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Laughter in a time of angst

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Laughter in a time of angst
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I wanted to write about sex. My theory was that Kenyans are having more of it. It is one of the ways we deal with the onslaught of political and social trauma to seek out intimacy. That in order to go out and live life every day, we numb ourselves to the pain of what is going on around us. And so we self-soothe. We seek out pleasure. Release. We look for moments where we come alive. Where we can escape. Where we can feel human in a country that too often dehumanizes us.

However, everyone I spoke to about this theory had the same response:

‘It’s the comedy, stupid.’

Yes, we like to laugh. We take pride in our wit. Less than an hour after the latest political scandal breaks, the twitter army unleashes a battalion of memes that swiftly make their way via WhatsApp to parts of Kenya that aren’t on social media. And we laugh. In our offices, shops, roads, shacks, mansions, matatus, cars, boda bodas, we laugh and it makes us feel good.

But do you remember what we were laughing about last?

I think about how laughter has become such an integral part of the national coping psyche that it is now standard practice for radio stations to have a comedian on air in the morning to soothe our commute and distract us from our distress.

When I speak to the comedian and radio presenter Jalan’go (Hot 96) about this, he tells me what we already know; that Kenyans love to laugh about their problems. That we find solace in comedy, but that even as people laugh, the pain is still there. He doesn’t smile. It’s very dangerous, he says, because you drown yourself in temporary happiness but you can’t run away from your permanent situation. He is so different from the Jalan’go I just saw bouncing up on the stage, wisecracks spitting out of every corner of his mouth, laughter bubbling from his belly. He is quieter. I ask him if he thinks we are in a state of angst. He doesn’t hesitate before he says, we are not peaceful, we are calm, but make no mistake we are broken to the core.

If we don’t laugh, we’ll cry.

I remember performing on stage at Kigali’s Genocide Memorial Museum. Five Kenyans exorcising the ghosts of our post-election violence. Our heads down as we recited Sitawa Namwalie’s poem,

Would you wield a machete in Burnt Forest,
Cut a stranger down?
Slash a man as he pleads with you for life,
Lead the crowd baying for his blood
A human being!
He cowered and cried out, bleating like a lamb
Innocent of any crime
Death unwilling to take him,
He died long and hard, way before his time
His blood waters your farm like acid rain
Would You?

The audience laughed. Not just giggles. Outright laughter. And we were confused, us Kenyans would be. How was this funny? How could a country like Rwanda, so intimate with this kind of pain, find humour in it?

But then later, I remember being in the audience at the Kenya National Theatre watching a scene take place in Nyayo Torture Chambers from the Too Early For Birds show. The killer held a knife. He spoke about the unspeakable things he would do with that knife. And people giggled. The laughter spread. And I wasn’t confused anymore. This was a way of taking back our collective power, of laughing as a form of rebellion.

Because if you get the humour, you share the pain.

I remember as a teenager, watching the grown-ups convulse in laughter as Nyambane danced like the man whose name we couldn’t say out loud. How did we go from whispering his name to laughing in his face? It’s the beginning of the end, I heard them say.

Like many in my generation, we had grown up studying the way our parents’ mouths shifted on their faces. The biting of tongues to stop from saying a thing that could get you disappeared. The sucking of teeth as the country’s coffers drained into the pockets of politicians. The twisting of lips in anguish at the humiliation and pain of living in a country that seemed bent on trapping you in perpetual survival mode. But every now and then, reading Wahome Mutahi, looking at Gaddo and Maddo’s comics, watching Redykulass, the closed mouths grew into grins. Then cracked into chuckles. And so we learned, us young ones, that if your country is opening its mouth to eat you up, you too open your mouth and laugh in its face. We learned that when you wake up in the morning, and every morning brings a new wave of crap that sits on yesterday’s pile of crap, rotting and festering into one massive heap of crap that oozes into your skin and starts to dissolve away hope, you find a way to laugh. We learned that laughter was a way of practicing hope instead of hopelessness. Because if you can find humour in a traumatic situation, perhaps somewhere you see the possibility of it changing. And that is hopeful.

The purveyors of hope when we were growing up were armed with biting pencils and gnashing pens. The work of those satirists opened our eyes. It was dangerous work. They criticized the politics of the day in a way that nobody else dared to do. They spoke the things we couldn’t. And I began to understand how powerful comedy was. Because when the ridicule was exposed, in between our laughter, we too saw the situation for what it was, ridiculous. Not infallible but Ridiculous. And when something ceases to be infallible, it can start being broken down.

Yet things didn’t transform the way we expected them to when the big man fell. There were other big men. Always so many big men. And in the moments of helplessness, when they were stealing everything, including our freedom, there was one thing we refused to let them steal. Our sense of humour. The one that belongs to the Kenyan people. The one that is rooted in such deep pain, inherited trauma and in such perpetual angst, that all we can do is hide it in memes and gifs and lols.

But there’s a difference between using humour purely for entertainment and using it as a way of exposing truths. I worry sometimes that we’ve got stuck in the ridicule. In the slapstick and accents. Because how do you satirize a country where the absurd has become the normal? Yet for every meme or routine that soothes and temporarily heals, we also need to pay attention to the humour that digs deeper, that excavates, that investigates who we are and reveals how we got here, humour that tears down so that we can begin to build.

Scientifically it makes sense that we are so desperately drawn to the mindless laughter. When we laugh, endorphins and dopamine are released; the chemicals that make our bodies feel good. And so we stay chasing the next high. But maybe it’s more than that. I read about how the use of humour literally calms down the amygdala, the part of our brain where fear sits. How it helps us change the way we see something threatening, to reframe it so it doesn’t seem quite so dangerous. And yet perhaps that’s where the greatest danger is. Maybe we need to be alive to just how dangerous a time we are living in, and not to let that go.

Elsewhere, I read how laughter is perhaps simply a release of nervous energy. I think about how living in Kenya feels like being in a pressure valve. And with each laugh, we let go of a little-repressed emotion, we release a little of that tension. So important national conversations become a punch line. And the politicians know it. They take advantage of it. They wait for us to crack the joke, so we can process the situation in the way we know how, and then accept and move on. Until the next scandal emerges, the next meme makes its rounds. And the outrage is diffused. Yet I suspect it is only our outrage, not laughter that will save us in this time of angst.

Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps: for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be. ~ William Hazlitt

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Aleya is a writer, reader, storyteller and performer.

Reflections

Eliud Kipchoge and the Transcendent Power of Sports

7 min read. Eliud Kipchoge has eloquently shown the world once more how transcendent sports can be in the lives of people without regard to their circumstances. His marathon achievement on 12th October 2019 displayed the unifying power of sports across the world as millions of watching fans cheered his triumph as their own victory.

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Eliud Kipchoge and the Transcendent Power of Sports
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Once every few decades comes a sports hero, a legend, who transforms and ignites their discipline far beyond its traditional boundaries to inspire millions of people who would otherwise have little interest in that sport.

In football, we had the remarkable Edson Arantes do Nascimento, also known as Pele, and the mercurial Diego Maradona. In boxing, we had the poetic Muhammad Ali and the rage of “Iron” Mike Tyson. In basketball, we had the versatile Michael Jordan. In athletics, we had the exciting sprinter Usain Bolt. In golf, the resilient Tiger Woods. In tennis, the dominant sisters Venus and Serena Williams. In the marathon, we now have the philosophical Eliud Kipchoge.

12th October 2019. The time is 8am, the temperature is 9 degrees centigrade at the Reichsbrücke (German for Imperial Bridge) in Vienna, Austria. Eliud and seven members of his elite team of pacemakers jog up and down a 50-meter stretch behind the starting point of the INEOS 1:59 Challenge Race on the gentle slope of the bridge. To their left, the 119-year old St. Francis of Assisi Church can barely be seen through the mist lifting slowly from Europe’s second-longest river, the Danube.

Hundreds of excited fans make their way through the grey chilly morning to the bridge. Thousands more line up the race route on both sides of the iconic Hauptallee in the Prater park, known to local runners as “the green lung of Vienna” due to the fresh air from the trees along the 4.3 km straight avenue. The anticipation among the fans is palpable as they seek vantage positions before the start of the race.

Many are convinced that they are on the verge of witnessing a once in a lifetime sporting spectacle. Among them are scores of Kenyans who have travelled from neighboring countries and others all the way from Kenya, eager to cheer their national legend.

Eliud Kipchoge, the world marathon record holder is once more set to make athletic history. At precisely 15 minutes past 8am, the announcer counts down the clock by 15 seconds. The crowds cheer, and the race is on.

One hour, 59 minutes and 40 seconds later, Eliud spectacularly sprints through the finish line at the Prater park becoming the first man in history to run a marathon in under two hours. The watching world collectively bursts out in celebration peppered with a sense of relief. Athletics’ last great barrier has been shattered, paving the way into a new frontier no one can quite define.

For several months, the event organizers have rallied behind Eliud’s personal philosophy that “no human is limited” to galvanize the world around a profound idea, an experiment in stretching the capabilities of the human body. The one thing that was never in doubt among supporters and cynics was that if there was anyone capable of running a marathon in under two hours, it had to be Eliud Kipchoge.

Sir Jim Ratcliffe, Britain’s richest man and founder of INEOS, expressed his confidence and trust in Eliud’s ability to run a sub-two marathon right from the announcement of the 1:59 Challenge Race in May 2019.

“Eliud is the best marathoner there’s ever been, and he’s still getting better. He’s the only man currently who can break the 2-hour barrier,” Sir Ratcliffe said.

During the same occasion, Eliud had no hesitation in saying that he was equal to the task. “My mind is saying that I’m going to do it. So my heart and mind is on 1:59. The secret is believing and trusting in my capabilities that I can do it,” he explained.

In writing himself into the history books, Eliud ran an average speed of two minutes and fifty seconds every kilometer across the entire 42-kilometer course. That this feat that would commence at the Reichsbrücke was even more fascinating for someone described by sports commentators as the greatest marathoner of all time.

On 1st October 1976 shortly before five in the morning, the imposing bridge, one of the most trafficked in Vienna, unexpectedly collapsed into the river Danube killing one person. The main reason given for the collapse was structural failure in the bearings, which was not spotted during inspection due to the massive granite mantle that surrounded them. A new bridge was re-designed and formally opened on 8th November, 1980. It remains an impressive structure used by 50,000 vehicles each day with six lanes of traffic, U-Bahn tracks, two footpaths, two-cycle paths and two utility tunnels.

Eliud’s stellar athletic career faced a near collapse in 2012, when he incredibly failed to qualify for the London Olympics as an accomplished 5,000-meter runner. In a radical decision that would prove to be a game-changer, he switched to road running that same year starting out in the half marathon before winning the 2013 Hamburg Marathon in a course record time. From that win, Eliud’s marathon career took off into the stratospheres.

He has won 10 of the 11 marathons that he has participated in. In 2016 he took the Olympic gold in Rio de Janeiro in a race where he was seemingly under no threat from the competition. He currently holds the official world record of 2:01:39, set at the 2018 Berlin Marathon.

In contemplating Eliud’s extraordinary triumphs over the last six years, it’s clear that the world of sports has once more produced an iconic figure, transcending cultures, race and languages to redefine the boundaries of human achievements and inspire billions across the globe. Only a few personalities come to mind when one reflects on the scale of what this means. We may even have to look outside the arena of sports to find such inspiring individuals.

The world of music carries a comparable transcendent power to sports, and it therefore provides a notable personality we can briefly examine to comprehend Eliud’s influence on millions across the globe. The late pop-musician Michael Jackson immediately stands out.

His musical talent and genius were undeniable, enriching the global music industry for decades during his lifetime. Through his music, Michael Jackson managed to transcend racial barriers to inspire millions of adoring fans across different cultures and different generations. Shortly after his death in June 2009, American evangelist Al Sharpton described him as a truly historic figure.

It may be too early to make lofty comparisons between Eliud Kipchoge and the late King of pop, but the greatest marathoner in modern times does provide some profound and inspiring insights from his athletic achievements. To truly understand the driving force behind this fascinating man, we need to go back and examine a few of his past philosophical thoughts and musings.

We need to appreciate the motivations that compelled him to take on the challenge of running a marathon in under two hours, succeeding on the second attempt two years after the Nike Breaking2 project where he fell short by just 25 seconds. Immediately following that pioneering event of May 2017, the philosopher king of the marathon simply quipped: “The world is just 26 seconds away.”

At a press briefing hosted by his local sponsors Isuzu East Africa on 4th September, 2019 in Nairobi, Eliud powerfully explained why he was going to Vienna to make athletic history.

“I am going to Vienna to inspire a whole generation. I am going to Vienna to sell the idea that no human is limited. I am going to Vienna to inspire the human family. I want to inspire that journalist, lawyer, engineer, teacher, driver that when they wake up they can do more. It’s not about setting a world record but it’s about making history and inspiring the human race.”

The world of business can certainly learn a great deal from this excellent athlete’s training methodology, personal discipline and winning mindset. Take for instance his radical decision to switch from his favorite track event the 5,000M to the marathon. Jim Collins in his best-selling book Good to Great, Why Some Companies Make The Leap, provides two compelling approaches practiced by these successful companies that one can discern in Eliud’s career.

First, Jim Collins asserts that companies that made the shift from being good to later become great institutions, started by developing within their organizations the ability to confront the ‘brutal facts’. They created a climate or environment where employees were consistently encouraged to speak up and share truth in their day to day operations, no matter how unpalatable it was to their leaders.

Secondly, in that bold process, these companies came to the realization that if their core business did not propel them to be the best in their sectors, then they needed to change to what they could be best at, not what they were competent to do. Finally, the companies needed to build an absolute belief in their ranks that they could become the very best in their business. They nurtured an unfailing faith, an iron-willed self-belief that they could achieve their goals no matter how ambitious, insurmountable or wild they at first appeared to be.

In failing to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics, Eliud had to confront the brutal reality that he was not the best in the 5,000M track discipline. While he was competent in the event, having won Olympic medals and a world championship in his career, he was yet to realize his full athletic potential. He had to make a choice between continuing in an event where he would likely not rise to dominance, or courageously try out something new where he had a chance of truly excelling. The switch to the marathon resulted in a stunning change of fortunes for Eliud which culminated in the enthralling sub two-hour performance in Vienna.

In the lead up to this memorable event, Eliud once more clarified his intentions for taking on an epic race challenge that he well knew would not be recognized as an official marathon record.

“I want to be able to show the world that when you focus on your goal, when you work hard, and when you believe in yourself, anything is possible,” he said.

The element of self-belief came out consistently in Eliud’s statements when confronted with the epic 1:59 Challenge Race. From the moment he announced to the world his intention to mirror what British athlete Roger Banister had achieved in 1954 running the mile in under four minutes, Eliud’s simple conviction regarding what a human being could achieve with the right mindset was amazing.

“Any human being can go beyond their thoughts, but self-belief is crucial. I totally believe in myself, and in my team-mates and my training,” he said.

Indeed, no other human endeavor demonstrates the power and benefits of teamwork as well as sports does. One of Eliud’s most cherished training principles is anchored around his team-mates and what they have enabled him to achieve.

“You cannot train alone and expect to run a fast time. 100 per cent of me is nothing compared to one percent of the team,” he often asserts.

Eliud Kipchoge has eloquently shown the world once more how transcendent sports can be in the lives of people without regard to their circumstances. His marathon achievement on 12th October 2019 displayed the unifying power of sports across the world as millions of watching fans cheered his triumph as their own victory.

In Kenya, Eldoret was the epicenter of excitement with ripples of celebration going right across the country. For one tantalizing day, we forgot our petty differences as we applauded our gallant son for making history and swelling our hearts with national pride.

It would be no exaggeration to suggest that Eliud’s achievement that Saturday morning inspired the thrilling performances of Lawrence Cherono and Brigid Kosgei the following day at the Chicago Marathon. They were the male and female winners of the race with Brigid winning in a world record time of 2:14:04, shattering Paula Radcliffe’s 16-year old record of 2:15:25.

Without a doubt, there is no better case for increasing our national sports budgets, county budgets and corporate sponsorships to deliberately invest in our rich sporting talents across the country. Building on the lessons from our successful track athletes, we have in recent times also seen the immense potential in our football, rugby sevens and women’s volleyball teams. We stand to gain immeasurably as a nation from this untapped goldmine that can radically transform the fortunes of our young people. As Eliud has shown us, there are no limits to what we can achieve as Kenyans if we set our minds to this noble undertaking.

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Reflections

In Search of Grandmother’s Osuga Seeds

8 min read. OYUNGA PALA mourns the loss of indigenous crops and farming methods that were buried by capitalist modes of production that focus mainly on high yields and profit.

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They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.

This poignant quote is attributed to the Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos. It formed part of a defiant response to the Greek literary community who criticised Christianopoulos’ poetry as provincial. The poem is part of a collection translated into English by Prof. Nicholas Kostis (1995). The original text read…

What didn’t you do to bury me
But you forgot that I was a seed.

True to text and like a seed, those lines have sprouted many versions of that phrase as mainstream metaphors for resilience and hope in the face of injustice, where individuals or groups of people go up against systems that are designed to bury them.

My own paraphrasing of those famous Christianopoulos’ lines would read:

They tried to bury us, we survived but we lost our way and forgot we are seeds.

The importance of seeds, and indigenous seed cultures, in particular, is a lost consciousness among the contemporary generation of African farmers. The introduction of hybrid seeds in post-colonial Africa progressively altered farming cultures and food systems. Commercial and certified seeds accompanied by a retinue of inputs, fertilisers, pesticides and the promise of high yields but only good for one season, have entrapped rural small-scale farmers in exploitative systems of the dominant agro-industry. Indigenous plant genetic varieties have lost significant ground to hybrid varieties, and consequently, the disappearance of indigenous food cultures and seed knowledge.

Discovering my roots

My own awareness of this crisis evolved over decades. I was brought up in a middle-class family, sojourned in Nairobi, chasing the Kenyan dream. My parents had one foot firmly planted in the ancestral village home, back in Gem, Siaya county.

As second-generation labour migrants to Nairobi, my parents arrived in post-independence Nairobi to secure residence, courtesy of the civil service, in the formerly “white” sections of the city. In these new upper-middle-class spaces, backyards were for recreation and not farming. Nonetheless, my parents never lost touch with their roots, perhaps informed by their acute awareness of the politics of belonging in Nairobi. The capital city was a marketplace where capital was accumulated and transfered from the centre back to the deprived margins. To augment the living costs of large households in the city and establish a security blanket in the event of political dislocation, they maintained a steady link with rural homes.

The importance of seeds, and indigenous seed cultures, in particular, is a lost consciousness among the contemporary generation of African farmers.

My father took us to the village every school holiday without fail. We learned to farm, mainly cash crops (maize and beans) as the staple. It was a labour-intensive crop when planted at scale without the aid of mechanisation.

My father was a civil servant securing measure of comfort after retirement and the loss of government perks. He invested in mono-cropping modern systems focused on high yield and scale for profit. It was during these excursions that I began to understand the clear gendered distinction between how men and women farmed. Men approached farming from a capitalistic frame modeled on the colonial imagery of “I had a farm in Africa” – that famous line by Karen Blixen in the book and movie Out Of Africa – while the women engaged in peasant farming, often associated with allotments around the home dominated by indigenous vegetables.

My grandmother’s permaculture garden

While seasonal farming of maize was a group family activity, my grandmother maintained a garden located outside her kitchen throughout the duration of her life. The kitchen garden was distinguished by plant diversity and the presence of diverse categories of food. Fruit, tubers, bulbs, rhizomes, an assortment of vegetables, fruiting creepers, medicinal herbs, spices and some grain.

Every plant in her garden had a function. To the unaccustomed eye, it appeared to be an unkempt and overgrown allotment, in stark contrast to the neat rows of maize that occupied our family’s three-acre farm. My grandmother practised an alternative style of farming that involved no pesticides, save for firewood ash, minimal tillage, composting and the allotment remained productive throughout the year. My grandmother’s generation employed permaculture principles that Bill Mollison, the Australian educator and co-founder of permaculture, brought to popular consciousness. Her philosophy of food production is captured in Mollison’s articulation of permanent agriculture.

“The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter.”

In hindsight, these gardens, a common background feature in most homesteads, served as the main source of the family’s daily nutritional needs. They acted as alternative food sources in the likely event of crop failure due to vagaries of the weather, the sporadic pest and wildlife damage and fluctuating market prices. Additionally, these granny kitchen gardens held something even more precious: a seed bank and a botanical lab where constant experimentation was taking place and heirlooms were preserved. The gardens epitomised food sovereignty in complete revolutionary terms.

My grandparents, who came of age in the nascent days of the British colony, suffered the disruption of an oppressive colonial order. The introduction of a cash economy and wage labour led to new methods of food production, initially as forced labour, and later as a necessity for economic security. While the men farmed to earn money, the women created alternative gardening spaces, delicately negotiating autonomy. A core part of the success of these allotments was seeds.

The loss of heritage seeds

We lost nearly all of the heritage seeds that my grandmother retained in her little garden. The tall pawpaws and red bananas that I thought grew wild as a child are non-existent. The chillies are gone, as are the medicinal herbs and the diverse indigenous vegetables. The traditional yellow-coloured maize known as nyamula of my grandmother’s time are rare sightings. All that I have left is lemongrass that I only went in search of after reading a feature article on its economic viability as a poor man’s cash crop.

In my ancestral village, the keepers of the seed are a generation of grandmothers whose significance is lost in the new agriculture order. The pockets of agribusiness prosperity in the village are exemplified by lush green maize fields propped by agri-tech groups like One Acre Fund that Christine Mungai writes about. Most of the village farms have been reclaimed by bush. Those outside the support network of agricultural companies or who lacked capital to fund farming activity sought alternatives after years of diminishing returns on depleted plots. The culinary habits, a quest for sophistication as an outcome of the colonial project, elaborated by Joe Kobuthi in an article on the hierarchies of food, are now fixated on processed staple substitutes of chapati, bread, mandazi and rice.

In hindsight, these gardens, a common background feature in most homesteads, served as the main source of the family’s daily nutritional needs. They acted as alternative food sources in the likely event of crop failure due to vagaries of the weather, the sporadic pest and wilidlife damage and flactuating market prices.

In a generation, I have witnessed the disappearance and loss of this oral knowledge on indigneous seed in not only food crops, but in trees as well. The predominant attraction to commercially viable eucalyptus, pines and cypress varieties has created tree farms in small holdings following the same ethic of plantation agriculture. Fast growth, high yield and maximum profit.

The indigenous fruits of Kenya are lost to memory and the fruits I now consider traditional, such as mango, guava, and avocado, have roots in Asia and South America. These fruit tree species dismissed for their poor market potential ultimately could not keep up with the evolving culinary habits. The nutritional value of indigenous fruits, such as tamarind, baobab, plums and berries, which grew in the wild, is well documented but restricted to the corridors of botanical research institutes.

Re-imagining food production

The industrialised food systems, with all their detrimental consequences, play havoc not just on our physical selves, characterised by the explosion of diseases of affluence but also on physical land through environmental devastation of water and air pollution and the depletion of biodiversity.

My foray into commercial farming was motivated by profit in an uncertain economy; it was an alternative source of income. I approached it armed with soil tests, fertiliser, certified seed, pesticides and the service of a freelancing agronomist. I decided to try my hand in scaling indigenous vegetables with a boom in demand for local veggies on supermarket shelves. I sourced my seed, the Giant African Black Nightshade (locally known as osuga) from a reputable company. My strategy was monocropping with a rigorous pesticide regimen. Despite my marginal success, it took two pest attacks on a half-acre plot to seriously consider alternative seed. The Catch-22 of hybrid seeds is the heavy reliance on agrochemicals for guaranteed yield. A Route To Food, an alliance against food insecurity in Kenya, conducted research that showed:

At least 32% of pesticide active ingredients that are currently registered and being sold in products in Kenya, have been withdrawn from the European market, due to their serious potential impact on human and environmental health.

This is what set me off in search of my grandmother’s osuga seeds.

Sowing seeds of hope

The seed stock was not available in my village and in the surrounding villages. Whenever I posed the question, I received a cursory response of “koth nyaluo tinde olal”. Indigenous seeds are no longer available these days. My persistence led me to the vibrant Luanda town market in Vihiga County. To my relief, I found a constituency of women selling regional varieties of indigenous vegetable seed, measured by the bottle top from as far as Ukambani. The seed retailed for a fraction of the cost of the certified seed I sourced from the local agrovet. When I asked the women about the stocks, they replied without hesitation, “Mbegu iko”. We have seed. They had formed communities where they collected, selected, exchanged, and preserved seed.

Seed developers have commercialised indigenous leafy vegetables with the emergence of several seed companies selling indigenous vegetable seed. The huge appeal has followed health concerns of meat and processed food-based diets and a return to healthy revitalising traditional plant-based diets.

In a generation, I have witnessed the disappearance and loss of this oral knowledge on indigneous seed in not only food crops, but in trees as well.

I remain aware that these market women in Luanda are an exception rather than the rule. This deliberate stewardship of resilient self-propagating seed is a response to the commercialisation of indigenous vegetable seeds, and in the face of capitalised seed control, they become the face of the resistance movement.

Their actions embody generations of knowledge and a tradition of survival in the midst of a sophisticated assault on the diversity of food crops. The number of peasant farmers on small-scale holdings that once produced the bulk of Africa’s food supply are dwindling. The place of seeds and their preservation is a conversation that happens in the margins amongst groups of community women creating alternative seed economies.

Seed movements

North America has witnessed a revival of native seed exchange banks as indigenous communities re-imagine management systems to store and protect native heirloom seeds that sustained Native American plant-based foods. Seed Keepers Networks are emerging to revitalise native plant species and the inherent rich cultural knowledge that accompanied traditional food pathways. Alongside that are foodie movements returning to tradition of reclaiming and re-imagining pre-colonial African diets that were largely vegan.

Similar initiatives with global visions, such as the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)’s Smallholder innovation for resilience (SIFOR) project, examine traditional knowledge-based innovation systems to strengthen food security in the face of climate change. Many of these initiatives abide by a funding model that involves foreign experts jetting in with capital to solve local problems that were exacerbated by neo-liberal economic policies. Where the women are acknowledged, they merely serve as mascots for narratives of rural poverty that appeal to saviour mentality complexes.

It is over two decades since my grandmother’s passing and I have only now come to terms with the significance of her garden and the loss we experienced. It is loss of knowledge, memory, culture and food sovereignty that is replicated among communities in the global South enduring the trauma of colonial dislocation.

The future of seed commons is going to be grassroots-based and sustained by networks of conscious actors organising to dismantle the power of the agroindustrial complex. The confluence of challenges arising from modern food pathways has triggered a case for re-imagination, not only of what we eat, but how we produce what we eat. What we need is culture recovery that revitalises the relationship with land and the foods we produce and consume.

And at the heart of this is replanting our grandmothers’ seeds that we ignorantly forgot to bury in fertile ground.

Written and published with the support of the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI) (www.routetofood.org). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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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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