The 2017 elections remain one of the most contested, memorable and divisive elections in the history of Kenya. The second elections under the 2010 constitution, it witnessed staggering 15,082 aspirants for just 1,882 elective positions. These were just the ones who actually barely survived the revolving knives of the shambolic party primaries. From the very start, it seemed that the sheer interest was already going to be a recipe for high stakes cut throat mud fight politics of winner takes all, losers accept and move on; or maybe not. Whereas there has been focus on the presidential race, rightfully so, the lower cadres explored the finer isms as well; nepotism, clannism, tribalism, classism, among others.
When Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta recently appeared jointly to address the nation, it appeared as if the beginning of the end of one of the longest electioneering periods. It seems the Lord of Accept and Move On, had once again visited Kenya. Well, not for most. For starters, the 13,200. The 13,200 looks like the title of a classical movie produced by Marvel about the fight for freedom and self-determination. It would probably have a main character called John Duke who would be fearless, determined and have unwavering belief in their course. This 13,200, however, is the story of those who did not make it. Those Kenyans who offered themselves for election and did not get the seat. I deliberately did not use the word lost. There is a Kenyan proverb that says nobody loses the elections fairly, they were rigged out.
Two of my favourite billboards used to be on Ngong Road near Junction Mall, on your way to town. They were on either side of the road, staring at each other as if waiting to see which will blink fast. One was for Johnson Sakaja and the other one for omwami Edwin Sifuna, both accomplished young men in their own right, both far from ‘home’, and both vying to be the Senator of the Green City in the Sun on the tickets of Kenya’s largest political parties. I liked the billboards, not just for their visual appeals and the messages and slogans they displayed, but for their deeper meaning. They say meaning is derived majorly from the audience. For me, what excited my brains the most was the realization that after all the staring, one would eventually, succumb, literally. A few days after the August elections, I passed by the billboards again, before they were brought down. Edwin Sifuna was still smiling in that billboard, but it was as if something had changed in that smile, like it had lost its warmth, like he was using every ounce of effort to hold the smile in place. That kind of smile made famous by the Kenyan phrase “Hata sija skia vibaya”. Of course, the billboard hadn’t changed, it had always been like that. Maybe I was empathizing with the young lawyer because I could relate to his loss. I could see my father in him.
Have you ever wondered what happened to the Kenyans who lost seats that they had vigorously campaigned for? Have you ever wondered what happens to those who resign their plum positions to serve their country on a different basis? More importantly, how does it start? Maybe you post a photo on social media and a friend quips that you should vie for a public office. You laugh and joke along but deep down; a seed has been planted in your heart. Or does it begin when you are having two for the road with your friends, and you are extremely generous that day and they pat you on the back and casually say, “‘Buda, si usimame. Umeweza. Sisi tuko nawe all the way”. Or is it a deep unignorable conviction from your heart that won’t go away, gnawing until you softly shout, “I yield. I will be vying. Leave me alone now.”
My father vied in the August 2017 elections as well. Unfortunately, he did not even get to the final cast of the 13,200. We were having family conversations late at night after dinner like we normally do during the holidays when my brother asked him if the rumours were true; if he would really be vying for a seat in the Homa Bay County Assembly. He complained about the state of infrastructure, the blatant misuse of county resources by the former member of county assembly among other ills bedevilling the people. He talked about how, if properly managed, devolution could be an important bridge for development. He said the people had asked him to serve them. He did not directly answer us whether he would be vying or not. A politician was coming to birth. He had listened keenly, or seemed to, when we told him how expensive it would be to run for a seat at the assembly, the pressure on family and the emotional and physical wear it would have on him. We were looking out for him, we had thought so. When he announced the following day at church that he indeed he would be vying, we looked at each other, not really surprised, but with the look you have when you get that news that you had been expecting all along but nevertheless, had hoped would have miraculously passed.
My dad is one of those ‘true’ African men who have a hard time expressing their feelings. This is not to say that he doesn’t talk much. He talks. Just about the weather, politics, and other critical issues of national importance. He is those parents who used to come to school during visiting days swinging his hands; a phone on one hand and Nation Newspaper on the other. We would talk briefly about my grades and how the people at home were doing and whatever big project was happening; a school harambee back at home, the dilapidation of the road back home; the proposed revival of Miwani Sugar Company. He would invite me to help him fill the Codeword puzzle, an exercise more for my benefit than his, and patiently watch me struggle to get the lead word. We would shake hands and he would be on his way, an arm lighter as he would leave me with his favourite newspaper. Leaving his ubiquitous companion behind would be the closest he would come to say, I love you son.
Of course, there was no way he was going to ask us to support him. I don’t ever remember the old man asking for anything. He had this guise of ‘I got it covered’, a ruse we had bought hook, line and sinker, in our younger years. We were wiser now.
We mobilized ourselves, helped set up a committee, mobilized additional resources and helped with ideas whenever we could. We even joined him in a few rallies and strategy meetings whenever, we could. We attempted to be there while taking precaution not to dominate. The committee had experienced politicians, local technocrats and a youth wing that was passionate, strong and believed in their general. They were motivated not by what they were receiving, but how they would get opportunities from being ‘close to power’. From their conversations, projections and action plans, it seemed that they had it all covered.
I must confess I have always been wary of politics; Kenyan politics. They say it is a dirty game where the ‘dirtiest’ thrive. I have always envisioned it as the theatre of the absurd, where issues and ideas are peripheral to comedy, rhetoric and self-aggrandizement. It hurts me when I see public intellectuals engage in debates over non-issues. Maybe, I had been too harsh. Maybe politics could be different.
After traversing all areas, campaigning, selling his vision, it was nomination day. From the initial projections and counted votes we were doing well. We had every reason to believe that victory was in sight. In this area, they could as well cancel the General Elections, party nominations got you two feet in. When we reported to the constituency tallying centre, we had the summaries of the announced results and thought it was given. I stood directly behind my father on the dais where the results were to be announced from. It was more of an instinctive reaction to protect him, I don’t know from what.
When the returning officer made a contrary announcement, we were stunned. The old man was immobile for a while. It was difficult to know what he was thinking. Was he surprised? Angry? Disappointed? Anxious? His face remained expressionless, calm, as if he knew something we didn’t. I requested for the forms to see what would have gone wrong. It was a charade at the very least. The numbers that were used were written on a piece of paper, plucked from an exercise book and collated using a phone calculator, with little attempt to involve the candidates in the tallying. There were no signed forms at all as should have been.
Meanwhile the rival supporters had broken into ululations and dance. They had begun to throw obscenities at the old man. They said that he should know people. They hurled a few unprintable things. It was the first time it hit me that he was a politician. That he had to accept that this was part of the game that he had signed up for, that he was not immune to slander. That clarity in thought hadn’t stopped me from feeling angry for him. How could they?
“Nyakawalulochwa,”(We must follow up on our victory) they had insisted. Trust me it’s deeper in Dholuo.
After an eternity of shuttling between home, Homa Bay and Nairobi, sleep deprived, the appeal was successful. My father was handed an interim certificate from NASA, but another counter-appeal against him was successful, before we had even started celebrating. It was a story that would intrigue political analysts and make a great plot for a skit at Kenya National Theatre.
Meanwhile he kept receiving calls from curious supporters and friends who wanted to know what was happening. Each was recommending a different course of action. It is at this time that you realize everybody knows everybody. “Call the Governor, I know this party official, stop wasting time with the party appeal, go to the parties’ tribunal. Talk to IEBC. Explain what happened. Tell them this was a robbery”. Pursuing each recommendation had its own cost implications. We however followed most of the logical recommendations. At least we owed them that. From their tone, you could feel the disappointment, impatience, frustrations, like the oldman wasn’t doing enough to protect their victory; luwolochgi. He didn’t say it, but you could feel the strain of having to relay the same message to different people was taking a toll on him. I think, by repeating the message, it was also starting to dawn on him that options were fast closing, and that maybe the illustrious run was coming to an end, after all.
A million assurances later, late night strategy meetings with advisors and political ‘bigwigs’ and wheeler-dealers, unintentional camping at the party headquarters, the provisional party list was released, his name conspicuously missing. That’s just the provisional list, relax, they assured him. We will still fix it, when it matters the most. Meanwhile the gnawing feeling that we were postponing the inevitable was beginning to grow. It was increasingly feeling like a case of throwing good money after bad. When it was apparent that the provisional certificate and the assurances they had given him had the weight of a sack of cotton, his committee insisted he vie on an independent ticket, an idea that would not see the light of the day.
When he decided to pull the plug, we heaved a sigh of relief. Were we bad children for getting relieved that this phase was coming to an end? We felt so.
Shouldn’t we have urged him more to ‘luwolochwa?”.
The pain of losing is however not just on the loser, it’s on the family. It is in knowing that he says he is okay but he is not. It is knowing that he didn’t want it, but when he wanted it, he wanted it with all his being. It is in knowing that it is not his pain alone that he carries, that of his people too. Their frustrations. Their anger at the system; at him; at us. Why couldn’t he be stronger? Why couldn’t we have been stronger for him?
And it is in knowing that you can’t get mad at them, they are hurting too, in their own way, even more than the bereaved can admit. Sometimes I imagine all the rollercoaster of emotions I had; have. The joys, the anger, the surprises, the betrayals, the hopes and wonder how father’s must be heightened.
It is in knowing that there is nothing you can do for him, other than being there.
To a large extent we are victims of the facade of stoicism so commonly displayed by African men; strong, all-knowing and always in control. Mental health and stress are rarely spoken about in our cultures, often seen as either a white man’s problem or at the very least, a rich man’s problem. There is indeed a majority of Kenyan politicians who deal with their stress like the proverbial ostrich, hiding their head in the sand, and hoping the danger will go away, until it doesn’t. Maybe my father’s ability to accept and move on is what sand is to an ostrich.
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Nairobi, Nairobae, Nairoberry
Cacophonous, labyrinthine, gluttonous, angry, envious, charming, paradoxical, mysterious, confusing, alluring.
Nairobi. A cacophony of matatu hoots and booming bongs from church bells. All in inexplicable harmony. Like a Beethoven piece. A muezzin’s melody moves the ummah from a minaret here, a bus conductor — shouting from the most pimped out mathree — moves umati there. A hawker here. An ambulance there. But there’s also a silent monotone. The sound of hope dying. Of someone stealing two billion every day, of the clock going tick-tock from your 9 to 5. There’s that saying: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? But what if it’s in the middle of Waiyaki Way? Just because someone thinks giving us an expressway will absolve him of war crimes. While in reality, all it does is leave all the marabou storks homeless.
Nairobi. A labyrinth of lipstick-stained shot glasses and semi-filled ashtrays. Where a party starts regardless of where the limbs of the clock point. And only ends when everyone is browned out and on the brink of calling the one that got away. Nairobi is looking for coins during traffic because you want to help the beggar, who is patient enough to receive the donation before snatching your phone. It is being stagnant in that same traffic for long enough to buy crisps made with transformer oil and served in compact disk wrapping. And like clockwork, you put the window back up because Nairobbery isn’t just a play on words. But the ones that hurt the most are the conmen, because nigga I trusted you!
Nairobi. Where gluttony is second nature. A kaleidoscope of too much gold tequila and too many smokie pasuas. Of good pasta and wine in overpriced restaurants. Of ramen noodles and pre-cooked meat. Where nothing is ever enough. We drink and eat to our fill because life sucks. Why wouldn’t it? Our last president’s advisor was the bottom of a Jameson bottle and our current one’s advisor is Jesus. The spirit guides the nation either way, I guess. But still, Nairobi tastes like chances and do-overs. It tastes like anxieties and aspirations and I know it doesn’t feel like it but today you omoka na 3-piecer then one day you omoka, for real.
Nairobi. Reeks of piss and thrifted clothes. Fresh bakeries and Subway. Old currency and that one cologne every man in their early 20s wears. Smells like fighting your titans and sending a million job applications. Nairobi. Where you can go weeks without a lover’s touch but only days without a cop grabbing you by the wedgie into a mariamu because you shouldn’t be idle as you wait for your Uber outside Alchemist. Because of course in that time you should take up a sport, play an instrument, solve world peace, et cetera.
There are few occasions when pride will linger. Like when Kipchoge finishes a marathon in under two hours. When Lupita wins an Oscar. The hubris you feel when your copy makes it to the billboard on UN Avenue. Or when your lame joke gets five retweets because Kenyans on Twitter will massacre you if you think you’re the next Churchill. Orrrr that one time we were all watching Money Heist and so gassed that Nairobi was one of the characters.
Sadly, Nairobi pride also comes in with its individualism. Everyone is out here on their own trying to get some bread whether they’re in the upper class getting baguettes and rye bread or in the lower class getting Supaloaf. I get it though, the city doesn’t let anyone rest from the grind and the hustle and the drudgery. And the wealth gap is bigger than Vera Sidika’s bunda. But ironically, the city is a paradox. An optical illusion. Sometimes the people are so ready to convene in community that it kinda revives the fickle hope you have in humanity. From safe spaces to fundraisers to a simple hearty conversation with your Uber driver.
And there’s obviously that murky feeling of greed that comes from 90 per cent of our politicians. When you’re at the bottom of the food chain it’s called hunger, but the higher you climb the more you want and it becomes indulgence. Greed makes them say and do all kinds of things. Like apologising to Arab countries that are exploiting Kenyans because they don’t want to be cut off. Y’all know any juakali guys we can commission for guillotines? – Heads gotta roll. Because how will I steal cooking oil and flour and end up in a cold cell but they’ll steal billions and end up with a second five-year term?
I think wrath is the most Nairobi-esque of the cardinal sins. We’re angry at the police. At the government, at global warming, at nduthis, at KPLC, at Zuku, at Safaricom, at KCB, at each other. Agonizingly though, our anger fizzles out as fast as it blazes up. I don’t think we’re ever angry enough.
And then there’s the envy. You know you’ll get there eventually but that gets lost in translation when you see someone with better because that sparks something in you even though we are all on different paths at different paces. Whether it’s a BMW or an airfryer, the question stays: Why not me? And also I’m personally jealous of the people who’ve managed to move out of Nairobi to Naivasha, Watamu or wherever. It feels like they’ve figured their way out the maze while I’m still at a dead end wondering whether I can just hop out the sides. Doesn’t matter what it is, our eyes are as green as the parks and spaces we so desperately need in this godforsaken city.
Nairobi. The city of miniskirts and cheers baba jackets. Lust dripping down the sides of our mouths because we can’t seem to contain it under our tongues. I don’t even know why people bother to go to Vasha for WRC when they live in the city of sexual debauchery where the only thing that’s on heat more than the sun is whatever’s between people’s legs. Where even Christian Grey would pause and do a double-take. Where ropes aren’t just for skipping and leashes aren’t just for dogs. If you find ordered love in the city, you must have saved refugees and orphans in your past life. This is the city where the flesh is truly willing.
You know that intense sloth-like feeling when you wanna wake up for Sunday brunch at Brew Bistro or K1 and then later watch Hamilton race at around 4 when all the mimosas have hit your head and you’re surprised that your wig is still intact? Or the next day when you’re trying to get out of your covers and you’re thinking about that beastly Nairobi traffic you’re about to face and all you can do is tweet “Nimewacha pombe mimi”. Truthfully though, other than that and a few other instances, the pace is too fast for me. I just wanna be in a dera next to the beach drinking a passion caipiroska and eating viazi karai cause why are y’all always running?
And y’all are way too fast when coming up with new words too. There’s like a million words for currency, ass, sex, sherehe, et cetera. Truly, there is a certain linguistic je ne sais quoi when it comes to the Nairobian’s language. It stops being a transaction of random syllables and begins to become an understanding of feelings, emotions and behaviour. I, especially, like how we knead it into our art. We sneak it into our music and get phenomena like gengetone.
We compress it into our films and get Nairobi Half Life. We squeeze it into our visual pieces and get Michael Soi. One thing about Nairobians is we do not cower in silence, we have words to say and we shall say them. Even if that means running a president out of Twitter. That’s why our writers are as staggeringly sensational as they are. Ngartia. Sookie. Grey. Muthaka. Laria. Abu. And those are just my friends, dawg.
But it’s not just the writing. The fashion. Rosemary Wangari. Nicole Wendo. Samantha Nyakoe. The music. Mau from Nowhere, Vallerie Muthoni, Karun, Maya Amolo, XPRSO. Just a Band. The films. The painting. Muthoni Matu. Zolesa. The architecture. The cinema. The theatre. Too Early for Birds is back! et cetera. Man, I gotta tell ya, when God was cooking up the cauldron of this city, he went hard on the talent. Quote me on this: a lot of exceptional creatives from this city are gonna hit the world with a head-splitting bang in a couple of years.
Nairobi. Despite the crowds, the queues and the poor drainage, it still has a charm. Mysterious. Confusing. Alluring. Despite the fact that you can only truly enjoy the Nairobi experience if you’re a bird or an expat, me I love it still.
Nairobians, keep sinning, keep winning!
The Enemy Within
Death hangs heavily over people with cancer – it is always there, reminding you of your mortality.
So, this is what happens when a doctor tells you that you have cancer. The first response is disbelief (how can this be true?), followed by anger (I don’t deserve this, I never hurt anyone), and then a deep sense of grief and loss (what will I miss when I die, and how will my loved ones cope without me?)
They say cancer is the result of pent-up anger and resentment. Apparently, years of holding on to these emotions make your cells misbehave and become toxic. Cancer cells end up eating up healthy cells, leaving the body so full of poison that it collapses from lack of vitality. The jury is still out on whether lifestyle choices generate cancer in the body because people who lead healthy lives seem to be as prone to cancer as those who don’t. Nonetheless, when you find out you have cancer, your first reaction is to blame yourself. It is sort of like being told you have HIV. (Was I responsible for this? Was I reckless? Should I have used a condom?)
Friends and relatives will tell you that breast cancer is beatable, that they know so many women who had breast cancer and lived healthy lives years after treatment. What they don’t tell you is that all the literature points to a short life expectancy after the discovery of cancer. The chances of recurrence are high, even with chemotherapy, mastectomy or radiation, the traditional methods to “cure” breast cancer. I have read studies where women who had chemotherapy had an equal chance of recurrence as those who didn’t. So, death hangs heavily over people with cancer – it is always there, constantly reminding you of your mortality.
Most people are so afraid of cancer that they can’t even say the word. The receptionist at an oncologist’s office actually asked me what kind of “C” I had – never used the word cancer. Yet she deals with cancer patients every day. Another oncologist I consulted couldn’t even make eye contact with me and rushed me through a diagnosis I couldn’t understand, perhaps believing that my cancer was contagious?
The thing is that cancer is not like any other disease that can be cured through surgery or drugs. It requires months of treatment and constant monitoring. It’s not like having malaria or a broken bone. It is like having an enemy residing in your body, hostile, predatory, waiting to pounce at any moment.
It seems a positive frame of mind is critical in recovering from cancer. I got calls from women who told me they bounced right back into their lives after months of treatment as if nothing had happened, that I mustn’t believe all the literature, that I should get all the treatments done and go back to living a normal life. They didn’t explain to me why they have been working from home since their treatment started and since their so-called “recovery”. Others are more honest about their experiences. A South African women called to tell me that her experience with chemotherapy had damaged her heart, and she is on life-long medication that makes her urinate every few minutes, which means she can no longer work in an office. Instead of destroying the cancer, the chemo destroyed healthy cells in her heart. She is cancer-free but now disabled in other ways. Another friend told me her aunt died not from the cancer, but from the chemo.
What the doctors and the optimists don’t tell you is that both chemotherapy and radiation have debilitating impacts on your body. They literally are poisons injected into your body to kill another poison. Sort of like a vaccine but not quite because they do not boost your immunity. Both chemotherapy and radiation therapies involve weeks of hospital visits that cost an arm and leg. Nausea, burns on your body, fatigue are common side effects.
A friend from Boston who has studied alternative ways of healing from cancer (including not getting any treatment at all) tells me that each woman with breast cancer has to make an individual choice about what kind of treatment she should get. Doctors trained in Western medicine will be quick to put you on chemotherapy and the other treatments without giving you other options. Desperate and eager to cling onto life, the patient with cancer readily accepts any treatment, not realising that not only is it a very long process, but very costly as well. Mental preparation and psychological support are also necessary before embarking on the long and arduous journey called cancer treatment. People become life-long patients; some recover well, others not so well. Some women opt for no treatment, preferring to lead a good quality of life before the disease ravages the body.
I am looking at alternative methods of healing, including Pranic healing that works on your energy fields and chakras. So far it seems to be helping me, but only time will tell if I will be a success story. I have certainly started eating more, and those dizzy spells in the morning seem to be getting rarer.
The biopsy results are not yet out, so I am still not sure what the oncologist will prescribe, but in Kenya, the modus operandi seems to follow the same script: mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy or radiation and some kind of hormone treatment. Am I ready to go there? Not sure. Women who lose their breasts speak of feeling like an amputee; the loss of an organ that defines their femininity impacts their identity and self-esteem. Others are more casual about losing their breasts, (“It’s just fat,” one woman told me). `
The other thing about cancer is that when you have it, you think of nothing else. Everything is a blur. Someone wants to make small talk, and all you want to do is look the other way or scream. (Can’t you see I have cancer? Do you really want to discuss the weather?) You think about your life in vivid film shots. Your past suddenly comes into sharp focus, both the happy and sad days. You begin questioning the meaning of life in ways you never did before. Cancer prepares you for death the way a fatal car accident doesn’t. Is sudden death preferable to dying slowly because you can’t see it coming? Not sure.
But let me not be the purveyor of doom and gloom. The reason I am writing this article is that I have learned wonderful things about myself and other people. One of the things I have learned is that people can be kind and generous when they know you are in pain. People I don’t even know and have never met have sent me good wishes, prayers and even money for my treatment. Friends and family have sent food and offered accommodation. An Indian friend called to say that if I opted to go to India for treatment, I could stay in his home for as long as I needed. These generous and kind offers have literally brought tears to my eyes.
What I also learned is that my life’s work has not been a waste, and that my readers love and admire me for my writing. I didn’t realise I had inspired so many people, not just in Kenya but around the world, through words I have penned. That is a really important things for me to know and hold onto right now – to realise that I had a gift that I used well, and which helped others. And to know that when I go, my writing will live on.
I also learned that life is very, very short. So, we must not postpone the things we need to do. If your job makes you unhappy, quit. If a relationship is toxic, leave it. If people around you are making you feel bad about yourself, walk away. Surround yourself with people who love and cherish you. Love is very important for human survival, so distribute it freely. Be kind and generous. This thing called life is temporary, so enjoy every moment and live it as if every day is your last.
Someone’s Grandmother Just Died!
It is painful to always have to consider the feelings of others while legitimate calls for acknowledgement of racial injustice and reparations are consistently ignored and dismissed.
Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, I watched the televised service at St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh attended by the royals and various Scottish dignitaries, as well as the many hundreds who came out to pay their respects or to be a part of this historical event.
As I watched the outpouring of public emotion, I couldn’t help but wonder what emotions the queen’s death would invoke in those whose lives have been blighted because of the British colonial policies that killed millions and left a legacy of misery and disenfranchisement in countries far too many to name.
At first I was saddened by the news. But then came the reactions of global figures the world over, with some proclaiming outright that Queen Elizabeth had been a guiding light, a symbol of hope and stability in the world. One broadcaster went so far as to say “She was everybody’s grandmother.” My problem was that she wasn’t mine.
My grandmother, born in 1923, was just three years old when the Queen was born, my 81-year-old mother told me when I called to get her reaction to the news that the Queen had died. “She would’ve been 99 years old today if she had she lived,” my mom said. I could hear the emotion in her voice as she remembered her mother. My grandmother died in 1983; she was 59 years old. I was then just 18 years old. I said, “Mom with all the things we know about the racist systems that have kept Black and Brown people oppressed, I really don’t know how I want to feel about the death of the British Queen.” Never one to mince her words, my mom replied, “She was a human being, and we, well you know, we mourn the loss of any life.”
Yes. She may have been a grandmother to many but to me she was a symbol of institutionalized racism in its clearest form. Images of British dynasty have been present in the education of every American who has gone through the public school system since the Second World War during which the United States allied with Britain in their quest for global power and dominance. Yet here was the evil of the Crown being portrayed in the media—as it’s always been portrayed—as providence, something divine. As I listened to a special broadcast by the popular British talk show host James Corden talking to an American audience about the Queen’s passing, his tone struck me as odd: “She will be missed, she was everybody’s grandmother,” he said, going on to tell us how well she had served the country and the world.
As I was listening to Corden and wondering why I was so irritated by his outpouring of emotion, it dawned on me that racism moves from generation to generation, falling back on the old practices of how to colonize a nation: You teach them to love you more than they love themselves. Racism survives because the symbols of racism never die. We carry the symbols in our hearts and in our minds and once we have identified with them, we seek to justify their existence. While I could empathise with those that felt a special connection to the Crown, what I realized and felt most immediately, was the insensitivity I received as an African American who bears the scars of the legacy of slavery that has made the British Empire one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world today.
The next day I watched the funeral procession move through the streets of Edinburgh, the commentators conveying the solemn mood of the people who came out to pay tribute to their Queen. All the while I couldn’t see past the 1989 image of Princess Diana hugging a child suffering from HIV/AIDS. On her first unaccompanied trip overseas, Princess Diana spontaneously broke with protocol and showed compassion towards a suffering Black child with all the world watching, at a time when the stigma of HIV/AIDS was as bad as the disease, and Blacks were being impacted the most and no one else seemed to care. Diana’s humanity helped solidify her reputation as the “People’s Princess” and it radically changed the way AIDS sufferers were perceived.
While the news played on I thought about two recent exchanges I had had in Amsterdam, just outside my front door. The first exchange took place in a cafe.
I was sitting at the bar having a coffee. Another Black male of Surinamese origin was sitting a couple of tables away. It was midmorning and we were the only ones there. In an attempt to start a conversation, as men do, he asked my opinion on the war in Ukraine. I told him I thought it was crazy, all too unreal. The white Dutchman behind the counter leaned over and candidly shared, “I don’t give a shit about the war in Ukraine.” I didn’t speak again and left the bar so abruptly the young brother asked, “You leaving?” I was in no mood to have that conversation so early in the day, having experienced the backlash of the “Black Lives Matter” protest with the counter-narrative that All Lives Matter; I’ve learned that sometimes it’s better to just hold one’s peace and walk away. (It literally is your peace.)
Shortly after that incident, a couple of days later, I had another encounter that made me realize that we simply can’t afford not to care. I had wandered into a tool shop on the corner of my street that looks more like a men’s gift shop inside than a hardware store selling nails, drills and plywood. Behind me walked in a man who apparently knew what he wanted because we reached the cash register at the same time, he with a power drill in his hand. I moved aside to let him be the first in line, not sure if I was done.
The Dutchman behind the counter seemed not to have noticed that the man with the drill wasn’t Dutch and didn’t speak the language. But to his credit, he did know what he wanted: the drill and a bag in which to put the canisters of spray paint he had already placed on the counter. Being familiar with Eastern Europeans, I assumed the man was Polish and asked “Polske?” “No! Ukraine!” he said, then, smiling, added, “Close.”
“Hij wil een tas.” He wants a bag, I said to the clerk; bags are not automatically handed out after a purchase these days. The clerk then understood and reached under the counter. I was pleased I could help and the Ukrainian was happy as well. To my surprise, as I placed my items on the counter, the Ukrainian tapped my shoulder and offered a fist bump.
I say all this to say of the human condition that people appreciate what they understand. And sadly enough, we rarely think about injustice until it is visited upon us.
Whose permission do we now need to talk about racism and the policies that still impact us today? Africa and the African diaspora’s historical issues are and always have been about racism and this is why members of this group, my group, will always hold a contrarian view when the West attempts to compel us to join them in their moment of grief. My grandmother died in 1983, at the young age of 59, in a small southern town next to a river; there was no horse and carriage, no media. The British Empire once covered the whole world, a dominance that was achieved through suppression and oppression. Many atrocities were committed and entire communities decimated under the authority of the Queen. I was raised never to speak ill of the dead because they aren’t here to defend themselves but I will submit this: it is painful to always have to consider the feelings of others while legitimate calls for acknowledgement of racial injustice and reparations are consistently ignored and dismissed. Where is the same fervour and energy for those issues that matter to us?
When we as Black people keep the peace, we empower the presence of the historical lie that we are inferior and thus require control. When we remain silent we allow the systems of the institutions and the prejudices that block our collective growth to thrive. Why should we care about the death of the Queen when the Queen has stood for the oppression of our people? Why should we be guilt-tripped into silence, into not speaking out about the dead, into not pursuing our freedom? When will our emergency, the issues that impact Black and Brown people, become a top concern for the White world? When will I be able speak without fear of being branded just another angry black man, angry for what I don’t have that others do?
Sad as the Queen’s death is to those that survive her, honouring her service is a symbolic gesture that must be contextualized because, for many, and not just in the UK but all over the world, the English monarchy is a symbol of oppression. I recently listened to a podcast in which a Black podcaster scolded an guest who said this of the Queen: “She is the symbol of colonialism and racism for many; however much we want to romanticize the Queen of England’s long reign on the throne as a stabilizing force on earth, she has also allowed many human rights violations on her watch”. The podcaster’s response was a classic putdown, “Why do Black people have to always bring up racism? Someone’s grandmother just died!”
Racism endures because when we identify with its symbols, we will do anything and everything in our power to justify and defend them.
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