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NAIROBBERY: City of Injustice, City of Grief

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NAIROBBERY: City of Injustice, City of Grief
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Prior to being let go from the most promising job I’d ever gotten, I’d entertained the idea that maybe I was somehow safe. But when the news was broken to me over a static-laced WhatsApp call from the mdosi, I barely reacted.

‘Do you have anything to say?’ he asked.

‘Is this decision final?’ I responded.

‘Yes, it is.’

‘Then I have nothing more to say.’

An awkward silence reigned the conference room and eventually I left them to whatever else they needed to settle. I walked to my desk, broke the news to my family and started looking for a new job. It’s now been four months. I am yet to work in an office again.

I was almost 25 when I was technically fired. Each day that passed without a response to my job applications felt like a tightening noose.

Others who have been through the same – and it appears as though anyone with ambition has gone through this – told me, ‘Relax. These things happen. Enjoy this moment.’

That’s the problem. What’s to be enjoyed when there’s no money to leave the house? Eventually the stress of job seeking began to suffocate me, an unseen persisting pressure pushing my mind further and further to that inevitable pop. It once got so bad that a friend figured that the best way to comfort me was to show me how many other people had survived my situation.

‘Even Oprah was fired,’ she exclaimed. But that’s about the only thing some of us will ever have in common with Oprah.

Job seeking in Kenya right now seems to be an extreme sport. One where only the resilient or downright lucky get to win. For some, getting a job is a straightforward affair. Graduate, intern, employee, retire. For others it gets a bit more creative. One friend of mine said you only need three key things, ‘Looks, manners and connections.’

I thought it a bit shallow. She disagreed.

‘Looking good is one step in the right direction. When you’re presentable, the world is your canvas. That’s why the world’s best conmen are also the best dressed. The moment you look good, it gets easier to insert yourself in groups. Once you do that, you can get connections anywhere.’

The logic in it couldn’t be denied. Looking good is its own reward. Think about it. Everything we wear is indicative of adhering to an acceptable aesthetic. You have to look a certain way to be taken seriously. You can’t show up to a pitch meeting with unruly hair and mismatched sneakers. And you can’t just say that being sloppy is your preference. There is a standard to meet.

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You have to graduate from Charm School to be able to create a job opportunity out of a chance encounter. That’s half a foot in the door. Why our teachers couldn’t spare a moment out of the pointless curriculums to share this about adulting, we may never know.

But it can’t just be about looking good. It has to be about qualifications too. Perhaps the reason why I can’t get a job I would be perfect for is because I may not be as experienced as the recruiters want. Or because I don’t possess the requisite degree. However, Twitter is inundated with posts of highly qualified individuals looking for work, any work. Plenty of individuals with prestigious degrees in fields like Microbiology and Engineering are looking for any kind of job. A few have taken to the streets with banners showing their qualifications.

Unemployment rates in Kenya are at a crisis point. Recent reports from the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics show that seven million Kenyans are unemployed. Out of these, 1.4 million have been desperately looking for work. The rest have given up on job hunting, with some opting to go back for further studies.

The data suggests that rate of unemployment is at 7.4%. Other studies show the rate at 11.4%. I couldn’t care less about the numbers. So what if seven million other people are as jobless as I am? It doesn’t change my personal situation.

Sometimes these jobs are only available at entry level. And even then, they end up being frustratingly temporary. A friend who eventually opted to seek employment abroad had an interesting early experience before he left.

After being employed as an I.T. intern in a reputable firm, a workmate suggested that he seek a permanent position.

‘Just apply,’ he was told, ‘What could go wrong?’

After making the application, the senior manager called him aside and told him he needed to grease the wheels.

You need to buy the wazee a mbuzi.’

After months of arduous labour configuring laptops and providing tech support, this was the thanks he got. When he showed hesitation in providing the mbuzi, the manager refused to approve his pay for two and a half months. This forced my friend’s immediate supervisor to pay him out of pocket. Eventually he had to leave the job and figure out what else to do. He was lucky enough to get a better opportunity a few weeks later.

But his happy ending isn’t the norm for entry-level workers. In 2016, I left a job as a data entry clerk because the project got axed. Other companies hire interns and have a policy against retaining them. Some start-ups, though courageous enough to hire newbies in the work environment, end up sinking anyway because of finances.

While this is a ‘norm’, it spells a world of doom for young people in their early twenties. Most of us end up getting mjengo type jobs where they’re veritable casual labourers. The mjengo system is a daily struggle to earn an unsteady pay check. Contracts that are renewed monthly. No job security. Linear use of skills. Doubtful job roles. No benefits. No legal protections. And you have to struggle through them because you’re ‘paying your dues’. Desperately hoping that perhaps the universe sees it as a proof of workmanship. That it will in turn reward you.

Then this is where the Boomers and Gen Xers come in. Parents are mad at the ‘lack of initiative’. If you’re hard at work shouldn’t there be fruits to show of your labour?

My father had one such conversation with me when I was unemployed after my first internship.

He raised one hand above his head, ‘These are your expenses.’

Another hand hovered near the ground, ‘This is your income.’

He brought his palms to meet around his face, ‘This is where you should be. Why can’t you get a job?’

Because nobody would hire someone fresh out of college with only three months’ experience to their CV.

The murmur of frustrated parents echoes around homes in the city that still support their recent graduates.

‘Why don’t you start a business?’

‘Food always makes money.’

‘Even with the economy sinking, Kenyans won’t stop wearing clothes, go into the mtumba business.’

But to be honest, entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone. It’s suited only to a gifted few. And even so, entrepreneurs struggle to make it through in a crony capitalist state like Kenya.

Another friend who owns a wildly successful travel solutions company told me, ‘Not everyone is cut to do it.’

Sure. All you need is guts, guile and a never-ending thirst for glory, right? Wrong.

My friend went on to add, ‘Cash flow is a serious problem, at least for me. Business only booms when the economy is good.’

‘So how did you survive?’ I asked.

‘You have to stretch the shilling, make sure you have years of savings for utilities and expenses because profit will be erratic. Work from home, use business offices if you have to reduce rent expenses. Keep a routine. Prepare for bad times. The 2017 election period caught us off guard. Nairobi is no longer just about Kenya. Understand that you will be facing international competition.’

This sounds like a lot to think about. It’s also what affects one entrepreneur among millions of others. If you are unemployed with barely any savings to your name, do you jump into that pool?

Technically, starting a business in Nairobi is supposed to be easy. Running it and keeping it afloat isn’t. And with the rising costs of living in the country, starting a business seems like a bad idea.

Essentially, it brings you back to the job-seeking arena. Get a job, save some cash and start a business, yeah? However, getting that job still isn’t easy. Most job-seeking sites have sales jobs aplenty. Sales seem to be the most common job available in the country.

‘Sales jobs are numerous because no matter what is happening, you’ll always want someone out there touting your product,” a friend of mine who heads business development for a media company tells me. It’s basically free marketing. That way your company is always known and you always have a potential client to add to your portfolio.’

Sales job are also notoriously poorly paid. Some companies even pay only on commission with no retainers or benefits. You can operate at no cost to the company.

It’s not always what it seems though. A sales operator for a hardware company told me it was difficult for him to get there. After leaving a job at an insurance company to go back to school, things didn’t improve just because he had upgraded his papers.

Two years with casual jobs, he eventually gets an email inviting him to an interview. The fact that it was being held in the conference room of a church raised a few flags, none of them red. Upon showing up at the gate, a young well-dressed man asked for his name, phone number and a two-hundred-shilling registration fee for the meeting.

‘Meeting? I thought this was for interviews?’

‘No, this is a network marketing meeting.’

He looked around and saw the poster then. It was a gathering for a multilevel marketing training course organised by a well-known cosmetics company. Why did they have their meeting in a church? God knows. Perhaps church halls are cheaper? Maybe for credibility? Churches do have a reputation for getting people to make it rain so…

Months passed before he got a sales job that barely provides him with an income. But at least he gets that coveted job experience recruiters live for.

Nairobi ensnares dreamers, those who have the temerity to be ambitious, in its gaping maw, sucking them dry and then spitting them out. This phenomenon doesn’t spare any generation.

A lady who had left for red, white and blue pastures in the early 2000s returned to Kenya after two years of experiences worthy of a depressing Chimamanda immigrant epic. Upon her return, she expected to be reinstated at her civil service job.

‘It’s standard practice. As long as you asked for leave, you just go to HQ and they reinstate you,’ she told me.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go as planned.

‘When I left, I asked for the time off over my supervisor’s head. He threatened me, told me to return after a month or else. I didn’t return. And when I was back two years later I found out he’d written a bad recommendation to the seniors at headquarters.’

‘Did you give up?’ I asked her.

‘No, I talked to a former workmate. He organised a meeting with one of the men in charge and they told me to pay KSh20,000 if I want to be reinstated. I paid and they told me to wait for two weeks then I can get my old job back. I didn’t. They were reshuffled into other jobs and I never even got back the money I paid.’

‘What about your supervisor? Couldn’t you talk to him and get him to rescind his bad recommendation?’

‘No, he died shortly after I came back. I was on my own. Every time I paid off the officials, they would get reshuffled. Eventually I ran out of money and none of them were willing to help unless I paid them.’

‘What about family? Couldn’t any of them help?’

‘Nobody wants to help a 40-year-old woman who could afford to travel abroad. And everyone else said they didn’t have any money or connections.’

Years later, she finally got a job. But she moved as far away as possible from Nairobi and its burdensome toxicity.

Is there any hope for little old me? We of the woefully unprepared for jobless insecurity, do we stand a chance? After experiencing an unprecedented bout of brokeness I reached out to people who were going through the same. Spells of having no money, crises of faith and crippling self-doubt. I asked a friend who has been through some of the most Dickensian worst of times.

‘It gets better,’ my friend promised.

‘After clearing college, our school was changed which made my diplomas unusable. That was barely my first hurdle. After that I got a sales job but turned it down because I just can’t do sales. I have tremendous respect for the people who do. I ended up drifting.’

‘Drifting?’ I asked.

‘Yeah, I was sneaking into classes at a friend’s school. I worked as a cleaner in a computer stall, I worked in a movie shop, I learnt to talk to people, how to broker deals and whatnot. I lost friends. I moved to Zimmerman and got a great job doing IT security then I got fired after a month. Let me tell you, don’t believe your own hype. Don’t oversell yourself on your CV.’

‘I don’t even know how to do that in my CV,’ I quipped.

He laughed uneasily.

‘I got an internship along Mombasa road where I had to walk to town every day because they weren’t paying us. After, I went to a job in Karen where after two months, the money stopped coming in. The company was going under but the boss didn’t tell us until after five months. I didn’t leave until after seven months. The boss would give us handouts. But then I ended up not paying rent. Eventually my house was locked and my stuff auctioned except my laptop and the clothes on my back. I contemplated suicide so many times, I looked for ways I could leave all this from being shamed by my relatives, friends with the ‘alirudi ocha‘ vibe.’

‘But after this I got my ‘big break’ because of a blog I had been writing since 2013. A CEO from abroad emailed me about it. At first, I thought it was a con but I just responded and got an amazing opportunity consulting with them. It’s what I’m doing now. I’ve worked with celebrities, big tech and governments.’

I was so inspired by his story. Empowered too. Binging on prosperity porn is one of the survival mechanisms of dreamers who toil in dead-end jobs or are ‘in-between jobs’. Stories like my friend’s show that while Nairobi makes you struggle, it can breed greatness, right?

We soak in all the stories about people who were felled by circumstance or their own folly managed to claw their way back, and maybe even thrive.

You have to be lucky. You have to be timely. My peers call it ‘your moment will come’. My more religious peers say, ‘Wait for God’s time’. Because there is a heavenly itinerary for when watu ordinary like Mwende and Kimemia will finally get someone to notice their work. The sad truth is that for most, dreams come true through the ‘blessing’ of others. It is that successful people give you a chance to shine. It makes me realize that it’s not necessarily your fault if you miss out when you’ve been working so hard for ‘the moment’.

My former employer even reached out to me after I was let go, ‘It had nothing to do with you or your talent,’ she insisted.

Maybe there are forces at work that can swing either way. Beyond skills, qualifications, work ethic and experience, it seems like you have to have guardian angels, good luck charms and even the occasional visit to the mganga to get that dream job or set up that dream business. It seems like a whole lot of moving parts, and I can’t blame anyone who can’t keep up.

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Gloria Mari is a writer and a freelance journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Reflections

Our Grandmother’s Miniskirt: A People’s History Through Photographs and Stories

8 min read. It was the women of that time that intrigued me most and I was watching their lives with the impatient envy of a child. I wanted to grow up and wear those cat-eye glasses and cute kitten heels, burn my hair straight, drink Babycham and laugh like they did, with a hand full of bangles held out at just the right angle.

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Over the past few weeks, I’ve been inviting people to share photos of their mothers, grandmothers and aunties looking stylish in the fashion of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The idea, which we are calling “Our Grandmother’s Miniskirt”, is simple enough, crowdsource photographs from Kenyan homes of women dressed in the style of that era; the photographs will be accompanied by reflections, essays, short stories or poems. The aim is to capture a history of ordinary people and to share this history through physical exhibitions, an online archived exhibition, and a coffee table book. I see the project as a celebration of Kenyan women and gives a snap shot of the emergence of the modern Kenyan woman.

By the time we staged the first mini-exhibition with a selection of 27 photographs submitted by people from around the country, I had come to understand that projects are not easy in that they all require planning and careful execution, even if they excite people. Getting people to send their scanned photographs from precious family albums has been challenging. The project goes into the intimate spaces of families and asks them to override their tendency towards privacy and share their lives with strangers. Of course this was always going to be a trial. It was not surprising that although the daughters or granddaughters were enthusiastic to participate in the project, their mothers and grandmothers — the subjects of the photos — sometimes refused to allow them to share these images. But I’m glad the images are trickling in.

Implementing the project over the last few months has helped me see its possibilities and expanded its scope in so many ways. Most important I am now looking for photographs before the 1960s and of Kenyan women wearing a variety of dress and hairstyles. The secret to the power of the project has furthermore revealed itself in the act of crowdsourcing. This approach has allowed people to connect and own the project, much more than if the photos were purchased from a media source.

My Childhood: 1960s and 1970s

The photographs have unleashed a collage of memories for me. I was a child in the 1960s and the 1970s watching Nairobi slowly emerge from its colonial yoke and my parents seemed to be at the centre of it all. They were amongst that group of Africans who were literally stepping into the shoes left by our colonial powers. My late father’s (William Ndala Wamalwa) career developed quickly and after only two or three years in government service, he stopped driving himself and moved to the senior government ranks.

But it was the women of that time that intrigued me most and I was watching their lives with the impatient envy of a child. I wanted to grow up and wear those cat-eye glasses and cute kitten heels, burn my hair straight, drink Babycham and laugh like they did, with a hand full of bangles held out at just the right angle. But most of all I wanted to wear those glamorous clothes that I saw women wear to parties and dinners – there seemed to be a party or dinner every other weekend! Miniskirts, bell-bottom trouser suits, halter tops, maxi dresses, stilettoes, kitten heels. I wanted to dance to the very dangerous James Brown, the elegant Supremes, the cool Fadhili William, the revolutionary Miriam Makeba, and the handsome Harry Belafonte. I thought all these musicians were my parents’ friends. Imagine my shock when I grew up enough to understand that these were distant celebrities.

Burning Hair

For African women, hair means everything. Women spend large sums of money on our hair and even more woman-hours on styling it. Braiding can take eight hours. Typically a myriad of products are used on African hair, from oils, pomades, sprays, gels, dyes, treatments, conditioners and shampoos. How seriously do African women take their hair? Well in the days when we still had plastic bag around, Kenyan women could be seen risking their reputations by wearing plastic bags on their heads in broad daylight, to stop their hair from getting wet during an unexpected downpour.

But when it comes to hair, there was a simpler time. In the early 1960s, hair straightening was not yet fashionable and chemical relaxers had not yet arrived in the country. Kenyan women still wore their natural hair and fashioned it using African hairstyle traditions that involved elaborate cornrows, braids and plaiting. Saturday was the day when hair was dressed, typically with the help of skilled friends or relatives. Hair salons were still a faraway concept and the hair industry was a rudimentary affair and not the billion shilling industry of today.

In our home, many Saturdays found Aunty Truphena dressing my mother’s hair. Aunty Truphena was not my mother’s sister. But she and my mother were closer than sisters. They came from one of the smallest of the eighteen Luyhia sub-tribes, the Abanyala ba Ndombi, who are located in Navakholo division, north of Kakamega forest, in western Kenya. At that time, not many people seemed to have made it out of my Bunyala and it was rare to meet a Mnyala in Nairobi.

Sometimes Aunty Truphena straightened my mother’s hair using a hot comb heated on a charcoal jiko. She divided the wet hai,r drenched it in liquid coconut oil, and burnt it straight with the hot comb. Next she rolled the hair onto pink rollers and pinned it down. I wondered how she had learnt to dress hair like that. Her own hair was forever hidden under the flowered scarf that she always wore.

Nigerians Come to Town

The late 1960s were marked by an influx of Nigerians who came with their loud laughter, outsized personalities and strange food. They were mostly Igbos who had fled to Kenya as refugees from the Biafran War (1967-1970), but there was nothing “refugee pathetic” about them. In fact they came and took over our live,s adding flavour and passion like I had never experienced. I remember the names of one family in particular: Chief Jerome Oputa Udoji[1], his wife Mrs. Uzoamaka Udoji (Aunty Uzo) and their three children Scholastica, Osita Paul and Peter Ebelechukwu. The photograph of my mother below was taken at that time, and it was Aunty Uzo who made me realise just how beautiful my mother was, when she loudly exclaimed that my mother looked like Miss Kenya.

Mrs Rose Nanjala Wamalwa (Sitawa Namwalie’s mother) as an executive secretary at the Ford Foundation in Nairobi, Kenya (early 1970s). Photo Credit: Studio One.

Aunty Uzo was a force of nature. She and the other Nigerian women introduced me to a different way of being African. They were militant in taking on any vestigial racism that still had the temerity to cling on and even fight back, so soon after Kenya’s Independence. Aunty Uzo often regaled us with stories of the many battles she fought when white people dared to assert their colonial-era privilege. For us Kenyans, would so often acquiesce to everyday racism from the British, but not a Nigerian and definitely not Aunty Uzo. She fought with the priests at St. Mary’s school in Lavington where her sons were enrolled and she fought when white people tried to jump queues in banks or supermarkets and she argued with African waiters who tried to ignore her in restaurants. She was strong and assertive, always encouraging Kenyans not to be cowed by white people.

There were days when Aunty Uzo took over our kitchen and taught my mother how to cook Nigerian food, subjecting us to strange new flavours and aromas. Every so often our kitchen was overwhelmed by the strong smell of a dried fish imported direct from Nigeria which was even more pungent than our sivambala catfish dried in the hot sun of western Kenya. I learnt that Nigerians waste very little, cooking all parts of the goat,:the skin, meat, innards and hooves. The one dish that really tested my rather narrow palate as a child was a soup that combined beef, fish and chicken which Nigerians seemed to particularly love. When the war in Nigeria ended, our Nigerian friends left, leaving us changed for ever. But soon their place was taken by Ugandans fleeing the abuses of Idi Amin who began his rule in 1971, but that is a story for another day.

About the Exhibition

These photographs have triggered so many memories for me and it is my hope that they will do the same for all who see them. They document the social history of ordinary people in Kenya. I’ve learned that the past can be another country, sometimes a more interesting country than the narrow ideas that populate the present. I shared the premise of “Our Grandmother’s Miniskirt” with a young man, Basil Ibrahim who taught me the word hagiographic when he wrote the following in an email about the project;

“…a particularly interesting deviation from the hagiographic custom of The Great Men model of history-making…It is a model for bringing the archive to life, using memory, popular culture…in an experiment to provoke us to think about the implications the past has on the future we want.” (17 August 2019)

What he meant was that we tend to make saints of certain “great men” of the past (hagiography means the making of a saint), while ignoring the stories of ordinary people, who lived through those times. I hope that this project will correct that tendency towards hagiography.

When arranged chronologically, the photographs begin with one from1945 of a woman named Gatoro Ndugi M’Chabari, dressed in the traditional dress of the Tharaka ethnic community. The type of dress she wears was worn by married women. The unmarried ladies had their breasts left uncovered. The photograph was submitted by Mr Simon Mitambo, Gatoro’s nephew and shows her in what can only be described as a brief miniskirt. The photo was taken in Meru town in 1945, after entertaining the then colonial governor of Meru. In discussing her traditional dress, Gatoro Ndugi M’Chabari — who is over 90 years old — had the following to say: “Although we looked almost naked in miniskirts, there were no cases of sexual harassment.”


Gatoro Ndugi M’Chabari,
from the Tharaka ethnic community. 1945, Photograph submitted by Mr Simon Mitambo.

In another story entitled, “The Village Woman and Son, Bound for England” John Sibi-Okumu pays tribute to his mother Maria Ajiambo, wa Agostino Munika nende Sarah Mbaye (the names of her parents.) She was also addressed as Naliali, her clan name from the Samia of Western Kenya. John estimates that she was born in 1936.

Maria Ajiambo wa Agostino Munika nende Sarah Mbaye, mother of John Sibi-Okumu. The photograph was taken in 1958 at Noble Studio in Nairobi when John, her first born son, was four years of age.

John’s story of his mother reveals many intriguing circumstances, first being that his mother was born on a sisal estate in Juja, Kalimoni, where his grandfather worked as a nyapara or ‘overseer.’ John notes that Tom Mboya was born in similar circumstances, showing the country had already started to change with people migrating from their homes and making new homes in different parts of the country.

Rosalie Kere wearing a “Stiff” skirt and her “Beehive” hairstyle (1961). Photograph submitted by Caroline Kere.

Caroline Kere shared the photographs of her mother Rosalie Kere – the first photo above – who had the distinction of being a poster girl for soap called “Nakasero” and “Lux” in the early 1960s. Caroline’s tribute story to her mother has the intriguing title, “The Amazing Story of How my Father Found my Mother”. Her mother and father’s story is such an improbable romance story worthy of a blockbuster Nollywood film, that you can read for yourself at the exhibition, the online archive or in the coffee table book that is to come.

What follows is an exhibition of selected photographs.


Grace Ntini, from Narok County. The photograph was taken in Nairobi in 1969. Grace was 24 years old and worked for Avis Rent-A-Car Company. The photograph was submitted by Grace’s sister-in-law, Rosemary Mesopirr.


Rosemary Mesopirr, who
was 14 years old and a primary school pupil in the rural areas of Narok County. This photograph was taken in Mombasa in 1974. This was the first time she travelled to the Kenyan coast to visit her father who was a civil servant then. It was her first time to board a bus.

 

My Stylish Mother
By Doris Rutere

My mother Cecilia Kanyoe was a copy typist at Marimanti Rural Training Centre back in 1975. She was always detailed and careful in her choice of office wear. In this photograph she is wearing closed toe heels and has broken her suit with a turtleneck that matches her head gear, a chain and a wrist watch. I think they present a level of sophistication making her refined and chic. Next to her is Esther Muthoni, who was my mother’s friend. In the picture, she wears a wide belt on her cute mini-dress to create contrast while matching her head gear partly with her shoes. 

Both women are quite careful in how they let their hands rest on their thighs.

 

Joyce Akoth, pregnant with her fifth born in 1973. This picture was taken in the early 1970s when Joyce worked as a teacher and before joining the Ministry of Public Works. The photograph of Joyce Akoth was submitted by her daughter Esther Adiambo.

***


Nancy Wanjiku Kimani , the photo was taken outside Kijabe Nursing Institute, where she was undergoing training as a nurse in Kijabe Town (1969). The photograph was submitted by her daughter Ruth Kimani.

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Reflections

A Letter to Stella Nyanzi: “You Teach Us to Lay Blame Exactly Where It Belongs”

6 min read. Too often we are willing to believe that if we are calm enough, if we are silent enough, polite enough, eloquent enough, poised enough, then the tyrants will listen. We believe that if we are ‘’well mannered’’ then we will be heard. You remind us that this is deception.

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A Letter to Stella Nyanzi: “You Teach Us to Lay Blame Exactly Where It Belongs”
Photo: Facebook/Stella Nyanzi
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My sister Nyanzi,

I used to think tyranny means one-party rule, one media station and army garrisons everywhere. Now I know tyranny also means that who we love, how we live, how we die and even the speed of our death is chosen for us by people that never have to face us, by people that have learned not to fear our wrath or our collective pain. You have taught me this, because both of us live under tyrannies. As I write this, you are in Luzira Maximum Security Prison contending with the tyrannies of the prison authorities, the judicial system, the police, Makerere University, Museveni and his state and personal machinery. We live under multiple tyrannies at once, some more immediate than others, all of them intent on silencing us.

I am writing this from Kenya. I am writing from a country reeling through an economic recession that the state’s press statements will never admit exists. A manmade recession fueled by the looting that seems to grow more arrogant with each day. As I write this, many Kenyans are dying in public hospitals because there is no medicine or the doctors have not been paid or someone stole the money for the equipment. As I write this, there are young people attending endless seminars on entrepreneurship because they face grim rates of unemployment, this too is manmade disaster. I don’t know how many young men the police have killed today; I don’t know how many women have been sexually abused or killed by a country that just seems to hate its women. There are also the university students who are teargassed and beat up every time they try to march, and the many communities unhumaned by the state. I don’t know how many queer people have been stripped or raped or mocked or told to prove they are human beings today. These are the tyrannies I live under.

We share some of these tyrannies and for this, I call you sister. Allow me to call you Stella.

When you staged your first nude protest at Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), several academics gave media interviews to say that they condemned your protest and found it to be ‘’too much’’, they mockingly asked if negotiations had failed for you to go to such lengths. More insultingly, some said while they agreed you had legitimate grievances, you could have been more civil. They seem to think that you should have spoken more sweetly. I laughed when I heard them. You know how tyranny works Stella, how it works especially well in bureaucracies. You know how good bureaucracies are at silencing and ignoring. You and I know that bureaucracies move at exactly the speed dictated by tyranny, no faster and no slower.

It is a maddening thing to realize that even in the hallowed halls of universities, we are ignored and insulted and treated anyhow, as our people say. It is more maddening to know that our emails, our eloquent letters and our pleas will go unheard when tyranny is present, as it was at MISR. Tyranny often wears a nice suit and can be well spoken and well respected. At Makerere, you used the tools at your disposal in defense of yourself. The tools on that day were red paint, cellotape, your body, your voice and camera. Those were the tools available to you. The other important tool in your arsenal, arguably the most potent, is your refusal of respectability.

So often, women are only celebrated when we protest in service of the men in our lives — our brothers, our fathers, anyone but ourselves. I think of all of us who are scared of speaking in our own defense, scared of organizing for our own wellbeing, our reproductive freedom, our sexual freedom, our safety. I think of how we have been intimidated to believe that this is entitlement, as if being entitled is a bad thing. How many of us have swallowed indignity after indignity because the only person being humiliated is us?

Here, I pause, in the middle of my letter to acknowledge and greet you in the movements you come from, the movements that have shaped you and supported you. We know that often people are isolated from their movements in order to make them messiahs. But messiahs always fail because they don’t really exist. I greet you in the name of the #RotAtMISR , #WomensMarchUG , #ThisTaxMustGo , #PeoplePowerMovement and the many offline political actions you have taken. From standing in solidarity with students of Makerere when they protested arbitrary inclusion of fees, to caring for the Arua 33 that were victims of state violence, to dealing with menstrual injustice through the #Pads4GirlsUG movement.

It is from your movements that you have dealt with the effects of Museveni’s tyranny intimately, by seeing how your comrades are brutalized and seeing how relaxed the dictators can be even in the face of impassioned pleas for even a small measure of justice. You have seen your movements forced to wait on the dictator’s time. We all do so much waiting after all. We wait for enough money to take our relatives to decent hospitals and decent schools, we wait for courts to vindicate us and for the churches to speak for justice and for the police to stop killing. On both sides of the Malaba border, we wait. A feminist sister, Mumbi, has written about how we are forced to wait on the state’s time, wait on tyranny’s time, in order to live as human beings. Mumbi considers that one of the ways we can disrupt the state’s time is through the communities we build and how we care for each other.

You have given us another answer to how we can disrupt the state’s time; by abandoning respectability and politeness. After all, the tyrants know exactly what they are doing when they abuse our humanity. From your political actions, your Facebook posts, and your court appearances, we learn to call the tyrants by name and declare their shame to them. I read somewhere that your father died because of the poor healthcare system in Uganda, and in your writing, you lay the responsibility for this on Museveni’s head. Rightfully so. Another feminist sister, Sunshine, says that this is reminiscent of what Fela Kuti did when his mother (and our feminist ancestor) Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti died from injuries she got after the Nigerian police raided Fela’s home. Fela took his mother’s coffin to the army barracks, to Olusegun Obasanjo, who for all intents and purposes had killed Funmilayo. When you call Museveni a pair of buttocks, that is exactly what you are doing, connecting the tragedy of all the deaths and suffering caused by a sick state to the head of the state. Truth telling can start there, by us clearly naming the tyrants and abusers.

For some reason, tyrants hate this. They are shocked at the idea that we might call them what they are: abusers, misogynists, sexists, thieves, robbers, murderers, homophobes. You teach us to lay blame exactly where it belongs, to practice the radical truth telling that refuses to be distracted by bureaucracy. Stella, you say that politeness has been held captive, and the powerful don’t listen anymore, and sometimes we have to say fuck it and then people will listen.

Too often we are willing to believe that if we are calm enough, if we are silent enough, polite enough, eloquent enough, poised enough, then the tyrants will listen. We believe that if we are ‘’well mannered’’ then we will be heard. We think if we bend ourselves enough, the tyrants will feel some pity for us. You remind us that this is deception. Good manners are decided by the powerful, and after all — isn’t it the worst manners to steal and oppress? Yet no one accuses tyrants of having bad manners. No, bad manners are left to be a cross for us to carry to hasten our own silencing, our own internal and final deaths. Respectability protects the comfort of the tyrants. Your political actions show us that when we shed politeness, we can disturb their peace in potent ways.

You, like Audre Lorde, know that our silence will not save us. Not only that, but politeness and niceness cannot save us either. You know that we only get silent to work out our internal convictions and from there, we use whatever tools we have to shout, be it our bodies, our phones, our voices. We shout. We shout because we are being killed either way. Your poetry, court appearances and nude protest are all political actions, asking us what we are still afraid of. What do we gain by protecting the comfort of these tyrants to enjoy their theft, their tyranny unoffended?

Stella, you are a woman who has reached into herself and taken joy, taken brazenness and categorically refused shame. Your body is your manifesto, as you say, and with it, you declare and live your radical queer feminist politics every day. We are affirmed by you.

Some people think you are fearless, others believe you are unashameable, I don’t believe either of them. Even with the best intentions, they are trying to make you iron, invulnerable, and otherworldly. I know different. You are not otherworldly Stella, you are fully human.

In care and love,

Karwitha

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Reflections

A Letter To Stella Nyanzi: The Revolution Lives in You

7 min read. I want, like you, to steadily and surely offend anything that stands in the way of freedom, of liberation, of love, of justice, of truth, of humanity. Let me be rude, let me be all these things, if all they are trying to say is that I am free, unbound.

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A Letter To Stella Nyanzi: The Revolution Lives in You
Photo: Flickr/Chapter Four Uganda
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My sister Nyanzi,

We grew up on folktales and stories that spoke on the value of truth, of clarity, of assertiveness. We read about scheming animals always having to face the consequences of their actions, while those characters that upheld the truth were the examples that we were meant to emulate. Yet, somehow, these stories were supposed to remain suspended in our minds, perhaps as pieces of entertainment. No one wanted a truth teller, especially not a primary school going child. I have gone through most of my life being called rude, difficult, entitled or spoilt, by aunties, by cousins, by teachers, and by neighbors who cautioned their children against associating with me. Most of my life, I thought there was something wrong with how God made me.

Why did my teachers punish me for speaking truth? Why did I go home, my body tender from a caning because I asked the teacher to explain the logic behind making students kneel on gravel? Why did my cousins whisper behind my back, saying that my opinions were rude, that my parents had spoilt me, and that I was too entitled? I questioned a lot, yet I did not see any other way to live. I knew the truth to be good, even when it seemed a heavy weight on my heart. Each one of us owes ourselves the truth. The truth is our duty. It is my duty, a duty that you have taken on and stood by, even when the very ground is threatening to betray you.

I am writing this after returning to Kenya from a visit to Uganda less than 24 hours ago. I thought about you a lot during my stay there. I thought about all the Ugandans who have lived their lives silencing themselves, their truth, their pain, their desires, their ability to want to imagine freedom because of fear, fear not born of themselves, but of tyranny, from the ways in which their society has dealt with ‘rude’ individuals. I saw children going to school, with heavy bags and tender spirits. I thought of all the stories, the theory, the language they are being taught about morality and truth, knowing that they are probably being short-changed. I thought about how they are being taught that truth depends on who holds the power to instill fear.

Are the children being told that truth is silence? Are they being told that truth is folding the pain in their hearts into smiles? Are they being told that truth is accepting state and religious terrorism? Are the children carrying fear in their heavy bags? Are they rushing home to be cautioned against following in the footsteps of Dr. Stella Nyanzi? I thought about your multiple arrests, and how that has been weaponized to further silence, to further disregard, and to further trample on the possibility of individual and collective expression. What do the children think when they see you on television? What do they say about you in their private conversations?

It is no secret that we live in a world that rewards complacency. The systems we live under: economic, social, and political, are so fragile and fickle that they have made us scared of ourselves. Of course, all this is deliberate, to maintain control. We live under the giant lie that we get to choose. We choose which schools our children go to, what we will purchase, how we will spend our time, how we will interact with authority, what and how we teach our children, yet all this exists under tyranny. We have been robbed of our humanity, of our ability to make decisions guided by what aligns with truth, with courage, with kindness. That is why, Stella, the children are being taught politeness, one that will rob them of their ability to speak up in the face of injustice when they are told that they cannot love who they want to love, when they are told that they don’t belong, when they are told that their lives are not precious, when they are lied to over and over, when they are made to wait for their rights, when they are killed, when they are hurt, when their education is used to oppress them, and when their lives become small residues of what freedom might have looked like, when they are reduced to small ‘maybes’ and ‘could have beens.’

That is why many people may be blind to the importance of your protest, which is in effect, a protest to your protest. Is this the tragedy of having a heart constantly pursuing freedom?

When I first read about you, I felt so affirmed that I cried. When I saw you speaking, how you spoke, what you spoke about, I remember feeling small eruptions of heavy joy inside me amidst the pain of seeing how the state responded to you. I prayed for the courage to want, so intently and so intentionally, the kind of truth abiding freedom that oozed from your heart. I prayed that I am brave enough to bare it all in the face of millions of odds stacked against me. I prayed that I may never steer away from a life tied to imagining, wanting and working towards freedom, towards a life unbound by fear. They have used your truth to call you obscene, to call you indecent, to call you lascivious, and to say that you are profane. They say you hold no remorse, but why should you? They call you untamed, rude, vulgar, and reckless; they call you intolerable. In the churches, they are saying that you are sinning against god. In truth, all they are trying to say is that you are free. Unbound. Your spirit can never be contained. They do not have the language for any of this because they speak the language of fear. The voice of truth makes them afraid. Your life is testimony that freedom is possible. Unbounded freedom. Freedom that is safe from tyranny, freedom that tugs on the heart and forces you to run towards the what is right, what is eternal, and what is true.

So let me live a vulgar disrespectful life. Let me be seriously and gloriously profane. Let me be intolerable. Let the people say that no man will marry me. Especially that. Let me be disagreeable. Let me be a sinner. Unapologetically. Let me be ungovernable. Let me be untamed. Let me be unremorseful. Let me be untethered. Let my life insult them. Let me be offensive. Let my freedom live as critical evidence that truth exists, that it always sits sharp and intentional, between my joy and my pain. I am shameless. I am unafraid. I am a manifestation of defiance. Let my life be shaped by defiance and resistance. I want to steadily and surely offend anything that stands in the way of freedom, of liberation, of love, of justice, of truth, of humanity. Let me be rude, let me be all these things, if all they are trying to say is that I am free, unbound. Let my life be grandly disruptive. That’s what I want. Let us all be grandly disruptive, in our small ways, in standing up in our small pockets of possibility. May we be the embodiment of radical rudeness.

Manners always end up on the shelves, next to civility, collecting dust and making the silence louder. This is why the despots love them. This is why we are told to use ‘respectable civil channels,’ when that in itself is an injustice: to be told we will be heard by the very tools which ensure we remain unheard. You live in a country under dictatorship, under tyranny, under evil rule. So do I, so do so many people on this continent. They have arrested our freedoms, kept them locked up. They lie, they steal, and they laugh at us for wanting to live. They deny us belonging, they want to take away everything, our voices, the voices of the children, even before they break.

Stella, they want us to beg them. They want us to lick their feet, grateful for the smelly crumbs. They want us to crawl on our bellies, waiting for permission to sit on our buttocks, then to kneel before them, and then finally, maybe, to stand, when they will it, how they will it, for their benefit. I refuse. Let these tyrants sweat in terror at the mention of your name, let them tremble at the sound of your song, your poetry, your protest, your truth, your prayer, your defiance. Let all the despots shake and fear at the sound of our collective lament. Let peace be least of their experiences. Let them tremble. May they tremble.

I refuse politeness. I dedicate my life to unlearning respectability, because at the end of it all, divine freedom is fearless. It is not neat and pretty and dainty. It is rude, it is vulgar, it is naked, it is wild, it is unashamed, it is raw, it is profane, it is indecent. It is loud. It is demanding and disrespectful. It is you. You are divinely free, and they cannot take that away from you. The entire revolution has already happened inside you, and we get to experience that, from your life, your words, your work, hoping that we can meet you, where you are, in whatever capacity we can. You have taught me that when we are silent, we are more at risk of pain, of suffering, of living lives suspended on insubstantial strings of fear, always waiting on where our next small redemption will come from. You have taught me that the process of truth is rewarding, not in the ways in which the world rewards, but the ways in which the spirit rewards. The process is indeed the shortcut. It is the homage to freedom, to the channels between us and liberation.

So I am writing this to you, and to my 15 year old self, to my 10 year old self, and to the black children who will live after us. I am writing this to myself, before I accepted that I am brazen, before I accepted that nothing is wrong with me, that maybe everyone who called me rude for speaking the truth was just afraid and cowardly, because this world thrives on the fear of people. I am writing this to my sisters, to my mothers, to everyone who has housed silence and shame in their hearts. I am writing this to you, hoping that you can rest in the knowledge that there are so many of us who are holding your spirit, your soul, your heart, your dreams, in our spirits, in our souls, in our hearts, in our dreams, during this time and always. We stand in solidarity with you, with your defiance, and with your dreams of freedom. Your life has affirmed us in so many ways, and knowing that you live an absolutely unapologetic life has sustained the bulk of my ability to imagine freedom. I hope like you, I can show up as my highest, truest self, always. May your words continue to be the fuel that will sustain the fire that will consume all these tyrants, all these despots, all these oppressors, all these dictators.

Thank you for refusing shame, for refusing fear, for embracing love, for embracing the call of truth and freedom. Thank you for always showing up as your full self, thank you for making it possible to for so many of us to imagine other ways of living, of being. Thank you for your poetry, for remaining tender, for remaining you.

In love and solidarity,

Kedolwa

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