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We Leave Our House to Go Home

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We Leave Our House to Go Home
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Sometime in 2010, I had the idea of writing a poem to explore the trips that my family made several times a year back to our rural home, when I was a child. This desire gave birth to the long narrative poem called “We Leave Our House to Go Home”, which resonated with audiences in Kenya and beyond. Yet the poem is deeply personal and reveals a journey of transformation and becoming, beginning with my family’s move from our rural home to Nairobi, Kenya’s capital city, and my emergence as a city girl. The city girl lives a two-edged status of inevitable alienation from original roots on one hand; and on the other the pioneering opportunist creating a new way of living in a new country. As a consequence my life at times feels like a rapid fire pendulum, quivering in one place, then another, and not making much progress in either direction. But let’s start at the beginning.

According to my parents the late William Ndala Wamalwa and Rose Nanjala (nee Uluma) Wamalwa, in April 1963, my family relocated to Nairobi from Namirama in Kakamega, western Kenya. I was five years old. Four years later, my father announced quite brusquely, with no preamble at all; because-of-course-we-children-should-just-know; that we were going back to our “real home”, back to Namirama. I was then nine years old. Although only a scant four years had elapsed since our leaving, new experiences from the world I now inhabited in Nairobi, had so profoundly reengineered me, my memory of this “real home” had all but disappeared. For me, Namirama was like one of those relatives who comes to you, expecting you to instantly jump into her arms because she developed a strong bond with you, when she saved your life and nursed you back to health after a terrible accident when you were three; and to her horror you don’t recognise her.

That first trip etched itself on my mind, as a consequence of the unbelievable levels of discomfort the family suffered on the road trip home. But this was just the beginning. Over the years we made many trips to this perplexing place I learnt to call home, all reliably uncomfortable. It’s perhaps not surprising I married someone whose “real home” was only two hours away from Nairobi, or that I wrote a long narrative poem about those horrifying experiences. It’s not astonishing it took many years for me to see the beauty of “home”, this green equatorial paradise with rolling hills, rivers and streams, amazing bird life, perpetual rain, the Kakamega Forest, and my relatives.

When I wrote the poem, I thought the experiences of the road trip home were confined to me, and my family, until I shared it. The poem’s first public outing was a reading to a young woman who had grown up in South Africa, but came originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo. I read and read then I stopped, embarrassed that I was boring her with the never-ending words. I looked up ready with my apology only to find rapt attention. No please, don’t stop, she said.

In 2014, I crafted a show of dramatized poetry called “Silence is a Woman” and placed this going-home poem at the end of the production. After one performance, a woman came up to me and whispered, “What about the trees, you can’t leave out the trees!” I was delighted, I knew exactly what she was talking about. Yes, the trees! But I was so surprised, how did she know about the trees? I thought that was just my experience. You see, when I was a child of three, my mother took me, my sister and my baby brother to Kilifi District, on the Kenyan coast, by train, to join my father who had just graduated from Makerere University in Uganda and was now working as a colonial District Officer. As the train moved, I watched trees run, they chased our train, running beside us for a time and then speeding past us, showing off their love for speed. At the end of our journey we found them gathered in a huge welcoming forest at our destination.

Had other people seen the world, this way? It never occurred to me that this was a typical childhood experience – the sight of trees moving past you, and almost with you, as you sit in a car, bus or train. We humans live life in self-contained silos, separate and alone, yet so much of our experiences are exactly the same. So here is the verse crafted from that experience with the trees.

“Trees chase after our car, as we speed home,
Eucalyptus lope with wide steps,
Tall yellow Acacia’s flash past us, in wild chattering gangs,
Ponderous flame trees, dressed in bright orange, plod along, waving their heads from side to side.
The trees are sneaky, when we stop; they stop too,
As soon as we move, they start running again,
They race us and win.
We arrive, and find ourselves in a land of many trees.”

I have since found that although “We Leave Our House to Go Home” is many-layered, it is first a story about the dissonance and dislocation. It is about arriving at your new location and looking quizzically at the place you used to call home, which in turn looks at you and wonders how strange you have become.

An example. After I reached adulthood and my grandmothers and aunties started to die, I created my own tradition of taking with me their old water pots and other vessels after their funerals. It started with Kukhu Jedida Khasandi my mother’s mother who died in 1995 at the age of 75 years. After her funeral I bequeathed to myself her old wooden milking vessel which was about to be thrown away. When Senge Lukalesia Alasi Nangila, my dad’s eldest sister and the eldest daughter of their father, died at 93 years in 2010, I took her old clay water pot. Along with my grandmother’s wooden milking vessel, I now have four clay water pots, which keep me company and remind me of these beloved relatives.

Photo Credit: Wamboi Nasaka Muragori

Senge Lukelesia Alasi Nangila with a cigarette in her mouth. Senge Lukalesia helped inoculate me against the toxic masculinity found in the city with the dictates that limited a woman’s life. She showed me that a woman can do anything she wants, and still smoke, drink whisky and still be loved. Photo Credit: Wamboi Nasaka Muragori

Senge Lukelesia Alasi Nangila with a cigarette in her mouth. Senge Lukalesia helped inoculate me against the toxic masculinity found in the city with the dictates that limited a woman’s life. She showed me that a woman can do anything she wants, and still smoke, drink whisky and still be loved.

But meanwhile I have earned a reputation as that weird Nairobi relative who likes useless old things. My relatives laughed at me and treated me like an eccentric cute poodle, but are now no longer surprised when I ask for a pot. The latest water pot belonged to my Senge Nasambu Akeso who passed away in April 2017 at 95 years. This one is large with a broken mouth. Apparently, I missed the good one by a week when it broke just before her death.

The poem “We Leave Our House to Go Home” is also about how the world occurs to a child versus how it occurs to an adult. The road home from Nairobi starts with a relatively safe section from, Kangemi, to Limuru. At Mai Mahiu the road becomes the “dreaded” or “scenic” escarpment road, (depending on whether you are a child or adult,) as it begins its ascent to Mount Longonot before it starts its descent down to Naivasha town.

Every time we approached the Mai Mahiu section, my emotions churned as my stomach tied itself in knots and I intermittently closed my eyes trying to shut out the many sources of danger that I could see looming around me. The so-called escarpment road was a thin and winding ribbon, perched on top of a cliff on the Great Rift Valley, which had fractured the country many eons ago.

Pots from my Senges: Lukelesia Alasi Nangila the eldest daughter of Ndala (1917 – 2011) , Dina Nanjala (1928 – 2014), Navkembe Salome (1921- 2015), and Nasambu Akeso (1922 - 2017).

Pots from my Senges: Lukelesia Alasi Nangila the eldest daughter of Ndala (1917 – 2011) , Dina Nanjala (1928 – 2014), Navkembe Salome (1921- 2015), and Nasambu Akeso (1922 – 2017). Photo credit: Wamboi Nasaka Muragori

As we drove, the grown-ups ooohed and aaahed at what they claimed were panoramic views of valleys, savannahs, lakes, rivers and mountains spreading all around us. But all I could see was danger. On the right, signs warning of the possibility of falling rocks were written in bold panicked capital letters. “BEWARE OF FALLING ROCKS”. But those weren’t even rocks, most of them were huge boulders imbedded into the side of the steep cliff-side. Just one could smash our car into smithereens. And then there we were, stuck behind a long line of lorries, petrol tankers and buses for miles at a time; crawling at 20 kilometres an hour, making us even easier targets for those falling rocks. What were the warnings for? What exactly were we expected to do if one of those boulders dislodged itself and started to roll down towards our car? Really, who had selected this place to build a road?

Throughout the escarpment phase of our journey, I played a game in which we would only be safe if I did not look down into the wide steep valley. But even this game did not keep visions of our small VW Beetle missing the next turn and flying off to plunge and scatter all eight occupants; five children, two parents and a cousin-maid, onto the waiting jagged rocks and boulders. Our car would not grow wings like the ones in cartoons and swoop back into the air at the last-minute, saving us from destruction.

After that first time, we went to our real home at least two to three times a year, to visit the strangers my parents called our up-country relatives. Real home? More like surreal trip home. And then the 1980’s arrived and brought potholes and deteriorating roads with them. The escarpment road was not spared and soon the valleys became strewn with the carcasses of vehicles that had missed their step. I remember the World Bank stating quite categorically that the 1980’s was a ‘lost decade for Africa’. The continent went backwards rapidly and for me the most visible evidence was in our cracked and deteriorating roads which made the family’s journey back home an even more terrifying prospect.

I wrote “We Leave Our House to Go Home”, in 2010. It came tumbling out of me effortlessly, and full of so many words I thought it would never stop. My plan had been to write the poem in two parts, with the second part, called “Home”. But that mysterious place from whence my poems come has refused to give up the goods; all my “part two” attempts have been stilted, contrived, self-conscious and just not as good as part one.

The old Rift Valley Road. Photo Credit: Wamboi Nasaka Muragori

The old Rift Valley Road. Photo Credit: Wamboi Nasaka Muragori

 

Photo Credit: Wamboi Nasaka Muragori Photograph of my lush garden with sculptures and elephant ear ferns

Photograph of my lush garden with sculptures and elephant ear ferns. Photo Credit: Wamboi Nasaka Muragori

 

 

WE LEAVE OUR HOUSE TO GO HOME!
By Sitawa Namwalie

We start,
We are told we are going home.

What?
We are home.
Is this not home?
This place we live?
This is home!
I have climbed those trees,
Fallen and broken my hand in that ditch,
I have raced my brother and won on that wide green lawn,
I have hunted tadpoles in that pool over there,
You can’t see it now; it only fills up with water when it rains.
Is home not this?

No. 

No?
My father hands me an un-embellished, ‘No’.
My mother gives me a flat ‘No’.
On this, they speak as one.
No.

No?

“This is just a house”, they reply,
“Not even ours!
It is owned by the government.”

Oh! 

We leave our house to go home!

We pack our bags;
Clothes, shoes, Vaseline, toy cars, dolls, books, Monopoly, transistor radio.

We pack more bags;
Sugar, tea leaves, butter, oil, maize meal, cocoa, sausages, bacon; we can still afford these things.

And 8 long loaves of Kumanina bread!
Kumanina?
What a rude word.
Why is it called that?
Does anyone know?

No?

We leave our house to go home!

We get into my dad’s car,
A brand-new VW Beetle.
Five young children, a mum, a dad and a cousin-maid.
We take turns sitting on each other, 

Except Dad of course,
He must drive.

We leave our house to go home!

Limuru!

We children speak up hopefully,
“Are we there yet?”
My father laughs indulgently,
“Hahahaha!”

“No.” 

There’s that un-embellished ‘No’ again!
“Not yet,” he says, his eyes twinkle at me through the rare view mirror,
I’m perplexed.
We have never gone this far in our fun-filled-after-Church-Sunday-drives.
It can’t be much further!
It will be over soon!
Where are we going?

We leave our house to go home.

Kinangop!

30 more kilometres, hope returns.
It bounds back, panting, joyful like a puppy.
“Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”
“There I can see it, there!”
“It’s there over that hill. There!” 

“No!”

No?

Mum’s says, “Stop disturbing your father, let him drive.”
Her voice is sharp.
There is no joke in it anymore.
No.
None.
I exhale all my hope.
How far do we have to go to get home?

We leave our house to go home!

We start a steep climb on a narrow road.
Sheer cliffs rise on one side and fall on the other.
Up, up, up we go, through savannah, alpine forest, dry scrub land, wooded dry-lands, white highlands;
Then down, down, down to an equatorial green land that belongs somewhere else.
Not in this dry country Kenya.

We leave our house to go home

Trees chase after our car, as we speed home,
Eucalyptus lope with wide steps,
Tall yellow Acacia’s flash past us, in wild chattering gangs,
Ponderous flame trees, dressed in bright orange, plod along, waving their heads from side to side.
The trees are sneaky, when we stop; they stop too,
As soon as we move, they start running again,
They race us and win.
We arrive and find ourselves in a land of many trees.

We leave our house to go home! 

Don’t think I saw the wonder of the changing landscape,
The backdrop movie, shifting, around us,
Leaving, arriving.
I saw none of it.
No.
My mind echoes city lights.
Nairobi is my jewel.
I ask my father,
“Is there light at home?”

“No!” 

No?
My father laughs again, this time amused,
“Hahahaha!”
His eyes touch mine in the rear-view mirror.
“Electricity does not stretch so far,” he says.
No.
He is, matter-of-fact, “There is no light at home.”

No?
No? My mind reels.
No disco-dancing neon light?
No hanging out at Carnivore on a hot night out?
No chilling with a hoard of hungry girls at night?
No!
No light to bathe me, wash me clean?
There is no light at home?

We leave our house to go home!

Eldoret.

Punctures come thick as rain!
The first is a joyous affair.
We all believe it won’t happen again.
By the third puncture, we all know how to change a tyre, even my kid brother.
First, push the car off the side of the road, onto the verge;
Second, find stones!
To prevent the car from rolling away!
Third, put broken tree branches on the road!
To warn other motorists!
Step four, fix the puncture.

By the 4th and 5th puncture, I am worried,
Home speaks in code.
Maybe home is sending a message in its own crude way.
It does not want us to return.
Home speaks secret words buried in repetition.
It sends a celestial whisper, 

No! Do not return. No! Do not return.
There is nothing left for you here! No!

We leave our house to go home!

Kisii,
Kapsabet,
Kisumu,
Kakamega.

The tarmac road turns to dust,
The car starts to bump, list, sigh, it slows down in protest.
There are no roads here, no.
Just tracks made by cattle, barely visible in the bush.
We reach a river; with a bridge made of old wooden planks and colonial memories. 

This river is not a memory.
An empty long gorge, with wide banks, a bed of rocks and boulders, with the name ‘River Something’ on a sign post.
This is the real thing,
The River Nzoia. 

Yes!

We leave-our house-to go home.

Mumias,
Sivilie,
Chebuyusi,
Navakholo,
Nambacha,
Namirama.

We arrive.
Grandmother ululates; a loud long, piercing sound,
She holds her hands outstretched,
Her body rigid in a rictus of astonishment.
She leads a crowd of women, children, men;
They embrace us,
A tangle of humanity, noise, movement, singing, dancing;
Tears of joy lifted in celebration!

Grandmother stops her singing delight to ask,

“How is Kenya? How is Kenyatta, your president?” 

I understand.
She and I come from different countries,
She doesn’t speak English, we don’t share a president; no wonder she looks foreign.

We leave our house to go home. 

We stand still as Grandmother prays her foreign prayer,
Filled with images of Jews, wandering about for 40 years in deserts,
Crossing the Red Sea, which parts unexpectedly, to create a path.
It is only God who can manage such miracles. Baba!
Like the Israelites in Egypt escaping Pharaoh and returning to the Promised Land,
He has come back, and not empty handed. Baba!
He has prospered, Baba!
Returned. Baba, Jehova Jire!

After 10 years of wandering in the dangerous city lights,
Where men have no souls. Baba!
Where people can disappear without trace, as if consumed by wild beasts. Baba!
He has come back with children,
(Most of whom I have never seen.)
We thank you, Baba.
We thank you, Baba.
Baba! We thank you.
For you have been with him, Baba!
You have smiled on him, Baba!
He comes home with children; a car,
With a car, Baba!
Oh, that my son can find the riches to buy a car…
Like the son of Manyonge,
Like the son of Makokha,
Like the son of Siganga, like my son!

 

And on and on and on, her prayer, sings, and shouts, hums and flows, rises and falls and…
Riswa! PAP!
She ends the prayer with a loud abrupt sound.

I am startled. And wiser.

I learnt a lot from that prayer.

We are Jews from Israel!

We leave our house to go home.

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Sitawa Namwalie was one of the actors of Too Early For Birds- Brazen, playing the character of ‘Cucu’ who narrates Mekatilili wa Menza’s story.

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Reflections

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.

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Living on the Edge: From the Favelas of Rio to Life in Mathare
Photo: Flickr/Rachel Strohm
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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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Reflections

I’m Black, I’m Proud. Still

You can’t feed into the darkness. You can’t demand anyone to know what you know, to understand what you understand. People come to truth when they come to it and not a second before.

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I'm Black, I'm Proud. Still
Photo: Unsplash/Oladimeji Odunsi
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Growing up down south in the aftermath of the 1960s Negro Revolution in America was truly the best. During that period, three out of every four Black children in America were born in a two-parent home. By the 80s, that number would drop to one in every four.

Education and opportunity were becoming more accessible to black and brown communities everywhere. It would be the force that would get us out of the hole history had placed us in.

We were moving forward and everybody could feel it, but as much as I liked going to school and learning new things, my favourite memories are of when, after school, I got to spend time with my brothers and cousins. There was just something magical that happened when we were together.

We would meet over at grandma’s house in that part of the city we called the village. The village was a straight, two-block walk from school, down King Street, past the Piggly Wiggly store parking lot and then to the stoplight where you take a right turn onto Rommey Street, and another right on to what looks like a parking lot on the side of the church, and just at the bridge, before you crossed the old train track or you would have missed it, the entrance to the court. Thirty or so homes behind the old Methodist Church on a road invisible from the street laid out in the form of a horseshoe.

I cannot talk about the village without talking about the city and the state. Charleston, South Carolina is a peninsula city located on the South Carolina coastline. It was one of the thirteen original colonies and the very first state to break away from the Union, and one of the founding states of the Confederacy.

The village was a housing initiative following the 1964 Civil Rights Act aimed at breaking the cycle of poverty by moving Black families out of the old housing slums and projects and into new affordable homes.

The difference between the projects in the South and the projects up north is the space and design. In most cases, southern projects were designed to be communal properties, different from the stacked high-rises up north or in the Midwest.

The projects down south were simple properties where people learned to share. They shared the backyard when the sun got too high and the front when people just wanted to be outside and catch a breeze. Everybody knew one another and called each other by name. Family arguments, celebrations and losses spilled into neighbouring apartments causing people to act like one big extended family. And even though everybody was poor, they would have been hard-pressed to admit it. Poverty was a state of mind. The community spirit emphasised generosity and everything was shared. If you were hungry and didn’t have food, you could always ask next door.

Having lived in the projects for decades, my grandparents were one of the very first people to be offered a house in the village. I can remember the move like it was yesterday, everyone was so excited.

The year was 1973, I was eight years old. For the first time Black families in Charleston would have the chance of a normal life.

My grandparents, long into retirement, coupled with our large, extended family of cousins, uncles, aunts and three brothers – two older and one younger – were a great source of pride and joy until I learned that the American egalitarian beliefs which I thought were as perfect a foundation as there could be, were but an illusion, a well thought out scheme. We weren’t freed, we were just moving boxes.

Although everyone got their own private home, some did build fences around theirs but others opted against this, allowing for yards to overlap, creating a more open and vibrant community.

My grandparents had a high chain-linked fence, but there was still this sense of togetherness. When something went wrong in the village, the elders would be the first out to deal with it.

My exploration of the real workings of America would begin from within this village in 1976, the year that America celebrated its 200th anniversary of independence from British rule.

That year, I began to see that the ideals that gave birth to the idea of “We the People,” did not include people like me.

I remember a young militant uncle, oozing Black pride, spilling the beans and pointing out to me that neither he nor I, nor any of the millions of other Blacks had reason to celebrate America’s success.

As my White and Black classmates and a nation prepared for the grand July 4th spectacle that would include a  freedom train,  a scheduled stop in our city,  marching bands,  hotdogs, cotton candy and fireworks, I began my own re-education, reading keenly to understand the origins and the construct of the first Americans.

In the 200 years since the Protestant Christians invaded America they’ve enslaved millions, massacred the Indians, and everything we’ve suffered – the chains, the church bombings, our leaders assassinated, brothers lynched – all of it has been part of an elaborate scheme to keep Blacks subjugated.

In June 1740, the British Parliament passed the Naturalization Act of 1740 – the “Plantation Act” – into law.

In this decree, any White European Protestant alien who had been living in any of the thirteen colonies for seven years without being absent from that colony for more than two months, was deemed to be a natural-born citizen of the United Kingdom.

The Plantation Act of 1740 was a direct response to the September 1739 Stono River Slave Rebellion in South Carolina. The Stono Rebellion was the largest slave insurrection in British North America that culminated in the deaths of 25 colonists and about 50 Africans. It was led by an Angolan known as Jemmy and a band of about twenty slaves, who broke into a store, armed themselves and demanded their freedom. They marshalled a group of 60 slaves in an attempt to reach St Augustine in Florida, where the Spanish guaranteed freedom and land to any fugitive slave. The rebellion was crushed at Edisto River, 80 kms away from where the rebellion had started.

The 1740 law criminalised the Black experience itself, restricting the right of free movement, the right to free assembly, and the right to be educated or to earn money. These punitive and discriminatory laws created by men who claimed to be good Christians, legislated the right of plantations owners to even kill rebellious slaves.

Most colonialists considered themselves British until the year 1776 when resentment began to fester among the settlers. Frustrated by taxation and a lack of representation in the British Parliament, these new Americans declared war on their own government demanding independence.

That same year, the British-born political activist, pamphleteer and immigrant to the colonies, Thomas Paine, published a pamphlet titled Common Sense in which he argued the case for a new “America”.

“Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America. This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe.”

The American War of Independence was fought from 1776 to 1783.  Seven years later, the Naturalization Act of 1790, the first naturalization law of the new republic legislating who could be granted United States citizenship, was passed into law.

All Free White Persons of “good character” who had been residing in the United States for two years or longer could apply for US citizenship.  In effect, the law’s use of the phrase, “free white person” excluded blacks and immigrants of other races from being eligible for citizenship, and most importantly, for protection under the laws of the court.

As a child I had drank the Kool-Aid and believed that it was peaceful cooperation between the pilgrims and the native Indians that had established the widely practiced Thanksgiving holiday tradition.

I recall summers spent playing cowboys and Indians with my brothers. We took turns at who got to play the Indian. I felt no shame striking the Indians down with my rifle. They were always the bad guys, raiding the poor settlers’ forts, attacking their caravans. But I was baffled by the contradictions. Why would the Indians save the pilgrims who were dying from the cold and hunger only to try to escape from them later? It just didn’t make much sense.

Then it came to me: the Native Americans were fighting to protect their land. We weren’t playing a game; what we were doing was re-enacting a massacre. Over five million Native Americans were killed before the West was conquered.

Regardless the age at which one arrives at truth and understanding, it is always disorienting and disheartening. I’ve found that whether one accepts it or not, the only thing we can be certain of in this world of uncertainty is change.

I spoke with many people after the first 2020 Presidential Debate between President Trump and the Democratic nominee former Vice President Joe Biden that took place in the midst of heightened racial tensions and the COVID-19 pandemic. I got many mixed views regarding the outcome of the debate; some were shocked by the childish display while others dug in, taking sides and displaying party loyalty like it was a football game. Of the many reactions I got, one zoom call from home with my older brother really got me thinking.

“Can you believe that man?”

My older brother is now 60.

I had noticed him wiping his eyes.

I asked, “What ‘s wrong?”

At first he didn’t (want to) speak, he just kept brushing the tears away, then he began,

“Little brother, we grew up together,” he said.

“We pretty much had the same childhood, but I’ll tell you, I have never had any white person call me a nigger or spit on me like these guys up here in Philadelphia tell me they have. I have had White teachers down south who were some of the nicest people you’d want to meet. But, looking at that debate last night and the President of the United States refusing to denounce white supremacy as racist, I just never, you know, thought White people hated us that much.”

I empathised with him because I knew the pain of sacrifice, service, abandonment, rejection and betrayal.

I joined the US Military at seventeen to prove my allegiance to the ideals that made America great in my mind, but war in a foreign land far away from the ones I loved taught me the truth about service and the value of my life.

My brother and I grew up five years apart in a changing post-civil rights America. We were kids of the Kool-Aid generation, the first of our kind. We had opportunities our parents could only have dreamt of. We were the hope of a brighter future, a brighter America. A post-civil rights America.

In the 1960s, the far right party was a party bent on preserving the privileges of natural-born Whites in America, Jim Crow’s America. However, during the 1960s a new consciousness emerged as young White Americans took to the streets to say that they had seen the attack dogs set on peaceful protesters and wanted a better America. In January 1961, a young President-elect  of Irish descent and a wealthy practicing Catholic would become the embodiment of the American dream and challenge the good American Christians to look into their hearts and minds and begin anew to create a better nation where the rights of every American, White and non-White, were protected under the laws of the land.

With a rousing inauguration day speech, JFK inspired Americans to think better of themselves, to think higher of themselves: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.” He had spoken and the people spoke back. My parents gave me his middle name because they believed life for Blacks in America would be different.

But, in November of 1963, the 46-year-old president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was gunned down by a lone gunmen while out in Texas promoting his ideas of equality to the American people.

This is America

My brother was crying because it was hard for him to accept people could be so calculating and one so naive. He, like so many others, wanted badly to believe in a land blessed by God.

I was twelve years old when my big brother left home. He moved up north straight out of high school, where he built a career and retired as a professional chef.  He found love, family and set up a home up north. But in the Trump years, the scales fell from his eyes.

“I never had a racist moment down south, not like the kind of racist moments these guys tell me they’ve encountered here in Philly. I mean I just never believed White people hated us that much.”

I knew the anguish, the shock.  We Blacks down south don’t complain, we see but at the same time we’ve learnt not to see.

My grandma in the village used to say, “You can’t feed into the darkness. You can’t demand anyone to know what you know, to understand what you understand. People see what they want to see. People come to truth when they come to it and not a second before.”

But what you don’t do is stop living.

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Reflections

Gold and Gemstone Policy in Kenya: The Devil Is in the Detail

Small-scale artisanal gold and gemstone mining is decades-old but lack of knowledge and expertise, and limited support from the government have hampered the sector’s development.

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Gold and Gemstone Policy in KenyA: The Devil Is in the Detail
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The evergreen town of Kakamega is a picture of the hustle and bustle typical of any Kenyan town, with many hundreds of folks going about their daily business. But as you leave the town behind, the environment changes, a lush countryside of cultivated fields and densely planted trees giving no hint of the gold mining taking place in the nearby locality of Ikolomani.

Across the country, 432 miles to the southeast of Kakamega is the beautiful transit town of Voi, the largest town in Taita Taveta County which lies at the foothills of the Sagalla massif. But the much smaller town of Mwatate is the county capital, and the source of gemstones that Kenyans from other parts of the country know little about. Mwatate has rubies, red garnet, emeralds, moonstones, tsavorite, okenorite, and many more.

Small-scale artisanal gold and gemstone mining has been going on for decades in both Kakamega and Taita Taveta counties, undertaken mainly by local artisanal miners and by a few non-locals and foreign nationals.

The Mining Act 2016 recognises three levels of mining rights: artisanal mining permits, small-scale mining permits and large-scale mining licences. The small-scale permits and large-scale mining licences are issued at the national level through the Kenya Mineral Rights Board (MRB), while the artisanal mining permits are issued through the county artisanal mining committees. The Mineral Rights Board and the county Artisanal Mining Committees are administratively governed by the State Department of Mining under the Ministry of Petroleum and Mining. The Director of Mines and his representatives in the various counties are in charge of overseeing the implementation of the ministry’s policy frameworks. The Ministry of Petroleum and Mining has key mining regulations in place to govern this process.

But even though the Mineral Rights Board is in place, the process of setting up the county Artisanal Mining Committees (AMCs) has been long drawn out and there seems to be no hurry to implement the mining regulations that were commissioned in 2017. Kakamega County’s AMC was gazetted on 27 March 2020 and the team commissioned on 20 July 2020. However, the AMC has yet to begin its work as the key governmental mechanisms necessary to run the committee are still pending and so no mining permits have been issued to artisanal miners in Kakamega County since the gazettement.

Artisanal miners in Taita Taveta County are in a different situation altogether. The list of members of the county AMC constituted through their appointing authorities has been forwarded to the Ministry of Petroleum and Mining but the AMC has yet to be gazetted. When contacted on this issue, one of the reasons cited by the ministry officials was that factions within the mining fraternity have disputed the list of people proposed to be part of the AMC.

Applications for small-scale mining permits are submitted to the Mineral Rights Board through the Mining Cadastre Portal. The platform is meant to bring these services close to the miners but they complain of the slow response from the Ministry of Mining. They must travel to the ministry to submit the paperwork even after uploading it onto the portal. Access to a stable internet connection is also a challenge in the remote areas of Taita Taveta and Kakamega while some of the small-scale miners lack the capacity to use the online system. Most have to travel to the Ministry’s offices for assistance or else hire someone with the skills to undertake the work for them, rendering the application process both tedious and time-consuming.

The ministry has not undertaken any capacity building and shows a lack of commitment to make the system more efficient and user-friendly. The biggest hindrance, however, is the low budgetary allocation made to the Ministry of Mining, which leaves the staff with limited options in their efforts to serve small-scale miners.

The stated goal of the Mining Cadastre Portal is “to provide an electronic platform for all stakeholders in the mining sector in Kenya to engage directly with the Ministry of Mining.” Existing mineral rights holders (those with mining permits and licenses for mining) or those with pending applications can download, complete and upload the requisite documents. Prospective mineral rights holders can also submit their particulars and other supporting documents through the portal.

The portal is also a one-stop shop for information on mining activities in Kenya. It has a cadastre map of the key areas with mineral resources, as well as details of licence holders, and on-going applications; a click on any part of the map automatically displays the existing information about that specific geographical location.

For artisanal and small-scale miners (ASMs) in Kakamega and Taita Taveta, the portal has had a significant impact on access to public information on mining in Kenya. But the portal also has its limitations. Mining is a highly skilled sector that requires high levels of expert knowledge. Some of the requirements on the portal are beyond the scope of knowledge of most gold and gemstone miners in Kakamega and Taita Taveta. For instance, the portal requires a miner to take the coordinates of the area for which they are applying for a permit. This requires equipment that is typically used by geologists and land surveyors and that is expensive to hire or purchase. A sketch of the area or locality where the miner intends to undertake extraction is another requirement, a very sophisticated process that miners in general cannot undertake on their own.

Lack of knowledge and expertise coupled with lack of access to the internet, or even computers, therefore leaves the small-scale gold and gemstone miners unable to fully exploit the portal.

Aside from these limitations, however, the Kenya Mining Cadastre Portal has been a game changer when it comes to eliminating brokers from the mining sector and it has proven to be a more efficient system than the manual issuing of permits and licences

For instance, unlike the manual system that had no clear guidelines regarding payments, all fees due to the ministry are clearly indicated on the portal and paid directly to the ministry through a cashless system. Moreover, as the portal has centralised all the country’s mining information, cases of loss or manipulation of files or documents have reduced significantly.

The gold and gemstones that are mined in Kakamega and Taita Taveta are exported out of the country with or without any value addition under the provisions of the Mining Act of 2016 which require an export permit from the Cabinet Secretary the application for which is made on the Mining Cadastre Portal.

But while the law on the issuance of mineral export permits is sufficiently detailed, its implementation is the biggest challenge and I have no doubt at all that gold and gemstones are imported into and exported out of Kenya without any form of declaration. There are many routes along the porous Kenyan boarders through which the minerals can slip in or out of the country.

For instance, most of the gold that is mined in Kakamega is taken to Uganda by road undeclared. How can this be remedied, especially for gold and gemstone miners who want to run a clean business? Also, the process of implementing the gold refinery centre in Kakamega and the gemstone value addition centre in Voi remains pending. If the sector is streamlined, then the issue of traceability of gold and gemstones will be resolved and the mineral export licence will be of value to the artisanal and small-scale miners in the sector.

The article is done with support from Diakonia Kenya Country Office under the Madini Yetu Wajibu Wetu (Our Minerals, Our Responsibility) Project. Views expressed in the article are those of the author.

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