“I resist fanatic nationalism. We die for the flag, and who dies? It is the poor, not the rich.” – Nawal El-Sadaawi
There is something about being alive at a certain age when certain events happen. The consciousness alone makes you feel as if everything you have observed since childhood has been a build-up to this singular moment. And the awareness to be able to say, “I was alive when this happened.” That is how I felt about the 2017 elections. The build-up, the climax, and the inevitable anti-climax all informed me of my role in the society, making me realise that despite existing in the same country, we are still very far from being a nation that endures and thrives in its commonality while cherishing the differences.
JUNE 27, 2017
The man in the orange jumper stands to my left and tells me he is hungry. I roll this sentence in my head and wonder what I should do with this information. He proceeds to ask if I can give him something small for a meal. I keep walking. A bus hoots as it leaves the stage and while reversing, it temporarily blocks my path. The man is still with me, his breathing louder and closer to me. He tells me to slow down, I don’t. I have known not to talk to these types. Then he grabs my arm and tells me,
“You know we don’t like hurting people but if you don’t give me something, I will kill you.”
My heartbeat is the sound of a drum inside my head. I pause and regard his face – oblong, whistle nose, stubs of hair on his chin and dreadlocks that jump from his head and fall on his shoulders – as one regards the face of an adversary. It is no use fighting, I know I won’t win. I reach into my pockets and hand him a creased, aged two hundred shillings note. He takes it, shoves it into his pocket and tells me that’s not enough. I am taken aback by the audacity. “You know, we are too many and this won’t be enough.”
That is when I feel the second man to my right. I do not turn to face him. His voice is all the face I need; groggy like he is just woken from a deep sleep.
“Ongeza pesa brathe.” I am hesitant to add any more money. It’s that time of the month and I only have 2,200 on my person. If I give it to him, I will have nothing. But better to have nothing than not be alive, right? So I fish out the 2,000 shillings and hand to the man in dreadlocks. He tells me, “Tafuta zingine.”
“Sina.” I retort. My heart sinks to a place of despair.
“Toa ile iko kwa Mpesa.”
I tell him my Mpesa balance is zero and he demands to see. I tell him I can’t give him my Mpesa PIN and he says I show him the message. He threatens again to harm me and I show him the message. He takes the phone and puts it away.
A third person has now appeared – tall, lanky and with breath that is the stench of something rotting. He places something round, metallic and cold around the lower part of my back and asks where I am coming from. I tell him that I am from school. He grabs my backpack and asks if I am carrying a laptop. I am terrified and I nod. He asks if I love my life. I have never thought of an answer to that question. What does it mean to love your life? I tell him, I do and hand over the backpack. Inside: Everything I can lay claim to as a student. All gone within a moment. People stand around and look at me being stripped of my possessions and dignity.
But this is Nairobi, and to intervene is to interfere; something that may cost your life. So they all witness and participate as accomplices to the vile act. The participants, the witnesses and the participating witnesses are all victims of a broken down system that no longer cares about the existence of the same people they are meant to protect. A government that once elected into office, ceases to care about anything else except power.
I am alive at the end of it all, when they run back to the dark alleys where they are bound to split my belongings like the scavengers they are. I walk towards the bus station. I feel dirty, violated, threatened. I feel as if a huge chunk of my being has been yanked from me. All the hard work, slipping through my fingers. I mean, what’s the whole point of working hard when it can all be taken away from you in the split of a moment? In the weeks to follow, several friends of mine lament on social media about the rising crime rates. They all report having been stripped of their phones, laptops, cameras, money.
A few minutes before this incident I am seated with a friend at a cafe along Kimathi Street talking about how in this country, everything seems to be geared towards killing the people it’s meant to protect (paraphrase). A bleak conversation that morphs, folds, moves away and ends in laughter.
I get home and call my mother. She comforts me and tells me I am lucky to be alive. I know what she means. Two weeks before this incidence, I wake up to the news that a Facebook friend of mine attempted to resist being robbed and he was shot. The concrete that lines the floor of the city, like the vampire it has been trained to be, drunk his blood and vomited nothing back. That is why I am lucky to be alive. Equating existence to valuables. Not ideal. But in this city, nothing is ideal.
I tell my mother that I want to leave Nairobi. To go to Kisumu, to surround myself with familiarity and safety. Her voice, on the other side, “During an election year, nowhere is safe.”
AUGUST 8, 2017
KISUMU – GEM
The queue at the polling station snakes and winds without regard to the biting chill that finds its way into the bones. People – young, old, tired, restless, energetic – stand like stacks of old batteries ready to be knocked down by a stone in a children’s game. Perhaps it is the way that people rise early to join the queues, with some sleeping at the polling stations, that makes me wonder if they truly believe in the electoral system or they cling to the hope that by casting their vote, they will finally have a say in how the country is run. Either way, I think it comes from a place of obligation. The question is, to who is this obligation owed? For some, tribe; for others, class. How many can truly say this obligation is towards the country – inspired by feelings of patriotism?
At dusk, we get into a car and head for our rural home. “This place will not be safe.” My mother to my father in the hope that it spills to us. She has bought packets of unga, rice, omena, and cooking oil in readiness for any eventuality. Her voice is a blunt object drawn over glass when she tells me, “There may be a war this time.”
I start thinking about this possibility and I wondered where would be safe. I left – ran away from – Nairobi in the hope that Kisumu would provide that cushion against the horrors of the world, but the days after the elections have shown that sometimes, as a citizen, you try running away from the thieves, thugs and vagabonds only to meet the police and the distinction, I have realised, is near non-existent.
DECEMBER 12, 2017 – JANUARY 30, 2018
KISUMU – NAIROBI
The elections are gone, but the politics is alive and the vigour that accompanies it is felt nowhere else than in the city of Kisumu. The sons and daughters of the lake are charged politically and the news that the Opposition leader, Raila Odinga, is to be sworn in is all that is on the tongues of the residents of Kisumu. Living in Kisumu has opened me to the awareness that the people around me have deliberately refused to acknowledge the election of Uhuru Kenyatta, instead choosing to believe that the election was won by Raila Odinga and he, rightfully, ought to sit on the ‘throne’. When met with economic hardships, I hear the people around me mumble, “Uhuru has spoilt the country. We wouldn’t be having this is Raila was the president.”
I am too young to understand the enigma that is Raila Odinga. Being born in the 90s denies me the ability to share in the love or disdain that people seem to have for him. The bits I know about him is what I have read in the history books, newspapers, seen on TV, heard on radio and fed to me in portions by relatives and family who have an inkling of how he came to be who he is. And much as I am cognizant of the contributions towards the democratic space we enjoy now, I do not share in the enthusiasm of my parents who tell us to keep quiet every time Raila is on the TV. They believe he is the only one who can bring the much-needed redemption.
Like my younger brother who doesn’t understand why we couldn’t just Mpesa someone when we talk about the hardships of sending someone money in the early part of the millennium, I am detached from the voice that is Raila Odinga. The detachment, I believe, comes from the fact that as much as he has always championed the ideals in the society and most times spoke for people of my parents’ generation, I believe he no longer speaks to me and the people of my generation. The frustration is even more apparent when as a young Luo man, living in Kisumu, I have to navigate spaces where he is constantly the discussion. My parents look at my siblings and me when we say we don’t get the whole ‘Raila-mania’ and they wonder what they did wrong in parenting.
Perhaps, this ‘Raila-mania’ is their way of coping with the reality that is not shared by us.
What does it mean for a man to have a cult personality that draws thousands and thousands of people to him like moths towards the Optimus™ lamp? At what point in a man’s life does he achieve god-like status to the extent that people – other men, women – are able to lay their lives for him if it comes to it? These are questions I am unable to answer.
Someday, the hope is, I will be able to understand.
Naming the Sins of our Fathers
On June 8, 2015, I stood in a labour ward waiting for our bundle of joy. When she arrived, shortly after 10.30 a.m., I was beside myself with joy, totally overwhelmed.
Those of a religious disposition know the kind of emotions one goes through when God answers prayers. For the longest time, I prayed to God for a daughter to name after my late mother. The first glance at her, revealed a double stroke of luck; she was not only a girl, but she took after my mother.
I stood in the corridors overjoyed, painfully aware that in under two months I would leave the young one to go for my graduate studies in the United States. I was torn. I wanted to spend every waking moments with the girl for two reasons: Biologically she is my daughter and culturally, she is my mother too. Secondly, I never had a father, and to me, this was a divine chance to try and be the best father she would ever want. Sure, against my will, going for grad school proved to be most stressful experience, I was so depressed in New York Streets that I barely coped with the class room pressure. Upon graduation, I boarded the next plane home and spent the next 10 months bonding with my little girl. It was the most fulfilling thing in the world.
Kids are so sweet. Makes me wonder why men run away from them.
I have never seen my father. I do not know if he knows that I exist. I do not know if he is still around or he died a long time ago. Whether he is still in active employment or long retired. I do not know if I have other stepbrothers and sisters, and God-forbid, if our paths have ever crossed, without recognising our common bond.
As a reckless teenager, I once angered and offended one of my guardian aunts. Minutes later she fished some photo of the purported father for a reason I have never known. He was tall, wearing those greenish-blueish suits. I do not remember the face, for I was angry and teary, but I remember a benign smile that revealed nothing.
I have managed to numb any feelings towards the old man. I decided to live with the fact that I will never know my paternal heritage. Whether they had murderers in the family, a history of suicide, or any genetical disorder that shows up every third generation, that I somehow escaped, but may recur in my children or grand-children is something time will tell.
If not for that photo, I will never have bothered with the thought of my father. But that photograph planted an element of doubt, and every other day I dream of some demon possessing me to pay for a want-ad in a newspaper or embarking on search for him.
Indeed, those wakeful nights, when my insomnia gets in the way, which is far too often, I do think about him.
Why did he leave? I want to assume that I tick all the boxes. I am everything an African father would have been proud of: My report form was always impressive, I made it to the best university in Kenya and a top Ivy League university in America. I married in good time and there is a granddaughter to parade. Stuff that most parents cherish. Why did he leave?
In those idle moments, like when stuck in Mombasa Road traffic with a dead phone, I imagine tracking him down to a village, maybe he is in a drinking den, maybe he found Jesus and is now a church elder…Or he died long time ago, and in that eventuality, I will have closure. Chances of making that resolve are closer to nil and zero.
My father was a baby boomer. Kenyan baby boomers, have been a spectacular failure. Certainly, there are decent and noble men from that generation, but if they were a class, they would be D-grade. And this is not because my father took off.
Despite the gift of formal education, exposure, travel, and interactions with the outside world beyond their ethnic enclosures, the men from this generation have been underwhelming. Nobody summed up who they are better than Laureen Wesonga, a Chevening Scholar,
“I call them(the) independence generation, they are petty, they are greedy, they are insecure. Woe unto you if you are younger, smarter (and female), am like who traumatized this lot? And it doesn’t help that they are running the country at the moment. That’s why our country is an orgy of pettiness, incompetence, general mediocrity. That’s why there is a hostility to intellectual investment and output.”
My father’s generation has contributed virtually nothing meaningful to the country, whether politically, intellectually or economically, other than pillage, obnoxious if primitively grabbing and accumulation of wealth. Young people now have arrested development because the elders ate the food even made for babies.
Most of them still hold positions of power and influence in various institutions, which they run like their personal fiefdoms, giving young people no chance whatsoever to prosper. It is this generation that imposes a fine Sh 5,000 to graduate job seekers who are yet to start their Higher Education Loans Board payments. It is the generation that requires young job seekers to spend KSh 5,000 in useless paper work as a perquisite when seeking government employment. The generation that is likely to deny a woman a job or a promotion because she said NO to their advances, and just as quick to unethically promote an undeserving one who cooperated. And this is the same attitude they approach fatherhood. Some were reckless drunks. Some married two or three wives when they could not sustain the one.
Amoral. Unethical. Disgusting.
In the circa 1980s, men could scatter their wild oats and disappear. Today, you will not run away from Child Support, however far or fast you run. Courts, tabloids, bloggers and social media will hold you accountable. Absentee fathers live in mortal fear of the law catching up with them.
Some of us were unlucky to have grown up without our fathers, even though we turned up fine. Or did we?
What was worse, was having a father who was absent emotionally. As a bare minimum, children expected of their fathers: the provision of the basic life needs like school fees, being present and the occasional pat on the shoulder. Visiting us in school, buying a gift was more than enough. All we needed.
The generation of our fathers came in three shades: The loving, generous and kind (a few and far between). Secondly, were the patriarchal tyrants who respected neither their wives nor their children (their daughters eloped at the earliest opportunity, if only to be safe and sons ran away from to the nearby town for menial jobs) And thirdly, were the colourless and incompetent, who left their wives to do all the parenting (quite a pathetic lot, mostly married a second wife, or kept a mistress abandoning their first family).
There is nothing to say about cool and responsible fathers.
But the latter two, let’s unpack them.
I have talked to a good number of friends on how the relationship with their fathers is shaping or has shaped their attitude to life and especially towards parenting.
It is surprising how dissatisfied most people are towards their fathers (I have two rare cases where people are dissatisfied with their mothers, but that is for another day). I know a few who have had to physically confront their fathers for continuously being abusive, disrespectful and violent towards their mothers. They drew the line, curses notwithstanding, and held their old men by the collars and gave them a piece of their mind.
There are fathers who did bad things because of ignorance. But more annoyingly were those who knew better but still run away, or those who stayed, but were abusive and the only memories we can conjure of them are the dark days they put us through. Most of my peers never quite forgave their fathers or are very ambivalent towards them.
Women who grew up with abusive fathers are very skeptical of men and can be unduly cautious. Men, either chose to be the exact opposite of their fathers, or the trauma of the abuse leads them into alcoholism, violent behaviour and seeking cheap sex to fill the void left by the father’s folly.
But to decide to chart a different path from your father’s requires a higher cognitive ability to forgive the old man and to learn from his wrongs.
My peers, those with a basic university degree and those who aspire to a quiet middle-class life are doing things differently: Most are opposed to violence against women. Most love their children and lately, the sex of the child is not an issue, unlike in the past where giving birth to a daughter was deemed a sign of weakness in some cultures, like where I come from.
Certainly, my generation has been gifted with hindsight, unlike our fathers who grew up under the worst possible circumstances. Women of our generation are enlightened, know better and hardly want to settle for less. We are almost equal and many actually bring the bacon home.
Most women I have spoken to who grew up with abusive fathers always sympathise with what their mothers had to go through. And want to lead different lives: they are assertive, ambitious, keen to have their money and property, just in case a man goes beast mode on them. They expect us men to provide in the traditional sense, but they are not entirely dependent on men. They have backups in chamas, in churches as well as private and secret investments. Their ability to pull resources quickly, means they acquire a head start over their male counterparts.
Women learnt from the tribulations of their mothers and took charge of their lives. Many men never received guidance or the security of inheritance from our fathers and we stumble and falter a lot. We have hardly any role models to look up. Religious leaders lost their moral voice. Politicians have nothing to teach us, but to steal, grab and be stupid, generally.
Our fathers were born somewhere between the Second World War and during the struggle for independence from the British colonialist. They were too young to be victims of the British brutality but growing up with absentee parents took its toll on them. They went to school in the independent Kenya. School was designed to prime them up to work in factories and the corporate sector, a drastic change from the agrarian way of life, that they grew up under.
They grew up knowing that the place of women was in the kitchen. They grew up knowing that children were merely a source of labour.
After the independence of Kenya, the world was gripped in a meaningless Cold War that consumed another 30 years of neo colonialism with different actors. The Cold War period gave birth mediocre and cognitively challenged dictators, propped up to oversee several countries. They suppressed freedoms, especially academic freedom. Anyone who subscribed to a contra ideology to that of the paymasters’ paid the ultimate price. In late 70s and early 1980s, a collective of university intellectuals were forced into exile. They included reputable scholars like Ngugi wa Thiong’o (ironically settling in the Capitalist West, when he was accused of being a socialist), Micere-Mugo, Korwa Adar, James Ogude, Nixon Kariithi, Job Kibii among others. They left a huge intellectual gap that was filled with cowardly conformists.
So, our fathers grew up suppressed and repressed. By the time they were coming of age, President Moi had taken over and an attempted coup had turned him into him a dictator who ushered in a totalitarian chapter. The impact of living in a one-party regime turned our fathers into cowardly, insular and extremely selfish individuals with self-enrichment as the only goal. They have a zero sense of accountability and responsibility whatsoever. They are guided by base instincts, hardly proactive but very reactive to any perceived threat to their dominance. They want to grab all the land, even riparian zones. They have mismanaged public institutions raiding coffers and channeling the loot to private facilities they own, to profit from the provision of essential services such as education, health and security. They lack is a sense of the future, which defies logic.
Why do they steal so much?
Why the common excuse of “ni watoto tunatafutia.”( I steal for my children)?
I am not mad at the generation. For they are blind and severely handicapped due to the circumstances they grew up under. But I still habour some resentment. They fouled and soiled their children who inherited the bad habit of greed and cast aside the brilliant ideas capable of transforming Kenya.
Their time at the top of the food chain has been nothing but disastrous and the ramifications will affect us, at least for the next three decades. Think of the foreign debt, the unprecedented level of corruption that make the Moi and the Kibaki regime seem incompetent in their corruption. Look at what they are doing to higher education (lecturers have been on strike for 10 months in the last one year). The health sector is in shambles. The main referral public hospital Kenyatta is always in the news for all wrong reasons. Hospitals in the rural parts of Kenya no longer stock basic medical supplies like anti-venom. The agriculture sector has no remedy in sight for the armyworm invasion ravaging maize fields around the country. Farmers no longer receive subsidized fertilizers yet well-connected individuals can always import maize from Mexico overnight. Need I mention the pain and agony of sugar cane farmers.
I see young people embracing their responsibilities differently. Men from the 1980s, aided by the power of social media to reunite friends are forming high school WhatsApp groups and visiting their former schools, organizing to donate books, build facilities and give back in whatever way they can.
We understand the importance of philanthropy and the value of altruism. We recognize there is something bigger than ourselves, or our families. The need to leave the world, a better place. We are planting trees where the baby boomers cut them down for development or settlement.
We question things. We do not blindly support regimes. When we think our political leader has erred we tell him off, such as we did with Raila Odinga recently. His latest handshake moment has met a lot of hostility. When Moses Kuria’s loose mouth utters something vile, we clap back.
Where the baby boomers and Gen Xers choose silence, we raise our voice, even as police brutality has become increasingly sanctioned. I remain hopeful that our generations and young people will get it right as the baby boomers and Gen Xers age and leave us alone.
maWinnie: Lessons in Feminist Approaches to Storymaking
It was a gathering of women. Mothers, sisters, daughters and wives of black male ex political prisoners. They had been gathered at Cowley House, Cape Town by the Robben Island Museum to share and document memories and stories of their Journeys to Robben Island Maximum Security Prison.
Cowley House, became a remarkable haven for those, whom under very difficult and often brutal circumstance were granted permission to travel and be in Cape Town for the sole purpose of visiting loved ones on the island. An arduous journey. It required bureaucratic application processes; permissions from various authorities including Prison Services, permission from Homelands authorities to travel, permission to be in Cape Town or the Western Cape, accumulating the funds to take a bus or train of some means of transport to the Cape…and finding accommodation in which to stay overnight. Many of the women had themselves served under house arrest and detention, been brutalised by the apartheid state in its attempt to break the spirits of those who chose the path of resistance and or, whose family members had done so.
(I recall so vividly tata S, an ex political prisoner and survivor of the Lesotho massacre, with heartbreak laced in each of his words and silences, explaining just how it shattered him to see his wife in the prison visitor space after many years of separation. She had been starving as he, the main breadwinner was no longer able to support the family. And so emaciated and skeletal she had somehow found a way to visit him and reassure him of her support.)
maWinnie agreed to participate at the gathering on one condition. On arrival at Cowley House for the Women’s Reference Group, she drew us aside and requested a quiet private meeting space. She said that, as her story was already very well documented, recorded and shared within the public domain, she wanted the day to be about the other women who were present, not her. She impressed upon us that the women had stories which were layered with hurt and humiliation and that possibly, the greatest hurt was being ignored by history.
And for the duration of that day’s exchange, I observed maWinnie, gently and compassionately deflecting attempts to defer to her. Calmly prodding and reminding each of the women gathered of a particular incident or event which had taken place on their journeys. And most of all, I observed how she kept silent, attentively listening.
There are a number of lessons and affirmations which remain invaluable to me to draw on and reflect in practice as a feminist ‘memory maker’.
Firstly, how disciplined and comfortable silence grants permission for others to speak and share intimate stories of pain and hardship. That even though the Listener or Observer may have book knowledge or an idea of ‘the Story’, it was important to remain silent and have the Speaker albeit slowly, painstakingly tell their own story. This takes great discipline. The ability to be quiet and trust that the process of storytelling will unfold as it should. And on that day, it most certainly did.
Secondly, that ‘standing down’ from power and influence vested in one as an individual, institutionally or historically, for whatever reason, is a necessary step in putting together the intricate narratives of the collective. That merely ‘saying’ that one is there to listen and understand is not enough, it needs to be a conscious practice. And requires the ability to recognise the power vested in one as an authority or knowledgeable one. And I continue to wonder about this as we see standoffs between groups, the creeping in of that nefarious combination of power+judgement into discourse and relationship. And the discomfort of living within contradictions and questions, as opposed to answers found within ideology alone. As the day progressed, and the stories unravelled, it became clear that the individual stories made up significant parts of a whole. That what appeared to be quite ordinary was in fact rather extraordinary. And that what appeared contradictory was complementary.
Thirdly, I was struck by just how much maWinnie was an Archive and clearly consciously so. She was a formidable memory bank of stories, places, people, events and emotions. And that her ‘paying attention’, being wholly ‘present’ requires a certain kind of Listening for and in between words and silences.She was able to gently remind someone of an incident and a reaction to an incident as if it was not a decade or two past. I still wonder whether in the poverty of our her-story making process as a nation, is this absence of the emotive or visceral or rather, an inability to read it when it is present. And that the damage done by the exclusion of women’s stories is more harmful because of history’s form which attempts to erase feeling and emotion.
Fourth, that being kind, gentle and compassionate are parts of maWinnie’s whole. That the formidable, fiery and sassy is not a juxtaposition or contradiction thereof. That living in the landscape of the ‘whole’ story, whether the individual or collective requires an ability to hold opposites in unison, and thus to include the seemingly irreconcilable. She suggests to me, that living life whole requires living within contradictions and finding a space for the unresolved. I cannot imagine what the “not knowing” when her husband, partner, comrade would be released did to her soul. I do know, that when 27th April 1994 came around, many of us walked to the polling stations as if in a daydream. The reality or realness of something which was spoken of in hope fuelling slogans such as ;”Freedom in our Lifetime” too overwhelming to comprehend on any rational level.
And in storytelling and memory making – being able to hold these unresolved questions and contradictions, however tentatively or tenuously – reveals the Truth in ways which awaken Hope and Imagination.The polar opposite to this would be a shutting down or closing off and stagnation which half – truths provide.
As I contemplate once again, how the very act of remembering and living the legacies of those, such as maWinnie requires us to gently and with respect, interrogate, investigate and possibly represent, the values and principles they lived by in our very rendering of their memory.
 We see this in countless exhibitions or memorialisation projects where half-truths about World War One and Two largely exclude the participation of people of the South and so the absence of stories; of the Mende, the deepening desire for Freedom from colonial rule, the place of women in science and technologies which aided the war efforts and so on, reiterates prejudice, racism and abject misogyny which at least parts of these war efforts was attempting to stop.
Now I Know That I Knew Nothing About Winnie Mandela
First of all, let’s dispel the myth that ignorance is bliss. It can be. States of unawareness can be a cushion, feathered down and fuss-free, when one needs a respite from the little annoyances of life. But ignorance is not a day-to-day frivolity that many of us, who have always lived on this continent and know the violent repercussions of one misstep, can afford. Clearly there was not a lot of bliss prancing about during the apartheid years and Black people just conveniently forgot to throw a celebratory parade. To call what happened to the majority population during this regime anything less than what it was – a brutalizing of human spirit – would be a supreme disservice.
So let’s rather call ignorance a journey. A series of stops and way-stations where, the passenger, draws ever nearer to something approaching the truth. Or a truth, whatever the case may be. You may, of course, decide to stay where you are. Never exploring, never wandering or wondering, and thus never knowing. There is a smug comfort in knowing that one day the world will come to you, because that is the pervasive and diffusive nature of all things human. The truth may one day find its way to you. But when you’re Black and female, it’s more likely to kick down your door than knock.
I met Mam’Winnie in stages.
Stations. Stops. Dilutions and exaggerations.
My earliest memory of hearing the name ‘Mandela’ was in the mid-eighties. My parents had a staggered bedroom, with a main bedroom that opened onto a dressing room-foyer where us children were sometimes allowed to play, listen to the radio and just watch our parents be parents in muted fascination. On a Liberian radio station is where I heard the song ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ by The Special A.K.A, which was quite a hit back then.
“Who is this Mandela man? Why is he…unfree?” I didn’t even know what to call the opposite of liberty. The concept was very contrary to an ideal that every African and we Liberians especially enjoyed, or so my young mind believed. The only opposite of freedom and joy I knew of was BellehYalla. BellehYalla was our nation’s worst prison, mythical and monolithic in the way it blocked out the sun in every child’s imagination. People sang songs for criminals who ended up in such places?
My father went on to explain some of what life was like under segregation in South Africa, how Mandela was a freedom fighter in jail for a long time for trying to level the playing field for the Black citizens. I fired a lot of questions. My father was one to joke if the rare mood took him so surely he was joking now, about an African country where people had so little and could do even less. Didn’t they own things, like land? Yes, apparently the country was theirs, but then White people came along and took it. But how could that be? Did White people often go around taking massive things like whole countries away and no one did anything to stop it? My father looked especially wry as he answered yes, it did happen all the time and when I was older and studying history, I would learn all the colourful ways how.
I remember one thing I could not wrap my head around: where was this Mandela’s wife, while he rotted away for a million years? What was she doing in the meantime? My father cleared his throat and adjusted his clothes and muttered something about minding the children and keeping the home and waiting.
My mother, who tended to silently watch these occasional educational exchanges between my father and any one of us five children with a mysterious wry smile of her own, came over when he left the room to busy himself with something else. “She’s helping in her own way,” my mother soothed me, knowing I had the tendency to overimagine and get overwrought. “She’s fighting how she can.”
A few years later my own idyll was shattered, if indeed my country had ever truly been the beacon for Negritude and hope that it believed itself to be. The 1990 civil war had me exiled from home and confused about wars, politics and the courageously destructive statements men make. Several years and one too many new countries later, any political appetite I could have had was snuffed out. Coming to live in South Africa, Cape Town no less, as a postgraduate student perked up my interest somewhat. I got to look at a different sort of beast close up. Stories about apartheid came alive. I had learned in my many junior and secondary schools about Bantu homelands and the regularity with which children grew up without a constant imprint of their father because he was away somewhere. Swallowed by the mines, by the cities, by the struggle. I heard much of Robben Island; you had to, with the White tourists pouring in every summer and interrupting your delicious restaurant dinners with their typhoon of tears of how this lovely man had suffered so much and still he forgave. I did not visit that white rock prison until I had some years under my belt, until the Capetonian sunshine had properly baked the overindulgent Mother City into my skin. I wanted to really feel things when I went to Robben Island.
I did not, not much. It was interesting and educational, but not riveting and wrenching. Bear in mind, I considered myself a pretty jaded young woman by this point. Proximity dulls the knife even more. Robben Island was a major tourist attraction in my city and I had learned too much via osmosis to be well and truly, pearl-clutchingly shocked. I was going for the most part to treat my mother, who was visiting at the time. Most of all, it turned out that Robben Island was no BellehYalla. I expected dungeons and neck chains. But flushing toilets, separate cells, regular meals… My knowledge of the typical African prison had never evolved beyond “no mammal should be here”, and justifiably so. But from the looks of things, all prisons were not created equally. Troupe Nelson had suffered, yes, but they’d had some dignity. As I studied the commemorative plaques on the walls, photos of revolutionaries in action, the sacrifice is not lost on me. Still, I looked around and wondered: where were the wives? Where was The Wife?
Stops. Stations. Titrations of truth.
Sometime during my Cape Town years, in the mid-2000s, a biography of Winnie Mandela was foisted on me. It was ‘Winnie Mandela: A Life’ by Anne Marie du PreezBezdrob, a popular one during that time. I was going to read it without prompting, really I was, but other books of a more fiction-bent, galvanizing nature kept getting in the way. The jaded young woman considered the nature of non-fiction too invasive to be reading material she sought out willingly. Autobiographies and biographies were heavy work of the navel-gazing variety, the payoff often too slim for my liking. I tended to steer clear. But the look on my best friend Inonge’s face brooked no nonsense as she thrust it under my nose, after days of heavy hinting did not work. This was a book we as women, Black women, had to read. I could return to my silly crime and fantasy novels afterwards. Still, I did not immediately relent. Why did I need to know more about Winnie? I knew enough. She had done some important stuff, she was the ex-president’s ex-wife. Wasn’t she bitter now? Wasn’t there a short Google page I could read with just the highlights, some ANC cliff notes? This felt like homework.
So I did some preliminary digging. There was a wealth of intriguing archival memorabilia and articles just a mouse-click away. One online photograph in particular struck me. Winnie in the 1960s, toting a metal pail of water, of something, in the township. So this was where she had been. Gone was the girl in the iconic wedding picture giggling beside her new husband, a girl who, let’s face it, had no goddamn idea what she was getting into. No idea that a nation would start to look up to her in his absence. In her place was this woman forging herself under fire: raising kids alone, facing the daily grind of laundry and assembling meals and assorted etceteras, all whilst in the grip of a police state.
This was what being the satellite parent entailed. The power of notoriety and glory of mystique were never yours, not fully, not when national security perpetually kept your business in the street. You would never be a son of rebellion or sun around which revolutions revolved. The satellite stands vigil and waits. But satellites also absorb information and detonate strategically. The girl was a woman now, her body underneath her cheap polyester jersey softened by children, the stress of her day already shadowing her face. She looked so ordinary it was frightening, because I knew she was frightening. Any woman raising children alone and fielding threats on their behalf knows this reality too well.
She reminded me of my mother. That photo hit me hard.
So I read about the Nomzamo before the Winifred, and put the two together. The book was not without its flaws and omissions of nuance, but it gave flesh and breath and breadth to a woman I had not known, allowed myself to know, was in there. I read more, picked up information from her career over the years and blended colours to make a more complete picture. As I have matured, so have my empathy and understanding. My desire to be acceptable, to apologise like a good girl, to always have my interior world and motives understood are things I crush underfoot as many times as is required to keep my spirit intact.
I knew nothing of Nomzamo-Madikizela. But we journeyed out to meet each other, she and I.
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