Red earth is blood, Red earth is life, Red earth is what takes and keeps safe the lives we lose.
Friday the 21st of December 2018, around four in the afternoon, mother and son sit for lunch at their house in Soweto Phase 3 estate, Kibera. The meal does not have much of a conversation and both of them proceed to their own activities soon after. The son is just days away from clocking another year in his life. When the new year comes he will be turning twenty-three, and he’s going to spoil his family, he’ll throw a birthday celebration party. The young man leaves, but calls his mum a few moments later about some money meant for the party which he wanted to send by phone; his mum says she wanted to receive it personally from him since there were still issues they needed to discuss. They could not meet at that time, the son must have been busy in his movie shop or doing something involving football. He loves football, and this love for football, at least according to the mum’s memory wasn’t always there, she had never thought of his little ‘softie’ boy as a sportsman until his late teenage years when he started playing football. At one point she remembers him coming home with application papers for Gor Mahia FC’s under 21 team. Now he’s a goalkeeper for his university football team in the UK, and for the last three months Jinamori FC at Kenyatta. It only made sense to let him be till the next day, after all, isn’t tomorrow another day?
The young man joins his mates in a video hall for football, it’s Liverpool against Wolves. He is not a red, neither a wolf, he’s an Arsenal fan, a gunner. So what brings him here? Allison Becker of Liverpool, the best goalkeeper in the world. He has watched every throw, every catch, every move. He wants to be just like Becker.
On Thursday the 27th of December, I see a post on Facebook about a student shot and killed in Kibera by police. The video shows a group of protesters walking along Mbagathi Way, Ngong’ Road and a section of Kenyatta Avenue. At the front of the procession is a banner with a familiar face. The protesters are almost at GPO roundabout when police teargas the crowd, forcing each of them to scatter in different directions.
As I share the story, I’m sitting on a wall that would have separated Nairobi dam and Highrise estate if it were complete. A few metres away behind me is a small settlement along the complete section of the wall, I am tempted to walk this line that traces the start of a place I do not want to be associated with, a place I do not like mentioning in conversations, a place I’m careful not to be seen at, lest I be mistaken to come from there. I cannot set foot in this place unless it’s a job project that requires interaction with the population here, this is a place I won’t think about on terms other than projects and humanitarian benevolence, giving back to society which I’m unable to do till I become rich, only then will I be able to walk the path of a poor person and still remain removed from the poverty. I figure it won’t be that bad going round the slum side of the wall, I have earphones, at least the music will remind me I do not come from this place.
That same Thursday night, the 9 o’clock news shows the full story. It’s the same one I’ve been sharing online, but with some new information. The shooting happened in Soweto Phase Three estate, and the house where the young man lived is just four doors away from where I used to live. Now the jigsaw ends are fitting themselves together, I know that house with the green walls and a black door.
I was once accused of having a bad ear for music, and whoever lived in that green-walled, black-doored house had a bad ear too, Indie and Alternative rock would be playing whenever they were in. I wanted to know who this person was, that played the same music I did.
One Sunday morning I find someone washing their shoes just outside the house. He has looks apprehensive as I approach, but breaks into a smile after hearing what I have to say. “I love the music you play,” I tell him. The few times we met after that there was always a fist bump, at least a nod of acknowledgement, to remind ourselves that although we do not know each other well, we both recognize our existence, and bad ears for music.
My new friend and I would become separated the time I moved out of the estate. The last time I meet him was at a neighbour’s shop. He had tried to catch my attention a few times before I recognised him. This time an attempt at knowing each other was made.
“No, Carilton.” he corrects, and smiles as he steps aside.
We would probably have been good friends or might have just remained acquaintances. But all that was all that was. We will never know.
Later on that Friday night, the young man and a few other football fans are headed home, they have just finished watching the game that ended two goals to none in favour of Liverpool. The young man must have been impressed by his hero Becker, he must have picked up a few tricks he will test on his next game. A policeman they know passes them.
The gate to Soweto Phase 3 is only a few metres ahead. The police officer they had met earlier now appears with a colleague and commands everyone to lie down. They all do as asked. A shot, maybe two, is fired and everyone scatters, who doesn’t know what bullets do? The young man is on his heels too, running towards the gate, he must be promising himself to never again walk at this time of the night, to always run whenever he sees a cop. Perhaps the only thing on his mind might have just been how to get home. Whatever his thoughts were, a pain in his leg tells him that he has been hit, but he’s lucky the bullet didn’t touch any vital organ.
He is now hiding in one of the stalls next to the gate. The beasts find their prey by the smell of blood, his isn’t much, but this is not enough protection. He needs to keep his breathing down, the beasts also find their prey by fear, they feel it from your beating heart.
One of the ways to get rid of fear, almost any other feeling too, is removing yourself from the current situation and going somewhere far away, the young man must have travelled to his past. To his childhood.
He might have been thinking of when he got transferred to Archbishop Gitari boarding school from Mbagathi Primary at Class Four, when he got admitted to Maseno School after scoring 419 in KCPE. Not bad for a kid from Kibera. He must have loved the rocks of Bunyore, he might have had trouble with the monkeys in his school, he must have felt good winning the East Africa Essay Writing competition in high school, he must have worked hard for his 84 points in KCSE. When he got the scholarship with the Northern Consortium of United Kingdom Universities at Brookhouse, he must have remembered how close he came to studying actuarial science at the University of Nairobi. And when he joined Leeds University for Engineering and Electronic Communication, he must have made a promise to make himself great, for his people, for his home.
A man in government uniform wielding an assault rifle looks into the eyes of the young man struggling to stand still because of a wound in his leg. He sees the fear, the beast is excited at this; he feels his blood rush in his veins.
The young man’s head is rushing with ideas of the things he has heard before about the beasts and people like him at this time of the night, sometimes in the day, the things he’s heard about corners, about people forced to kneel and lie down.
“You know me, hata ukiulizia watu huku, they know me; they know I’m not a thief. Why are you doing this to me? Why?!” Neighbours hear a desperate voice pleading. But the sky cracks open and a rain of bullets follows.
The young man is now lying on the ground, three holes in his chest, a scratch tells of how he missed the bullet to his head.
Our vehicle leaves the station two hours late from my intended travel time, most of the first hour was spent walking down River road in search of matatu shuttles to Murang’a. As we pass by Thika town I cannot help but notice the earth. Red clean earth, and the trees. These two things that make the wind outside whisper the word V-I-L-L-A-G-E through the half open window into my left ear, my right ear is searching for a hint of Kangema in the Gikuyu conversation the driver is having with my seatmate, though I’m quite sure this is the right vehicle. It’s my first journey to this side of the country, destination, somewhere around Kangema High School in Kangema, Murang’a county. I took only two people’s contacts in the vigil on the previous night, both of their phones are busy, and now my arrival is pegged on three things. The directions “Upande magari za kuenda Kangema, ukifika town panda boda hadi Kangema High alafu ulizia kwenye matanga iko,” the ability of a random villager to know where the funeral is and my own instincts, after a crosscheck with the driver at every town centre we pass. The wind still whispering words into my left ear…
T-H-E V-I-L-L-A-G-E N-E-V-E-R F-O-R-G-E-T-S
One of my contacts finally picks up after missing three calls. We have just got to Kangema, but he tells me the burial is over and advises me to return to Nairobi because there really was nothing left for me to do there. Sure, there was nothing left to do, but there was a lot left to see.
I take a motorcycle taxi to the home I was told to ask for. We find a few people around who lead me to the gravesite. On that slopy land lies a mound of red earth, red clean earth, with a crown of red roses on top and a wooden cross in front.
CARILTON DAVID MAINA
BORN: 1ST JANUARY 1996
DIED: 22ND DECEMBER 2018
What was left to see was already seen, and indeed there was nothing left to do, only one more thing needed to be done. I dig my hand into the earth on the side and let the red earth slip through to the mound…
Red earth is blood, red earth is life, red earth is what takes and keeps safe the lives we lose.
…I buried him too. And I talked to him, through the red earth, and he spoke back to me. He said he was safe here now, he asked me to look around, he asked me to visit his mother and see how much work he still had to do, he said the city may forget but the village never forgets. I remember my lips fashioned to these words but a different voice spoke, it was his voice, Maina’s voice. Not just his voice but thousands of other voices forced into silence, they spoke.
The young man’s name is Carilton David Maina, and ever since his killing he has never stopped dying. The mother’s pain will never end. Mama Maina is a heartbroken woman. Her life was changed abruptly by the loss of her son, and what hurts her the most is the taking. It was not an act of God, it was never the course of nature, what it was can only be described as a deliberate act of violence against the young man who is her son, and she grieves every single day as different reports emerge about how her son’s life was taken.
Kilimani OCPD Michael Muchiri publicly stated that they could not investigate a case against one of their own, after apologizing for the death of Maina. This was in a forum organized by Amnesty Kenya to try and reconcile the community with the police who are here seen to be reaching out to the people they have hurt. This here is what Paulo Freire describes as false generosity, injustice followed by generosity, and this false generosity in turn facilitates the perpetuation of injustice by the oppressor. The police themselves are an oppressed lot, treated like dogs in their canteen kennels, forced to play fetch to fifty shilling notes on roadsides. And so to restore their human status they prey on the most vulnerable. Looting, maiming and taking innocent lives, the brutes find power in the oppression of another oppressed, since they can’t vent their frustrations and insecurities on the superiors they turn to a group they perceive inferior to them. The policeman who killed Mama Maina’s son knew him, a beast drunk in the power of a rifle.
The police are instruments used by the state to repress the people, in the times before independence they were African collaborators helping the coloniser conquer fellow Africans. Any attempt at resisting, questioning or asserting your freedom would earn you the title terrorist. More than half a century after independence the police still operate on the same colonial principles, they are still working for a black-skin-masked white man. “We do not negotiate with terrorists,” sounds familiar? The police said Maina was ‘a suspect’, “part of a gang that had been terrorizing residents.”
I hear someone saying, “But not all police are bad.” My response to this is: not every young man from the ghetto is a criminal.
We’re living in an unequal society, and our privileges may lead us into thinking of this as the natural order of things, that the poor are poor because they are lazy or that’s just the way things are, and the rich are so because they worked hard and have been blessed by God. Maina worked hard, he read his books well and was recognised for it, he achieved honours most rich people genuinely haven’t, the young man did a TED talk! The young man dreamed and was making his dreams a reality, but he wasn’t allowed to live.
My walk through the settlement behind the complete wall revived my consciousness of one thing, privilege. The fact that I could slide in and take a tour freely in the ghetto without an agenda when not everyone from the ghetto could do the same where I live showed relatively just how much of choosing I could do. I could opt out whenever I wanted to. Privilege is what makes us unfamiliar with places like these, situations like these where most would say “Couldn’t he just have avoided the night, couldn’t he just have avoided talking to some people?” Privilege is what denies us knowledge of the people we meet, privilege is comfort, we do not lack, we do not require help so we do not need to know anyone. Privilege is failing in empathy. And privilege puts us at the same level as the oppressor because every form of violence against those we do not know goes unnoticed. This specific violence is against young men and families living in neighbourhoods no one wants to go to.
Kalundi Serumaga describes poverty as the worst form of violence and at its worst, is a form of slow genocide. There is a genocide going on in the ghetto, the victims young men just starting out in life. The Herods of our times have been hearing rumours about these young men, who are showing signs of a bright future, these young men with brains they would never match in their lifetimes, these young men who threaten to save their people from poverty. The Herods affect their hysteria on their loyal servants who themselves have an already existing inferiority complex, who want no one to rise above them, and they have a special dislike for smart people. Hence when the Herods of Nairobi commend and gift them for killing youth in Dandora and Mathare, they look for that kid who thinks they’re smart in Kibera, eliminate him with the statement “he was part of a gang terrorising residents.” The beasts ended his life to ensure that family stays in the ghetto. And they do it every day, every single week they kill a dream and no one cares, no one remembers, except the earth, the red earth that takes and keeps the lives we lose. And the village, the village they return to in boxes never forgets.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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,
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.
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,
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