“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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
A Letter to Stella Nyanzi: “You Teach Us to Lay Blame Exactly Where It Belongs”
6 min read. Too often we are willing to believe that if we are calm enough, if we are silent enough, polite enough, eloquent enough, poised enough, then the tyrants will listen. We believe that if we are ‘’well mannered’’ then we will be heard. You remind us that this is deception.
My sister Nyanzi,
I used to think tyranny means one-party rule, one media station and army garrisons everywhere. Now I know tyranny also means that who we love, how we live, how we die and even the speed of our death is chosen for us by people that never have to face us, by people that have learned not to fear our wrath or our collective pain. You have taught me this, because both of us live under tyrannies. As I write this, you are in Luzira Maximum Security Prison contending with the tyrannies of the prison authorities, the judicial system, the police, Makerere University, Museveni and his state and personal machinery. We live under multiple tyrannies at once, some more immediate than others, all of them intent on silencing us.
I am writing this from Kenya. I am writing from a country reeling through an economic recession that the state’s press statements will never admit exists. A manmade recession fueled by the looting that seems to grow more arrogant with each day. As I write this, many Kenyans are dying in public hospitals because there is no medicine or the doctors have not been paid or someone stole the money for the equipment. As I write this, there are young people attending endless seminars on entrepreneurship because they face grim rates of unemployment, this too is manmade disaster. I don’t know how many young men the police have killed today; I don’t know how many women have been sexually abused or killed by a country that just seems to hate its women. There are also the university students who are teargassed and beat up every time they try to march, and the many communities unhumaned by the state. I don’t know how many queer people have been stripped or raped or mocked or told to prove they are human beings today. These are the tyrannies I live under.
We share some of these tyrannies and for this, I call you sister. Allow me to call you Stella.
When you staged your first nude protest at Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), several academics gave media interviews to say that they condemned your protest and found it to be ‘’too much’’, they mockingly asked if negotiations had failed for you to go to such lengths. More insultingly, some said while they agreed you had legitimate grievances, you could have been more civil. They seem to think that you should have spoken more sweetly. I laughed when I heard them. You know how tyranny works Stella, how it works especially well in bureaucracies. You know how good bureaucracies are at silencing and ignoring. You and I know that bureaucracies move at exactly the speed dictated by tyranny, no faster and no slower.
It is a maddening thing to realize that even in the hallowed halls of universities, we are ignored and insulted and treated anyhow, as our people say. It is more maddening to know that our emails, our eloquent letters and our pleas will go unheard when tyranny is present, as it was at MISR. Tyranny often wears a nice suit and can be well spoken and well respected. At Makerere, you used the tools at your disposal in defense of yourself. The tools on that day were red paint, cellotape, your body, your voice and camera. Those were the tools available to you. The other important tool in your arsenal, arguably the most potent, is your refusal of respectability.
So often, women are only celebrated when we protest in service of the men in our lives — our brothers, our fathers, anyone but ourselves. I think of all of us who are scared of speaking in our own defense, scared of organizing for our own wellbeing, our reproductive freedom, our sexual freedom, our safety. I think of how we have been intimidated to believe that this is entitlement, as if being entitled is a bad thing. How many of us have swallowed indignity after indignity because the only person being humiliated is us?
Here, I pause, in the middle of my letter to acknowledge and greet you in the movements you come from, the movements that have shaped you and supported you. We know that often people are isolated from their movements in order to make them messiahs. But messiahs always fail because they don’t really exist. I greet you in the name of the #RotAtMISR , #WomensMarchUG , #ThisTaxMustGo , #PeoplePowerMovement and the many offline political actions you have taken. From standing in solidarity with students of Makerere when they protested arbitrary inclusion of fees, to caring for the Arua 33 that were victims of state violence, to dealing with menstrual injustice through the #Pads4GirlsUG movement.
It is from your movements that you have dealt with the effects of Museveni’s tyranny intimately, by seeing how your comrades are brutalized and seeing how relaxed the dictators can be even in the face of impassioned pleas for even a small measure of justice. You have seen your movements forced to wait on the dictator’s time. We all do so much waiting after all. We wait for enough money to take our relatives to decent hospitals and decent schools, we wait for courts to vindicate us and for the churches to speak for justice and for the police to stop killing. On both sides of the Malaba border, we wait. A feminist sister, Mumbi, has written about how we are forced to wait on the state’s time, wait on tyranny’s time, in order to live as human beings. Mumbi considers that one of the ways we can disrupt the state’s time is through the communities we build and how we care for each other.
You have given us another answer to how we can disrupt the state’s time; by abandoning respectability and politeness. After all, the tyrants know exactly what they are doing when they abuse our humanity. From your political actions, your Facebook posts, and your court appearances, we learn to call the tyrants by name and declare their shame to them. I read somewhere that your father died because of the poor healthcare system in Uganda, and in your writing, you lay the responsibility for this on Museveni’s head. Rightfully so. Another feminist sister, Sunshine, says that this is reminiscent of what Fela Kuti did when his mother (and our feminist ancestor) Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti died from injuries she got after the Nigerian police raided Fela’s home. Fela took his mother’s coffin to the army barracks, to Olusegun Obasanjo, who for all intents and purposes had killed Funmilayo. When you call Museveni a pair of buttocks, that is exactly what you are doing, connecting the tragedy of all the deaths and suffering caused by a sick state to the head of the state. Truth telling can start there, by us clearly naming the tyrants and abusers.
For some reason, tyrants hate this. They are shocked at the idea that we might call them what they are: abusers, misogynists, sexists, thieves, robbers, murderers, homophobes. You teach us to lay blame exactly where it belongs, to practice the radical truth telling that refuses to be distracted by bureaucracy. Stella, you say that politeness has been held captive, and the powerful don’t listen anymore, and sometimes we have to say fuck it and then people will listen.
Too often we are willing to believe that if we are calm enough, if we are silent enough, polite enough, eloquent enough, poised enough, then the tyrants will listen. We believe that if we are ‘’well mannered’’ then we will be heard. We think if we bend ourselves enough, the tyrants will feel some pity for us. You remind us that this is deception. Good manners are decided by the powerful, and after all — isn’t it the worst manners to steal and oppress? Yet no one accuses tyrants of having bad manners. No, bad manners are left to be a cross for us to carry to hasten our own silencing, our own internal and final deaths. Respectability protects the comfort of the tyrants. Your political actions show us that when we shed politeness, we can disturb their peace in potent ways.
You, like Audre Lorde, know that our silence will not save us. Not only that, but politeness and niceness cannot save us either. You know that we only get silent to work out our internal convictions and from there, we use whatever tools we have to shout, be it our bodies, our phones, our voices. We shout. We shout because we are being killed either way. Your poetry, court appearances and nude protest are all political actions, asking us what we are still afraid of. What do we gain by protecting the comfort of these tyrants to enjoy their theft, their tyranny unoffended?
Stella, you are a woman who has reached into herself and taken joy, taken brazenness and categorically refused shame. Your body is your manifesto, as you say, and with it, you declare and live your radical queer feminist politics every day. We are affirmed by you.
Some people think you are fearless, others believe you are unashameable, I don’t believe either of them. Even with the best intentions, they are trying to make you iron, invulnerable, and otherworldly. I know different. You are not otherworldly Stella, you are fully human.
In care and love,
Culture2 weeks ago
The Man Who Brought Marxism Back to Kenya
Culture5 days ago
Boobs and Booties: How Hypersexualised Images of Women Impact Society
Data Stories2 weeks ago
Food Trends in Kenya (2007- 2017)
Op-Eds5 days ago
Charities, Voluntourism and Child Abuse: Is There a Link?
Op-Eds5 days ago
That Sinking Feeling 2.0: Who Is to Blame for Tanzanian’s Ferry Disasters?
Politics5 days ago
How Corruption and Greed Are Destroying Africa’s Forests
Politics5 days ago
Is Democracy Dead or Has It Simply Been Hijacked?
Ideas5 days ago
The Unapologetic Blackness of the Me Too Movement