First of all, let’s dispel the myth that ignorance is bliss. It can be. States of unawareness can be a cushion, feathered down and fuss-free, when one needs a respite from the little annoyances of life. But ignorance is not a day-to-day frivolity that many of us, who have always lived on this continent and know the violent repercussions of one misstep, can afford. Clearly there was not a lot of bliss prancing about during the apartheid years and Black people just conveniently forgot to throw a celebratory parade. To call what happened to the majority population during this regime anything less than what it was – a brutalizing of human spirit – would be a supreme disservice.
So let’s rather call ignorance a journey. A series of stops and way-stations where, the passenger, draws ever nearer to something approaching the truth. Or a truth, whatever the case may be. You may, of course, decide to stay where you are. Never exploring, never wandering or wondering, and thus never knowing. There is a smug comfort in knowing that one day the world will come to you, because that is the pervasive and diffusive nature of all things human. The truth may one day find its way to you. But when you’re Black and female, it’s more likely to kick down your door than knock.
I met Mam’Winnie in stages.
Stations. Stops. Dilutions and exaggerations.
My earliest memory of hearing the name ‘Mandela’ was in the mid-eighties. My parents had a staggered bedroom, with a main bedroom that opened onto a dressing room-foyer where us children were sometimes allowed to play, listen to the radio and just watch our parents be parents in muted fascination. On a Liberian radio station is where I heard the song ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ by The Special A.K.A, which was quite a hit back then.
“Who is this Mandela man? Why is he…unfree?” I didn’t even know what to call the opposite of liberty. The concept was very contrary to an ideal that every African and we Liberians especially enjoyed, or so my young mind believed. The only opposite of freedom and joy I knew of was BellehYalla. BellehYalla was our nation’s worst prison, mythical and monolithic in the way it blocked out the sun in every child’s imagination. People sang songs for criminals who ended up in such places?
My father went on to explain some of what life was like under segregation in South Africa, how Mandela was a freedom fighter in jail for a long time for trying to level the playing field for the Black citizens. I fired a lot of questions. My father was one to joke if the rare mood took him so surely he was joking now, about an African country where people had so little and could do even less. Didn’t they own things, like land? Yes, apparently the country was theirs, but then White people came along and took it. But how could that be? Did White people often go around taking massive things like whole countries away and no one did anything to stop it? My father looked especially wry as he answered yes, it did happen all the time and when I was older and studying history, I would learn all the colourful ways how.
I remember one thing I could not wrap my head around: where was this Mandela’s wife, while he rotted away for a million years? What was she doing in the meantime? My father cleared his throat and adjusted his clothes and muttered something about minding the children and keeping the home and waiting.
My mother, who tended to silently watch these occasional educational exchanges between my father and any one of us five children with a mysterious wry smile of her own, came over when he left the room to busy himself with something else. “She’s helping in her own way,” my mother soothed me, knowing I had the tendency to overimagine and get overwrought. “She’s fighting how she can.”
A few years later my own idyll was shattered, if indeed my country had ever truly been the beacon for Negritude and hope that it believed itself to be. The 1990 civil war had me exiled from home and confused about wars, politics and the courageously destructive statements men make. Several years and one too many new countries later, any political appetite I could have had was snuffed out. Coming to live in South Africa, Cape Town no less, as a postgraduate student perked up my interest somewhat. I got to look at a different sort of beast close up. Stories about apartheid came alive. I had learned in my many junior and secondary schools about Bantu homelands and the regularity with which children grew up without a constant imprint of their father because he was away somewhere. Swallowed by the mines, by the cities, by the struggle. I heard much of Robben Island; you had to, with the White tourists pouring in every summer and interrupting your delicious restaurant dinners with their typhoon of tears of how this lovely man had suffered so much and still he forgave. I did not visit that white rock prison until I had some years under my belt, until the Capetonian sunshine had properly baked the overindulgent Mother City into my skin. I wanted to really feel things when I went to Robben Island.
I did not, not much. It was interesting and educational, but not riveting and wrenching. Bear in mind, I considered myself a pretty jaded young woman by this point. Proximity dulls the knife even more. Robben Island was a major tourist attraction in my city and I had learned too much via osmosis to be well and truly, pearl-clutchingly shocked. I was going for the most part to treat my mother, who was visiting at the time. Most of all, it turned out that Robben Island was no BellehYalla. I expected dungeons and neck chains. But flushing toilets, separate cells, regular meals… My knowledge of the typical African prison had never evolved beyond “no mammal should be here”, and justifiably so. But from the looks of things, all prisons were not created equally. Troupe Nelson had suffered, yes, but they’d had some dignity. As I studied the commemorative plaques on the walls, photos of revolutionaries in action, the sacrifice is not lost on me. Still, I looked around and wondered: where were the wives? Where was The Wife?
Stops. Stations. Titrations of truth.
Sometime during my Cape Town years, in the mid-2000s, a biography of Winnie Mandela was foisted on me. It was ‘Winnie Mandela: A Life’ by Anne Marie du PreezBezdrob, a popular one during that time. I was going to read it without prompting, really I was, but other books of a more fiction-bent, galvanizing nature kept getting in the way. The jaded young woman considered the nature of non-fiction too invasive to be reading material she sought out willingly. Autobiographies and biographies were heavy work of the navel-gazing variety, the payoff often too slim for my liking. I tended to steer clear. But the look on my best friend Inonge’s face brooked no nonsense as she thrust it under my nose, after days of heavy hinting did not work. This was a book we as women, Black women, had to read. I could return to my silly crime and fantasy novels afterwards. Still, I did not immediately relent. Why did I need to know more about Winnie? I knew enough. She had done some important stuff, she was the ex-president’s ex-wife. Wasn’t she bitter now? Wasn’t there a short Google page I could read with just the highlights, some ANC cliff notes? This felt like homework.
So I did some preliminary digging. There was a wealth of intriguing archival memorabilia and articles just a mouse-click away. One online photograph in particular struck me. Winnie in the 1960s, toting a metal pail of water, of something, in the township. So this was where she had been. Gone was the girl in the iconic wedding picture giggling beside her new husband, a girl who, let’s face it, had no goddamn idea what she was getting into. No idea that a nation would start to look up to her in his absence. In her place was this woman forging herself under fire: raising kids alone, facing the daily grind of laundry and assembling meals and assorted etceteras, all whilst in the grip of a police state.
This was what being the satellite parent entailed. The power of notoriety and glory of mystique were never yours, not fully, not when national security perpetually kept your business in the street. You would never be a son of rebellion or sun around which revolutions revolved. The satellite stands vigil and waits. But satellites also absorb information and detonate strategically. The girl was a woman now, her body underneath her cheap polyester jersey softened by children, the stress of her day already shadowing her face. She looked so ordinary it was frightening, because I knew she was frightening. Any woman raising children alone and fielding threats on their behalf knows this reality too well.
She reminded me of my mother. That photo hit me hard.
So I read about the Nomzamo before the Winifred, and put the two together. The book was not without its flaws and omissions of nuance, but it gave flesh and breath and breadth to a woman I had not known, allowed myself to know, was in there. I read more, picked up information from her career over the years and blended colours to make a more complete picture. As I have matured, so have my empathy and understanding. My desire to be acceptable, to apologise like a good girl, to always have my interior world and motives understood are things I crush underfoot as many times as is required to keep my spirit intact.
I knew nothing of Nomzamo-Madikizela. But we journeyed out to meet each other, she and I.
Easter in the Holy Land, and Tracing The Modern ‘Way of The Cross’ in Palestine
Many Palestinians refer to our 70-year experience of living under Israeli occupation and the suffering we endure as “walking the Via Dolorosa” or the Way of the Cross. The stations of suffering that are visited include: checkpoints, permits, refugee camps, blockade, home demolitions, detention without trial, and bombing.
For Christians in the Holy Land, Easter is the most important of the Christian holy days. In fact, Palestinians refer to it as al-Eid al-Kabir (the Big Feast) while Christmas is known as al-Eid al-Saghir (the Little Feast).
The Saturday before Easter Sunday is the climax of the Holy Week in occupied Palestine. Sabt Al-Nur (Saturday of Light) is an Orthodox tradition that marks the end of the Easter fast. Tradition holds that every year on the Saturday prior to Easter, a flame arises from the tomb of Christ at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
The miracle of the flame is celebrated by lighting candles from this flame in Jerusalem and carrying it from one town and village to another in Palestine.
Although Sabt al-Nur is an Orthodox tradition, Christians of all denominations have attended the ceremony in Jerusalem for generations, in what has always been a major community event for Christians in Palestine.
But last year, only a few hundred Palestinians made it to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the ceremony of the Holy Fire. Most Palestinian Christians have never seen the miraculous flame – not because we don’t care about the tradition – but because Israel restricts us, especially our young people, from entering Jerusalem. Jerusalem: the sacred city of Christians all over the world; the place of Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, the birthplace of Christianity itself, the site of its first churches.
As a little boy, I remember travelling to Jerusalem from our village of BeitSahour. BeitSahour is located just outside of Bethlehem, and is less than 15 km from Jerusalem. Yet it is a trip that took several hours due to the “no-man’s zone” imposed on us when Israel was created in 1948. This forced us to go through a route nearly three times longer than the normal way.
Now, I can no longer visit Jerusalem at all. I am a former political prisoner, and have been placed on an Israeli “security” list. The Israeli authorities will not grant me a permit to visit Jerusalem. My 35-year-old son has travelled widely and seen almost half the world, but he too is barred from Jerusalem.
Our story is not unique. Palestinians – indigenous to the Holy Land and who live a few kilometres away from Jerusalem – must beg for permission to visit, endure humiliating searches and pass through walls and checkpoints, while pilgrims from Germany, the United States or Peru can fly in for Easter.
For most Palestinians – whether Christian or Muslim – Jerusalem is the city we love the most and visit the least.
As an Easter “goodwill” gesture, Israel says it has issued approximately 10,000 permits to Palestinians from the occupied West Bank and 500 permits to Christians in the besieged Gaza Strip, where several thousand live. Is it really goodwill to force people to apply for permits to visit and worship in their most sacred city during their most sacred time? Is it goodwill to turn the sacred city into a military zone?
During Easter, barriers are set up in the early hours of the morning in the courtyard at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Its aim is to keep people out of the Church: a site central to Jesus’s death, crucifixion and resurrection.
Israeli army officers are present around the gates of the Old City and passages that lead to the Holy Sepulchre, as well as inside the Church itself and on its roof. These measures restrict freedom of movement for Palestinians, preventing Palestinian Christians from worshipping at the Church during this auspicious period. Even priests are not allowed to move freely. Is this what freedom of worship looks like?
Today, Palestinians feel that not only are our religious, cultural, and spiritual celebrations under attack but our whole existence as well. In fact, many Palestinians refer to our experience of living under Israeli occupation and the suffering we endure as “walking the Via Dolorosa” or the Way of the Cross.
However, this Way of the Cross is not confined to Easter week, but has been going for 70 years. The stations of suffering that are visited include: checkpoints, permits, refugee camps, blockade, home demolitions, detention without trial, and bombing.
Today, Palestinians are still walking the Way of the Cross, and anxiously awaiting the Day of Resurrection – the day the stone that blocks the tomb of occupation is rolled away.
The message of Easter and the Resurrection is that those liberated by God cannot be made slaves by anyone. But this is what is exactly what is happening today in occupied Palestine. Israel is asking the Palestinian people to let their freedom die, so that the Israeli people can live.
In the Holy Land – the land of the Resurrection – we see one group of people committed to security, justice and peace for themselves, only that is built on injustice and occupation for another set of people. We see one human being living at the expense of another human being. Christians believe Jesus Christ died and rose from the dead to give life for all, to enable everyone to triumph over death. His resurrection gave life, justice and peace for oneself; their people; and all the peoples of the earth.
Freedom for one group cannot come through the oppression of another.
Israeli security and peace cannot be built at the expense of Palestinian security, dignity and peace. The occupation of Palestinian life must end, so that both Israelis and Palestinians may live as equal human beings.
Rhetoric and Injustice: An Easter Reflection on Jesus Criminalised
Re-reading the passion narrative of Jesus allows us to be suspicious of how criminality is constructed today. The divine sharing of criminality exposes unjust systems that prosecute innocent people everyday, who are forced to plead guilty or are prematurely declared guilty.
“The cross places God in the midst of crucified people, in the midst of people who are hung, shot, burned, and tortured.” ~James Cone, ‘The Cross and the Lynching Tree’
How important is the cause of Jesus’ death for our celebration of Easter this weekend? Those familiar with the Easter story may find the question of the utmost importance. They may even explain the cause along the lines that “Jesus died for our sins.” But it is much more complicated than that.
Theologians through the ages have grappled with this central question of the Christian faith. The Apostle Paul argued that Jesus’ death led to reconciliation between divinity and humanity, while Origen of Alexandria, a third-century scholar, believed that Jesus was a ransom payment for Satan. The most common theory we might be familiar with today was articulated by Anselm, a twelfth-century theologian and philosopher. Anselm’s view of Jesus was that of substitutionary atonement, where God is depicted akin to a feudal lord whose honour had been offended by the sins of humanity. Christ then acts as a stand-in for humanity, suffering crucifixion for human sin and satisfying God’s just wrath against humankind’s transgression due to Christ’s blamelessness.
In their interpretations, these theologians are less concerned with the finer details of the historical circumstances that led Jesus to Calvary, as reported by the gospel writers. This is not to say that they are not interested in history, because the death of Jesus is a material fact that grounds its subsequent spiritual and allegorical interpretations.
The gospel writers more directly describe accounts of concrete reasons why Jesus received a death sentence; why and how a Judean peasant is sentenced to lethal punishment by a Roman procurator. They present narratives of arrest, trials, sentencing, and execution in order to articulate the causes of Jesus’ death – and to underscore that he was innocent, unfairly tried, quickly sentenced, and disproportionately punished.
Jesus’ death is not the consequence of well-distributed justice. Instead, it is the lynching of a man who through rhetoric, coercion, and popular opinion was criminalised. Although the gospel accounts differ in many regards, one place in which they are consistent is that portray Jesus as innocent. Jesus is depicted in the gospel accounts as one who has not done anything that deserves death; however, the people determine his guiltiness independently of both his actions and the charges levied against him. The charges actually function rhetorically to portray Jesus as a criminal.
Luke’s gospel is particularly useful for seeing how Jesus is criminalised. Luke is clear in illustrating how Pilate finds no reason to charge Jesus; however, the accusations of the Jerusalem temple leadership inspire the people to seek Jesus’ crucifixion. The people deem Jesus guilty without any evidence.
I see parallels with contemporary discourses that employ similar rhetoric and criminalise certain groups in today’s society. Khalil G. Muhammad, in his seminal work The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Urban America describes how criminal rhetoric and racial logic in America have gone hand in hand, to the point where statistics were manipulated to “prove” that African Americans were more prone to crime than their white counterparts. Muhammad’s work underscores the fact that criminality is not about committing crimes, but it is about systems of power. These systems create and perpetuate discourses that present people marked by status, class, gender, and race, as prone to and even guilty of crime prior to gathering evidence.
The same kind of rhetoric is at work in the gospel accounts of the crucifixion. The text in Luke 23:1-25 suggest that the accusations against Jesus, and his subsequent sentencing to death, mark how Jesus is classed as a criminal and how he is thus punished, although the allegations are unfounded or at least deemed by Pilate to be inconsequential and certainly not worthy of death.
In the accounts, Jesus is accused of three offences.
Charge 1: Stirring up our people
In the gospel of Luke, the Jerusalem temple leadership – comprising the priests and teachers of the law – present Jesus as an outsider “stirring up our people”. He is not outside of Jewishness or Judean identities, but he is from the outside of the axis of power in Jerusalem. In their ‘charge sheet’ the temple leaders emphasise that Jesus began teaching in Galilee, another part of Judea on the other side of Samaria. He began spreading his message amongst peasants, fishermen, and farmers in rural Galilee and had now brought his message all the way to the metropolis of Jerusalem. This implies that they consider Jesus either an outside agitator for Jews in Jerusalem, or an insider disrupting technologies of the temple leadership’s power from within.
The gospels all agree that Jesus was teaching in the temple publically during the busiest festival of the Jewish calendar. There would have been extra Roman police surveillance, which the presence of Pilate in the city epitomises. Therefore, Jesus’s broadcasting of “outsider” ideas would be dangerous, especially if those ideas appeared antagonistic to the power of the temple leadership or to Rome. The temple leaders’ arguments here could sound like a “Make Judea Great Again” campaign that needed scapegoats to legitimise the power of the elite and to quell any challenges to their power.
This charge of stirring up the people that the temple leadership raised against Jesus to Pilate does not explain how he stirred up the people and what he stirred them up for, but the connection of this charge to insurrection could depict Jesus as a threat that needed to be neutralised. Hence, when Jesus asks at his arrest, “Why do you come out with swords and clubs as if I were a bandit (insurrectionist)?” he identifies that he is being criminalised as the type of troublemaker that the ancient imaginaire would anticipate to receive crucifixion for seditious activity.
Charge 2: Forbidding people to pay taxes
The Jerusalem temple leadership accused Jesus of forbidding people to pay taxes to Caesar. This at best is an overstatement, because the people did not actually pay taxes directly to Caesar. In Roman-controlled Judea, peasants were not only employed to work on land that they could never own, they were also taxed. This taxation went to the ruling aristocracy (for whom they worked) who in turn paid taxes to Rome and were thus considered a part of the extended Roman imperial family. The taxation, tax collectors, and tax recipients were hated by the underclass.
The relationship between the peasant class and the ruling priestly class explains why the temple leadership, and particularly the priests, would see this charge against Jesus as particularly insidious. The priests, appointed by the Roman procurator, were given a measure of autonomy to run Jerusalem on behalf of the Romans. They were in effect the brokers of the fiduciary relationship between Rome and Judea – like homeguards or paramount chiefs in the African colonial context – and this arrangement during this time was particularly successful for the ruling elite. Pilate had an uncharacteristically stable relationship with the Jerusalem priests and did not have to exchange the high priests as frequently as his predecessor or successor. This relative stability was desirable in Judea in particular, an area that was prone to turbulence and tense relationships with the Romans. Forbidding people to pay taxes would jeopardise this proximate tranquility, which impacted the priests’ economic and political position as well as the people’s safety from Roman aggression.
Charge 3: Claiming to be a Messiah king
The last charge that the Jerusalem temple leadership raise against Jesus is that he says that he is a Messiah king. This charge is important, because it is the only one that Pilate asks Jesus about. This charge most clearly demonstrates the appeal to portray Jesus as an insurrectionist. Both messiah and king are politically loaded terms in the Roman imperial context, and for one to claim either was often linked with being an insurrectionist. The majority of the times this term is used it is in reference to a criminal involved in seditious activity.
Messianism was rampant in first century Judea. The historian Josephus acknowledges a number of figures that considered themselves to be messiahs, who felt they were anointed to bring back the Kingdom of David, or to reestablish Judean independence as had been the Hasmonean period. The activism of many of these messiahs earned them the death penalty on the cross. Even the book of Acts notes how some figures “claimed to be somebody” and had led many people in ineffective movements.
Pilate does not ask about the messiah part of the charge, instead he focuses, as he should, on the charge about Jesus claiming kingship. This charge is both laughable and serious. It is laughable that a Galilean peasant’s claim to regal authority would be taken seriously and given due process by a Roman procurator. It is a serious charge though, because this charge would claim that Jesus is pitting the “basileia tou Iēsou/Theou”- kingdom of Jesus/God against the “basileia tēs Roma” – the Roman Empire. If that was the case, then regardless of status the individual would be guilty of treason and that was a crime punishable by death, even for citizens. With this charge, the Jerusalem temple leadership is seeking the highest penalty that they can for Jesus by portraying him as the most abominable of criminals.
The gospel of Luke never presents any Roman or Jewish official as deeming Jesus worthy of death until the moment that Jerusalem temple leadership and people exclaim, “Crucify him!” This even shocks Pilate, because he had not found him guilty of any of the charges. But the rhetoric of the elders, priests, and scholars had prevailed, because when Jesus returns from being interrogated by Herod, the gospel writer Luke adds that Pilate addresses not only the Jerusalem temple leadership but the people as well. They unanimously ask for Barabbas’ freedom and Jesus’ crucifixion.
In the account, Barabbas is an insurrectionist who has committed murder and the people prefer him over Jesus. This suggests that the crowd views Jesus as more of threat or more hated than a murderer. This disdain for Jesus from Luke’s narrative is unwarranted and unfounded. However, Jesus is categorically placed beside an insurrectionist and is determined guilty by the people. It is not clear what he is guilty of but it is safe to assume that the people presume that he is more deserving of punishment than one who committed murder and insurrection.
The same rhetorical technique is used when we contrast Jesus with the two criminals who are also crucified that day. One of the criminals suggests that these two have done something worthy of such a heinous death. Although such a speech is unlikely, it rhetorically serves the purpose of illustrating the type of criminal that Jesus is portrayed as. This exposes the vicious nature of criminality, because it legitimates and justifies lethal state power.
Jesus is classed with people who are considered to deserve such a despicable form of punishment. He shares their criminality, because the judiciary process landed them all with the same sentence. Another way to read this portion of the narrative is that if the criminals’ guiltiness is brought about by the same means by which Jesus is criminalised, Jesus’ crucifixion with them could potentially allude to the criminals also being innocent, despite their execution.
This is not justice.
Pilate would have certainly been concerned about suppressing any attempt to supplant Roman power. However, his non-guilty verdict, and its multiple attestations of this across the gospels, is noteworthy. Pilate says that he did not find Jesus guilty of anything worthy of a death sentence, which is not the same as saying that he did not find him guilty of anything. And Pilate’s suggestion to have Jesus flogged exposes how Jesus’ body is marked and understood.
Flogging was reserved for the lowest status of person. It means that Pilate’s suggestion is still humiliation, and recognition that Jesus’ status suggests that he is guilty of some crime even if there is no evidence, and even if the charges brought forth are unfounded. After engaging with the judicial system at this level, Jesus could not go free without being taught a lesson. That is why the word for flog here is so interesting, because it can also mean “to teach.” Pilate’s mercy punishment is framed as diminutive and educative. It serves to remind Jesus and others who were like him of their status in regards to Rome. Nonetheless, Pilate does not get to follow that course of action and is instead prompted by the crowd to sentence Jesus to die on a cross.
Although Pilate issues the sentence, it is the people who make the judgment. The mass of people described in the text is not an unreasoning horde of people, but is part lynch mob and part democratic assembly. They judge what prisoner is let free, even though Pilate does not offer to let one go. They judge that Jesus should be crucified, even though Pilate suggests a milder punishment. By the time the people speak in the narrative, it is clear that the facts of the case are irrelevant and that the people have made a decision. The Jerusalem temple leadership’s role, then, was not to convince Pilate that Jesus deserved death, but it was to convince the people at the praetorium in the presence of Pilate. This is not without historical precedence that public opinion influenced Roman officials’ distribution of justice, especially if the stability of city depended on the people’s response to a verdict. In effect, Jesus is sentenced to death by a state-sanctioned lynch mob.
In the end, I am not convinced that Jesus deserved to die. I see him as caught up in a system that veils its logic of criminality by justifying imprisonment, torture, and execution as legal necessities for the good of society. But this does not critically reflect on how people who may receive the punishments of criminals may not necessarily be lawbreakers or crime committers. If one is classed as a criminal, then one’s body is perpetually in danger of arrest and punishment.
Criminality, therefore, is not about crime. Some scholars suggest that the Roman government would not have been concerned with a Judean peasant unless he had posed some type of serious threat, but that logic assumes that imperial governments are always guided by logic, compassion, and justice.
We can look at our own contemporary (in)justice systems and recognise that that is not always, and for some people it is never, the case. Most justification for criminal rhetoric tends to side with those in power, with the voices that benefit from criminalising lower classes. Then, their criminal status is used as the basis for their continued legal and social oppression.
So, re-reading narratives like the passion accounts of Jesus in light of that observation allows us to be suspicious of how criminals, even today, are constructed by the powerful to maintain oppressors’ authority and distinct identity.
But the passion accounts don’t end there. They end with the resurrection, where the God of Jesus does not allow people falsely imprisoned and criminalised to remain there. This God follows his people through prisons built by criminalised logic and even beyond the grave, guiding them to liberation and resurrection. The divine sharing of criminality exposes unjust systems that prosecute innocent people everyday, who are forced to plead guilty or are prematurely declared guilty.
And if I could just preach for a moment, I would quote Cone again when he says, “The real scandal of the gospel is this: humanity’s salvation is revealed in the cross of the condemned criminal Jesus, and humanity’s salvation is available only through our solidarity with the crucified people in our midst.” This recognition illustrates how the strange fruit of the prison industrial system is linked to the strange fruit hung on southern U.S. trees, which must be linked to the strange fruit Romans hung on the cross at Golgotha. May we strive to not find ourselves like the Roman centurion at the foot of the cross who declares too late, “Surely this was an innocent person.”
We Need New Words: A Reflection on the “War on Terror”
The “War on Terror” is a disruption, that makes normal, absurd reality, a privation of humanity, a shape-shifting enemy that yearns for innocent lives and souls; the menacing colonial state with new fangs.
7th August 1998.
Friday, 10am: Parents, students and teachers are all seated in the school hall, and prize-giving day is about to begin. I had obtained the highest grade in GHC (Geography, History and Civics) and I was to receive a prize. I was elated, because it was the last day of the school term. At home, good grades were a pass to indulge in activities forbidden during the school term.
At 10.34am: The headmistress walks to the podium to give her opening remarks when we hear a blast in the distance. Moments later, the crowd starts murmuring, and the few pagers in the room start beeping. Parents anxiously take custody of their children and a state of anxiety descends on the gathering. Vehicles begin to speed off and the prize-giving day comes to an abrupt end.
A terrorist attack targeting the US Embassy in downtown Nairobi has just happened. The neighbouring building, Ufundi Co-operative House was reduced to debris. 213 people die and more than 5,000 get injured. At the age of nine in Standard Four, I felt the fear and anxiety.
Before August 7th 1998, Kenya had never witnessed a terror attack of such magnitude. The Al Qaeda terror group led by Osama bin Laden took responsibility for the attack professing it was retaliation for US presence in Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The national psyche was bruised. President, Daniel Arap Moi regretted that peaceful Kenya had suffered the tragedy of a geopolitical dispute.
My holidays were never the same again. At home, strict curfews were introduced; my mother would call every other day to check on the whereabouts of my siblings and I. My parents introduced holiday tuition as a means, I suspect, of surveillance to protect and curate our movements. “The fear of the public space” had been cemented in my parents’ minds. From then on, I heard my parents add a new phrase in their lingua: “Terrorism” which after the September 9/11 attacks in the United States morphed into the “The War on Terror”. It sounded like they pronounced it in capital letters to imitate the manner the subject of terrorism was broadcast in the news.
Over a decade later, in 2009, my brother and I were walking home from an eatery at the Oil Libya petrol station along Mombasa road on a Thursday at 9:17 pm. We lived in South C, a middle-class suburb in Nairobi that had in the last decade bourgeoned into a cosmopolitan neighbourhood with the influx of nationals from Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. South C transformed into a place of refuge for nationals fleeing conflict in their home countries.
On this fateful day, a police patrol unit accosted, threatened us with arrest and threw us into a police vehicle on the suspicion as terror suspects.
“Mnaranda randa usiku, kwani nyinyi ni Al Shabaab?” barked a policeman. (Why are you loitering about, are you Al Shabaab?)
“Hapana boss, tumetoka kwa duka, tunaelekea nyumbani.” (No sir, we are just headed home from the shops), replied my elder brother,
“Unadhani mimi ni mjinga? Wale wa kutoka kwa duka ndiyo hutembea na bomb. Ingia hapa nyuma haraka sana.” (Do you think I’m a fool? In fact those who are ‘just from the shops’ are the ones who walk around with bombs. Get into the back of the vehicle!)
In the patrol vehicle, I noticed that my brother and I were the only suspects who did not bear the physical resemblance of Somali people. The state-led counter-terrorism operations had led to the profiling of Kenyans Muslims, particularly from the Somali community. Members of the community were subjected to police harassment, arrests and human rights violations while publicly scorned as associates of Al Shabaab terrorists.
In the patrol vehicle, one of the police officers remarks that were effectively Al Shabaab terrorists under arrest and our freedom rested on our ability to ‘speak’. This was a new experience for my brother and I. Our fellow “felons” seemed to get the drift and reached into their pockets. Each one parted with a bribe as they alighted from the vehicle and we followed suit. There was little choice to make. The “War on Terror” had robbed us of our moral agency.
I met Leila through a mutual friend. We struck a rapport immediately, and shared many intellectual interests. We would often meet up after class, and walk down from the University of Nairobi, talking as we meandered through the maze of Nairobi’s central business district. She was tall, beautiful. Muslim and Somali. Despite coming from different worlds, religiously, culturally socially and politically, our friendship grew. We created our own little universe where we could share our feelings, ideas, grief, hopes and dreams.
My mother was impressed when she met Leila. By her poise, respect for elders (important for my mother), her confidence and emotional intelligence. In spite of all these good attributes, my mother harboured some cultural prejudices towards Leila. A few days later, she sat me down and told me: “You are now in fourth year and about to finish university and start life. As your mother, I want you to get a good Christian wife and succeed in life.”
I didn’t have a response. It was one of those things that parents ostensibly say with love but cut you deeply. We never talked about the incident again but I was affected by her words even as I tried to understand my mother’s prejudice. I finished campus a few months later and my friendship with Leila drifted apart. We soon lost touch.
After the 1998 terror attack, the bombings in New York during 911 and the emergence of Al Shabaab, it seemed that my mother, like many, needed an image to embody the angst, fear and anger that “terror” had brought into her life. Perhaps the need to put a face to the enemy influenced her prejudice and denied Leila her individual autonomy and humanity.
I partly understood it. This was her way of defending herself, a coping mechanism. The “War on Terror” had erased her ability to recognise the humanity of Leila and her story. It simplified her view to labels: brown, Somali, Muslim and danger.
4:10 pm: #DusitAttack is trending on my Twitter feed.
4:12 pm: I check my Twitter news feed for a reliable source. I find one, Africa Uncensored’s Twitter handle: “Terrorist attack at DusitD2 hotel, 14 Riverside underway”
4:15 pm: I call my wife. “Babe, are you okay?” “Yes, I am” she responds. “Okay, I’m leaving the office now. Be safe.” I hung up.
4:20 pm: I send out a generic message, “I’m safe,” to my WhatsApp groups to calm my friends and family.
4:28 pm: I packed my bags and I leave the office.
On the afternoon of Tuesday, 15 January 2019, armed gunmen stormed into 14 Riverside, an office complex in Westlands, Nairobi that hosts offices of various organisations, a restaurant and a hotel, DusitD2. The attack began at 2:30pm and was concluded a few minutes before 10:00am the following day. Initial reports were of gunfire and two explosions at the hotel. The attackers, estimated to number between four and six arrived in two vehicles. One of the attackers went in discreetly and blew himself up next to the Secret Garden restaurant. After the blast, the remaining terrorists fired on the guards at the gates of 14 Riverside Drive and lobbed grenades setting some vehicles parked in the parking bay ablaze. The attack left more than 20 people dead.
On my way home, I scribble on my notebook the words. DUSIT ATTACK AND WHAT IT MEANS FOR THE WAR ON TERROR! This is an opening line to an editorial brief I think of writing so that I can commission a few think pieces to shed light on this issue. I would spend the next couple of days thinking about this, until it dawned on me that I had only viewed the Dusit attack as a function of my job: A story to be written, an analysis to be done and a conversation to be had. Not what it really was: pain, death, trauma and dysfunction.
As far as terror goes, I had been alienated from my humanity and myself.
Political vernaculars, writes Keguro Macharia, “are the words and phrases that assemble something experienced as the political and gather different groups around something marked as the political. They create attachments to the political, and they also distance us from something known as the political. They create possibilities for different ways of coming together—from short-lived experiments to long-term institution building—and they also impede how we form ourselves as we from formations, across the past, the present, the future, and all the in-between times marked by slow violence and prolonged dying. Vernaculars are ways of claiming and shaping space.”
Keguro goes on to say that vernaculars are a discipline producing habits, dispositions, behaviour, feeling and thinking. Most of Kenya’s official political vernaculars—corruption, impunity, national security, for instance—are disciplinary. They name real issues, but they also manage how those issues are handled. They shape the possibilities for what is thinkable. They flatten thinking into habits, repetitions, and negations…they create frames on how we see each other, the world and what possibilities we can conceive.
The “War on Terror” is one of Kenya’s political vernaculars. It is the go-to word to arouse fear, anger, racism and religious hatred; to justify bombing, invasion and illegal detentions; to call for major new investments in military capabilities; to justify dependency on the western nations and to muzzle and curtail freedoms.
The implications for African governments governed by despots, warlords or even democrats is an incentive for tyrannical rule. The War on Terror serves the interests of retaining political power and justifies terrorizing of disenfranchised citizens. To the citizens, the word represents disruption, a normalising of an absurd reality, a privation of humanity, a shape-shifting enemy that yearns for innocent lives and souls; the menacing colonial state with new fangs.
We are in need of another lexicon to explain us to ourselves, to frame our sensibilities, our histories and our humanity, in the mists of absurd political vernaculars. We need words that can help us imagine what kind of world we want to build together.
We need new words untethered to the state that can help us imagine how we want to live with each other. Now, more than ever we need the strength to love and dream.
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