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Reclaiming my blackness as an African feminist

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Photo: Astro Nick on Unsplash

Before I gave birth to my daughter I was probably what the embattled boy-child would today call a ‘toxic feminist’. My place was not in the kitchen, nor was it in a labour ward. I considered myself the stereotypical, ‘strong black woman’, never giving a thought to the origin of the term, the baggage that came along with it, and the culture within which it originated. The ‘strong black woman’ stereotype is considered positive but it is problematic because, one, it characterises an entire gender and race based on a singular attribute, and two, it creates the impression that black women do not need help.

But then there is another complication: See, while I am a woman, black, and strong, I am not an African American, and it is to African American women that the term refers. It comes heavily laden with years of oppression that was targeted specifically at black women in America. A history that required them to dig down deep for the kind of resilience that is only unearthed under severe pressure. So for me, as a woman born in post-independence Kenya, the term did not really apply.

Yes, I am a black woman, but I am not an American – and the term ‘strong black woman’ was coined for that demographic specifically. Therefore, anyone who appropriates it should at the very least understand the history. I described myself as such for the aesthetic. It sounded like something I should be as a woman, and a feminist. But it wasn’t my reality. It wasn’t my history. As my parents often reminded me, I was never exposed to the sharp edge of Kenya’s colonisation. I was born in an age when those who fought for freedom had laid down their weapons, and those who received the gift of independence had created lives that were far removed from the poverty of their childhoods, and the socio-economic shackles of their white oppressors.

My parents worked hard to make sure that even the cell memory of oppression was removed from my DNA. So the strong, black womanhood I was envisioning was in the words of Bell Hook, a “half-told tale”. It was not my story to claim. But I did. I used it to justify my non-expertise in the cooking department, because no man was going to chain me to the kitchen sink, and expect me to keep him fed, watered and bathed. I brandished it when I declared that if I had a child I would never be referred to as Mama Nani. I had a name dammit, and Baba Nani was going to put some respect on it. I was that girl who would wear a turtleneck and then compulsively pull it over her chin because my body was not an exhibition and men were not welcome to view it. I became what I recognise as a caricature of strong womanhood. A caricature which existed to amplify ‘strength’ at the expense of authenticity.

It wasn’t until I gave birth that I understood that feminism cannot be defined in broad terms that every woman must adhere to. Strictly speaking, it is the idea that women and men should have equal rights and opportunities. But what it’s really about is the right of a woman to choose how she wants to experience that equality. Feminism is personal and women should have the freedom to decide what it looks like on their own terms. I grew into my own version of strong womanhood through motherhood, but every woman should feel free to discover who they are, and what they want, through a variety of their own experiences. So, now I have become the kind of woman who wears that ‘Mama Nani’ tag with pride because motherhood requires a woman to dig deep to find the kind of resilience that is only unearthed when you have the weight of another human being on your shoulders.

Which brings me back full circle. See, much as I loved my own mother, I had often thought of her as ‘less than’ because she was a traditional wife. She was the quintessential homemaker who spent a good amount of her time making sure my father was comfortable, even when it caused her discomfort. For her troubles, I viewed her as disempowered. I thought of her as a woman who refused to use the power of her femininity to temper her man’s overbearing masculinity. This was despite her achievements in the workplace which quite frankly, were larger than life. She was an advocate for the empowerment of the girl-child way before it had become a catchphrase. Paradoxically, I admired her advocacy with the same fervour that I disdained her choices as a ‘traditional’ wife, and mother.

I rebelled against her version of womanhood and took up a form of feminism that I mistakenly believed to be my own. But with the birth of my daughter, which was six years after my mother died, I began to see very clearly that I had internalised a form of female empowerment that had precious little to do with my experience as a Kenyan woman.

In my rebellion against what I viewed as conservative, unimaginative, and weak, I reached into my spirit and grabbed onto a version of feminism that I felt was authentic, real and right. But then came another contradiction in my feminist ideology, and that was the assumption that men were the enemy; and that every woman, regardless of race, colour, or nationality, was fighting that same adversary. Even as a self-confessing ‘strong black woman’ I embraced feminism in all its late 20th Century, white-woman glory, never once viewing it as a construct that was designed to overlook women of colour, and specifically women in Africa. White women approach feminism from a ‘second-in-command’ position, coming immediately after white men in the global social construct. Black African woman approach it from the bottom-up, many times having to fight injustices that are unique to them on account of the colour of their skin. So yes, we all struggle, but we struggle differently.

See, to subdue Africa, the white colonising forces attempted to strip entire populations of their culture, and to replace it with foreign norms and traditions. People from my parent’s generation had no choice but to embrace those norms and traditions because they were born in the age of colonialism. For them it was truly a matter of survival. So they raised us from the viewpoint that white was right, and we internalised that belief. Aspiring to whiteness became deeply embedded in our core. Even in an independent Kenya, many in my generation – the so-called Generation Xers born in the 60s and 70s – looked to white culture for our cues. It was in this context that I latched onto the Western ‘burn-your-bra’ version of feminism, interpreting it to mean that men were the enemy, and every woman had been enlisted to fight them. Fighting them meant railing against all the parts of Kenyan tradition that required women to assume a deferential position. To my mind, Kenyan women were expected to genuflect while cooking, cleaning and bearing children, and I wasn’t having any of it.

But see, I’ve come to understand that African women in their natural habitat are the epicentre of societal power. Through the ages we have built a familial construct that allows us to cleverly wield that power, and to tilt the balance of influence in our favour. We have our ways, which don’t typically include masculinising our femininity, or the reckless disempowerment of our men. This type of behaviour derives from the colonisation of our minds. From the parts of us that reject what white women reject, and accept what they accept without pausing to reflect on the fundamental differences in our experiences. And it doesn’t really help matters to appropriate the black woman struggle either. Yes, we are black, and we are strong but we have our own history, and our own experiences, which are distinct from our African American sisters.

It is at this intersection of white, African American, and black African feminism that I have come to the realisation that I have to write my own feminism bible, and to apply it religiously to my own unique circumstances. I was born in 1977, 14 years after Kenya gained independence from colonial rule. I did not experience the humiliation of white imperialism, but I was raised by parents who still had the sourness of colonialism on their tongues. They carried the weight of that oppression on their backs even as they used the very same colonial systems to navigate a free world. In their liberation, they used a colonial compass to find their way in life, and because of it, I subconsciously assimilated a colonial mind-set. Everything worthy of having, and aspiring to, was steeped in whiteness.

This is why many in my generation still take pride in speaking with an accent. Why we privilege British system schools. Aspire to study abroad. To live in areas that used to be reserved for white folk. We continuously cast ourselves in the image of a settler because the subliminal goal is not just to be good, but to be as good as a white person. Or at the very least to be viewed as embodying cultural whiteness.

For me, the realization that I needed to emancipate myself from mental slavery came when I contemplated my daughter’s future. When I stopped to really reflect on the kind of woman I wanted her to be. I realised that in my core, I valued my blackness, but that I would only thrive in it if I let go of the idea that I had to act white to be valued. This meant that I had to redefine what womanhood meant from a black cultural perspective.

In the end, it came down to enjoying the respect that is implied when folks call me Mama Kayla, honouring the masculinity of my Kenyan brothers without devaluing my contributions as a Kenyan woman, and raising my African vibration so that I would consistently bring the richness of my proud ancestry to the table.

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Reflections

Your Dreams Are Not Valid Here

I came back to Kenya immediately after my studies, armed with a master’s degree from one of the world’s most prestigious universities – and two years later, I am worse off than I have ever been in my short adult life. I used to earn more as a student than I do as a grown-up adult, with a family and a daughter about to join school. By SILAS NYANCHWANI

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Your Dreams Are Not Valid Here
Photo: whoislimos on Unsplash

This time of year, October/ November, is the season when the United States runs their Electronic Diversity Visa Lottery, commonly known as the green card.

Globally, 20 million people fill it, with the hope of becoming part of the tight short list of the 50,000 people who eventually receive the American Permanent Resident Card, and a ticket to pursue the fabled American Dream (sometimes a nightmare).

In my early 20s, I used to nurse dreams of living in America. Most of my friends who never qualified for university used various means, dubious and straight, to enter America. And soon they were building mansions and buying plots around Nairobi as I chased my bachelor’s degree. I remember one friend in particular who had been jobless in Nairobi and when the opportunity came, he left in such a huff, leaving with his small worldly possessions; a bag with three or four clothes, old shoes and nothing else. He has never stepped back 14 years down the line.

***

I joined University in the mid-2000s, when the Kibaki economy was booming. Sectors like higher education had expanded massively, opening doors to hundreds of thousands to access university education and creating employment and business opportunities such as never witnessed before. Local banks, hitherto operating as cooperative societies or community chamas, had become serious players in the industry. M-PESA had just been launched and Nairobi was being noticed in Africa and indeed in the world finance markets. Real estate was booming. The media was flourishing, both mainstream platforms and lifestyle magazines were making stupendous profits. There was money to be made if you had the right skills.

For my first ever newspaper column (aged 21, no less), I was given a cheque of KSh7,500, inspiring me to pursue journalism. In my four years in campus, I supplemented the Higher Education Loans Board (HELB) money with the wages from writing for local newspapers.

There was an air of optimism everywhere.

Then came the 2007 elections, followed by the post-election violence, coinciding with the 2008 global financial crisis, from which the world has never really recovered. In Kenya, we had barely started picking up the pieces from the post-election violence when a youthful duo came into office, who promised heaven and but have delivered hell, to the point where our economy is now in the doldrums.

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But I remember that through college and the ensuing years, we were proud of our country. The roads became better, Internet connectivity improved immensely, mobile technology grew, and Nairobi could afford anyone the best things in the world, barring traffic and pollution. Those of us in university hoped after graduation, we would get the six-figure salaries that our predecessors (classes of 2004-2008) were getting.

At the time, few of my friends had any ambition of leaving Kenya, save for those who were headed to graduate school. There were many reasons to stay. Many among those who traveled for further studies, or for whatever reason, did come back. And my Kenyan-American friends, advised me, “If you make at least KSh80,000 as net income, then you don’t need to come and struggle in America.”

It was a piece of advice we heeded, and after college, we were all looking for jobs that will guarantee KSh100,000. That was during the post-college euphoria, and by this time my obsession with “flying out” had diminished significantly. I started to believe I could ‘make it’ here in Kenya.

As a single young man, I enjoyed good income from my newspaper columns, and ultimately I got a permanent job with a local media organisation and decent pay nearly two and half years after graduation. People around me had more mixed fortunes. My spouse got a job after waiting for nearly three years after graduation. Most of my college friends waited longer, some in between jobs, more underemployed, others dropped through the cracks. The devolved government did rescue a few with jobs in the counties, but in my estimation only about half of the graduates in my year have been in steady employment or business.

Two years into my employment, the company I was working for laid off 300 workers, nearly a quarter of the workforce, in a purge that spared no one, from the young, to the middle-aged to the older folks. It was devastating. I only escaped the axe because I won a scholarship to graduate school that saw me spend a year in New York.

When I left for America, my entire clan accompanied me to the airport, knowing that the path to prosperity had just been opened. Their palpable excitement was understandable.

“Don’t ever come back, fetch your family and stay there,” they insisted. There were many more people who asked me to stay in America than those who advised me to come back – unlike just a few years before.

While in America, even with the telltale signs of a diseased and decaying economy, my acquaintances in US were all of the idea that I should play the system (basically marry my way into citizenship), or use whatever trick to stay there. But I was determined to come back, armed with youthful chutzpah and the idealism that my master’s degree from one of the world’s most premium universities will guarantee me a better life.

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I came back immediately after my studies – and two years later, I am worse off than I have ever been in my short adult life.

There are no jobs in the media, and or in my Plan B, academia – that has been ruined too.

The other day, for the first time since 2010, I went to a cybercafé. I hadn’t gone to browse – who does that anymore? I had gone to take the quality photo necessary filing in the DV-lottery, and I sat down and applied for the green card. And in the last few months, along with other friends, I have been visiting placement agencies that advise skilled adults on how to settle in countries like Canada or Australia.

***

When was the last time you passed near Nyayo House? You have probably seen the impossible crowds. One can safely assume that those looking for passports want out of the country for various reasons.

I happen to have worked with a few agencies that send Kenyans abroad, from low-skilled workers (to Dubai, Doha and other places in the Middle East), to high skilled labour (to Western countries mostly). So many of my folks, given the limited farming opportunities in the village, have moved to the Middle East and America, where most of them work on low-end, but better paying jobs that anything the country can offer.

It is not just the manual labourers who want out of the country. Increasingly, people with university education are moving out of the country, reminiscent of the exodus witnessed in the 1980s and 1990s during the repressive regime of Moi, compounded by the Structural Adjustment Programs that saw the economy shrink so badly in the 1990s.

It is a quiet exodus.

***

One of the best things that come with age is the shattering of youthful idealism. You learn sooner than later that not all dreams are valid. You discover the ideal house you visualized, your dream car, and the neighbourhood you wanted to live in can be decidedly elusive. And as you grow older, you constantly adjust your expectations, adopting a cold-hearted selfishness, and pragmatism, for yourself and for your family.

I know at least six other friends who left the US and the UK, and at least four of them have had it so tough, the last I checked, they are at advanced stages of going back abroad to pursue a Ph.D. or looking for work as skilled immigrants. Never before I have ever been inundated with links for job applications and advice on how to emigrate to some of the better countries in the West; UK, Netherlands, Belgium, USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the Scandinavian countries.

Yet the timing couldn’t be worse. In the West, the rise of right-wing governments spurred by collapsing or stagnating economies has inspired a wave of xenophobia targeting foreigners, and dark-skinned immigrants are especially not welcome.

But even so, we want to leave. Because the economic prospects for men and women of my generation look dim. According to a Pew Research Center study in March this year, 54 per cent of Kenyans wanted to relocate. They cited corruption, the high cost of living, poor living standards, and search for better housing, healthcare and education opportunities. Life has become unbearable.

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And SAPs 2.0 are about to hit harder, as thousands of employees are set to lose jobs when the government sells 26 parastatals. With inflation, and the slow death of affordable public health care and education, the timing could not be worse.

I used to earn more as a student than I do as a grown-up adult, with a family and a daughter about to join school. Public schooling is in ruins, higher education in an irrecoverable mess, so much that middle-class and upper-class parents have totally lost all the hope in public schools and send their children to expensive private schools, the better if they run a different “international system”. But private education is so expensive that kindergarten annual tuition fees in some of the average schools is more than what a university student pays for their tuition. And many millennial parents are not going to afford it.

For healthcare, half of the WhatsApp groups we are in are for fundraising for sick or deceased folks since families cannot afford to pay for their relatives’ healthcare in decent hospitals.

***

We know the Kenyans in the diaspora are often homesick. Given a chance, many would return. Indeed, their remittances tell a story of unshakeable faith in their motherland – in 2017, Kenyans remitted over $1.9 billion from the diaspora – but the government hardly accords them any significance.

“Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spares time when he goes abroad to meet Indians living in that country. President Uhuru Kenyatta rarely does it. But this helps build a connection between migrants and the motherland,” says Mukurima Muriuki, a Kenyan conflict resolution expert based in California, USA.

The same can be said of countries like Lebanon that keeps a database of professionals abroad. Or Ireland that taps into the potential of its expansive diaspora network. Israel too.

Similarly, the growth in industrialization as well as the information and technology rapid growth of the Asian tigers has been credited to returning immigrants, and the sustained ties ensure that both the host country and the motherland benefits.

In Kenya’s case, it feels like contempt towards those in the diaspora is always on constant display. Like the recent launch of direct flights to America that hardly involved members of the diaspora who ordinarily would make the bulk of the users of the flight.

But because we mostly send low-skilled workers who end up in menial jobs, there is little exchange of skills that can transform the country. More individuals end up in middling jobs, with no way to really contribute back home, beyond building an ancestral home (essentially, dead capital) and buying more meaningless pieces of land for lack of alternatives.

High skilled individuals often gain citizenship to the host country, and their brains end up benefitting the host country more than the mother country. Think of the late Professor Calestous Juma, a celebrated international authority in the application of science and technology for sustainable development worldwide, who was at Harvard University at the time of his death last year. If he stayed in Kenya, he probably would never have risen through the ranks – and would never have ascended to the status that Harvard afforded him. One can think of the top Kenyan academics, thinkers and writers who spend their lives in the Western institutions because their country has spurned them.

This country loses so much in terms of skills and ideas. And worse because we are not creative enough to utilize the diaspora beyond just remittances. We could use more transfer of skills and ideas.

Still, I am starting to think that when your country does not love you, you have no obligation to love it back.

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You Only Leave When Home Is the Mouth of a Shark

Back then harambees were festive occasions. The soon-to-be voyager stood coyly at the front, maybe draped in shiny tinsel, perhaps holding out a kiondo into which their donations were danced forward and dropped into. But then it became harder to be generous as the economy sank lower and lower. By WANJERI GAKURU

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You Only Leave When Home Is the Mouth of a Shark
Photo: Shutterstock

For some reason, we only ever seemed to climb up to the waving bay at the airport at night. Crowding around the large windows, a gaggle of bundled up pre-teens up way past their bedtime. We’d stare at the rows of shiny metal birds; miracles of science, about to leap into the inky blue skies. We imagined our kinfolk nestled within one of those bellies. The grownups were scattered around us chatting among themselves; recalling a similar journey, as prayerful escort or terrified traveller.

The parents were a picture of sadness and pride. Soon, they’d choose a plane for us to wave at. Pressed together with strangers we’d mark its confident ascension, high and bright and pulled by an invisible chariot of fire until it became a tiny speck. It didn’t matter that it likely wasn’t the right aircraft we cheerfully sent off. Going down the dark stairwell afterwards, we were all countrymen saluting folks who would likely not return.

We didn’t know it then, but it had all begun years before. In 1980, Kenya took its first Structural Adjustment loan from the World Bank. After nearly two solid decades of independence and relative economic stability, Kenya replaced the import-substitution policies it had pursued since independence with an open, liberalized trading regime. It was intended to “stabilize” the economy, which was under the pressure of debt repayments.

Did it work? The short answer is: no.

We took a second loan in 1982, same year as the attempted coup. The latter had an especially profound effect on how we were governed from then on, intensifying paranoia and tribalism in governance. But even ambitious economic plan, which looked good on paper, was designed to hurt the most vulnerable. SAPs required poor countries to reduce spending on things like health, education and infrastructure, while debt repayment and privatisation were made the priority. In effect, the IMF and World Bank demanded that poor nations lower the standard of living of their people.

Around that same time, Kenyans also suffered through the 1992 elections—where the government borrowed heavily from local banks and caused inflation—and the 1993 Goldenberg scandal, in which 10% of the country’s GDP was squirreled away. To where? We didn’t know. But we knew it was bad.

THE COLONIAL STATE, AUSTERITY AND "MIDDLE CLASS" ANGST: An insiders perspective

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No wonder my late father worked it out so that my eldest sister got on a plane to Germany to work as an au pair for a year. It was 1999 and at least one of us in the family would enter the new millennium with hope. To raise money for her departure, we circulated pledge cards, secured the family’s most generous friend as guest of honour and held a harambee. These fundraisers were a common practice among the middle class for travels abroad. We still hold them today but largely for funerals and medical reasons. (One day we need to unpack why churches somehow manage to remain bankrolled through whatever hardships. The same goes for wedding committees).

But back then harambees were festive occasions. The soon-to-be voyager stood coyly at the front, maybe draped in shiny tinsel, perhaps holding out a kiondo into which their donations were danced forward and dropped into. Folks were so generous; they didn’t just support academic trips. Sometimes it was to aid a lucky Green Card lottery winner. Only 50,000 US immigrant visas are available through that national lottery. It seemed that Kenyans snatched up quite a number. I was always either a raffle ticket seller (where the grand prize was something like a large towel) or I sold handkerchiefs at inflated prices. All to send so-and-so majuu.

However, it was harder to be generous as the economy sank lower and lower. The cold eyes from the portrait that bore down at us from the walls of our offices and schools and at the start of news bulletins were unrelenting. That is, until the opposition parties created a rainbow and pressed Moi into retirement in 2002. Nonetheless, my family—now a battered middle class—was still plotting how to send more people out there. Within a year we scrimped and saved and shipped off a cousin to America.

She was the last of us to go this way.

Yoked here by the fallout of economic distress of yesteryears, my family, like many other Kenyan households found studying abroad a luxury. It was still possible but even the brightest amongst us could not summon the harambee spirit. By the mid-2000s folks had to secure full or partial scholarships, and still finesse church, work and society trips to cross the Atlantic Ocean. That is, if they could jump through the many hoops needed to even secure a visa, and the irony of sitting for an English proficiency exam in a former British colony.

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When it was my time to enrol in university, Uganda and Tanzania were my best options for an alternative higher learning experience. By then I had just become an orphan and that’s what literally pulled on the purse strings and got me into a journalism class.

Today, my 20-year-old nephew’s best bet at a good education is turning to the Internet. It has become the salvation of the jaded millennial, myself included. Sure, folks can attend local colleges and polytechnics but the World Wide Web is the best university they can attend, it holds all the books they cannot buy and has become the employer, the platform and marketplace they seek.

Maybe flying out isn’t such a big deal when information is pouring out of your phone and laptop. The ability to viably contribute to the web has turned everyday people into celebrities and birthed new occupations. Not forgetting the hundreds of dollars made monthly from vaguely suspect pursuits (online writing) to the definitely illegal (selling of pirated DVDs). Young people are somehow finding a way to make it in these harsh economic times.

If nothing else, the Internet has made the strongest assault against the almighty lawyer-engineer-doctor trifecta, but it can’t save everyone. An impossible wage gap, brutal unemployment and perilous short-term kibarua jobs still persist. To quote poet Warsan Shire, “No one leaves home, unless home is the mouth of a shark.”

For those who still try and make their way out, Middle Eastern nations offer the lowest barrier of entry but at a terrible price. What are advertised as opportunities for domestic workers too often are a mask for modern-day slavery. Many, like Happiness Chweya, Mwanakombo Athman and Melsa Adhiambo Makhokha, return home in coffins. Those who narrowly escape recount tales of physical abuse and sexual depravity.

Yet hundreds still flock the fraudulent job agencies, thousands more have their passports seized and cannot return home. Their desperate pleas secretly recorded circulate on Facebook and Twitter as horrific vox pops.

Equally stuck are the waving bay generation, those who left. No doubt they have it much better – at least financially (?) – than their counterparts across the seas but what does it mean to long for home for 5, 10, 20, 30, 40 years? To be torn between renewing an expired student visa and risking deportation, and sending home payments received under the table, miserly as they are. It means watching your father’s funeral through the small window of a smartphone thousands of kilometres away and sobbing and sobbing because home is still the mouth of a shark.

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Reflections

THE COLONIAL STATE, AUSTERITY AND “MIDDLE CLASS” ANGST: An insiders perspective

This short film by Amina Bint Mohamed, and featuring activist Aimee Ongeso, explores the concerns and challenges of the so-called ‘middle class’, a demographic whose definition is contested and whose security is precarious. Unemployment, a high cost of living, and commercialized social services make it nearly impossible to ‘live one’s best life’. Though the blame is often put on poor financial literacy, Ongeso says the buck stops with the state – and she reflects on the strategies that families like hers are using to survive these hard times, and disappointments they navigate, while recognizing that the problems they face emanate from the exploitative colonial nature of the Kenyan state.

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THE COLONIAL STATE, AUSTERITY AND "MIDDLE CLASS" ANGST: An insiders perspective
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