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HAPPILY EVER AFTER: A millennial’s reflection on marriage

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HAPPILY EVER AFTER: A millennial’s reflection on marriage
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There’s something uncomfortable about looking at pictures of your parents at a time when they made each other happy. – Aminatta Forna

Our parents are an example of two things:
What marriage should be like;
What marriage should not be like.

I met the husband I never married when I was sixteen. He became the biological father of my child a few years later and he was proud to call me his wife. We never had a wedding albeit living together … in theory – as he often travelled meaning we did not really spend much time together. And by the time we reunited, we had spent so much time apart that we felt like strangers. We had become accustomed to making separate decisions in separate countries and over time, our worldviews evolved in divergent directions. As I had become a mother at a very young age, I started, as many women might, feeling a little empty. My child was growing older and being a mother could not define my whole identity. What happened to all the things my younger self-thought I would one day do?

My parents, who are card-holding members of the Baby Boomer generation, modeled to me as a child, that in a marriage, one stays put until death do us apart. You may hurt and drain yourself, but in the end, you will have done the honourable thing by staying wedded.

Later in life, parents resting in their graves, married to death, you look back at old photos and realise they were once possibly happy. They had good times. They kissed, loved and laughed. Then I mirror that against my own relationship that did not stand the test of time.

Old photos with your former partner, only tell one little part of the whole story – the part that is most hopeful and happy.

Happy … that little word people have written hundreds of books about because we are socialised to seek happiness all our lives. These popular notions do not really capture the full spectrum of the human experience but they continue to prevail over the choices we make and do not make.

I did not choose to be born to a Kenyan father and a Russian mother. Yet, they informed a large part of the insecurity I both consciously and subconsciously developed around love and marriage. They informed the choices I made and they informed the choices I did not make.

As a woman in her 30s reflecting on my parents’ complex marriage, I have developed a curiosity about what really built their union; why did they stay together, despite the unforgiving conflicts?

I do not have any easy answers but in the process of dissecting the complexities, I came to realise how daring my parents were. They ventured outside the bonds of their culture, and, merged to find solace in each other, creating new identities in worlds that were distinct from the worlds they were born into.

My father was an intellectual, who studiously worked toward a success he had defined in his mind. He was among the privileged Kenyan Baby Boomers, from his hometown, Kuria, and from the country in general, to travel abroad for higher education circa 1965. Not only did he travel overseas, he travelled into the tensions of the Soviet Union at the height of the cold war.

I have tried to recreate the past in my mind. What was life like for a young black African man in my mother’s hometown, the southern city of Krasnodar, close to the Black Sea – the warmer part of the country. If only I was older during his final days, we might have had these conversations, and I would be better informed. There were times, as a child, I felt he wanted to tell me more but he did not know how too. We would sit and stare at each other. He would murmur something incomprehensible to my young mind about his regrets. Years later, I hold vague memories of what might have transpired. He wanted to speak of the hardships of his past. He wanted to talk of the racial hardships in the USSR. The Soviets, who had been isolated from the rest of the world found African people completely alien and projected all manner of negative stereotypes. In my view, it was not an overt kind of racism with a historical context common in the West. It stemmed from a profiling of the unknown given that exposure to black people was nearly none existent. The name-calling took place mainly amongst the men, who over a few drinks could become fast friends. This is not to say grave and violent incidents did not occur, more so among the less educated or jobless. Being the studious man he was, he persevered through it all and gained the respect of the Soviets, going on to earn a PhD in Agricultural Engineering.

I also heard he handled quite a number of substantive projects and began to earn money that distinguished him from the rest of his peers. In time this made him something of an outlier and an exotic catch for the Russian ladies. Many women of the time harboured dreams of any ticket out of the USSR. They were told of a tropical location with succulent mangoes and sunny days throughout the year. The commonly viable escape was the West and Africa in its remoteness, held a certain allure for the adventurous.

The alcoholic addiction that afflicted the troubled Soviet men further made the foreign men a more appealing option regardless of race. The strong Soviet women kept the homes going and the broken men found solace in war songs and vodka shots. The contrast in modest behaviour and disciplined lifestyles displayed by African men made them objects of curiosity for many women. They were hard-working and appeared to have clear visions for their future. They all dreamt of the big things they would do back home. Mixed-race children like I came to be known as ‘mulatos’. But it was not that simple. While my grandmother was against the idea of mixing blood and polluting the purity of their race, the Baby Boomers dared to be different. Not all had the courage to do so, as my mother did. Several women would end up aborting their mixed-race babies. My mother bore my sister in 1980, and as normally happens, the family grew fond of the baby. Although my sister recalls having a happy early childhood there, it was deemed not the most suitable option to raise a mixed-race child in the Krasnodar Krai.

Among the Africans, the Kenyans were deemed reliable and quite a number of them proudly brought their dainty Russian brides home. My father was fluent in Russian. So fluent that if someone spoke to him on phone, not having seen his face, they would assume that he was white and possibly blue or hazel eyed. I know he was also a charmer, for I recall him fondling my mother in front of other guests at parties, who themselves were too conservative to do the same with their partners. He was a man defined by his zeal, swinging between extremes of utter joy and frightful bitterness, as if he embodied two different people.

His public displays of affection toward my mother embarrassed me. Compared to the restraint of his peers, he seemed inappropriate. I questioned the authenticity as well. I would normally walk away from the scene thinking of it as a short-lived façade. By the third day of the week, they would be throwing unpleasant curses at each other. This was my normal, outside the fixed smiles in the family photos.

My mother was also an educated woman with a Masters degree in Economics and a beautiful cursive handwriting that I worked hard to emulate. The quality of the education, for all men and women alike, was high; the one thing the country did not compromise amid the chaos leading to the fall of the USSR was educational standards. While the men were burdened by the trauma of the cumulative conflicts of the time and the patriotic duty as the state’s soldiers, who put their lives forward for their country – willingly – many at a steep price, the women ended up filling the ranks as the brains of their institutions. It was common to have a significant number of women in varied fields from accounting to aeronautics. The first Russian woman in the world to fly to space in the 1960s was Valentina Vladimirovna – coincidentally, my mother was also a Vladimirovna.

There is a subtext to this inclusivity. The legal equality of women and men in Russia came circa 1917 under Lenin, who believed that women had a crucial and economic role to play in the communist revolution and need not be tied down to domestic roles. For about a decade (before much was reversed) not only was abortion legalized, but marriage was separated from the church and children born out of wedlock enjoyed equal rights. It always positively baffles me that the likes of my mother were born into Women’s Rights and still prioritized domesticated roles and motherhood above other pursuits of self.

My father, on the other hand, had been away from home for about 15 years. Through his hard work, the young family moved to Kenya around 1985, to start a new and supposedly free life under the sun. There were high expectations placed on my father, having been a pioneer of high education and interracial marriage in his community. He felt obliged to come back with a family, look settled and successful, with several not-so-well-off relatives waiting for the ‘benefits’ of his achievements. As Yvonne Owuor wrote in Dust, they would, “show up in every inconvenient season with a long story, one thin dead chicken – stolen – and hands outstretched to receive alms,” from him.

To his community, he was a new man. He returned wearing his one of a kind velvet suits, reading Russian books and playing vinyl records from our very large collection. I clearly remember Donna Summer among them. Mother blended into the Kenyan workforce and even joined a Kuria women’s chama. Her outward calmness, elegance and dedication to being a homemaker, disguised her actual bravery. She had rebelled against a system; left her homeland, found ways to sink roots in a new land and raise a family. She spent occasional nights missing Mother Russia- when she’d sit in the verandah after dinner, the glass door shut, looking out into the darkness in deep thought, having a cigarette whose puffs took her back home – the only times I saw her smoke. I would watch her silently from a corner of the sitting room, out of her line sight trying to read her pensive mood.

Like the round leaf and a lily flower that floats on the surface of the water in a pond, my parents sustained each other. A symbiotic relationship, picturesque on the surface and turbid below. So they floated, one upon the other, content in regiment, solid in growth only to be fragmented in loss.

Is that what marriage really is? A deep-rooted binding institution, further complicated by our heritage, nurturing, beliefs; something that I misunderstood while I fixated on my parents’ photos? How could I trust this institution?

So a few years into my own, so-to-say, customary marriage, the union finally came to an end. It was not a one-day affair. It was a steady decline; an airplane preparing for landing in bad weather accompanied by a series of drastic actions, and regret that it could not have gone any other way. It was not a smooth landing.

I began rebuilding the parts of me I had shattered. He too left to pick up the parked parts of his life before my existence. I was the interlude that gave it an ideal neither of us could live up to. I once thought leaving was strength until I realised the strength was in the staying. I did not have the courage my mother had to stay. Neither can I be certain that she should have.

UNBOWED

Having made peace with the paradox of choice, I went through a period of exploring life stories – memoirs and autobiographies. Among them was Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed where she explored what I would call a traditional childhood, girlhood and transition to womanhood in the context of her Kikuyu upbringing.

Roles were defined, expectations were clear – no surprises. Family and marriage were a communal affair necessitated by the need to organise life, retain values and manage the community’s resources. You could not wake up one morning and decide to unlove someone. Neither could you voluntarily neglect your role.

Her parents were of a time when polygamy was a norm. Co-wives were friends and the children played together, calling all the wives ‘mother’. Wangari writes that she did not sense any discrimination and if her parents had any problems they were kept out of it; she never saw them argue. Perhaps it was not acceptable for a wife to be confrontational with her husband. Nonetheless, roles and expectations were not ambiguous. It was not about the individual, it was about the community. Marriage was an expectation and families in the same homestead often married from the same community, expectedly grooming certain young men and women for marriage. This generally meant you married someone with shared communal values. You learnt to love and respect each other. We cannot ascertain that this would always be the case, but longevity of marriage was in some way guaranteed.

Wangari herself, who pursued her higher education in America, never witnessed the traditional longevity of her marriage. Her husband called it quits. She said her husband claimed that she was, “too educated, too strong, too successful, too stubborn and too hard to control.” But rather than defend these reasons (of which I suspect were traits she was, in fact, proud of) she beautifully captured the fragility of contemporary marriages when examined objectively.

“When we go through profound experiences, they change us. We risk our relationships with friends and family. They may not like the decisions we have taken or may feel threatened by our decisions. They may wonder what happened to the person they once knew. There may not be enough space in a relationship for aspirations and beliefs or mutual interests and aims to unfold. For a couple, this is particularly so because most people marry young and are bound to grow and change in their perceptions and appreciation of life.”

Regardless of this opinion, she wanted to keep her marriage for social reasons but did not wish to give up any of her aspirations for a more traditional role. Her marriage was officially annulled in 1979 but her bigger picture still stood as, “I was still the chairman of the National Council for Women of Kenya and I was still developing the Green Belt Movement.”

Influenced by the American school of thought, she needed to accomplish what she felt was her mission in life. “I also took America back to Kenya with me … There is a persistence, a seriousness, and a vision to America: it seems to know where it is going and it will go in that direction, whether you like it or not.” Wangari held onto her aspirations, my mother held onto her family- both strong choices for women who came from family-oriented communities. Wangari showed her strength overtly, my mother held it silently.

So I say to myself, let bygones be bygones as I examine contemporary marriages in search of role models to follow. In this new age, many of my millennial peers have had the opportunity to study abroad, subscribe to western notions of love and romance and have bought into the idea of one’s individual aspirations as the epitome of the pursuit of happiness and fulfillment. Those I looked at for hope in marriage have not survived the institution. Some are living in the same home-like ghosts, at the brink of sanity. Others settled for companionship and neglected the institutional commitment of marriage. Others, like myself, have developed a phobic awareness of the responsibilities of marriage, and have acceded to the idea that it is bound to fail.

Marriage comes down to choice: the choices mama made, the choices Wangari made, the choices I am making. Their choice to leave or stay, evolved into my choice to marry or not, on the backdrop of my reflections and attitude toward their marriages. In as much as I judged their choices harshly in my younger years, I now look at them with empathy – an empathy that does not seek to explore that path. An empathy that looks at my modern life as an advantage in the freedom we think we hold and in how we navigate our lives. An empathy that elevates the value of companionship in our chaotic urban lives and dismisses the idea that marriage is crucial for its attainment – for after all, their stories show the loneliness their marriages hid and the irony of committing to a life partner but craving freedom. So much for the myth of Happily Ever After.

In retrospect, I feel I have found a new (but detached) appreciation for the institutional and dutiful nature of marriage in a world where choice has become narcissistic. Everything depends on the individual. Your happiness depends on you. Your misery depends on you. It is your fault for attracting a flawed partner. We continue to await the unattainable, The One. These are the egoistic ideals we ruin our communities chasing. We forget that by the very act of holding an identity card, we represent civil principles, we forget that marriage is supposed to give us certain rights in how birth, death and resources are organized, besides the traditional legitimacy within our community.

I take comfort in my choice to refrain from binding myself to the institution only to let it down. A comfort bred in the art of singlehood, while subconsciously in the search for that which I know I will never find – the Happily Ever After. Something my mother already knew when she chose to stay.

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Katya Nyangi is a becoming writer who blogs on Navigating Life (byawoman.com). Her interests lie in education and social development, and on the more impassioned side, love and loss.

Reflections

Hamba Kahle Kenneth David Kaunda, Pillar of African Liberation Struggles

Kenneth David Kaunda was one of a generation of African leaders of a caliber that Africa will not see again.

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Gone Is the Last Of the Mohicans: Tribute to Kenneth Kaunda
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Ten years ago, I was sitting together with other invited guests during the Republic of South Sudan independence celebrations on the day that South Sudan was declared a free nation, when I saw an elderly man with a white handkerchief in his hand, walking slowly towards the podium. The independence celebrations were already underway and the podium was crowded with African heads of states. The stadium was quiet, possibly because everyone was puzzled that this elderly man was walking towards the stage when everyone was already seated. When the master of ceremonies announced that the man was Kenneth David Kaunda the venue buzzed with excitement.

Everyone on the main podium where the heads of states and prime ministers were seated stood up and clapped until Mzee Kaunda was seated. Many of those seating near me were wondering how Kaunda had entered the stadium while all the presidents, including the host president, had already arrived. Foreign affairs officials of the United Republic of Tanzania later explained to me that Mzee was late because his flight had been delayed. The reception he received at the stadium showed the esteem with which the elders who started and led the struggle for freedom were held even in their retirement years. It was a big honour for the Republic of South Sudan that the former president of Zambia and the second Chairman of the Frontline States was present on the day the country became independent.

A few months later, around March 2012, I was lucky to meet Mzee Kaunda. I was in Lusaka on parliamentary business and I requested that the Zambian parliament afford me the opportunity to pay him a visit. Mzee Kaunda received me warmly in his office and we spoke about a number of African issues. The conversation was essentially Kaunda answering my questions about African liberation movements. I remember that as you enter his office, there is a photo of Mzee Kaunda, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere and Mzee Jomo Kenyatta taken at the airport in Nairobi as they wait for their flight to the United Kingdom.

This was before their countries became fully independent; it was the time of self-government, when both Kaunda and Kenyatta were Prime Ministers. Tanganyika had already obtained full independence, although this was prior to the formation of the United Republic of Tanzania. I asked Mzee Kaunda if he could remember when that photo was taken and he said that it was in January 1964. They were young, smart individuals who possessed a lot of self-confidence. Mzee Kaunda explained to me how at the time, Africa had a lot of hope and he spoke of his very close relationship with Mwalimu Nyerere and even with Mzee Kenyatta, although their politics were not very similar. All three are now no longer with us. Mzee Kenneth David Kaunda passed away on Thursday 17th June 2021 in Lusaka, Zambia.

Kenneth Kaunda, popularly known as KK, was the only surviving founding president of an independent African state. But he was not a founding president of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU). Zambia was not an independent state when the OAU was formed on the 25th of May 1963 and neither Kaunda nor Jomo Kenyatta were amongst the leaders who signed the OAU Charter. Zambia joined the OAU on the 26th of February 1965. It is however easy to assume that KK was a founder of the OAU as he was at the forefront of the independence struggle in Africa and because Zambia gained independence shortly after the OAU was formed. KK believed strongly in the OAU and took part in almost all its meetings. He became the Chairman of the OAU in 1970 at the 7th meeting of Heads of States in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

As Zambia gained its independence, Mozambique and Angola were engaged in the struggle for independence from Portuguese colonial power, while South Africa and Namibia were fighting the white supremacist apartheid regime. And although Zambia was surrounded by countries that had already gained their independence — Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)) and Malawi — it only had close relations with Tanzania and Botswana. Under Kamuzu Banda, Malawi had close relations with Apartheid South Africa while Zaire was used by Western nations against liberation movements. Zambia was going through trying times. Being a landlocked country, the country could either transport goods through the ports of Beira and Nacala in Mozambique, which was under Portuguese rule, or through Southern Rhodesia (present-day Zimbabwe), which was under Ian Smith’s settler rule. This is where Kaunda’s leadership underwent trying times – to protect his country’s interests by cooperating with the apartheid regime or to support the struggle for freedom from colonialism in Africa. Kaunda chose the latter option at a very high cost.

Kenneth Kaunda, popularly known as KK, was the only surviving founding president of an independent African state.

President Kaunda started the Mulungushi Club together with President Nyerere and President Milton Obote of Uganda whose aim was national reconstruction. Unfortunately, President Obote was overthrown by Idi Amin in 1971, leaving only Kaunda and Nyerere. They invited President Seretse Khama of Botswana to one of their meetings, during which, for the first time, the name Frontline States was used. That first meeting was held in Lusaka, Zambia and Mwalimu Julius Nyerere was the first chairman of the Frontline States, contrary to custom which dictates that the president of the host state should be chairman. Mark Chona, special assistant to President Kaunda, has documented in the Hashim Mbita Project – Southern African Liberation Struggles Contemporaneous Documents 1960 – 1994 how Nyerere became chairman:

It was on the issue of releasing from prison the Zimbabwean freedom fighters, the first meeting was in October when I was sent to Cape Town and KK wanted to give a recap to President Nyerere and President Khama. Once seated Mwalimu said “oh! Kenneth, you are the host. I request that you should be the chairman” and KK said “No, Mwalimu please chair the meeting, I am only a host.” At the second meeting, Mwalimu again requested that Kaunda should be the chairman and again Kaunda said “No, no, you spoke very well at the first meeting, please continue to chair the meetings” and that is how Mwalimu Nyerere carried on as the Chairman of Frontline states until 1985 the end of his presidency in Tanzania. That is Mzee Kaunda then became Chairman and he continued with this role until he lost the election in Zambia in 1991.

President Kaunda is essentially remembered for his role in African liberation. In his time, Zambia served liberation movements, resolving disputes within the movements, providing financial assistance and preparing them to run their countries. Zambia came under military attack from Ian Smith’s Rhodesia and Apartheid South Africa and was even threatened with nuclear bombing by the Apartheid regime. In order to stop Zambia from being dependent on the ports in Mozambique and South Africa, President Kaunda and President Nyerere decided to seek assistance from China to build the TAZARA railway. At one point, Zambia also started efforts to develop a nuclear bomb to be used against South Africa.

Members of the Frontline States increased to six when Angola, Mozambique and Zimbabwe gained independence. The biggest task remaining was to liberate Namibia and South Africa, both of which became independent in 1991 and 1994, respectively. Mzee Kenneth Kaunda was at the forefront in ensuring the success of the liberation struggle, during which many lives were lost.

Kenneth Kaunda’s power handover was a big lesson on democracy for Africa when he conceded defeat in an election and handed over the presidency to Frederick Chiluba in 1991.

Kenneth Kaunda also made decisions that either brought misunderstandings between him and his fellow leaders of the Frontline States, or convinced them to take positions that were contrary to those of the OAU. Three issues will be remembered the most. The first was recognising the secession of Biafra from the Federal State of Nigeria. This decision, which was made by only four countries in Africa – Zambia, Gabon, Ivory Coast and Tanzania – caused a lot of misunderstanding among African heads of states. Tanzania recognised the Republic of Biafra on the 13th of April 1968 and Zambia did the same a month later on the 20th May 1968. I was told by a former ambassador from Tanzania who had attended the 5th OAU general meeting which took place in September 1968 in Algiers, Algeria, where the issue of Biafra was discussed, that President Kaunda was verbally attacked by his fellow presidents to the point that he had to leave the meeting. His friend Mwalimu Nyerere did not attend the meeting but sent his friend Rashidi Kawawa instead. KK continued to believe in Biafra for a long time and  in November 2011 he attended the funeral of Lt. Colonel Odumegwu Ojukwu, who had been the leader of secessionist Biafra.

The second issue was recognising Angola’s independence. Angola obtained independence from Portugal in 1975 following years of armed struggle. The 1975 military coup in Portugal opened the way for independence talks that were led by Zambia. As none of the country’s three liberation movements — the MPLA led by Augustino Neto, União Nacional para a Independência Total de Angola (UNITA) led by Jonas Savimbi and Frente Nacional de Libertação de Angola (FLNA) led by Holden Roberto — had control over Luanda, the OAU intervened and a vote was organised to decide which of the three parties would take over from Portugal.

The results of the vote did not produce an outright winner and OAU member states were very divided on this. At a meeting of African heads of state in Addis Ababa, President Kaunda gave a speech that showed his support for UNITA which really angered Mwalimu Nyerere and the Tanzanian delegation. Mwalimu Nyerere therefore decided against giving his speech and instead only said a few words in response to the president of Senegal.

Journalist and lawyer Jenerali Ulimwengu, who was in Addis Ababa as the Deputy Chairman of the Pan-African Youth Movement, told me that the situation had been very tense. The MPLA decided to enter Luanda and declare independence after Portugal surrendered the instruments of power. Jenerali, who was present in Luanda on independence day, will not forget that day; as Tanzania was seen as not principled despite sending the Vice PresidentAboud Jumbe to the celebrations. The issue of Mzee Kaunda, Jonas Savimbi and UNITA is an issue that has still not been understood.

The third issue is one that concerns Zambia. President Kaunda was severely punished by the settler government of Rhodesia and the apartheid regime of South Africa, to the point that Zambia’s economy completely collapsed. Kaunda had closed the border with Smith’s Rhodesia but TAZARA was unable to transport goods into Zambia. The people of Zambia blamed him for his politics of assisting liberation movements instead of focusing on Zambia’s interests. Contrary to his agreement with his fellow leaders, and contrary to his promise that he “would not open the border until Zimbabwe gained independence”, KK decided to open the border with Zimbabwe. In the meeting of the Frontline States a big dispute arose between Presidents Machel, Neto, Kaunda and Nyerere. Mzee Joseph Butiku, who was then Nyerere’s Chief of Staff, has said that it was one of the most difficult meetings he attended during his time with Mwalimu Nyerere. Butiku states that “in the middle of the meeting leaders began to cry. Our role as assistants is to make a record of the conversations, I simply wrote that ‘the presidents are weeping!’”. Zambia was eventually allowed to carry on with its plans. A similar thing happened to President Machel in 1984 following the Nkomati Accord with the Apartheid regime of South Africa and this led to Nyerere “chasing him away” when he went to give him a recap.

Zambia came under military attack from Ian Smith’s Rhodesia and Apartheid South Africa and was even threatened with nuclear bombing by the Apartheid regime.

Kenneth Kaunda’s power handover was a big lesson on democracy for Africa when he conceded defeat in an election and handed over the presidency to Frederick Chiluba in 1991. Kaunda was a president who was very modest to the point that by the time he relinquished the presidency, he did not own a house. When Chiluba took over, he gave Kaunda a hard time, going to the extent of imprisoning him for treason. Mzee Kaunda went on a hunger strike while in jail which he only ended when Mwalimu Nyerere visited him. Dr Levy Patrick Mwanawasa, the third president of Zambia, returned KK to the status of Father of the Nation, giving him all his dues as a retired president, which he continued to receive until his death.

In Development as Rebellion: Julius Nyerere A Biography, Prof Issa Shivji, Prof Saida Yahya-Othman and Dr Ng’wanza Kamata explain how shocked President Kaunda was by the terrible condition of the road to Butiama (Nyerere’s home village). He came to the conclusion that the driver had gone the wrong way as it was not possible that the road to the president’s house could be in such a terrible condition. But it is more shocking that President Kaunda did not have his own home when his presidency ended as he had served his country and never thought of himself. Without a doubt, the first generation of African leaders was unique and I do not think that Africa will get leaders of Kenneth Kaunda’s calibre again. May God rest his soul in peace.

Hamba Kahle KK. You are the last to depart. Greetings to Nyerere, Bibi Titi, Samora, Josina, Winnie, Mandela, OR Tambo, Lumumba, Neto, Mondlane, Hani, Chipeto, Marcelino and all the others who gave their blood and sweat to liberate us.

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Reflections

Benjamin Ayimba: The Making of a Rugby Great

Not even the privilege of the national honour of the Order of the Golden Warrior of Kenya (OGW) and his personal acquaintance with the country’s top leadership could save Benja from this fate. A man who handled his public and personal failures gracefully, would become a victim of state failure.

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Benjamin Ayimba: The Making of a Rugby Great
Photo: Facebook/Benjamin Ayimba
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On April 17th 2016, the Kenyan rugby fraternity was ecstatic. It felt good to be Kenyan. We had finally arrived. The impossible had been achieved. Kenya 7s had won the main Cup at HSBC finals at the Singapore Sevens, against the formidable Fiji, the most successful rugby sevens playing nation in the world.

In the iconic picture, now a part of the annals of great Kenyan sporting moments, is the entire team in dominant red colour of the national flag, their fists raised and joy painted on their faces. In the centre, stands team captain Andrew Amonde holding the trophy high above his head flanked by former captain Humphrey Kayange.

On the extreme right of the picture, standing at the back, partly hidden by the jubilant frame of team physio Lameck Bogonko, is the man responsible for that victory, coach Benjamin Otieno Ayimba better known as Benja. Head coach of Kenya Sevens and the first and only Kenya Sevens coach to lift the World Sevens Series. The position was typical of Ayimba’s graciousness. Every member of his team would have a spot on the podium, no matter how fringe their contribution may have been. The road to Singapore was 20 years in the making. Singapore was Benja’s first international assignment in 1996. It was a dismal outing for Kenya. His coach then, Mike Tank Otieno described him as focused, intense, disciplined and a quick study. Those traits would come to epitomise his career both as player and coach.

Benja was a master of iterations and applied the principle of continuous improvement.

Andrew ‘Ndiri’ Ondiek, one of Kenya’s most outstanding No.8s and the man whose position Benja inherited in the national team recalls an incident during a Kenya Cup game. Impala had suffered a bruising loss to a well oiled Mean Machine. Benja who played for Impala sought out the Machine backrow player and asked why it was so difficult to tackle him during the game whilst taking mental notes. By the following season, Impala marshalled by Benja, was handing out regular upsets, on the road to becoming genuine title contenders.

In 2008, assailed by sceptics who believed he would face eminent failure as coach, a sports journalist asked what he would do differently. His response was accountability. He would take responsibility for any loss the team suffered and Kenya suffered some humiliating losses before the grand moment in Singapore. All through the dark episodes, Benja shielded his boys from criticism from the fans and the rugby union administration.

Benjamin Ayimba’s contribution to the advancement of Kenyan rugby and sport is enormous. He gave his life to rugby when fell in love with the game 30 years ago as a student in Maseno high school. At every juncture, he pushed his team forward. Maseno high school had no rugby pedigree before Benja appeared. He left them as national champs who lost a final narrowly to Nakuru High in 1993. Impala Rugby Club, was playing in second division Eric Shirley Shield when Benja arrived and as a 20 year old captain, he brought Impala to the Kenya Cup where they went on to sweep every trophy on offer.

Sevens glory is usually the domain of the backs but Benja was part of the new generation of forwards, with ball handling skills of backline players, extremely agile and mobile, modelling himself after New Zealand and All Black legend, Zinzan Brooke.

Benjamin Ayimba was part of the winning squad at the Safari Sevens in 1997. He was a member of every Kenya Sevens team between 1996 and 2011 and represented Kenya at four consecutive Commonwealth games in 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010. He was a member of the inaugural team to the Rugby World Cup in 2001 in Argentina where he scored Kenya’s first try against South Korea. He represented Kenya at two more World Cups and was head coach at our high points when Kenya made its first IRB Sevens Series Main Cup Final in Adelaide, Australia in 2009 and earned the third place finish at Rugby World Cup in 2009 in Dubai and eventually a main Cup trophy in 2016 in Singapore. He played 38 times for Kenya leading them 21 times.

Benja surpassed any other player and coach in terms of honours, straddling three generations. He was part of the second wave of sevens rugby that put Kenya on the international map taking over from the pioneering Watembezi generation who morphed into Kenya Sevens during 1986 Hong Kong Sevens.

He was a permanent fixture during Kenya’s return to the international sevens rugby scene. He was a Kenya Shujaa veteran when the new generation comprising the likes of Collin Injera, Humphrey Kayange, Lavin Asego and Andrew Amonde emerged. After his coaching stints, his proteges from Impala and Kenya, Mitch Ocholla and Innocent ‘Namcos’ Simiyu would also make their mark as Kenyan Sevens national coaches. During my brief spell as an editor of Kenya lifestyle magazine, Adam, Benjamin became one of the only two sports personalities to unanimously make the cover profile. Paul Tergat was the other. The theme of the June issue of 2008 was fatherhood. At the time, we positioned Ayimba as a young father who had made a career out of rugby and transitioned from player to coach in an exemplary manner.

Now in hindsight, I ponder on his role as a big brother and leader to the generation that he played alongside and a father figure to the hundreds who thrived under his tutelage as coach.

Benja should not have died. Not this way, not this young. It is difficult to put in words how devastating this loss is, not just to his immediate family, the rugby and sports fraternity but to the country. We are a nation badly in need of father figures with a measure of integrity. In a country at war with its best, intentionally extinguishing its brightest lights, there are not enough heroes in the public domain to inspire the masses to see beyond the state of despondency and cynical disillusion that has come to define the lives of the young in modern Kenya.

Benjamin Ayimba’s death is a consequence of systemic failure culminating in a dysfunctional health system brought about by our adopted neo-liberal culture of greed. The public performance of the political class, jostling to send their messages of condolences after his death announcement as his hospital bill remained unpaid illustrated the tragedy of national heroism.
Sports professionals for all their glory are subject to the same highly unsafe and exploitative work conditions affecting all workers under the conditions of capitalism.

Why would a beloved Kenyan, who attracts the personal attention of the head of state become saddled with a medical debt running into the millions? It is sobering that the gallant rugby dynamo would succumb to disease that was as commonplace as malaria.

Not even the privilege of the national honour of the Order of the Golden Warrior of Kenya(OGW) and his personal acquaintance with the country’s top leadership could save Benja from this fate. A man who handled his public and personal failures gracefully, would become a victim of state failure.

It is the recurring epilogue of our sports men and women, devoting the best years of their lives, making sacrifices for national honours, for something larger than themselves and from a place of love.

What does one do, when a country does not love you back?

In the wake of his death, at the young age of 44, I have been left reminiscing on his legacy. As streams of tributes are read in the wake of his tragic passing, the focus has been on his successes. It is a stellar career by any measure and one that I would dare say, deserves to be the impetus for the establishment of Kenya’s Rugby Hall of Fame, that is long overdue.

However, Benja’s other enviable quality, was how he handled failure. Both privately and in his public life, Benja was the comeback king and this perhaps is why his death left the fraternity reeling in disbelief. Most people assumed that Benja would pull through, as he always does.

Of the many accounts I have come across, this particular one struck me as an apt depiction of the selflessness that Benjamin Ayimba embodied.

The account was told by former Impala hooker, Willy Ombisi.

During pre-season training, a talented rookie player joined Impala with zeal, displaying dazzling skills and embarrassing some of the senior players. The players were divided into opposing teams of potentials in competition for the first team jersey where a plot was hatched by the Impala veterans playing on the opposing side to introduce the young buck to the truth of club rugby.

In the run of play, Sammy Migz, playing at fly half, received the ball off the back of a scrum. As the opposing fly half rushed at him and he easily evaded the tackle with a sidestep off his right foot into the space, where veteran winger Oscar Osir was approaching for a cover tackle and the young flyhalf repeated the same sidestep off his right foot dodging the winger and landing into what in rugby speak is known as the pseudo-gap putting him the inevitable path of collision with a loose forward. It was precisely where they wanted him.

Lurking on the wings, waiting to demolish this flamboyant run of play was a bone crushing flanker, the late Samson ‘Chum Reru’ Opondo.

Benja, who was playing on the rookie’s side running off his shoulder in support, caught a glimpse of Chum Reru moving at top speed closing the false gap headed straight for an oblivious flyhalf. It was a split second decision. He stretched out his hand, grabbed the edge of the fly half’s jersey, pulling him into his body and cradling him at the precise moment that Chum Reru made contact.

Benja’s body absorbed the impact of the devastating tackle. Both players were left stunned on the ground for a few moments after the collision but the young fly half had just survived a tackle that would have probably put him out for a season and dented his confidence. Benja had put his body on the line for the rookie and this was an act he repeated over and over again in more ways than one.

In arena of sports, games fade away but how those fleeting moments made us feel, stay with us long after our champions are gone.

It is why we mourn Benja deeply but with profound gratitude for the generosity of his spirit, his repeated acts of selflessness and the enrichment he brought to our lives.

Journey well Wuod Alego.

Rest in Power, Sir Benja.

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Reflections

George Floyd and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Seeking escape in the art of Chadwick Boseman and the writings of Obama and Ta-Nehisi Coates in a time of trauma.

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George Floyd and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
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I watched Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom for the second time while waiting for the verdict in Derek Chauvin’s trial for George Floyd’s murder. The film focuses on Ma Rainey, an influential blues singer, and dramatises a turbulent recording session in 1920s Chicago. I was looking for escape.

The trial of Derek Chauvin was emotionally draining. It was also scary because of the very real possibility that Chauvin might walk free. And George Floyd would become just another statistic. Just another black man losing his life to a mix of police brutality and racism. We waited for the twelve jurors to do the right thing. To look beyond the skin colour of the executioner and the executed and give us a reason to believe again in the promise of justice for all. The jurors chose the right side of history.

I was looking for a good film with a strong black cast, and for literature by leading contemporary black intellectuals to provide me with perspective, a sense of reality, and hope during the trial.  So I settled on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, on Barrack Obama’s Dreams From My Father and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World And Me.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was an opportunity to witness black excellence on the screen, characters navigating America by their wit, pain, industry and love. I did not know much about Ma Rainey the artist before watching the film although I had heard about her pioneering work as a blues artist. And so I was looking forward to rediscovering her, and to once again paying homage to Chadwick Boseman, thanking him again, bidding him farewell a second time. My stomach was a knot of emotions, churning with excitement. But there was also a tightening in my chest. To look for closure for George Floyd in the beauty, the finesse, the artistry of Chadwick Boseman was quite an emotional trip.

The film turned into something else for me. It turned into an institution of higher learning. A thesis presentation by Levee, Chadwick Boseman in the character of a virtuoso trumpet player, who shows us how the anger and helplessness, the rage of young black men and women, robbed of their industry and creativity by white men, consumes them, sending them into self-destruction and to the destruction of those around them. Through Levee’s reflections on his life and the conflicts with the other members of Ma Rainey’s band, the film brings to life in a very dramatic and tragic fashion the destruction wrought by generational trauma. It calls us to be acutely aware of the trauma brought on by the murders of black men and women, the murders of men such as George Floyd. The film warns us to protect ourselves, to guard from descending into a murderous rage like Levee, where we end up killing our fellow blacks while those who profit by the actions of white supremacists continue to enjoy the fruits of our industry. We need to creatively self-preserve even as we relive the trauma of George Floyd’s murder during the trial of his murderer.

Obama’s elusive hope

Reading Obama’s Dreams From My Father, which permeates with hope for an equal America, reduced the anxiety that came with this trial. Revisiting the path of Obama’s early life and his ascent to the White House was refreshing, a reminder of the convergence of goodwill from the entire fabric of this great nation that propelled the young Obama, raised without a father, to the highest office in the land, provided a break from the intensity of the trial. I was very hopeful of a conviction. But I was also alive to the reality of Michael Brown in 2014. And the strangulation of Eric Garner. And Alton Sterling. And the execution of Breonna Taylor in her bed. The black bodies riddled with bullets kept piling up. The police kept walking free, unaccountable for their actions. A litany of deaths until the graphic murder of George Floyd shocked the world back into the reality of the systematic elimination of black men in America.

Donald Trump’s presidency, and the blossoming of white supremacy, might cause the hope expressed in Obama’s book to seem distant but it was a welcome break from the intensity of the Chauvin trial. We needed hope to cling to. Hope that justice might yet prevail, a life jacket in the tumultuous waters that are America for its black people. All our hope was in the twelve jurors. Did they share our hope for a better America. Could we trust them to do the right thing? Who were the jurors? What were their politics? Did they believe that black lives really do matter?

Ta-Nehisi’s electric shocker

Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates after Obama felt like being sucker-punched into reality. I had to compose myself. How could these two black scholars have such distinct and diverse experiences of America? How could Ta-Nehisi Coates walk under such a heavy yoke of historical trauma and Obama with so much optimism? Where was the magic switch to turn the darkness into the bright dawn of promise? Where did Obama find this switch? And what realities and historical traumas accompanied Ta-Nehisi in his daily living as a black man in America, reminding him that this optimism only existed as a hopeful comfort in our imagination?

Obama’s book, I would later conclude, was one that was hopeful for a perfect union. Just as his body was a beautiful union of an elegant African man and an elegant white woman. Both blessed with a great education and a superior understanding of the world. But could America let Obama be the embodiment of this perfection? It would not. He could only be black. The prescription of race was waiting for him at birth. This prescription was meant to place him in a world that America treated differently. A world where he could not enjoy the privileges that his mother was born into, even though he was hers, the product of her womb.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the other hand embraces the reality that things are broken. The way Ta-Nehisi Coates relives the trauma of what happened to his friend and compatriot, Prince Carmen Jones, is as painful as when Darnella Frazier, the teenage girl who witnessed the murder of George Floyd, relived the trauma and her helplessness at the scene. All Darnella could be was a witness. With a cellphone. Incapable of providing any help because the force that was on George Floyd’s neck was the force of hate. Of white supremacy. A force that had taken so many black bodies. And was emboldened by the justice system to take many more.

Ta-Nehisi  Coates writes that Prince Jones was stalked by a policeman across multiple jurisdictions and state lines before he was shot. Prince Carmen was educated, God-fearing and successful. When the man the killer police had allegedly mistaken Prince Carmen for was arrested, he did not look anything like Prince Carmen. The only plausible explanation for Prince Carmen’s killing was that the black policeman who killed him was only aware that he carried the authority of the land that did not value the life of the innocent black man that he had tracked like wild game. He was aware that being a policeman was the licence that would get him his job back without having to account for his actions.

On the other side, within the black community, the policeman’s actions left a colossal loss. The loss of years of investment in Prince Carmen. The loss of a brilliant future. The loss of the only son. A lifetime of trauma for his parents’ generation. His friends’ generation. Trauma in the many generations of blacks to come. And a chilling reminder that black lives are dispensable. Ta-Nehisi Coates was reliving this historical trauma for his son. Reminding him of the space he occupies as a black man in America. This was the reality of black America. For many generations to come, fathers and mothers would relive for their children the trauma of watching George Floyd begging for his life under Derek Chauvin’s knee. As long as these killings continued, the trauma associated with them would never leave the black communities. I realised that I couldn’t escape it either. It was deeply embedded in art. In literature. In film. A reminder that hope was just but temporary relief, a mirage before the next execution of a black man.

Does trauma heal by itself?

Obama’s book promises hope as a pathway to healing, reminds us to give hope a chance and continue believing in the collective goodwill of humanity. But Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us that no one, regardless of their social standing, is safe from police brutality or the miscarriage of justice that follows in the wake of the brutality. And that the trauma of witnessing these repeated acts of brutality against black people stays with us forever, no matter how well educated or successful we are.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a warning about the destructive impact of the generational trauma suffered by black people in America from past encounters with white supremacy and the miscarriage of justice that soon follows. It is also a warning about what seeing George Floyd laying there, pleading for his life, could do to our collective psyche as black people. And a reminder of how the loss of black industry and art at the hands of white people in positions of power has a lasting negative impact on everyone.

Derek Chauvin is appealing his conviction and we are waiting to see if there will be another trial. But his conviction has brought some hope that the wheels of justice may have received a tiny drop of oil and will continue turning, moving inexorably towards justice and towards a more perfect America at last freed of the generational trauma of witnessing police brutality against black people.

Black Lives Matter.

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