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.
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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The Night Watchmen: Hustling in a Time of Coronavirus
In this legendary city of chestnut trees, gabled rooftops, fairy tale bridges and winding canals, the nights belong to the young and the restless.
“Big man, they killed our little brother.”
“Who is, Amanuel?”
“Your friend. They killed him.”
“Who, are you talking about?”
“You mean Little Man? The little light-skinned guy?” I asked now, linking the messenger to a fresh-faced kid I had met at the beginning of the first coronavirus lockdown some nine months ago in March 2020.
“Yes My brother! They killed our little brother. I knew I had to come by here and let you know. You know I always saw he liked to talk to you.”
All of a sudden I felt my heart drop, I didn’t want to accept that he was gone. I didn’t even know his name. All I knew was that he was a really nice guy.
So reading the news report literally broke my heart.
“Between late night Tuesday the 18th and the morning of Wednesday 19th November 2020, a 30-year-old man was severely wounded in a shooting incident on the Krugerplein in Amsterdam’s eastside. The victim was rushed to hospital. His outlook is said to be ‘critical’. ‘He had to be resuscitated before they took him,’ said a witness at the scene.”
I called him “Little Man”.
It had been weeks since I had seen him. Our first meeting was purely by chance. I was doing a job providing security in the heart of Amsterdam’s red light district when our paths crossed.
My task was to position myself in front of the establishment at around 1.40 a.m. and provide a physical deterrent for loiterers, vandals and robbers.
“It’s a breeze, all you got to do is stand here. Make sure no one messes up the place. You don’t have to fight with anyone. All you have to do is let them see you.”
Motivated by an immediate financial need, I agreed to give the job a shot.
To be honest, I just didn’t have the luxury of saying no; the offer was a godsend given we were entering a lockdown. Upon accepting the job, the most wonderful things began to unfold.
He was a “hustler”, a “kid from the streets”, but I didn’t know that at the time, or really what a hustler or kid from the streets really meant. All I knew was that he was a nice guy who confessed to me that his “gangster” persona was just an act.
I had spied him coming down the street. It was already well after 2 a.m. but the streets were still busy with the throngs from the pubs, bars, cafes that were now closing. I heard him shouting as he walked, parting the crowds.
It was during that random encounter that I realised the importance of not condemning the young.
“I’m famous in these streets, nobody messes with me around here, not even the cops. They all know me around here, Opa.”
I wanted to know what he was doing out in the streets knowing we were suffering a pandemic.
“You either play football or you hustle Opa. You know how it is!” he said with a big cheeky grin on his face. I could only manage a forced smile, understanding the struggle to survive.
Thirty-year-old Amanuel Nelson Cornelio was a cheerful young man who grew up in one of Amsterdam’s poorer neighbourhoods.
“Americans say soccer, right Opa? But we here in Dutch, say football. You know, I played in a league for ten years”, he said before adding earnestly, “I call you Opa from respect. You are my elder, I could be your son,” he said, and this unsolicited admission made me feel good.
“I used to be real good, I was fast,” he continued. “Look at my legs, they’re strong,” he said and I had to smile. This exchange between strangers under the lamps on the Plein in the wee hours of the night felt like it was the middle of the day.
“But I messed up Opa. See, I come from these streets, I was born here. These streets raised me”, he said, then he paused, causing me to wonder if his last statement was an excuse or an indictment on society. I suspect it was the latter.
When he first called me Opa I had to laugh not to feel insulted. I am only fifty-five years old. It seemed like only yesterday that I was out there running the streets carefree like he was, filled with fire and wonder for everything new.
I was 28 years old. Back then life was so different. For a while I thought the parties would never end. It was heaven on earth and I was as free as the breeze. Every day was an adventure. Everyone was an artist or a visionary and we all had big, big dreams for the future.
There was no European Union. The Dutch had their own currency. People were happy and connected in what was truly the most tolerant city in the world. It was truly unreal. A mother’s love reigned over the land, a stark contrast to the patriarchal system I had escaped from in America.
I remember when we danced all night in the streets. When peeing in the canals was a rite of passage. You hadn’t really lived until you sent one downstream. Today, it will cost you a 90-euro fine if you’re caught.
When the Dutch became a part of the union, switched to the single currency and opened their borders, life changed. A global economic crisis that left five of the 17 member-nations in need of financial aid and a mass influx of migrants to European shores in 2015 kept jobs and progress at a slow pace.
Coincidentally, that same year I hit two milestones in my personal life. I turned 50 and I was made redundant and seemingly unemployable, forcing me to face the fact that my time had come and gone.
Which is why I was standing out in the night air at 2 a.m., working as a night watchman surrounded by sex workers and the traffic that visits the infamous red light zone.
In this new, unique position as a casual observer I learned that no matter their position, everyone is only trying to be their full complete self. Straight across from the Royal Amsterdam Palace adjacent to the Bijenkhof building on the Damstraat is a quote placed on a street tile that marks the beginning of the red light district. The quote is from John Locke, and it states, “Inside every person, is a part of himself that is only his property and belongs only to him”.
“It’s an easy gig, all you got to do is stand there and watch the place. You don’t have to engage anyone. You are not there for that. if something happens call me. You have the police station right across the Plein but they usually ride by every 15 minutes to check.”
I had to admit I was a little nervous, performing a job that until then I thought was beneath my previous social status.
After leaving a military career spanning over a decade and relocating to Amsterdam in 1993 with a small severance package, I was able to carve out a pretty successful life for myself here in the Netherlands.
Things began to fall into place almost immediately upon my arrival. I had an advantage in the workforce; I was a native English speaker in a new Europe, a more united Europe that was beginning to raise its head. I was able to jump from one opportunity to the next until the economic crisis that swept across the globe in 2008 hit, changing everything as jobs became harder to find.
In the Netherlands, one is employed on a contractual basis that ensures that the rights of the worker are at all times respected. If an employer takes you on, they cannot break the agreement without respecting the law. Now, the downside to this system is that employers are less likely to take on new senior staff whose contracts are more expensive and harder to break than those of younger, inexperienced workers.
This dynamic has left many senior professionals marooned on the island of ageism, forcing them to find new avenues to earn a living.
“No sleeping, eating, drinking or gathering in front of the shop. Don’t engage with them. If they come under the awning just direct them to keep it moving. Don’t argue with them, if something happens, call me but you have the police station right in front of you. You can go just across the Plein.”
Those were the instructions.
“Ok, I’ll try it,” I said with only one thought in my mind: I needed the money.
My shift started at 2 a.m. Travelling across town was surreal. It was as if this legendary city of chestnut trees, gabled rooftops, fairy tale bridges and winding canals belonged to only me. Until I learned who really owns the nights. The nights belong to the young and the restless.
It was just supposed to be me and my thoughts out in the open air when suddenly, from around every corner, every bend, as if an alarm had gone off forcing them from out of their holding places, young people emerged from everywhere I looked, at a time when we had been instructed to maintain social distance. I thought no one else would be out. It was the first weekend of the public restrictions to curb the pandemic.
I was supposed to be the only one on the streets, but when I arrived the scene was a circus. Bars and cafes with outside table service were jam-packed, my work station was right in the middle.
Everyone seemed to have ignored the warning to stay indoors; the young and the old, Black, White, Asians and Browns. Day-trippers, transients and party guests, hustlers and dealers all moving among streetwalkers and foolish hearts looking for a good time. It was a completely different eco-system.
Maantje means Little Moon, but the pronunciation is similar to Mannetje which literally means “Little man”. I gave him that name when we first spoke but what I learned after his death was that he was a street hero. I just hadn’t known it. All I knew was he was a really nice guy.
“Where are you from, I mean, your people?”
“I was born here but my family comes from Curaçao. But they are all here now. I stay not too far from here with my grandma. These are my streets, I’m telling you. You know what? My Uncle used to run these same streets back in the day. He was one of Amsterdam’s original gangsters. He died right there,” the young, talkative kid said, extending his arm out to show the spot where his uncle took his last breath, across the empty square close to Nam King, the iconic Chinese restaurant famous for its oysters.
“That’s sad,” I said. As I stood there searching for what to say next, a darker, older man came cycling around the corner, an apparent acquaintance of Little Man.
Little Man waved him over.
“Tell him who my uncle was. Tell him he was killed right over there,” Little Man said to his friend who I had determined had Afro-Surinamese roots. The darker guy looked closer to my age than to Little Man’s. He greeted me unceremoniously.
“Yes, my brother, he was a serious gangster,” he said, his voice thick.
“Really?” I said, which gave me away.
“Where are you from Big Man?” the darker man asked, but Little Man answered before I could.
“He’s American. Man, I would like to go there, not to live there but to see it, Opa. I listen to a lot of music from America, rappers out of Baltimore. You know Baltimore?”
It just so happened that I did. “I used to live not too far from Baltimore, before moving here,” I said before adding, “Maybe one day, after this coronavirus is over and travelling begins again, you’ll get the chance to go?”
To which he replied, “Nah, Opa, they are never going to let me in. I have a record. I just got out [of prison]. I tell you I’m known in these streets, but I’ve been trying to turn that around. Now this lockdown.”
Listening to him and his story I knew how it felt being stuck, being trapped, your ambitions fading from you and you being unable to do anything about it. But I was pressed to know his age.
“Little Man, how old are you?” I asked. To look at him you would have expected to find him kicking football around the Plein, or sitting under old trees with a pack of other kids, talking loudly at one another, just having fun.
I couldn’t see how a kid like him could have committed a crime that would warrant a prison sentence. Not here in the Netherlands. The Dutch have one of the most civilised judicial systems in the world. When I first got here, you could kill someone and the most you would get behind bars was four years, but even that had changed over the years.
“I want you to know, because I saw you looking at me, what you saw, what I do out here is just an act.”
The entire time we spoke, he wanted me to know he respected me ticking the box in the code of a thinking man, and if “Opa” was another form of that code of brotherly love, I wanted to encourage that because in all aspects he could have been my son. I was his elder and could imagine that all he really wanted, like everyone else, was better.
“I’m thirty.” He said smiling while handling his phone which must have showed an incoming call.
“I got to go now Opa,” Little Man said, jumping on his bike and waving as he rode away into the night, to which I could only offer, “Be careful out there.”
I watched him riding away and I imagined he was off to be with friends. Little did I know.
“To say that he will be missed is an understatement,” began the follow-up headlines. “The 30-year-old victim of the shooting on the Krugerplein in Amsterdam’s eastside has been identified as local street hero ‘Maantje’.”
The article went on to describe how much loved he was. “Maantje was known for his enthusiasm and his spirit. He was also loved on the sporting field having played ten years for an indoor club.” The article went on to say that Maantje had lived a street life which was first immortalised in 2011 when photographer Paul Blanca put him in front of the camera for a series of photos of Amsterdam’s street gangs. Blanca remembers Amanuel quite vividly and recalls one particular photo of a younger 20-year-old Maantje staring deeply into the lens of the camera with the most menacing look on his face. The series of photos was titled, “Mi Mattie,” a phrase borrowed from the Surinamese language which means “My Friends”.
To say he will be missed is a serious understatement. It’s a bloody shame. When I asked what actually happened, I was told that it was due to the many months of lockdown. The two assailants arrested for his killing were young people aged 21 and 24.
Coming of Age Under Moi’s Shadow
I was born on the wrong side, the opposition side. The side that attempted a coup d’état to overthrow President Moi.
We are poor because we are not in government. These words, said by my grandfather, my father, my uncles, and later by my compatriots at various stages of life, have stuck with me. They were simple enough words, but their weight was hidden in the everyday realities of the men and women whose communities were perceived as the opposition, viewed as enemies of the government. That government was one man. President Moi. For 24 years he dominated the national psyche, changing people’s lives the way a hyperactive child switches between television channels.
If you caught Moi’s attention by doing something as mundane as composing a song in his name during the national drama festival, you could become rich overnight. Not being in government was tough. This is because the Kenyan government has been set up to strengthen ethnic dominance, rather than to build national cohesion. I grew up at a time when my community was strongly represented in the opposition. This made us fair game for the government of the day.
Like many Kenyans, I was anxious about joblessness. I was young when my uncle Ben graduated from university in the nineties. His stories of desperation and despair for a job, and his death four years after graduation, were a constant source of anxiety as I studied at Kenyatta University. Like many graduates, Uncle Ben did not have connections in Moi’s government. Our people were not in power. Even the local district officer in my hometown was from the president’s tribe. And the local administration policemen too. The entire police force spoke the dialect of a single tribe. The president’s tribe. The police force was supposed to mirror the face of the nation. That was on paper. In reality, it was the face of ethnic dominance, an expression of the desire of the ruling elite to control power.
The public kept up hope nonetheless, and every year, young men and women across the country would be taken through a grueling marathon of physical exercises in the hot sun, running until they were broken. The few who would make it back to the stadium, sweating, almost fainting, were not guaranteed success. They could still be disqualified because of a missing tooth.
In a country where dental care is difficult to access, replacing a tooth is not something that is within the reach of the poor. Uncle Ben ticked all the boxes. He was an athlete. Six feet and three inches tall. Perfect teeth — except for the nicotine stains from smoking to relieve stress. But he didn’t make the cut. Year after year. My father said it was because we didn’t know anybody important in government. That seemed to be the only pathway to employment in the late 80s and 90s when the economy was shrinking under Moi’s stewardship.
Moi’s twenty-four years at the helm ended in 2002. 2001 had been a pivotal year in Kenyan politics and Moi’s reign was coming to an end as I was coming to the end of my second year at Kenyatta University. The fear that Moi would be president for life was wafting away like a bad smell. We were ecstatic. We were also aware that the late Prof. George Eshiwani, our vice chancellor then, did not share in this excitement. His exit was perfectly aligned with Moi’s. State agents were no longer at Prof. Eshiwani’s disposal and student leaders who had challenged him in the past started showing up on campus. Word was also going around that lecturers who had been thrown off campus like homeless people, were agitating to return. One of them, Prof. Kilemi Mwiria, would later head the education docket in the new government. If Prof. Eshiwani did not leave willingly, we would force him out. We forced him out.
President Kibaki took the reigns of power in 2002. Unlike Moi, he was a closed man. We waited with bated breath to see how he maneuvered. Up to then — and still to this day — only two tribes had ruled over the other forty-plus tribes. And like in many African countries, the elites from these two tribes had been awarded plum positions and government contracts. There was entrenched ethnic dominance. I was born on the wrong side, the opposition side. The side that attempted a coup d’état to overthrow President Moi.
Adhiambo, one of the soldiers involved in the attempted coup, lived less than five miles from my maternal grandfather’s home. He was released after many years in jail. People gossiped that he came back a shadow of his former self, whispered about his inability to have children. And that sometimes he talked to himself. He settled in his father’s shop. I walked by that shop a few times with one of my uncles just to get a glimpse of the man. To see just how much his body had been broken at Kamiti Maximum Prison.
Moi’s daily presence in our house — for a minimum of fifteen minutes during the seven o’clock news and for another fifteen minutes during the nine o’clock news — was a source of tension. When home, my father would demand that we switch off the television. My mother on the other hand would plead with him to allow us to watch Moi. We young ones enjoyed watching the beautiful schoolgirls and their teachers dancing for Moi. They seemed to be in a bubble of security and infectious happiness. We marveled at how privileged these children were that Moi would visit their schools to fundraise for development projects. How lucky they were to be on TV, to take pictures with Moi.
My father hated the obsession with the president, abhorred the spectacle of grown men and women pontificating about Moi being their father and mother. He hated it even more when the local chief came to our family’s tailoring shop, a small business my father had set up to supplement the family’s income. The chief was enforcing an order from the district commissioner. Word was that Moi would drive through our rural town on his way to nearby Rongo, the hometown of one of his new friends from my community. He had risen quickly through the ranks to become a powerful minister of internal security. It was rumored that he was the custodian of a secret.
Moi was on his way to open the massive Seventh Day Adventist Church that his new friend had constructed in Rongo. A gift to his people. And a sign of gratitude to God for his newfound power. Potholes on the Kisumu-Kisii-Migori road were hastily filled with red volcanic soil and a thin layer of tar. There were also security meetings where the local chiefs were instructed to ensure that the local KANU offices had a fresh bright coat of red paint with the party symbol, a red cockerel, clearly visible. The show of loyalty had to be explicit in these opposition zones.
In addition, local businesses, like my father’s tailoring shop, needed to clearly display Moi’s image on their walls. When the chief and his men came, my father was not there. They confiscated the sewing machines and demanded that my father collect them with proof that he had Moi’s framed photograph on the wall of his shop. The local KANU offices were selling framed portraits of Moi at a profit. Who didn’t love the president? Who didn’t want Moi following them with his warm reassuring eyes as they went about their business?
Uncle Ben took a newspaper, cut out Moi’s image, stuck it on a cardboard and framed it. I expected the chief to be furious but he relented. His two sons were in the school where both my parents were teachers and he always needed my father’s help with school fees or a contract to supply maize and beans. Also, why start a fight with my father when there was no chance Moi would see this image of himself plastered onto cardboard? After all, all businesses would be closed when Moi passed through so that people could stand by the roadside and wave to him.
I remember Moi’s convoy driving through my hometown at high speed. I remember the disappointment on people’s faces as the convoy disappeared into the distance. I remember people sighing and trying to console themselves: “I saw his car”. “But which car was he in?” “The one with the flag”. “But there was more than one car with a flag”. “Don’t worry, he will stop on his way back,” our school principal consoled us. He said that Moi had been busy, that he needed to keep time for his next appointment. He reminded us of the need to keep time like Moi. We had waited for Moi for over five hours. The school choir had run out of songs of praise for Moi.
Later that evening, my father bemoaned the time wasted composing and practicing songs for Moi. The time wasted standing in the sun, the school hours lost.
In the early 90s, with the rise of opposition politics, a circular was sent to schools instructing teachers to shave their beards. The government wanted presentable teachers. Also, people with beards had been seen to be sympathetic to the opposition as well as harboring Marxists ideas in parliament. “The six bearded sisters”, a group of opposition members who had mustered the courage to criticise Moi, were under government surveillance. My father was made aware of this circular by the head teacher of the school where he taught. He was instructed to shave. The government was not only controlling freedom of expression. It was controlling freedom of personal appearance. My father protested. Word started spreading around that teachers were getting shaven forcefully by the local administration. The Nyanza provincial commissioner was reported to have supervised one of these forced beard shavings. I didn’t see my father much during those days. He would play cat and mouse with the school administration, teaching his classes before going into hiding in our rural home.
Moi was a good man. He did not drink alcohol. Not like Mobutu Sese Seko. The only beverage that would corrupt his body was coca cola. Which he also drank in moderation. Moi was also in church every Sunday, where the pastor would pray for his good health so that he could continue guiding the country away from the unpredictable hands of the opposition, lest Kenya descend into chaos like our neighbour Uganda. Or Sudan. Or Congo. Or Rwanda. Or Somalia. Or Sudan. And occasionally we would also get free milk at school. We would carry it home, or drink it under a tree during break. With our stomachs full of milk, we knew we were lucky because Moi loved children. Otherwise, why did he work so hard to provide us with milk?
In 1992, when I was ten years old, uncle Ben came home abruptly. Unannounced. Dr Robert Ouko had been killed. He had been very loyal to Moi. Uncle Ben and my father were glued to the television screen as riots engulfed the streets of Nairobi and Kisumu. Many people died in Kisumu, Dr Ouko’s hometown. My father and Uncle Ben seemed defeated. We are poor because we are not in government. And when one of us gets into government, they kill him. It was hard to reconcile the images of Moi the all-loving father of the nation, Moi the God-fearing, humble servant with the Moi accused of heinous human rights abuses. And to reconcile this with the message from my pastor every Saturday that all leaders come from God and that, therefore, God had given us President Moi for twenty-four years.
Living on the Edge: From the Favelas of Rio to Life in Mathare
Both Mathare and Alemão are full of human endeavour and misfortune in equal measure, and in both places young men, specifically, are at high risk of coming to a violent end.
Lethal violence is fact in Mathare. On the day I first visit the community, tweets hashtagged #CopRashidCorruptDeals appear on my Twitter feed. I already knew of Rashid, having watched the BBC documentary about him and his team. I follow the hashtag and find this tweet from a local journalist: “Rashid has wiped all thugs around Eastleigh, Mathare and Huruma. To us residents he is a nice guy.” The journalist in question has twenty-three thousand followers.
I’ve only been in Mathare a matter of minutes when an invisible hand runs gently over the dome of my head. It’s a familiar, yet strange, feeling. I quickly realise that this is because it is neither my own hand, nor that of Inés, my wife. The hand actually belongs to a man standing behind me. Feeling vulnerable, I move away quickly, saying “COVID” in justification for my abruptness. “19”, he responds, completing my words. It’s a funny moment and I relax.
My new acquaintance is one of the many addicts who share a rubbish dump with a large number of highly energetic and boisterous children. The children have transformed a corner of the tip into a gymnasium. The gym includes a climbing frame/assault course (improvised from an abandoned wooden structure) and a springboard — a large black tyre — from which the tiny gymnasts gracefully launch themselves. The kids are well organised. They stand in a nice queue. There are fast ones, skilful ones and learners. After a quick sprint they hit the tyre with both feet. It projects them and they spin defiantly, airborne above the garbage for a split second, before landing on the piece of carpet that serves as a crash mat. Fans gathered to watch the spectacle make approving sounds for the best leaps and twists. The contrast between the shiny-eyed bounce of the children and the glazed stagger of the addicts is stark and saddening.
I’m in Mathare to visit members of the Mathare Empire collective. The enterprising young members of this group have recently occupied and redecorated an abandoned building at one end of the trash pile. Their porch provides front-row seats from which to watch the young athletes practice their somersaults. It is fittingly decorated with a painting of a child with huge boxing gloves and a stop-corona mask. This is one of several large and handsome murals depicting faces that gaze patiently over the dump.
Despite the distracting vivacity of the young gymnasts, the garbage heap is treacherous. It almost swallowed up a little girl recently. The piles and layers of trash hide pools of rainwater, transforming the junk into something akin to a deadly swamp. The girl, running to greet her father, sunk into one such concealed crevice and began to go under. Quick-witted bystanders saved the day, plucking her out before she disappeared.
The purpose of my visit is to present and discuss projects in Rio de Janeiro, where I lived until recently. In Rio I first worked for Amnesty International, documenting and campaigning against human rights violations in some of the city’s 1000+ world-famous and, sadly, ultra-violent favelas. I later became involved in grassroots cultural and youth initiatives aiming to empower and raise the self-esteem of Rio’s young people and communities. This work is documented in a book titled Culture is Our Weapon and included a project by JR — a TED prize-winning French artist — called Women are Heroes. Most recently, in 2019, I helped to organise the construction of a skatepark in Maré, a neighbourhood made up of sixteen favelas originally constructed on swampland.
We have lots to talk about. While sharing ideas and stories with the group, I discover they have recently taken part in a video call with Raull Santiago, a prominent human rights defender from the Alemão (German) complex, one of Rio’s most violence-hit communities. The issues faced by the residents of Mathare and Alemão are similar yet different. Both are very big, but Mathare is much more densely populated and much poorer. While both places suffer violence, Alemão is a war zone. Both are built in a valley and are full of human endeavour and misfortune in equal measure. In both places young men, specifically, are at high risk of coming to a violent end.
We go for a walkabout. My guides show me how and where they have staked out green spaces, planted trees and painted structures with bright murals, (part of their work for the Mathare Green Movement). These actions bring levity and freshness into the often airless and monochromatic environment. I’m struck by their colourful imaginings of other universes on the walls of public toilets. Just one of these strong-smelling units can cater for the needs of five thousand Mathare residents. I also learn that the toilets are centres of socialisation — children’s friendship networks in Mathare are built around who shares the facility nearest your house. Kids playing in front of several of the vibrantly decorated loos that we visit demonstrate this. The pictures on the walls imagine other possibilities — outer space or lush tropical forests — while others remind users of their current terrestrial responsibilities: don’t forget your mask!
I suffer from sensory overload walking around Mathare. As in Rio, there are myriad sights, sounds and smells to take in all at once. Because of COVID-19, school is out when I visit. Children are everywhere. The community is spread across a gentle valley, not the steep escarpments of many favelas in Rio. Corrugated iron shacks — so close together that visually they form a vast iron sheet of rusted red, grey and brown — cover the slopes. The poverty is grinding. Narrow paths zigzag between lean-tos and rank smelling drains. Most of the shacks are low and many look as if they might fall down should you push them.
In contrast, residents are mostly well dressed and clean. Commerce, licit and illicit, crowds the pathways and thoroughfares. Cheap, ripe fruit and vegetables abound. I taste sweet pineapple and see watermelon, avocados, tomatoes, garlic, peppers and onions. Vendors hawk pastries, eggs and sausages. Cooks stir delicious smelling dishes over wood fires. In Rio, obesity in low-income communities is a serious issue. Here I’m impressed — most people in Mathare look healthy and strong.
We pass a wealth of legal, illegal, social, spiritual and commercial activities — khat stalls, illicit hooch making stills, drug dealing areas, NGOs, schools, churches, mosques and markets. Public soap dispensers and water for handwashing remind us that COVID-19 is ever-present, even though social distancing is impossible. Besides the sale of food there is plentiful commerce—mobile phone businesses, hardware shops, beauty salons, charcoal vendors, boda boda riders and stalls selling new and second-hand clothes. Authentic second-hand garments are considered infinitely more stylish than bogus new ones, I am informed. Fake clothes in Mathare = a serious fashion crime! It’s the same in Rio, where favela residents take pride in their appearance. However, Brazil does not have such an abundance of second-hand imports. And so in Rio, the emphasis is more often on an item’s newness, not necessarily its authenticity.
Yet despite the trading, hustle and bustle and a resilient-looking population, the overwhelming sensation I have in Mathare is that of risky living. I can only try and imagine the heat inside the shanties in high summer or what happens during the rains, when sewers flood and the metal shanties become dangerous because of electric shocks from exposed wiring. But although Mathare is economically poorer and less developed than similar communities in Rio, I do not feel suffocated by the inescapable threat of violence. In Rio’s battle-scarred favelas, gun-toting teenagers patrol the alleyways. Bullet holes in the masonry all around inform you that the weapons are not just for show. Violence is real and present and you are constantly reminded of this.
When I ask my guides about the tweet concerning Rashid they tell a very different story from that of the journalist who described him as “hero”. For young men in Mathare, Rashid is the grim reaper in human form and something of a shape shifter, known for his ability to camouflage himself and merge with the surroundings. He carries pictures of targets on his phone. Businesses pay him to go after miscreants. However, innocents, friends, associates or just the unlucky often end up dead.
The guys I am with are mostly in their early twenties. Statistically, they are the group most at risk from police violence. The presence of killer cops does not make them safer or protect them from crime. Local thieves, they tell me, refer to after dark as “office hours” and can even rob someone they know because those are “the rules and young thieves will take everything you have—even your girlfriend. They take drugs that make them fearless and immune to pain.” These include pills called “cosmos”, sold by local dealers. Cosmos pills come in different colours according to strength and stain the user’s lips. The tablets are apparently prescription medicine for mental illness, stolen from the public health system.
Law-abiding young men in Mathare live between a rock and a very hard place. When they talk about problems, conversation revolves around work and danger. While dignified employment is scarce, even for the well-educated, the threat of violence is permanent. Rashid — seen as something of an executioner-in-chief — exercises the power of life and death through his actions and their multiplication in the public imagination.
The youth in the favelas of Rio favela suffer from precisely the same issue. Police killings (extrajudicial executions by any other name) in the city are among the highest — if not the highest — in the world. The slaughter takes place in the context of a so-called drug war whereby society overlooks illegal police action in return for perceived security. Young men in favelas are also at risk from gangs inside their communities who also kill without pity. Fierce and chaotic gun battles between police and lawbreakers very often leave behind victims of stray bullets. By the end of 2019, Rio’s police force had shot and killed 1,810 alleged suspects in supposed confrontations, the highest annual number on record and almost twice the 1,003 victims of police violence for the entire US that year. In 2020 lethal police violence and operations in favelas in Rio continue at full steam; they did not abate even under COVID-19 lockdown.
As in Nairobi, where some locals describe Rashid as a hero, the Brazilian media and public have long tolerated and encouraged extrajudicial executions as purported crime fighting. Typical practice is to execute a victim in a fake shoot-out. In just a few hours in February 2019, during a single operation in a favela, Rio police shot and killed 13 suspects. These included nine young men in a house, who, according to witnesses, were trying to give themselves up. However, sometimes they don’t even try to pretend — as was the case in a Rio suburb in 2005, when off-duty police in cars shot and killed 29 civilians in a single evening.
Widespread public consent for criminal state violence in Brazil is encapsulated in the popular saying “a good thug is a dead thug”, first adopted by police death squads operating in the 1960s at the beginning of the country’s 20-year military dictatorship. In 2018, future president Bolsonaro took the dictum to extremes by pledging to unleash waves of violence across the country when elected, saying, “if a policeman kills 10, 15 or 20 with 30 bullets each he must be decorated, not charged”. Other politicians followed suit, campaigning on explicit platforms of lethal violence. Despite the extremely high numbers of police killings, individual cases of which are rarely scrutinised, Bolsonaro committed to the introduction of new legal mechanisms to further protect killer police from investigation.
In Brazil, killer cops, drug traffickers and death squads have long terrorised low-income communities across the nation. In rural areas, local police and hired gunmen provide such a service. In cities and their peripheries, the absence of the state and lack of regulation in poor neighbourhoods and favelas offer a wealth of illicit opportunity. Whoever provides security in these areas can step in to control the local economy, provision of services and crucially, access to the electorate. Paramilitary groups, known in Rio de Janeiro as militia, have lately appropriated this model — a fusion of traditional politics, organised crime and territorial control. Usually linked to police, prison and fire services, today the militia operate in more than half of the city’s neighbourhoods.
Cameroonian political scientist Achille Mbembe has identified this process — the political management of vulnerable populations through their exposure to death — as “necropolitics”. Necropolitics clearly regulates life in Mathare as much as it governs Rio’s favelas. Police like Rashid are not there to fight crime. They defend a status quo.
When I am about to leave Mathare after my first visit, I have an indication of what the maintenance of this status quo entails. Two very burly policemen brandishing enormous sticks barge their way along the street and disappear behind some huts. People double their speed to get far away from them. Doors close and the street empties. Twilight falls. A palpable tension replaces the relaxed late Saturday afternoon coming and going. Onlookers inform me that the police are there to extort payment from vendors who sell glue and “jet fuel” — ultra-cheap ethanol for inhaling — to the crushed adults who converge on the garbage dump.
Thankfully, the next time I visit, there is a much more pleasant atmosphere in this corner of Mathare. The area outside the bungalow, as the Mathare Empire members call their HQ, is swept clean. Local and guest artists perform on a brightly coloured stage, made from pallets painted purple, red, yellow and green, to a hyped crowd who occupy the kids’ gymnasium at the edge of the dump. They talk, sing and rap about police violence and issues of the day, like COVID-19. But the event is not a political lecture and nor is it gloomy. The group had spontaneously decided that what was originally going to be a concert would instead be the first ever “Mathare Futurism Day” – a gathering of local painters, artists and musicians to celebrate community, address current issues and reimagine Mathare. “Moments like this”, Wyban Mwangi says, “remind people about the beauty of self-dignity and the constant need to struggle for a better, healthier and safer place to live”. In communities governed by necropolitics, such resistance provides vital hope, freedom and breathing space.
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