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Reflections

WHAT WE NEVER SPEAK OF: Reflections of a Britain’s gulag survivor

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WHAT WE NEVER SPEAK OF: Reflections of a Britain’s gulag survivor
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We are all born into the world of humanity at an ordained moment in time and space with a spiritual ordained mission yet we are the creators of our destiny. The world I came to was full of turmoil. My parents and their parents had been uprooted from their own homes to go serve settlers under very harsh conditions in the white highlands. I was born just before the end of the Second World War in Kamara, in Mau Summit. My father, who went to Sudan and afterwards Mozambique, told me that when he returned from World War II, he found a beautiful little girl born in his absence. The short sojourn between Sudan and Mozambique must have brought my conception. During her pregnancy, my mother felt like she was going to have a baby boy since she felt a boy in her womb. But instead of the boy she expected, I showed up. Before I was born, she had had five children, both male and female.

The End Of Childhood

With the aftermath of World War II, the battle for Kenya’s independence was now underway. My uncle Waweru, who was very involved in that battle was captured by the Brits and was sent to Manyani concentration camp, a death hole. He once told me that the beginning of the freedom war took place many years prior in the form of a secret movement. In the early forties, he was one of the organisers of “rika ria forty”, a very secretive oath taking movement. The movement comprised of young men and women who had sworn to take back their land which had been stolen by the white colonisers.

Read Also: THE BIBLE OR THE BULLET: Reclaiming My Redemption Song

He was also a teacher trained by the African Inland Mission in Kijabe but opted to go and teach in Gikuyu Independent Schools under the system “Gikuyu Karin`ga”. These schools had their own curriculum system based on African nationalism, religion, history and agriculture. I attended “Kiai Kia Ng`ondu” (nursery school) for two weeks where I learnt the history of my people. I learnt that I was an African and a Kikuyu girl. Soon after I started school, the British colonial government closed all the Gikuyu Karing’a schools and arrested and detained everyone who was involved in that education system and threw them into concentration camps. I still maintain that the reason they were closed was that the schools were teaching children how to liberate their minds from slavery and were developing their dignity as humans. I often wonder why after independence this type of education was not incorporated into the present day education system. We would have been better-oriented African Kenyan citizens for it, with that kind of self-knowledge based education.

From Heil Hitler To Hell

Originally, the area we lived in comprised of people from all parts of the country. There were Luos, Luhyas, Masaai, Kalenjin, some Ugandans, even a man from somewhere in the Coast. Soon after the closing of the schools, Kikuyu families were isolated from the other tribes. The Gikuyu were apportioned a separate piece of land to build their houses, far from the other tribes.

My father was an evangelist with the Africa Inland Mission posted in Kamara, before I was born. Because of that privilege, my older siblings got admission to a boarding school in Kijabe. One morning, after my mother and the other women had gone to fetch water, many trucks arrived. There were boarded trucks and flatbed open trucks lined up for half a mile. The soldiers jumped off the trucks, ran towards us and started whipping people and herding them towards the trucks. There was fear and pandemonium as we got onto the trucks. They took us to Molo concentration camp. My father had already left that day for his evangelical work hence he was not there when the trucks arrived and for years, we would not know where he was or what had happened to him. My older siblings were in school thus they were saved from the fate that begot the rest of us. My immediate older sister, my younger sister, and my baby infant sister only a few weeks old and I were in the truck with my mother. I was not yet 12 and already I was a detainee.

Of Auschwitz, Dachau And Molo

The Concentration camps were typically built in a clinical style. It was a field enclosed by mesh fences about 10 metres high. On the outside of the camp were a series of razor wires, each about a metre high. On the inside of the fence was another layer of razor wire, about a metre high. After the razor wire was a barbed wire fence, about ten metres high. After the barbed wire were 1-metre high poles. On those poles, there was a wire interlinking them. At given intervals on the poles were signboard warnings – if you touch or pass the wire that is towards the fences you will be shot. There was a watchtower with an armed soldier and floodlights at intervals. The pit latrines were open roofed and near the watchtower so the guards would monitor us so we would not be tempted to dig escape tunnels under the latrines.

There were also U shaped dorms built on the inner perimeter of the fence. At the centre was an open field, which had two purposes: it was where lorries dropped the incoming detainees and also where the head count was conducted on everyone in the camp, including children and the sick. After the head count, the detainees had to go through another gate to the stores for the food ration of maize meal and beans. For years, that is all we ate. Maizemeal and beans.

We went every day to get our rations after the headcount. If one missed going through they would not eat that day. The adults were sent to labour while the children were left at the camp. Many people and even more children died from disease and malnourishment. I was so traumatised that I was constantly sick and frequently hospitalised.

When I had the opportunity to watch the 1987 British television film – Escape From Sobibór – about the German concentration camps during WWII, I could not see the difference of those German camps and the British concentration camps in Kenya.

We stayed in Molo for more than a year then one day we were hauled in trucks and we were moved to an even worse concentration camp in Gilgil town. It was situated where the present police station is. We were there for another year or so.

More deaths occurred. The body count of children grew. More torture, more punishment, more men and women died. Death was constant. It was every day and it was all around. It had become our new normal. My baby sister learned to walk in a concentration camp. My mother did what she could to keep us alive, but it was often no more than a narrow escape from an ever-present death.

The African Inland Mission Eldama Ravine had informed the Kijabe headquarters of our detention and the mission sent a search party to look for its evangelists and their families. They finally received word that we were in Gilgil. They made the necessary interventions so that we could be released into their care. We began what was known as a screening process. The screening was designed to repatriate people to their homelands. We were on the move again, from one screening post to another, ending in Shura, Kiambu, now just a village before the Kikuyu bypass. From there, we were transported to the Kijabe mission station.

We Are Together Again, Just Praising The Lord

The missionaries and colonial government were two arms of one body. Education of the African was designed to prepare Africans to serve the white man. My father told me he was lured to Thogoto Church Missionary Society School as a young man. There were promises of education and more. When he finished at Thogoto, he was sent to Jinn School by the Thogoto (Scottish) missionaries (where the site of the now Mary Leakey School for Girls is) in Lower Kabete to learn how to bake and work in a kitchen. He had no choice. You got what you were informed you got. After completing his course, my father went on to the African Inland Mission in Kijabe, in order to continue his education. It was the Kijabe missionaries who had posted the newly trained evangelist to the Hemphill estate in Mau Summit. His task was to evangelise and to serve his master.

My father was a head chef at the Hemphill estate which must have been thousands of acres, a sub-county. There were well over 100 homesteads of workers each with wives and children. He and his fellow workers used to bake a lot of bread, cakes and other wheat items, especially at Christmas time. You cannot believe how much milk, butter, cream, wheat, hay and meat used to be sent to Britain. Whey (mathaci/machache) from milk was taken to the farm workers every evening. There were over 100 homesteads of workers each with children. I would collect about 2 litres of whey every evening when it was my turn to collect it. We liked it – it was very nice with ugali. At this point in time of course, those days were a distant memory of another lifetime. The Concentration camp experience had ended that.

We were released on Christmas day in 1954. Those who met us settled us and generously gave beds, bedding, clothes, food and utensils to my mother and her four little girls including my baby sister who was now just under three years old. We were happy to find our older siblings alive and together. We were almost complete but not quite.

We still did not know where our father was. We were worried because when the coloniser took men away, they rarely ever came back. Our mother settled us as much as she could, but it was not easy. A few months after our arrival in Kijabe, my mother was called by the head of the mission station and was told that they have found out which concentration camp her husband was taken. What remained was to fill documents so that he could be handed over to the mission since they had sent him to evangelise at the A W Hemphill estate. Our father was home by Christmas 1955. He never spoke of where he had been or his experiences.

Someni Vijana, Muongeze Pia Bidii

In Kijabe, the family was together and we all went back to school. I joined class one at Kijabe primary school in 1955. That gap of not going to school had created a hunger and a purpose studying hard through the twelve years of that British system. The system comprised of four years before common entrance examinations, another 4 years before the Kenya African Primary Education Certificate, another four years before the Cambridge school certificate, two years for the higher certificate and then, for those lucky and rich enough, college or vocational training. Then it was teaching or nursing. We walked to school barefoot, carrying a stone slate mounted on a wooden frame, with a special pen. One had to have a special permit to wear shoes and even with the permit; shoes were too rare, too expensive and too precious to wear to school.

We sat on long wooden benches and stored our lunch in a corner of the stone classroom. The education system was designed to eliminate young Africans. The grading system involved a forced curve grading which meant that in the years where students had passed well, their marks were regraded so fewer would progress. I did not repeat a grade and always got one of the few passes available. We had experienced so many traumas that we held on to one another with a true feeling of belonging and worked extra hard.

Free At Last… 

I remember the time Kenya got her independence. I was so happy. Whenever I see the clip of the British flag being brought down and the Kenyan flag being hoisted, I still well up with tears of joy. It was overwhelming. This is a whole story on its own, but I can tell you, it was like reaching the Promised Land. I remembered the camps, the children who died, the men and women who were killed and starved and tortured to give us Uhuru.

My greatest moment was when independence was declared as it abolished forced curve grading, shoe licences and the need to get a pass to visit my sister, who lived far away. I had had the chance to visit her in Murang’a, during colonial times after obtaining a special passbook in order to see her. We even needed a passbook to leave the Kijabe mission station even if it was to go to the nearest shops in Kimende town, 8 km away.

My parents both lived to see independence and to see their grandchildren. My mother passed away in her eighties around 1979 but our father stayed on until he was one hundred and seven in 2003. All of his contemporaries and younger siblings had long left the world of humanity before he did.

To My Grandchildren

My country is perfect. It is all right. There is nothing wrong with it. My country is beautiful, it is resourceful. It is only occupied by people who are brainwashed by a foreign colonial ideology.

When I see the ethnic conflict in the present, it makes me sad because of the knowledge that this is a devil planted in our country by the coloniser with the aim of making Africans hate one another for power and material gain. Then it was the white coloniser, today it is our brothers who have occupied the role of the coloniser. Do not be surprised by our people who still send our country’s resources to the west to fulfil the desire of that demon whose power Kenyans are yet to overcome to date. Why? Because the Kenyan society has avoided addressing the psychological effects of colonisation.

The poorest families in our land are those whose parents fought in the war of independence or those who had no opportunity to take on senior offices or political positions. Jua Kali inventions in our land are thrown out of the window so that we can import instead of encouraging and nurturing our young inventors. Did the coloniser bewitch us? How can you steal national wealth and give it to the very entity that diminishes your existence as a human? Many of our leaders and administrators have been to the west and seen how they treat blackness, like trash! Until we begin believing in God, who is the Innovator, the all-Knowing and respect our ancestry, we shall remain where we are – food for the enemy. Lazima tuheshimu our Africanism, Our Creator and our ancestors who left us soil, forest and unsurpassable wildlife. For those who empty the national coffers and send it to your evil master coloniser, for Kenya to remain in a pathetic economic state of affairs, this is your warning: You will die leaving an evil legacy to your lineage. Truthfully, it is sad that I live in a beautiful Kenya with this kind of mentality.

I wish we would realise our worth as Africans, which is not less than other races on the planet. My prayer and desire is that we would wake up and claim the glory of who we are. We have bottled this evil in our hearts long enough. It needs to be addressed in a therapeutic manner, recapitulation.

My children, realise that you are Africans. Not less than any other human being on the planet. What my fellow Kenyans are missing is respect for themselves as themselves. Know that you are a wonderful creation with great abilities. That whatever you desire will be yours, as long as you create it in loving kindness to benefit all humanity. Rise up Kenyans who love this nation of ours, God will bless your efforts.

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By

Wanjiku Mirye is a retired trainer, speaker. She was born at the end of the Second World War and grew up during the war for independence of Kenya. Widowed in her twenties, she chose to raise her children as a single parent while working within the church organizations. She celebrates being Kenyan and has a deep belief in the power of owning and celebrating that which is great about our land, our potential, ourselves as Africans.

Reflections

Nairobi, Nairobae, Nairoberry

Cacophonous, labyrinthine, gluttonous, angry, envious, charming, paradoxical, mysterious, confusing, alluring.

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Nairobi, Nairobae, Nairoberry
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Nairobi. A cacophony of matatu hoots and booming bongs from church bells. All in inexplicable harmony. Like a Beethoven piece. A muezzin’s melody moves the ummah from a minaret here, a bus conductor — shouting from the most pimped out mathree — moves umati there. A hawker here. An ambulance there. But there’s also a silent monotone. The sound of hope dying. Of someone stealing two billion every day, of the clock going tick-tock from your 9 to 5. There’s that saying: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? But what if it’s in the middle of Waiyaki Way? Just because someone thinks giving us an expressway will absolve him of war crimes. While in reality, all it does is leave all the marabou storks homeless.

Nairobi. A labyrinth of lipstick-stained shot glasses and semi-filled ashtrays. Where a party starts regardless of where the limbs of the clock point. And only ends when everyone is browned out and on the brink of calling the one that got away. Nairobi is looking for coins during traffic because you want to help the beggar, who is patient enough to receive the donation before snatching your phone. It is being stagnant in that same traffic for long enough to buy crisps made with transformer oil and served in compact disk wrapping. And like clockwork, you put the window back up because Nairobbery isn’t just a play on words. But the ones that hurt the most are the conmen, because nigga I trusted you!

Nairobi. Where gluttony is second nature. A kaleidoscope of too much gold tequila and too many smokie pasuas. Of good pasta and wine in overpriced restaurants. Of ramen noodles and pre-cooked meat. Where nothing is ever enough. We drink and eat to our fill because life sucks. Why wouldn’t it? Our last president’s advisor was the bottom of a Jameson bottle and our current one’s advisor is Jesus. The spirit guides the nation either way, I guess. But still, Nairobi tastes like chances and do-overs. It tastes like anxieties and aspirations and I know it doesn’t feel like it but today you omoka na 3-piecer then one day you omoka, for real.

Nairobi. Reeks of piss and thrifted clothes. Fresh bakeries and Subway. Old currency and that one cologne every man in their early 20s wears. Smells like fighting your titans and sending a million job applications. Nairobi. Where you can go weeks without a lover’s touch but only days without a cop grabbing you by the wedgie into a mariamu because you shouldn’t be idle as you wait for your Uber outside Alchemist. Because of course in that time you should take up a sport, play an instrument, solve world peace, et cetera.

There are few occasions when pride will linger. Like when Kipchoge finishes a marathon in under two hours. When Lupita wins an Oscar. The hubris you feel when your copy makes it to the billboard on UN Avenue. Or when your lame joke gets five retweets because Kenyans on Twitter will massacre you if you think you’re the next Churchill. Orrrr that one time we were all watching Money Heist and so gassed that Nairobi was one of the characters.

Sadly, Nairobi pride also comes in with its individualism. Everyone is out here on their own trying to get some bread whether they’re in the upper class getting baguettes and rye bread or in the lower class getting Supaloaf. I get it though, the city doesn’t let anyone rest from the grind and the hustle and the drudgery. And the wealth gap is bigger than Vera Sidika’s bunda. But ironically, the city is a paradox. An optical illusion. Sometimes the people are so ready to convene in community that it kinda revives the fickle hope you have in humanity. From safe spaces to fundraisers to a simple hearty conversation with your Uber driver.

And there’s obviously that murky feeling of greed that comes from 90 per cent of our politicians. When you’re at the bottom of the food chain it’s called hunger, but the higher you climb the more you want and it becomes indulgence. Greed makes them say and do all kinds of things. Like apologising to Arab countries that are exploiting Kenyans because they don’t want to be cut off. Y’all know any juakali guys we can commission for guillotines? – Heads gotta roll. Because how will I steal cooking oil and flour and end up in a cold cell but they’ll steal billions and end up with a second five-year term?

I think wrath is the most Nairobi-esque of the cardinal sins. We’re angry at the police. At the government, at global warming, at nduthis, at KPLC, at Zuku, at Safaricom, at KCB, at each other. Agonizingly though, our anger fizzles out as fast as it blazes up. I don’t think we’re ever angry enough.

And then there’s the envy. You know you’ll get there eventually but that gets lost in translation when you see someone with better because that sparks something in you even though we are all on different paths at different paces. Whether it’s a BMW or an airfryer, the question stays: Why not me? And also I’m personally jealous of the people who’ve managed to move out of Nairobi to Naivasha, Watamu or wherever. It feels like they’ve figured their way out the maze while I’m still at a dead end wondering whether I can just hop out the sides. Doesn’t matter what it is, our eyes are as green as the parks and spaces we so desperately need in this godforsaken city.

Nairobi. The city of miniskirts and cheers baba jackets. Lust dripping down the sides of our mouths because we can’t seem to contain it under our tongues. I don’t even know why people bother to go to Vasha for WRC when they live in the city of sexual debauchery where the only thing that’s on heat more than the sun is whatever’s between people’s legs. Where even Christian Grey would pause and do a double-take. Where ropes aren’t just for skipping and leashes aren’t just for dogs. If you find ordered love in the city, you must have saved refugees and orphans in your past life. This is the city where the flesh is truly willing.

You know that intense sloth-like feeling when you wanna wake up for Sunday brunch at Brew Bistro or K1 and then later watch Hamilton race at around 4 when all the mimosas have hit your head and you’re surprised that your wig is still intact? Or the next day when you’re trying to get out of your covers and you’re thinking about that beastly Nairobi traffic you’re about to face and all you can do is tweet “Nimewacha pombe mimi”. Truthfully though, other than that and a few other instances, the pace is too fast for me. I just wanna be in a dera next to the beach drinking a passion caipiroska and eating viazi karai cause why are y’all always running?

And y’all are way too fast when coming up with new words too. There’s like a million words for currency, ass, sex, sherehe, et cetera. Truly, there is a certain linguistic je ne sais quoi when it comes to the Nairobian’s language. It stops being a transaction of random syllables and begins to become an understanding of feelings, emotions and behaviour. I, especially, like how we knead it into our art. We sneak it into our music and get phenomena like gengetone.

We compress it into our films and get Nairobi Half Life. We squeeze it into our visual pieces and get Michael Soi. One thing about Nairobians is we do not cower in silence, we have words to say and we shall say them. Even if that means running a president out of Twitter. That’s why our writers are as staggeringly sensational as they are. Ngartia. Sookie. Grey. Muthaka. Laria. Abu. And those are just my friends, dawg.

But it’s not just the writing. The fashion. Rosemary Wangari. Nicole Wendo. Samantha Nyakoe. The music. Mau from Nowhere, Vallerie Muthoni, Karun, Maya Amolo, XPRSO. Just a Band. The films. The painting. Muthoni Matu. Zolesa. The architecture. The cinema. The theatre. Too Early for Birds is back! et cetera. Man, I gotta tell ya, when God was cooking up the cauldron of this city, he went hard on the talent. Quote me on this: a lot of exceptional creatives from this city are gonna hit the world with a head-splitting bang in a couple of years.

Nairobi. Despite the crowds, the queues and the poor drainage, it still has a charm. Mysterious. Confusing. Alluring. Despite the fact that you can only truly enjoy the Nairobi experience if you’re a bird or an expat, me I love it still.

Nairobians, keep sinning, keep winning!

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Reflections

The Enemy Within

Death hangs heavily over people with cancer – it is always there, reminding you of your mortality.

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The Enemy Within
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So, this is what happens when a doctor tells you that you have cancer. The first response is disbelief (how can this be true?), followed by anger (I don’t deserve this, I never hurt anyone), and then a deep sense of grief and loss (what will I miss when I die, and how will my loved ones cope without me?)

They say cancer is the result of pent-up anger and resentment. Apparently, years of holding on to these emotions make your cells misbehave and become toxic. Cancer cells end up eating up healthy cells, leaving the body so full of poison that it collapses from lack of vitality. The jury is still out on whether lifestyle choices generate cancer in the body because people who lead healthy lives seem to be as prone to cancer as those who don’t. Nonetheless, when you find out you have cancer, your first reaction is to blame yourself. It is sort of like being told you have HIV. (Was I responsible for this? Was I reckless? Should I have used a condom?)

Friends and relatives will tell you that breast cancer is beatable, that they know so many women who had breast cancer and lived healthy lives years after treatment. What they don’t tell you is that all the literature points to a short life expectancy after the discovery of cancer. The chances of recurrence are high, even with chemotherapy, mastectomy or radiation, the traditional methods to “cure” breast cancer. I have read studies where women who had chemotherapy had an equal chance of recurrence as those who didn’t. So, death hangs heavily over people with cancer – it is always there, constantly reminding you of your mortality.

Most people are so afraid of cancer that they can’t even say the word. The receptionist at an oncologist’s office actually asked me what kind of “C” I had – never used the word cancer. Yet she deals with cancer patients every day.  Another oncologist I consulted couldn’t even make eye contact with me and rushed me through a diagnosis I couldn’t understand, perhaps believing that my cancer was contagious?

The thing is that cancer is not like any other disease that can be cured through surgery or drugs. It requires months of treatment and constant monitoring. It’s not like having malaria or a broken bone. It is like having an enemy residing in your body, hostile, predatory, waiting to pounce at any moment.

It seems a positive frame of mind is critical in recovering from cancer. I got calls from women who told me they bounced right back into their lives after months of treatment as if nothing had happened, that I mustn’t believe all the literature, that I should get all the treatments done and go back to living a normal life. They didn’t explain to me why they have been working from home since their treatment started and since their so-called “recovery”. Others are more honest about their experiences. A South African women called to tell me that her experience with chemotherapy had damaged her heart, and she is on life-long medication that makes her urinate every few minutes, which means she can no longer work in an office. Instead of destroying the cancer, the chemo destroyed healthy cells in her heart. She is cancer-free but now disabled in other ways. Another friend told me her aunt died not from the cancer, but from the chemo.

What the doctors and the optimists don’t tell you is that both chemotherapy and radiation have debilitating impacts on your body. They literally are poisons injected into your body to kill another poison. Sort of like a vaccine but not quite because they do not boost your immunity. Both chemotherapy and radiation therapies involve weeks of hospital visits that cost an arm and leg. Nausea, burns on your body, fatigue are common side effects.

A friend from Boston who has studied alternative ways of healing from cancer (including not getting any treatment at all) tells me that each woman with breast cancer has to make an individual choice about what kind of treatment she should get. Doctors trained in Western medicine will be quick to put you on chemotherapy and the other treatments without giving you other options. Desperate and eager to cling onto life, the patient with cancer readily accepts any treatment, not realising that not only is it a very long process, but very costly as well. Mental preparation and psychological support are also necessary before embarking on the long and arduous journey called cancer treatment. People become life-long patients; some recover well, others not so well. Some women opt for no treatment, preferring to lead a good quality of life before the disease ravages the body.

I am looking at alternative methods of healing, including Pranic healing that works on your energy fields and chakras. So far it seems to be helping me, but only time will tell if I will be a success story. I have certainly started eating more, and those dizzy spells in the morning seem to be getting rarer.

The biopsy results are not yet out, so I am still not sure what the oncologist will prescribe, but in Kenya, the modus operandi seems to follow the same script: mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy or radiation and some kind of hormone treatment. Am I ready to go there? Not sure. Women who lose their breasts speak of feeling like an amputee; the loss of an organ that defines their femininity impacts their identity and self-esteem. Others are more casual about losing their breasts, (“It’s just fat,” one woman told me). `

The other thing about cancer is that when you have it, you think of nothing else. Everything is a blur. Someone wants to make small talk, and all you want to do is look the other way or scream. (Can’t you see I have cancer? Do you really want to discuss the weather?) You think about your life in vivid film shots. Your past suddenly comes into sharp focus, both the happy and sad days. You begin questioning the meaning of life in ways you never did before. Cancer prepares you for death the way a fatal car accident doesn’t. Is sudden death preferable to dying slowly because you can’t see it coming? Not sure.

But let me not be the purveyor of doom and gloom. The reason I am writing this article is that I have learned wonderful things about myself and other people. One of the things I have learned is that people can be kind and generous when they know you are in pain. People I don’t even know and have never met have sent me good wishes, prayers and even money for my treatment. Friends and family have sent food and offered accommodation. An Indian friend called to say that if I opted to go to India for treatment, I could stay in his home for as long as I needed. These generous and kind offers have literally brought tears to my eyes.

What I also learned is that my life’s work has not been a waste, and that my readers love and admire me for my writing. I didn’t realise I had inspired so many people, not just in Kenya but around the world, through words I have penned. That is a really important things for me to know and hold onto right now – to realise that I had a gift that I used well, and which helped others. And to know that when I go, my writing will live on.

I also learned that life is very, very short. So, we must not postpone the things we need to do. If your job makes you unhappy, quit. If a relationship is toxic, leave it. If people around you are making you feel bad about yourself, walk away. Surround yourself with people who love and cherish you. Love is very important for human survival, so distribute it freely. Be kind and generous. This thing called life is temporary, so enjoy every moment and live it as if every day is your last.

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Reflections

Someone’s Grandmother Just Died!

It is painful to always have to consider the feelings of others while legitimate calls for acknowledgement of racial injustice and reparations are consistently ignored and dismissed.

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Someone's Grandmother Just Died!
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Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, I watched the televised service at St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh attended by the royals and various Scottish dignitaries, as well as the many hundreds who came out to pay their respects or to be a part of this historical event.

As I watched the outpouring of public emotion, I couldn’t help but wonder what emotions the queen’s death would invoke in those whose lives have been blighted because of the British colonial policies that killed millions and left a legacy of misery and disenfranchisement in countries far too many to name.  

At first I was saddened by the news. But then came the reactions of global figures the world over, with some proclaiming outright that Queen Elizabeth had been a guiding light, a symbol of hope and stability in the world. One broadcaster went so far as to say “She was everybody’s grandmother.” My problem was that she wasn’t mine.

My grandmother, born in 1923, was just three years old when the Queen was born, my 81-year-old mother told me when I called to get her reaction to the news that the Queen had died. “She would’ve been 99 years old today if she had she lived,” my mom said. I could hear the emotion in her voice as she remembered her mother. My grandmother died in 1983; she was 59 years old. I was then just 18 years old.  I said, “Mom with all the things we know about the racist systems that have kept Black and Brown people oppressed, I really don’t know how I want to feel about the death of the British Queen.” Never one to mince her words, my mom replied, “She was a human being, and we, well you know, we mourn the loss of any life.”

Yes. She may have been a grandmother to many but to me she was a symbol of institutionalized racism in its clearest form. Images of British dynasty have been present in the education of every American who has gone through the public school system since the Second World War during which the United States allied with Britain in their quest for global power and dominance. Yet here was the evil of the Crown being portrayed in the media—as it’s always been portrayed—as providence, something divine. As I listened to a special broadcast by the popular British talk show host James Corden talking to an American audience about the Queen’s passing, his tone struck me as odd: “She will be missed, she was everybody’s grandmother,” he said, going on to tell us how well she had served the country and the world.

As I was listening to Corden and wondering why I was so irritated by his outpouring of emotion, it dawned on me that racism moves from generation to generation, falling back on the old practices of how to colonize a nation:  You teach them to love you more than they love themselves. Racism survives because the symbols of racism never die. We carry the symbols in our hearts and in our minds and once we have identified with them, we seek to justify their existence. While I could empathise with those that felt a special connection to the Crown, what I realized and felt most immediately, was the insensitivity I received as an African American who bears the scars of the legacy of slavery that has made the British Empire one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world today.

The next day I watched the funeral procession move through the streets of Edinburgh, the commentators conveying the solemn mood of the people who came out to pay tribute to their Queen.  All the while I couldn’t see past the 1989 image of Princess Diana hugging a child suffering from HIV/AIDS. On her first unaccompanied trip overseas, Princess Diana spontaneously broke with protocol and showed compassion towards a suffering Black child with all the world watching, at a time when the stigma of HIV/AIDS was as bad as the disease, and  Blacks were being impacted the most and no one else seemed to care. Diana’s humanity helped solidify her reputation as the “People’s Princess” and it radically changed the way AIDS sufferers were perceived.

While the news played on I thought about two recent exchanges I had had in Amsterdam, just outside my front door.  The first exchange took place in a cafe.

I was sitting at the bar having a coffee. Another Black male of Surinamese origin was sitting a couple of tables away. It was midmorning and we were the only ones there. In an attempt to start a conversation, as men do, he asked my opinion on the war in Ukraine. I told him I thought it was crazy, all too unreal. The white Dutchman behind the counter leaned over and candidly shared, “I don’t give a shit about the war in Ukraine.”  I didn’t speak again and left the bar so abruptly the young brother asked, “You leaving?”  I was in no mood to have that conversation so early in the day, having experienced the backlash of the “Black Lives Matter” protest with the counter-narrative that All Lives Matter; I’ve learned that sometimes it’s better to just hold one’s peace and walk away. (It literally is your peace.)

Shortly after that incident, a couple of days later, I had another encounter that made me realize that we simply can’t afford not to care. I had wandered into a tool shop  on the corner of my street that looks more like a men’s gift shop inside than a hardware store selling nails, drills and plywood. Behind me walked in a man who apparently knew what he wanted because we reached the cash register at the same time, he with a power drill in his hand. I moved aside to let him be the first in line, not sure if I was done.

The Dutchman behind the counter seemed not to have noticed that the man with the drill wasn’t Dutch and didn’t speak the language. But to his credit, he did know what he wanted: the drill and a bag in which to put the canisters of spray paint he had already placed on the counter. Being familiar with Eastern Europeans, I assumed the man was Polish and asked “Polske?” “No! Ukraine!” he said, then, smiling, added, “Close.”

Hij wil een tas.” He wants a bag, I said to the clerk; bags are not automatically handed out after a purchase these days.  The clerk then understood and reached under the counter. I was pleased I could help and the Ukrainian was happy as well. To my surprise, as I placed my items on the counter, the Ukrainian tapped my shoulder and offered a fist bump.

I say all this to say of the human condition that people appreciate what they understand.  And sadly enough, we rarely think about injustice until it is visited upon us.

Whose permission do we now need to talk about racism and the policies that still impact us today? Africa and the African diaspora’s historical issues are and always have been about racism and this is why members of this group, my group, will always hold a contrarian view when the West attempts to compel us to join them in their moment of grief.  My grandmother died in 1983, at the young age of 59, in a small southern town next to a river; there was no horse and carriage, no media. The British Empire once covered the whole world, a dominance that was achieved through suppression and oppression. Many atrocities were committed and entire communities decimated under the authority of the Queen.  I was raised never to speak ill of the dead because they aren’t here to defend themselves but I will submit this:  it is painful to always have to consider the feelings of others while legitimate calls for acknowledgement of racial injustice and reparations are consistently ignored and dismissed.  Where is the same fervour and energy for those issues that matter to us? 

When we as Black people keep the peace, we empower the presence of the historical lie that we are inferior and thus require control. When we remain silent we allow the systems of the institutions and the prejudices that block our collective growth to thrive. Why should we care about the death of the Queen when the Queen has stood for the oppression of our people? Why should we be guilt-tripped into silence, into not speaking out about the dead, into not pursuing our freedom? When will our emergency, the issues that impact Black and Brown people, become a top concern for the White world? When will I be able speak without fear of being branded just another angry black man, angry for what I don’t have that others do?

Sad as the Queen’s death is to those that survive her, honouring her service is a symbolic gesture that must be contextualized because, for many, and not just in the UK but all over the world, the English monarchy is a symbol of oppression. I recently listened to a podcast in which a Black podcaster scolded an guest who said this of the Queen: “She is the symbol of colonialism and racism for many; however much we want to romanticize the Queen of England’s long reign on the throne as a stabilizing force on earth, she has also allowed many human rights violations on her watch”. The podcaster’s response was a classic putdown, “Why do Black people have to always bring up racism? Someone’s grandmother just died!”

Racism endures because when we identify with its symbols, we will do anything and everything in our power to justify and defend them.

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