“Not until you have discovered what is worth dying for is life really worth living.”
Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela-Mandela
Reminiscent of Freire’s analogy of liberation as a painful childbirth and while the evocation of ‘Mother’ can be suspect as witnessed in disempowering narratives of women who must carry the weight of the world on their shoulders, it interests me that people in South Africa as well as continental Africa and the Diaspora referred to departed Elder, Nomzamo Winifred Zanyiwe Madikizela-Mandela as Mother of the Nation, Mam’Winnie, uMam’Winnie, Mama Winnie or Mama Africa.
I hold‘Mama’ in esteem and context as an embodiment of the ‘Source’ and ‘Force’ that brings forth life. The life of a person, a people or a nation.The life in the ‘Fruit’ of the struggle for freedom and human dignity – liberation.
I first heard of Winnie Mandela during my teenage years. I simply knew of her then as the late South African Freedom Fighter, Nelson Mandela’s wife. It wasn’t until my young adult years that I started developing a deeper understanding of her role as a Freedom Fighter and Liberation Leader in her own right.
Everything I knew about Madikizela-Mandela was based on numerous stories told by local, regional and international media over the years, often portraying her as a highly contentious leader on a personal and professional level.
Deeply polarizing perceptions of Madikizela-Mandela continue to emerge following the news of her death on Monday, April 02, 2018 at age 81. People in South Africa and across the globe have eulogized this revolutionary leader in a variety of ways creating what feels like an emotionally charged, ‘love-you-hate-you-shut-up’ mosaic of ‘raw-ripe’, ‘bitter-sweet-sour’and in-between, powerful depictions – as if in competition for voice, space, light and life.
The concept of the cycle or continuity of life unfolds as the world mourns this revolutionary. She continues to inspire global narratives that are forcing many to ‘look’ at her life’s trajectory as a liberation leader – in life and death! A dynamic reflecting a duo-extreme and of shades in-between depending on what we ‘see’ when we ‘look’. A symbolic,’narratives tag-of-war’strives to cement what Sisonke Msimang and others have called Madikizela-Mandela’s legacy.
Based on what I have read, watched and conversations with people on and off social media, I have been struck by the varying descriptions of Madikizela-Mandela. Some of the words and phrases I have come across describe her as defiant, resilient, fierce, fearless, spirited, strong, brave, unbreakable, courageous, out-spoken, bold, passionate, resilient fortitude, flawed, militant, charismatic, radical, firebrand, despicable, complex, violent, murderous, corrupt, terrorist, tarnished, bully, kidnapper, Mandela’s ex-wife, among others.
In some cases, these words hinge on a one-sided view of a wonderful, loving and beloved liberation leader or a cold-blooded, corrupt politician and adulterous murderer. Some have drawn their perceptions of Madikizela-Mandela from both ends of the spectrum while others remain conspicuously silent. Silence is a form of communication.
Zukiswa Wanner called out what she termed, “pseudo-intellectual attacks” some people are “writing about this complex woman” noting in a one of her Facebook posts, “On Mam’Winnie: If the black man is always suspect, the black woman is always guilty. And I ain’t got time for those who push the latter narrative, thank you”.
Rasna Warah called out “white-media vilification” of Madikizela-Mandela and the hypocrisy of a global patriarchal double-standard which ignores prominent male political leaders’ real or perceived transgressions yet takes “all gloves off when it comes to Winnie”. Warah also noted, “Winnie Mandela was no doubt a deeply flawed human being. But which South African can claim to have remained completely untouched or undamaged by the extreme violence and blatant racism of the apartheid era? If anything, we should admire Winnie Mandela for refusing to allow the apartheid regime to crush her fearless spirit – a spirit that could be bent but which could not be broken.”
Zukiswa Wanner reminded her fellow citizens in South Africa, “There is no historical record of men in the ANC or Pan Africanist Congress who raped their comrades, who stole resources donated by our anti-apartheid allies for those in camps in Angola, Tanzania, Zambia and Mozambique, and suffering the consequences for doing so”.
Wanner continued, “Instead, our collective vilification has been towards the one person who suffered more than most in the last 30 years of apartheid because she was a woman who did not behave as we expected. What we have is a record of Madikizela- Mandela being asked at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to apologise for her involvement in Stompie Seipei’s murder. Jerry Richardson, the “coach” of the Mandela United Football Club, was sentenced to life for the teenager’s murder. Madikizela-Mandela was convicted of kidnapping and being an accessory in the assault of Stompie. Her sentence was reduced to a fine and a suspended two-year sentence on appeal”.
An excerpt from one of Stella Nyanzi’s Facebook posts on Madikizela-Mandela, “Her beauty, strength, courage, resilience, out-spokenness, defiance, militant charisma and radical fire often inspired me to stand tall in difficult times” … and… “yet her reported human failings also shook me to the core because they were outright vile”. Nyanzi resolved her multiple and conflicting perceptions of Madikizela-Mandela noting, “the greatest attribute was her beautiful complexity as a human being” who was “full of contradictions that make her life a grand enigma for inquiring minds. She was neither perfect nor pure evil. She was a huge paradox comprising several smaller paradoxical puzzles. Her tenacity and resilience astound me.”
Some people have praised and acknowledged Madikizela-Mandela’s contributions and position as a frontline leader in the liberation struggle in South Africa. Swift rebuttals and ‘clap-backs’ to local, regional and global media outlets emerged citing deliberate attempts to erase and minimize her role and stature as a liberation leader by referring to her as “anti-apartheid campaigner”, “anti-apartheid crusader”,“anti-apartheid stalwart”, Nelson Mandela’s ex-wife and anti-apartheid activist”, “flawed heroine”, among others.
One cannot help but wonder why Madikizela-Mandela was loved by many but also detested,by some, perhaps in equal measure. As I reflect upon the myriad ways Madikizela-Mandela has been portrayed by different people, the Social Psychology concept of ‘person perception’ that explores how we form impressions of one another comes to mind.
Social Psychologists believe that ‘person perception’ attributes various “mental processes” to how we form impressions of one another and how these, influence subsequent conclusions, judgements we make about people, and the way we interact with them. iresearchnet.com indicates that forming impressions of other people can “occur indirectly and requires inferring information about a person based on observations of behaviors or based on second-hand information.” It also explains that we can form impressions of other people “more directly and require little more than seeing another person.” The website concludes that direct and indirect types of person perception “provide a foundation from which subsequent judgments are formed and subsequent interactions are shaped”.
When we form our impressions of others through “indirect person perception” our “general perception of a person is the product of inference”. This means that “many of the personal attributes” that “we may want to know about another person (e.g., whether the person is loyal, honest, or contemptible) are not directly observable”.
These “attributes or traits must be discerned—either from observing the person’s actions (actually watching the person behave in a loyal or honest manner) or from interpreting information provided by a third party (what a roommate conveys about a person or what the experimenter reveals)”.
According to iresearchnet.com, “personal attributes that observers notice about another person need not be inferred because they are directly observable and are therefore noted immediately”. These personal attributes include categorical judgments about other people such as their sex, race, and age. This process prompts the questions; “What sex? What race? and How old?” are “likely to be among the first impressions that observers form of others”.
Perceptions: A Journey
Reflection on what informs my personal impressions, perceptions and conclusions about Mandikizela-Mandela find root in a journey that started during my teenage years where my initial knowledge of her was simply, Nelson Mandela’s wife, based on what I read in the media.
As I matured into young adulthood and developed interests in social justice, my evolving consciousness enabled me to grow my understanding beyond my teenage view of her as Nelson Mandela’s wife. Since I did not know Madikizela-Mandela, personally, to form personal impressions of her through observation, to for instance infer whether she was loyal or honest, I therefore utilized “indirect person perception” to form impressions of her based on “information proved by a third party” – the media.
It is therefore important that I continue reflecting upon the validity of the third-party information that has influenced some of my perceptions of her therefore broadening the scope of sources that corroborate or challenge the ones I have relied on in the past. As an outsider to South Africa it is also important that I listen to voices from within on this matter, but I cannot make assumptions that every voice that I hear from South Africa will be accurate.
Most importantly, I must also seek to learn what Mandikizela-Mandela says about her life and contributions to the liberation struggle, in her own words. Her book 491 Days: Prisoner Number 1323/69, a diary of her days in solitary confinement for 18 months, the documentary film Winnie as well as Alf Kumalo and Sukiswa Sukiswa Wanner’s book 8115: A Prisoner’s Home are great sources to add to your reading/viewing list.
My reflections have helped me pay attention to how stereotypes and cultural assumptions we hold related to the “direct person perception” dimensions of race, sex and gender can influence our impressions of one another. These intertwine within an interplay of culture and the dynamics of power.
The way power is expressed and experienced from a race, culture and gender perspective can influence our perceptions of one another. Afua Hirsch explored some aspects of how racial bias and sexism have shown up in some obituaries, “The death of Madikizela-Mandela is another opportunity to choose between a narrative of white supremacy and the one that overthrew it. If the media coverage of her death is anything to go by, this is, apparently, a deeply controversial choice”.
Patricia Hill Collins’ “domains-of-power heuristic” offers a compelling framework for analyzing power that considers the complexity of intersectionality. Collins posited, “power relations can be analyzed both via their mutual construction, for example, of racism and sexism as intersecting oppressions, as well as across domains of power, namely structural, disciplinary, cultural and interpersonal”.
According to Collins, the structural domain of power consists of “public policies that organize and regulate the social institutions such as “banks, insurance companies, police departments, the real estate industry, schools, stores, restaurants, hospitals and governmental agencies”. Madikizela-Mandela’s struggle for justice touched on all these areas of power that discriminated against Black and Brown South Africans.The questions become; do I believe that all people regardless of race or gender have a right to equal access and opportunity to these critical resources, social services and facilities that help foster basic human dignity, nourishment, wellbeing and development? How do my beliefs and assumptions on this matter influence my perception of Madikizela-Mandela as a Black woman and leader who defended these rights?
Collins argued that “when people use the rules and regulations of everyday life and public policy to uphold social hierarchy or challenge it, their agency and actions shape the disciplinary domain of power”. Madikizela-Mandela resisted the apartheid system’s rules, regulations and public policies that discriminated against Black and Brown South Africans. The questions become; do I believe in or challenge the idea that all people, regardless of race or gender have a right to be protected from rules, regulations and public policies that uphold social hierarchy? How do my beliefs and assumptions on this matter influence my perception of Madikizela-Mandela as a Black woman and leader who championed this cause?
Collins further explained, “the cultural domain of power refers to social institutions and practices that produce the hegemonic ideas that justify social inequalities as well as counter-hegemonic ideas criticize unjust social relations. Through traditional and social media, journalism, and school curriculums, the cultural domain constructs representations, ideas and ideologies about social inequality”.
“Liberation is thus a childbirth, and a painful one.
The man or woman who emerges is a new person,
viable only as the oppressor-oppressed contradiction
is superseded by the humanization of all people.
…the solution of this contradiction
is born in the labor which brings into the world this new being:
no longer oppressor nor longer oppressed,
but human in the process of achieving freedom”.
Madikizela-Mandela challenged systems of domination that propagated social inequalities through an apartheid-inspired educational system, media, ideas and ideologies that include patriarchy which positioned women as less than, less deserving of opportunities, resources, being treated with dignity and respect and judged on a different and higher set of standards than men. Zukiswa Wanner reminded us, “Our patriarchal and puritanical brains, as men and women, relegated her to an ex-wife who cheated on our revered Saint Nelson while he was in prison.”
South African women have come out in large numbers to defend Madikizela-Mandela’s legacy in what they perceive as attempts to erase her contributions to the liberation struggle. As a Black woman and liberation leader who opposed the apartheid system and all it stood for, relentlessly, she suffered at the hands a sophisticated and vicious Security Branch smear campaign that as Shannon Ehbrahim reported,was designed to “discredit and isolate her”.
The questions become; do I believe in or challenge the social institutions and practices that produce ideas and ideologies of domination “that justify social inequalities”? How do my beliefs and assumptions on this matter influence my perceptions of Madikizela-Mandela as a Black woman and leader who criticized “social institutions and practices which produced hegemonic ideas that justified social inequalities?
Collins argued that the “interpersonal domain of power encompasses the myriad experiences that individuals have within intersecting oppressions”. Madikizela-Mandela and others in South African suffered the indignities of apartheid. Many of them lost their lives in the struggle for freedom and justice. While my goal isn’t to portray Madikizela-Mandela as a helpless victim of apartheid power transgressions because she was a powerful force to contend with, along with others, she was jailed, banned, harassed, detained, held incommunicado in solitary confinement, often denied food, basic feminine sanitary items and at times denied access to the medical attention and legal counsel she needed.
The questions become; do I believe in or challenge the dehumanizing acts of brutality that were unleashed upon Madikizela-Mandela and others by the apartheid regime’s power excesses? How do my beliefs and assumptions on this matter influence my perceptions of Madikizela-Mandela as a Black woman and leader who along with others, suffered the apartheid regime’s power excesses?
“A new world will be born not by those who
stand at a distance with their arms folded, but by those who are in the arena,
whose garments are torn by storms and whose bodies are maimed in the course of contest. Honour belongs to those who never forsake the truth even when things seem dark and grim, who try over and over again, who are never discouraged by insults, humiliation and even defeat”.
Nelson Mandela in a letter to Winnie Mandela, June 23, 1969
We know that Madikizela-Mandela endured the yoke and brunt of the dehumanizing whip of apartheid, stoutly, and in all her humanness as an act of unapologetic resistance, a site of undying hope bringing forth a new world from the abyss of a protracted and odious struggle to uphold human dignity.
Leading social change requires leaders who show up. Showing up is a critical first task and test for leaders of change. A leader who shows up can recruit and inspire others to also show up in support of the desired change. The social change process requires people who show up and are not afraid to stand up to be counted. The social change process is messy and unpredictable. While it requires planning, strategies, structure, resources and action, the leader and the people must understand that it is emergent. Madikizela-Mandela’s commitment to the cause of social justice was undeniable because she showed up and did so, authentically.
I use the term authenticity here to mean she was committed to showing up as herself. She was not afraid to be herself even in the face and risk of physical and emotional injury to her person. She led change through action and unwavering courage while acknowledging her full humanness as she suffered the pain of the struggle. Her passion to serve her people while showing up, authentically and unapologetically, defined her leadership.
We were uncomfortable with a person who lived by her own rules
and refused to reconcile and join the mythical rainbow nation that we wanted to believe in.
She continued to live in her Orlando West home. She continued to attend functions,
when she wanted to at a time it suited her, and she continued being unapologetic
about who she was because she knew — though we chose to ignore it — she suffered to get South Africa to its present state.
Leading social change through action means navigating outside the comforts and context of ‘armchair revolution’ but within largely invisible peripheries, trenches and valleys that know the pain and suffering of the oppressed. Madikizela-Mandela did this and for the long haul, despite the heavy hand of a dehumanizing apartheid machinery.
We were all caught up in that war of liberation
Self no longer mattered, country came first.
When they were incarcerated, on hindsight, they looked after our
leaders because from then on, the violence in the country was untold.
We were the cannon fodder.
We were the foot soldiers
We were vulnerable
We were exposed to the viciousness of apartheid.
One may wonder, what inspired Madikizela-Mandela, a young mother in her twenties to join the liberation struggle?
“To surmount the situation of oppression, people must first critically recognize its causes, so that through transforming action they can create a new situation, one which makes possible the pursuit of a fuller humanity”.
Through her leadership, Madikizela-Mandela drew the world’s attention to the situation in South Africa and this could not have been achieved through lip service. The passion and courage she embodied were grounded in the values that she held dear. Her personal conviction and commitment to the values of racial, socioeconomic, political justice and equality, fairness and democracy were the path that illuminated possibilities and action for liberation, dignity and a “fuller humanity” (Freire) for all people in South Africa.
“My flesh is nothing more than sea shells washed up to the coast
by heavy waves of stormy political seas, my soul like the sea will always be there.
I would have been filled with shame if I was unable to get up and defend those ideals (that) my heroes and our patriots have sacrificed their lives for”.
Winnie Mandela in a Letter to Nelson Mandela, March 08, 1970
I end my reflections noting that paying tribute to Madikizela-Mandela by acknowledging her great contributions to humanity through her leadership for social justice does not mean that we chose to ignore her humanness and humanity. She was as human as each one of us. She did what she did, when she did and with what she had. We are grateful.
Only she, walked in the shoes she wore and those of us who have no idea what it was like to live and stay alive in what Madikizela-Mandela called a “war of liberation”, can only imagine.
I choose to pay more attention and listen to the voices of my South African sisters who have a deeper grasp of who Madikizela-Mandela was. I hold them in care. Deeply grateful to ‘Dada’ Zukiswa Wanner who has been kind and generous by sharing her insights on Mama #Winnie.
In attacking Madikizela-Mandela, MondliMakhanya in an article
this past Sunday attacks all of us who love our people and our country unstintingly. He attacks all of us who are human and fallible because humanity is about the possibility of fallibility.
He attacks all those of us who hold other black people with respect,
whatever our disagreements with them.
Makhanya attacks us all because #WeAreAllWinnieMandela.
And to uMam’Winnie, as the children would say, we did you dirty.
May we be kinder to you in death and may we learn to protect each other and
our country to ensure that all South Africans are treated with the dignity that they deserve.
With the dignity we did not afford you.
Hamba kahle, mkhonto.
‘No love lost: What Winnie hate says about us’
Rest in Power Departed Elder
Nomzamo Winifred ZanyiweMadikizela-Mandela
Freire, P. (2000). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Academic; 30th Anniversary Edition
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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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