history in other people’s memories, so that they might nod and say knowingly, “Oh, you are so and so’s son.” No one here in Kenya would ask how to spell my name, or mangle it with an unfamiliar tongue. My name belonged and so I belonged, drawn into a web of relationships, alliances, and grudges that I did not yet understand.”

But perhaps no one said it more poignantly than Malcolm X after an extensive trip to Africa in 1964,

“I, for one, would like to impress, especially upon those who call themselves leaders, the importance of realizing the direct connection between the struggle of the Afro-American in this country and the struggle of our people all over the world. As long as we think—as one of my good brothers mentioned out of the side of his mouth here a couple of Sundays ago—that we should get Mississippi straightened out before we worry about the Congo, you’ll never get Mississippi straightened out.”

The central question of what it means to be African for Africans dislocated from their roots is what the characters of Black Panther grapple with. The plot line draws out the connection between the struggle for identity, representation and dignity for black people all over the world. It is a movie that challenges its viewers to imagine and rediscover the cultural heritage of black ancestry. It insists on the participation of black people in their own ideas for the future.

What is Wakanda, other than the dreams of Zion while in Babylon, dreams of Canaan while caught in captivity in Egypt or Heaven bound while enduring earthly suffering? Africa is a continent that has consistently stood aside and watched, Bob Marley prophesized, as its dream weavers were killed. The shared story in the birth of modern African nations, is one of stillborn dreams. Africa is in need of dreamers and in Black Panther’s Wakanda, a generation of young Africans is inspired to imagine and color a future on their own terms. That dream of a Pan African utopia must remain valid.

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Oyunga Pala is a Kenyan newspaper columnist.

Reflections

Our Grandmother’s Miniskirt: A People’s History Through Photographs and Stories

8 min read. It was the women of that time that intrigued me most and I was watching their lives with the impatient envy of a child. I wanted to grow up and wear those cat-eye glasses and cute kitten heels, burn my hair straight, drink Babycham and laugh like they did, with a hand full of bangles held out at just the right angle.

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Over the past few weeks, I’ve been inviting people to share photos of their mothers, grandmothers and aunties looking stylish in the fashion of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The idea, which we are calling “Our Grandmother’s Miniskirt”, is simple enough, crowdsource photographs from Kenyan homes of women dressed in the style of that era; the photographs will be accompanied by reflections, essays, short stories or poems. The aim is to capture a history of ordinary people and to share this history through physical exhibitions, an online archived exhibition, and a coffee table book. I see the project as a celebration of Kenyan women and gives a snap shot of the emergence of the modern Kenyan woman.

By the time we staged the first mini-exhibition with a selection of 27 photographs submitted by people from around the country, I had come to understand that projects are not easy in that they all require planning and careful execution, even if they excite people. Getting people to send their scanned photographs from precious family albums has been challenging. The project goes into the intimate spaces of families and asks them to override their tendency towards privacy and share their lives with strangers. Of course this was always going to be a trial. It was not surprising that although the daughters or granddaughters were enthusiastic to participate in the project, their mothers and grandmothers — the subjects of the photos — sometimes refused to allow them to share these images. But I’m glad the images are trickling in.

Implementing the project over the last few months has helped me see its possibilities and expanded its scope in so many ways. Most important I am now looking for photographs before the 1960s and of Kenyan women wearing a variety of dress and hairstyles. The secret to the power of the project has furthermore revealed itself in the act of crowdsourcing. This approach has allowed people to connect and own the project, much more than if the photos were purchased from a media source.

My Childhood: 1960s and 1970s

The photographs have unleashed a collage of memories for me. I was a child in the 1960s and the 1970s watching Nairobi slowly emerge from its colonial yoke and my parents seemed to be at the centre of it all. They were amongst that group of Africans who were literally stepping into the shoes left by our colonial powers. My late father’s (William Ndala Wamalwa) career developed quickly and after only two or three years in government service, he stopped driving himself and moved to the senior government ranks.

But it was the women of that time that intrigued me most and I was watching their lives with the impatient envy of a child. I wanted to grow up and wear those cat-eye glasses and cute kitten heels, burn my hair straight, drink Babycham and laugh like they did, with a hand full of bangles held out at just the right angle. But most of all I wanted to wear those glamorous clothes that I saw women wear to parties and dinners – there seemed to be a party or dinner every other weekend! Miniskirts, bell-bottom trouser suits, halter tops, maxi dresses, stilettoes, kitten heels. I wanted to dance to the very dangerous James Brown, the elegant Supremes, the cool Fadhili William, the revolutionary Miriam Makeba, and the handsome Harry Belafonte. I thought all these musicians were my parents’ friends. Imagine my shock when I grew up enough to understand that these were distant celebrities.

Burning Hair

For African women, hair means everything. Women spend large sums of money on our hair and even more woman-hours on styling it. Braiding can take eight hours. Typically a myriad of products are used on African hair, from oils, pomades, sprays, gels, dyes, treatments, conditioners and shampoos. How seriously do African women take their hair? Well in the days when we still had plastic bag around, Kenyan women could be seen risking their reputations by wearing plastic bags on their heads in broad daylight, to stop their hair from getting wet during an unexpected downpour.

But when it comes to hair, there was a simpler time. In the early 1960s, hair straightening was not yet fashionable and chemical relaxers had not yet arrived in the country. Kenyan women still wore their natural hair and fashioned it using African hairstyle traditions that involved elaborate cornrows, braids and plaiting. Saturday was the day when hair was dressed, typically with the help of skilled friends or relatives. Hair salons were still a faraway concept and the hair industry was a rudimentary affair and not the billion shilling industry of today.

In our home, many Saturdays found Aunty Truphena dressing my mother’s hair. Aunty Truphena was not my mother’s sister. But she and my mother were closer than sisters. They came from one of the smallest of the eighteen Luyhia sub-tribes, the Abanyala ba Ndombi, who are located in Navakholo division, north of Kakamega forest, in western Kenya. At that time, not many people seemed to have made it out of my Bunyala and it was rare to meet a Mnyala in Nairobi.

Sometimes Aunty Truphena straightened my mother’s hair using a hot comb heated on a charcoal jiko. She divided the wet hai,r drenched it in liquid coconut oil, and burnt it straight with the hot comb. Next she rolled the hair onto pink rollers and pinned it down. I wondered how she had learnt to dress hair like that. Her own hair was forever hidden under the flowered scarf that she always wore.

Nigerians Come to Town

The late 1960s were marked by an influx of Nigerians who came with their loud laughter, outsized personalities and strange food. They were mostly Igbos who had fled to Kenya as refugees from the Biafran War (1967-1970), but there was nothing “refugee pathetic” about them. In fact they came and took over our live,s adding flavour and passion like I had never experienced. I remember the names of one family in particular: Chief Jerome Oputa Udoji[1], his wife Mrs. Uzoamaka Udoji (Aunty Uzo) and their three children Scholastica, Osita Paul and Peter Ebelechukwu. The photograph of my mother below was taken at that time, and it was Aunty Uzo who made me realise just how beautiful my mother was, when she loudly exclaimed that my mother looked like Miss Kenya.

Mrs Rose Nanjala Wamalwa (Sitawa Namwalie’s mother) as an executive secretary at the Ford Foundation in Nairobi, Kenya (early 1970s). Photo Credit: Studio One.

Aunty Uzo was a force of nature. She and the other Nigerian women introduced me to a different way of being African. They were militant in taking on any vestigial racism that still had the temerity to cling on and even fight back, so soon after Kenya’s Independence. Aunty Uzo often regaled us with stories of the many battles she fought when white people dared to assert their colonial-era privilege. For us Kenyans, would so often acquiesce to everyday racism from the British, but not a Nigerian and definitely not Aunty Uzo. She fought with the priests at St. Mary’s school in Lavington where her sons were enrolled and she fought when white people tried to jump queues in banks or supermarkets and she argued with African waiters who tried to ignore her in restaurants. She was strong and assertive, always encouraging Kenyans not to be cowed by white people.

There were days when Aunty Uzo took over our kitchen and taught my mother how to cook Nigerian food, subjecting us to strange new flavours and aromas. Every so often our kitchen was overwhelmed by the strong smell of a dried fish imported direct from Nigeria which was even more pungent than our sivambala catfish dried in the hot sun of western Kenya. I learnt that Nigerians waste very little, cooking all parts of the goat,:the skin, meat, innards and hooves. The one dish that really tested my rather narrow palate as a child was a soup that combined beef, fish and chicken which Nigerians seemed to particularly love. When the war in Nigeria ended, our Nigerian friends left, leaving us changed for ever. But soon their place was taken by Ugandans fleeing the abuses of Idi Amin who began his rule in 1971, but that is a story for another day.

About the Exhibition

These photographs have triggered so many memories for me and it is my hope that they will do the same for all who see them. They document the social history of ordinary people in Kenya. I’ve learned that the past can be another country, sometimes a more interesting country than the narrow ideas that populate the present. I shared the premise of “Our Grandmother’s Miniskirt” with a young man, Basil Ibrahim who taught me the word hagiographic when he wrote the following in an email about the project;

“…a particularly interesting deviation from the hagiographic custom of The Great Men model of history-making…It is a model for bringing the archive to life, using memory, popular culture…in an experiment to provoke us to think about the implications the past has on the future we want.” (17 August 2019)

What he meant was that we tend to make saints of certain “great men” of the past (hagiography means the making of a saint), while ignoring the stories of ordinary people, who lived through those times. I hope that this project will correct that tendency towards hagiography.

When arranged chronologically, the photographs begin with one from1945 of a woman named Gatoro Ndugi M’Chabari, dressed in the traditional dress of the Tharaka ethnic community. The type of dress she wears was worn by married women. The unmarried ladies had their breasts left uncovered. The photograph was submitted by Mr Simon Mitambo, Gatoro’s nephew and shows her in what can only be described as a brief miniskirt. The photo was taken in Meru town in 1945, after entertaining the then colonial governor of Meru. In discussing her traditional dress, Gatoro Ndugi M’Chabari — who is over 90 years old — had the following to say: “Although we looked almost naked in miniskirts, there were no cases of sexual harassment.”


Gatoro Ndugi M’Chabari,
from the Tharaka ethnic community. 1945, Photograph submitted by Mr Simon Mitambo.

In another story entitled, “The Village Woman and Son, Bound for England” John Sibi-Okumu pays tribute to his mother Maria Ajiambo, wa Agostino Munika nende Sarah Mbaye (the names of her parents.) She was also addressed as Naliali, her clan name from the Samia of Western Kenya. John estimates that she was born in 1936.

Maria Ajiambo wa Agostino Munika nende Sarah Mbaye, mother of John Sibi-Okumu. The photograph was taken in 1958 at Noble Studio in Nairobi when John, her first born son, was four years of age.

John’s story of his mother reveals many intriguing circumstances, first being that his mother was born on a sisal estate in Juja, Kalimoni, where his grandfather worked as a nyapara or ‘overseer.’ John notes that Tom Mboya was born in similar circumstances, showing the country had already started to change with people migrating from their homes and making new homes in different parts of the country.

Rosalie Kere wearing a “Stiff” skirt and her “Beehive” hairstyle (1961). Photograph submitted by Caroline Kere.

Caroline Kere shared the photographs of her mother Rosalie Kere – the first photo above – who had the distinction of being a poster girl for soap called “Nakasero” and “Lux” in the early 1960s. Caroline’s tribute story to her mother has the intriguing title, “The Amazing Story of How my Father Found my Mother”. Her mother and father’s story is such an improbable romance story worthy of a blockbuster Nollywood film, that you can read for yourself at the exhibition, the online archive or in the coffee table book that is to come.

What follows is an exhibition of selected photographs.


Grace Ntini, from Narok County. The photograph was taken in Nairobi in 1969. Grace was 24 years old and worked for Avis Rent-A-Car Company. The photograph was submitted by Grace’s sister-in-law, Rosemary Mesopirr.


Rosemary Mesopirr, who
was 14 years old and a primary school pupil in the rural areas of Narok County. This photograph was taken in Mombasa in 1974. This was the first time she travelled to the Kenyan coast to visit her father who was a civil servant then. It was her first time to board a bus.

 

My Stylish Mother
By Doris Rutere

My mother Cecilia Kanyoe was a copy typist at Marimanti Rural Training Centre back in 1975. She was always detailed and careful in her choice of office wear. In this photograph she is wearing closed toe heels and has broken her suit with a turtleneck that matches her head gear, a chain and a wrist watch. I think they present a level of sophistication making her refined and chic. Next to her is Esther Muthoni, who was my mother’s friend. In the picture, she wears a wide belt on her cute mini-dress to create contrast while matching her head gear partly with her shoes. 

Both women are quite careful in how they let their hands rest on their thighs.

 

Joyce Akoth, pregnant with her fifth born in 1973. This picture was taken in the early 1970s when Joyce worked as a teacher and before joining the Ministry of Public Works. The photograph of Joyce Akoth was submitted by her daughter Esther Adiambo.

***


Nancy Wanjiku Kimani , the photo was taken outside Kijabe Nursing Institute, where she was undergoing training as a nurse in Kijabe Town (1969). The photograph was submitted by her daughter Ruth Kimani.

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Reflections

A Letter to Stella Nyanzi: “You Teach Us to Lay Blame Exactly Where It Belongs”

6 min read. Too often we are willing to believe that if we are calm enough, if we are silent enough, polite enough, eloquent enough, poised enough, then the tyrants will listen. We believe that if we are ‘’well mannered’’ then we will be heard. You remind us that this is deception.

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A Letter to Stella Nyanzi: “You Teach Us to Lay Blame Exactly Where It Belongs”
Photo: Facebook/Stella Nyanzi
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My sister Nyanzi,

I used to think tyranny means one-party rule, one media station and army garrisons everywhere. Now I know tyranny also means that who we love, how we live, how we die and even the speed of our death is chosen for us by people that never have to face us, by people that have learned not to fear our wrath or our collective pain. You have taught me this, because both of us live under tyrannies. As I write this, you are in Luzira Maximum Security Prison contending with the tyrannies of the prison authorities, the judicial system, the police, Makerere University, Museveni and his state and personal machinery. We live under multiple tyrannies at once, some more immediate than others, all of them intent on silencing us.

I am writing this from Kenya. I am writing from a country reeling through an economic recession that the state’s press statements will never admit exists. A manmade recession fueled by the looting that seems to grow more arrogant with each day. As I write this, many Kenyans are dying in public hospitals because there is no medicine or the doctors have not been paid or someone stole the money for the equipment. As I write this, there are young people attending endless seminars on entrepreneurship because they face grim rates of unemployment, this too is manmade disaster. I don’t know how many young men the police have killed today; I don’t know how many women have been sexually abused or killed by a country that just seems to hate its women. There are also the university students who are teargassed and beat up every time they try to march, and the many communities unhumaned by the state. I don’t know how many queer people have been stripped or raped or mocked or told to prove they are human beings today. These are the tyrannies I live under.

We share some of these tyrannies and for this, I call you sister. Allow me to call you Stella.

When you staged your first nude protest at Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), several academics gave media interviews to say that they condemned your protest and found it to be ‘’too much’’, they mockingly asked if negotiations had failed for you to go to such lengths. More insultingly, some said while they agreed you had legitimate grievances, you could have been more civil. They seem to think that you should have spoken more sweetly. I laughed when I heard them. You know how tyranny works Stella, how it works especially well in bureaucracies. You know how good bureaucracies are at silencing and ignoring. You and I know that bureaucracies move at exactly the speed dictated by tyranny, no faster and no slower.

It is a maddening thing to realize that even in the hallowed halls of universities, we are ignored and insulted and treated anyhow, as our people say. It is more maddening to know that our emails, our eloquent letters and our pleas will go unheard when tyranny is present, as it was at MISR. Tyranny often wears a nice suit and can be well spoken and well respected. At Makerere, you used the tools at your disposal in defense of yourself. The tools on that day were red paint, cellotape, your body, your voice and camera. Those were the tools available to you. The other important tool in your arsenal, arguably the most potent, is your refusal of respectability.

So often, women are only celebrated when we protest in service of the men in our lives — our brothers, our fathers, anyone but ourselves. I think of all of us who are scared of speaking in our own defense, scared of organizing for our own wellbeing, our reproductive freedom, our sexual freedom, our safety. I think of how we have been intimidated to believe that this is entitlement, as if being entitled is a bad thing. How many of us have swallowed indignity after indignity because the only person being humiliated is us?

Here, I pause, in the middle of my letter to acknowledge and greet you in the movements you come from, the movements that have shaped you and supported you. We know that often people are isolated from their movements in order to make them messiahs. But messiahs always fail because they don’t really exist. I greet you in the name of the #RotAtMISR , #WomensMarchUG , #ThisTaxMustGo , #PeoplePowerMovement and the many offline political actions you have taken. From standing in solidarity with students of Makerere when they protested arbitrary inclusion of fees, to caring for the Arua 33 that were victims of state violence, to dealing with menstrual injustice through the #Pads4GirlsUG movement.

It is from your movements that you have dealt with the effects of Museveni’s tyranny intimately, by seeing how your comrades are brutalized and seeing how relaxed the dictators can be even in the face of impassioned pleas for even a small measure of justice. You have seen your movements forced to wait on the dictator’s time. We all do so much waiting after all. We wait for enough money to take our relatives to decent hospitals and decent schools, we wait for courts to vindicate us and for the churches to speak for justice and for the police to stop killing. On both sides of the Malaba border, we wait. A feminist sister, Mumbi, has written about how we are forced to wait on the state’s time, wait on tyranny’s time, in order to live as human beings. Mumbi considers that one of the ways we can disrupt the state’s time is through the communities we build and how we care for each other.

You have given us another answer to how we can disrupt the state’s time; by abandoning respectability and politeness. After all, the tyrants know exactly what they are doing when they abuse our humanity. From your political actions, your Facebook posts, and your court appearances, we learn to call the tyrants by name and declare their shame to them. I read somewhere that your father died because of the poor healthcare system in Uganda, and in your writing, you lay the responsibility for this on Museveni’s head. Rightfully so. Another feminist sister, Sunshine, says that this is reminiscent of what Fela Kuti did when his mother (and our feminist ancestor) Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti died from injuries she got after the Nigerian police raided Fela’s home. Fela took his mother’s coffin to the army barracks, to Olusegun Obasanjo, who for all intents and purposes had killed Funmilayo. When you call Museveni a pair of buttocks, that is exactly what you are doing, connecting the tragedy of all the deaths and suffering caused by a sick state to the head of the state. Truth telling can start there, by us clearly naming the tyrants and abusers.

For some reason, tyrants hate this. They are shocked at the idea that we might call them what they are: abusers, misogynists, sexists, thieves, robbers, murderers, homophobes. You teach us to lay blame exactly where it belongs, to practice the radical truth telling that refuses to be distracted by bureaucracy. Stella, you say that politeness has been held captive, and the powerful don’t listen anymore, and sometimes we have to say fuck it and then people will listen.

Too often we are willing to believe that if we are calm enough, if we are silent enough, polite enough, eloquent enough, poised enough, then the tyrants will listen. We believe that if we are ‘’well mannered’’ then we will be heard. We think if we bend ourselves enough, the tyrants will feel some pity for us. You remind us that this is deception. Good manners are decided by the powerful, and after all — isn’t it the worst manners to steal and oppress? Yet no one accuses tyrants of having bad manners. No, bad manners are left to be a cross for us to carry to hasten our own silencing, our own internal and final deaths. Respectability protects the comfort of the tyrants. Your political actions show us that when we shed politeness, we can disturb their peace in potent ways.

You, like Audre Lorde, know that our silence will not save us. Not only that, but politeness and niceness cannot save us either. You know that we only get silent to work out our internal convictions and from there, we use whatever tools we have to shout, be it our bodies, our phones, our voices. We shout. We shout because we are being killed either way. Your poetry, court appearances and nude protest are all political actions, asking us what we are still afraid of. What do we gain by protecting the comfort of these tyrants to enjoy their theft, their tyranny unoffended?

Stella, you are a woman who has reached into herself and taken joy, taken brazenness and categorically refused shame. Your body is your manifesto, as you say, and with it, you declare and live your radical queer feminist politics every day. We are affirmed by you.

Some people think you are fearless, others believe you are unashameable, I don’t believe either of them. Even with the best intentions, they are trying to make you iron, invulnerable, and otherworldly. I know different. You are not otherworldly Stella, you are fully human.

In care and love,

Karwitha

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Reflections

A Letter To Stella Nyanzi: The Revolution Lives in You

7 min read. I want, like you, to steadily and surely offend anything that stands in the way of freedom, of liberation, of love, of justice, of truth, of humanity. Let me be rude, let me be all these things, if all they are trying to say is that I am free, unbound.

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A Letter To Stella Nyanzi: The Revolution Lives in You
Photo: Flickr/Chapter Four Uganda
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My sister Nyanzi,

We grew up on folktales and stories that spoke on the value of truth, of clarity, of assertiveness. We read about scheming animals always having to face the consequences of their actions, while those characters that upheld the truth were the examples that we were meant to emulate. Yet, somehow, these stories were supposed to remain suspended in our minds, perhaps as pieces of entertainment. No one wanted a truth teller, especially not a primary school going child. I have gone through most of my life being called rude, difficult, entitled or spoilt, by aunties, by cousins, by teachers, and by neighbors who cautioned their children against associating with me. Most of my life, I thought there was something wrong with how God made me.

Why did my teachers punish me for speaking truth? Why did I go home, my body tender from a caning because I asked the teacher to explain the logic behind making students kneel on gravel? Why did my cousins whisper behind my back, saying that my opinions were rude, that my parents had spoilt me, and that I was too entitled? I questioned a lot, yet I did not see any other way to live. I knew the truth to be good, even when it seemed a heavy weight on my heart. Each one of us owes ourselves the truth. The truth is our duty. It is my duty, a duty that you have taken on and stood by, even when the very ground is threatening to betray you.

I am writing this after returning to Kenya from a visit to Uganda less than 24 hours ago. I thought about you a lot during my stay there. I thought about all the Ugandans who have lived their lives silencing themselves, their truth, their pain, their desires, their ability to want to imagine freedom because of fear, fear not born of themselves, but of tyranny, from the ways in which their society has dealt with ‘rude’ individuals. I saw children going to school, with heavy bags and tender spirits. I thought of all the stories, the theory, the language they are being taught about morality and truth, knowing that they are probably being short-changed. I thought about how they are being taught that truth depends on who holds the power to instill fear.

Are the children being told that truth is silence? Are they being told that truth is folding the pain in their hearts into smiles? Are they being told that truth is accepting state and religious terrorism? Are the children carrying fear in their heavy bags? Are they rushing home to be cautioned against following in the footsteps of Dr. Stella Nyanzi? I thought about your multiple arrests, and how that has been weaponized to further silence, to further disregard, and to further trample on the possibility of individual and collective expression. What do the children think when they see you on television? What do they say about you in their private conversations?

It is no secret that we live in a world that rewards complacency. The systems we live under: economic, social, and political, are so fragile and fickle that they have made us scared of ourselves. Of course, all this is deliberate, to maintain control. We live under the giant lie that we get to choose. We choose which schools our children go to, what we will purchase, how we will spend our time, how we will interact with authority, what and how we teach our children, yet all this exists under tyranny. We have been robbed of our humanity, of our ability to make decisions guided by what aligns with truth, with courage, with kindness. That is why, Stella, the children are being taught politeness, one that will rob them of their ability to speak up in the face of injustice when they are told that they cannot love who they want to love, when they are told that they don’t belong, when they are told that their lives are not precious, when they are lied to over and over, when they are made to wait for their rights, when they are killed, when they are hurt, when their education is used to oppress them, and when their lives become small residues of what freedom might have looked like, when they are reduced to small ‘maybes’ and ‘could have beens.’

That is why many people may be blind to the importance of your protest, which is in effect, a protest to your protest. Is this the tragedy of having a heart constantly pursuing freedom?

When I first read about you, I felt so affirmed that I cried. When I saw you speaking, how you spoke, what you spoke about, I remember feeling small eruptions of heavy joy inside me amidst the pain of seeing how the state responded to you. I prayed for the courage to want, so intently and so intentionally, the kind of truth abiding freedom that oozed from your heart. I prayed that I am brave enough to bare it all in the face of millions of odds stacked against me. I prayed that I may never steer away from a life tied to imagining, wanting and working towards freedom, towards a life unbound by fear. They have used your truth to call you obscene, to call you indecent, to call you lascivious, and to say that you are profane. They say you hold no remorse, but why should you? They call you untamed, rude, vulgar, and reckless; they call you intolerable. In the churches, they are saying that you are sinning against god. In truth, all they are trying to say is that you are free. Unbound. Your spirit can never be contained. They do not have the language for any of this because they speak the language of fear. The voice of truth makes them afraid. Your life is testimony that freedom is possible. Unbounded freedom. Freedom that is safe from tyranny, freedom that tugs on the heart and forces you to run towards the what is right, what is eternal, and what is true.

So let me live a vulgar disrespectful life. Let me be seriously and gloriously profane. Let me be intolerable. Let the people say that no man will marry me. Especially that. Let me be disagreeable. Let me be a sinner. Unapologetically. Let me be ungovernable. Let me be untamed. Let me be unremorseful. Let me be untethered. Let my life insult them. Let me be offensive. Let my freedom live as critical evidence that truth exists, that it always sits sharp and intentional, between my joy and my pain. I am shameless. I am unafraid. I am a manifestation of defiance. Let my life be shaped by defiance and resistance. I want to steadily and surely offend anything that stands in the way of freedom, of liberation, of love, of justice, of truth, of humanity. Let me be rude, let me be all these things, if all they are trying to say is that I am free, unbound. Let my life be grandly disruptive. That’s what I want. Let us all be grandly disruptive, in our small ways, in standing up in our small pockets of possibility. May we be the embodiment of radical rudeness.

Manners always end up on the shelves, next to civility, collecting dust and making the silence louder. This is why the despots love them. This is why we are told to use ‘respectable civil channels,’ when that in itself is an injustice: to be told we will be heard by the very tools which ensure we remain unheard. You live in a country under dictatorship, under tyranny, under evil rule. So do I, so do so many people on this continent. They have arrested our freedoms, kept them locked up. They lie, they steal, and they laugh at us for wanting to live. They deny us belonging, they want to take away everything, our voices, the voices of the children, even before they break.

Stella, they want us to beg them. They want us to lick their feet, grateful for the smelly crumbs. They want us to crawl on our bellies, waiting for permission to sit on our buttocks, then to kneel before them, and then finally, maybe, to stand, when they will it, how they will it, for their benefit. I refuse. Let these tyrants sweat in terror at the mention of your name, let them tremble at the sound of your song, your poetry, your protest, your truth, your prayer, your defiance. Let all the despots shake and fear at the sound of our collective lament. Let peace be least of their experiences. Let them tremble. May they tremble.

I refuse politeness. I dedicate my life to unlearning respectability, because at the end of it all, divine freedom is fearless. It is not neat and pretty and dainty. It is rude, it is vulgar, it is naked, it is wild, it is unashamed, it is raw, it is profane, it is indecent. It is loud. It is demanding and disrespectful. It is you. You are divinely free, and they cannot take that away from you. The entire revolution has already happened inside you, and we get to experience that, from your life, your words, your work, hoping that we can meet you, where you are, in whatever capacity we can. You have taught me that when we are silent, we are more at risk of pain, of suffering, of living lives suspended on insubstantial strings of fear, always waiting on where our next small redemption will come from. You have taught me that the process of truth is rewarding, not in the ways in which the world rewards, but the ways in which the spirit rewards. The process is indeed the shortcut. It is the homage to freedom, to the channels between us and liberation.

So I am writing this to you, and to my 15 year old self, to my 10 year old self, and to the black children who will live after us. I am writing this to myself, before I accepted that I am brazen, before I accepted that nothing is wrong with me, that maybe everyone who called me rude for speaking the truth was just afraid and cowardly, because this world thrives on the fear of people. I am writing this to my sisters, to my mothers, to everyone who has housed silence and shame in their hearts. I am writing this to you, hoping that you can rest in the knowledge that there are so many of us who are holding your spirit, your soul, your heart, your dreams, in our spirits, in our souls, in our hearts, in our dreams, during this time and always. We stand in solidarity with you, with your defiance, and with your dreams of freedom. Your life has affirmed us in so many ways, and knowing that you live an absolutely unapologetic life has sustained the bulk of my ability to imagine freedom. I hope like you, I can show up as my highest, truest self, always. May your words continue to be the fuel that will sustain the fire that will consume all these tyrants, all these despots, all these oppressors, all these dictators.

Thank you for refusing shame, for refusing fear, for embracing love, for embracing the call of truth and freedom. Thank you for always showing up as your full self, thank you for making it possible to for so many of us to imagine other ways of living, of being. Thank you for your poetry, for remaining tender, for remaining you.

In love and solidarity,

Kedolwa

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