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Decolonising My Soul: My Journey to Reclaim African Spirituality

After seven years of being on the journey, I can say that I have arrived at several shores of knowing and understanding. Even more, however, I have begun to wonder about the silence around African spirituality, and its persistent labelling as sorcery or devil worship.

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At 11 pm on Thursday, 20th October 2011, I turn the last page of Coconut by Kopano Matlwa, and I know that I’m not going back to church again. I don’t know what that means at that moment, having been a staunch Catholic, but I know that I’m not going back.

That night was the beginning of my now seven-year quest to discover, recover and live African spirituality. The quest has involved many locations and people – many of them not in Africa – and has helped me to re-evaluate and reconstruct a world that had come crashing down that night. It was not a direct or easy journey. People had many questions, especially those who had known me as the person who would constantly invite others to Mass, or who would confess the mortal sin of having skipped Mass. I didn’t have the answers, and I was making this journey far from home and without much (worldly) guidance. The crash that happened that night hadn’t left a map of where to go, much less where to begin, so I had to make the way as I went.

After seven years of being on the journey, I can say that I have arrived at several shores of knowing and understanding. Even more, however, I have begun to wonder about the silence around African spirituality, and its persistent labelling as sorcery or devil worship. And as a researcher of the environment, I see the connection of these silences and the colonial enterprise, which forced a forgetting of an all-alive Earth, the ancestors and other un-embodied beings like nature spirits, and rendered the Earth as a space for domination. We’re all living with the ecological fall-out from this kind of worldview. I started asking myself: can we recover these ways of being, knowing and doing, and re-engage with the living Earth from a place beyond coloniality?

But back to the night of the crash. In the book I had just read, Fikile, a waitress living in a township, aspires to make it big and be white. She visits her grandmother, Gogo, and participates in her prayers that go on for several hours, a dramatic performance accompanied by wailing and sobs. Gogo moans the lot of black South Africans, the violence, the unemployment, the pain, the assault…The prayer was moving to read until I got to the end where Gogo inexplicably made peace with the God she was praying to, convinced that this God would resolve the issues and make a way. That jarred. This same God that she was praying to was brought by the same people whose coming caused the troubles she was praying about. And that was the end for me.

Walking into the uncertainty was not easy. For weeks and months after, I would scour the Internet trying to find apologies from the church for their hand in colonialism. There were none. Not even in that most progressive Vatican II Council where they finally decided that Africans singing in church and praying in their languages was okay. So I kept walking.

The questions propelling me were in the silences. Whereas Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and even Buddhism, had some form and reality for me, I wondered what African religion was; I had never been told about it or come across it. I had grown up in Nairobi, or more rightly, in Ongata Rongai (yes there are people who’ve lived here all their lives), and without grandparents – they had died before I was born or soon after. I did not have much contact with any “rural home”. On both sides, family members had long been swirled into urban Nairobi pursuits. My brothers and I were third generation “uprooted” in a way. But I was sure that my people had had religious or spiritual practices of some sort. The question was how to find those out while I was studying in the United States. So I started with the one thing I knew I had: my grandmother. My grandmother died a year and seven days before I was born, and I feel she went to call me, the last of the granddaughters named after her. I began my quest by calling to her.

Soul Searching
I am…
Soul searching, seeking to find
Pieces of clay, mud and morning’s breath,
Evening light, sounds and fire stones,
The human warmth that makes me, me.
The touch of my cũcũ – and the others that I didn’t know-
Her stories by firelight, the food we might have made together.
I wish she had taught me to weave,
To warp and weft and tie the knots of this life’s kiondo.
My gogo’s spittle in blessing…
I call on it on this journey I’m taking,
To sound the depths of my heart
And avoid treacherous waters.

One of the ways I was calling her was through poetry. I had written poetry in high school but stopped when I got to university, so I began writing again. This time I was writing a different kind of poetry, one that was calling out to my ancestors, seeking a path, seeking clarity on where to go. I also began to do libations as a way of praying, without necessarily knowing the formula (there isn’t really; ritual is more about spirit than form, though form can carry spirit). I would call on my grandmother, and as I poured libations I repeated the one line of Kikuyu prayer I knew: “Thai thathaiya Ngai, thai”, a call for peace, in between my imploring: help me on this journey, I’m trying to figure my way back, I’m trying to learn these things, open the way for me, show me, teach me.

On the path of sounding out the silences, I started reading more writing by African authors. Up to that point I had been an ardent consumer of the so-called classics – William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and the like. I had not encountered much African literature besides the mandatory high school set-books and I was thirsty for anyone who could tell me anything about African traditions. So I began a self-guided course on reading African authors, going to the library to look for fiction by Africans, asking for recommendations from friends and devouring all that I could find in between my classes: Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Chimamanda Adichie, Ngwatilo Mawiyoo, Okot p’Bitek, anthologies of short stories… As I kept reading, ways of thinking and worldviews (on women’s clothing, on prisons as justice, on men’s beauty) that I had never questioned began to fall away. Histories of Kenya’s colonial period, and of colonialism in the Americas, also helped me understand the world as it exists now was created and was not a matter of fact, unchangeable. Reading was a way of beginning to see with new eyes.

I also learnt how to cook, researching on indigenous African crops and trying out new things with traditional ingredients – a way of reimagining the old. Cooking was significant for me because I had always resisted learning at home; I was sure that I would then be expected to cook for my elder brothers. But away from my mother’s kitchen, I made my own world by experimenting, baking with nduma and millet, learning to make pilau, mahamri and mukimo and so on. That was also the semester I enrolled in voice lessons and began to sing in an a cappella group. In high school I had been labelled tone-deaf and asked to stand in the back and mouth the words during the inter-house singing competitions. In subtle internal ways, singing rearranged me, opened me up, and helped me to regain a sense of self and voice in the new becoming.

The following year, I travelled on a programme studying cities in Brazil, South Africa and Vietnam, and I took the opportunity to learn from other traditions. I figured ancestrality and indigenous spirituality are not only African, and I could learn from different systems of connecting to and venerating one’s ancestors. In every place, I would ask people to tell me and show me how spirituality was done. In Brazil, my host-mum took us to an Umbanda temple, Umbanda is one of the major Afro-Brazilian religions syncretised from practices and beliefs of enslaved Africans taken to Brazil. I wasn’t there as a tourist spectator; I was there to learn and practise alongside others. At the temple, one of the practitioners broke out of the circle of the initiated worshippers and approached me to pray with me, something that my host-mum later said never happens. I took this as a confirmation that I was on the right path even though I didn’t have absolute clarity.

In South Africa I met an academic professor at the University of Cape Town who researched African traditional religions. Something he said helped me understand one of my difficulties with accessing indigenous spirituality in East Africa. He said that traditional religions in West Africa tend to be more public. There are shrines and priests and priestesses devoted to different gods and goddesses and you can go to them and learn. In East and Southern Africa, religions are more private and family-oriented. Even though sacred sites may exist, large community rituals are less common. So if you want to learn outside of family, there’s no place you can say, “Let me go there”.

Vietnam was fascinating because ancestral veneration is absolutely integrated in the culture. Houses have an ancestral shrine where family members place food and other items, food that we later consumed. Walking down the streets you are bound to see, and perhaps be shocked by, people burning money. Upon asking we found out that they were burning dollar bills (fake ones) to send to their ancestors in other realms. Seeing the seamlessness of these practices in daily life was useful and inspiring. In later years I have wondered what difference this holding on to indigenous philosophies and practices in East and South Asia makes compared to Africa’s seeming rush to black out her own.

When I went back to campus for my last semester, a bit less uncertain, I joined a dance group whose main repertoire was dances from Haiti connected to vodu, another syncretised African religion created from the mix of traditions carried by enslaved Africans to the Caribbean. I began to learn the history of the Haitian revolution, and to dance for the gods and goddesses (Lwas) of a tradition that sparked and sustained the revolution that birthed what was the first black republic in 1804.

Later that year, I continued exploring spirituality through dance when I travelled back to Brazil and began dancing the Orixás of Candomblé, yet another syncretised African religion. My host-brother, Dimas, was an activist and practitioner of Candomblé. Observing his practice in song, drum, dance and prayer, having conversations despite my struggling Portuguese, was special. The Orixás, or Oriṣas, are a deity pantheon in Yoruba Ifa tradition that embody particular traits and are often connected to certain nature elements. To this day I feel a great affinity to and respect for these African-based religions as they exist in and have been preserved and added to over time in South America and the Caribbean, and I continue to dance and teach these dances.

Travelling to Mexico afterward, I joined weekly Aztec/Mexica dances at the invitation of my friend Lupita (not Nyong’o; the name is common in Mexico, here short for Guadalupe) that happened in a public square under moonlight. In this dance that would last two hours or more, we saluted all six sides (North, East, West, South, up and down), danced the stories of different animal gods, and ended by claiming the continued glory and fame of Mexico-Tenochtitlan whose roots had not and would not be decimated.

The scroll reads: “Destruyeron mis hojas, cortaron mis ramas, cortaron mi tronco…pero mis raices jamás podrán arrancarlas. Netzahualcoyotl” – They destroyed my leaves, cut my branches, cut my trunk (some versions say burnt my trunk), but never will they be able to uproot my roots.

This declaration at the end of each dance never failed to bring tears to my eyes, as it explicitly recognised the violence of colonialism, and declared the continued resilience of a people’s spiritualities and ways of being. The sense of community and welcoming amongst these dancers was also beautiful. After each dance we would gather and share food, gratitude and updates from the week. In participating in all of these dances I recognised that these were not my traditions, but were traditions that had similar tenets and elements as the tradition I was trying to get closer to. Dancing became a vehicle to reach my people. Vodu, Candomblé and danza Mexica-Chichimeca connected me to my body and my spirit, and then through that reconnection, to my ancestors, because my ancestors are in me and I am in them.

I went back to South Africa and this time had the opportunity to meet with a sangoma for a bone reading. He was recommended to me by a colleague who had struggled for years with debilitating depression that no doctor or medicine seemed to be helping with. She went to the sangoma as a last resort, figuring, “well nothing else has worked”. I had just one question for my ancestors: am I on the right path? My ancestors said yes. They said keep going, keep asking and finding out.

Considering I was due to move back to Kenya, I had one question for the sangoma: who in Kenya can I speak to about this, where can I go to continue to deepen this journey? He gave me a four-part prescription to formally introduce myself to my ancestors and pilgrimage to their lands. He also gave me the name of a woman also on her indigenous spirituality path and who works with communities to revive their ecocultural practices for freedom and well-being. When I met Wanjiku she introduced me to a tens-of-thousands-year-old African cultural and spiritual tradition in the form of African rock art, a heritage that had been unknown to me up to that point. Meeting Wanjiku was also a relief because I now had living proof that it was possible to live one’s African spirituality in East Africa.

San* rock painting in the Dâures Mountains, in what is today Namibia. Image source: Trust for African Rock Art/David Coulson

At home, I was met with the same barrage of questions that my friends had thrown at me when I first left the church. I came back without a job or money (a no-no if you’re coming from abroad), having left the church, and having dropped the three English names my parents had given me at birth. None of this went down easy for them, and the pushback I experienced was so intense that at one point I wasn’t speaking with one of my parents. My parents have never really come round to this new self that I am. They think I am lost, and they still try and get me to go back to church. But I am known for my stubbornness.

It’s been seven years and I’m at the point now where I introduce myself as a practitioner of African indigenous spirituality, no longer afraid to show up in my fullness. Africa, ancestrality and the Earth are a core part of who I am. When the crash happened, I thought I would have to go through the rubble picking piece by piece, and evaluating what is useful to keep and what is not. Along the way I have done a lot of reconstruction and reimagination, picking up and discarding. Much has been embodied, and has happened in doing: libations, writing, singing, dressing, dancing and cooking. My journey has also had lots of gifts along the way – of knowledge, instruments, conversations, practices, movements, songs, rituals, food, and connections. All of these elements were researched, reconnected to, reimagined, reconstructed, and welcomed into, and form a part of my practice today.

I’ve also learned to engage with nature spirits and recover the ontology and practice of a living Earth that is integral to African cultures. Like sitting in a garden. Like speaking to whoever is around me – animal spirits, plant spirits, water, rocks, all allies in the journey to reconnect to self, to ancestors and to Earth. Paying attention to animal messengers. Giving thanks to and paying full attention to my food, to water, to air. I have learnt to salute new lands that I travel to and acknowledge the land as sovereign and alive. I have learnt to listen and sing songs and dance dances that are gifted through such interactions. And the journey continues.

For my Master’s dissertation in African Studies last year, I researched what African ways of being, knowing and doing have to offer for healing and thriving past colonial wounds and today’s continued coloniality. I wanted to think about ideas and practices that are beyond a governance centred on the colonial state, beyond justice practices that are restricted to a Western model retributive justice, and beyond a view of the Earth that only sees her as dead resources to be exploited.

Still, in reading and engaging with post-colonial academic African works, I kept having the feeling that we have not yet gone far enough. We have not yet taken the jump to imagine complete freedom, and the absence or transformation (not reform) of some of our shackles. We have been hard at work decolonising our minds for several decades, but I see less work to decolonise our bodies and even less to decolonise our spirits and restore a relational philosophy and practice in relation to our ecologies, societies and unembodied relations.

It takes some courage to step forward and declare certain things when all around you there is reluctance to hear that or see that, but that is the medicine required for these deeply troubled times and spaces we’re in. My ancestors tell me that this is medicine necessary for Africa today, and that the Earth and all who make home with her require it.

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Wangũi wa Kamonji is an independent researcher, dancer, facilitator and writer of regenerative presents and futures rooted in African ontologies. She is based in Ongata Rongai and blogs at From the Roots.

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Reflections

We Need New Words: A Reflection on the “War on Terror”

The “War on Terror” is a disruption, that makes normal, absurd reality, a privation of humanity, a shape-shifting enemy that yearns for innocent lives and souls; the menacing colonial state with new fangs.

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We Need New Words: A Reflection on the “War on Terror”
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7th August 1998.

Friday, 10am: Parents, students and teachers are all seated in the school hall, and prize-giving day is about to begin. I had obtained the highest grade in GHC (Geography, History and Civics) and I was to receive a prize. I was elated, because it was the last day of the school term. At home, good grades were a pass to indulge in activities forbidden during the school term.

At 10.34am: The headmistress walks to the podium to give her opening remarks when we hear a blast in the distance. Moments later, the crowd starts murmuring, and the few pagers in the room start beeping. Parents anxiously take custody of their children and a state of anxiety descends on the gathering. Vehicles begin to speed off and the prize-giving day comes to an abrupt end.

A terrorist attack targeting the US Embassy in downtown Nairobi has just happened. The neighbouring building, Ufundi Co-operative House was reduced to debris. 213 people die and more than 5,000 get injured. At the age of nine in Standard Four, I felt the fear and anxiety.

Before August 7th 1998, Kenya had never witnessed a terror attack of such magnitude. The Al Qaeda terror group led by Osama bin Laden took responsibility for the attack professing it was retaliation for US presence in Saudi Arabia in the aftermath of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. The national psyche was bruised. President, Daniel Arap Moi regretted that peaceful Kenya had suffered the tragedy of a geopolitical dispute.

My holidays were never the same again. At home, strict curfews were introduced; my mother would call every other day to check on the whereabouts of my siblings and I. My parents introduced holiday tuition as a means, I suspect, of surveillance to protect and curate our movements. “The fear of the public space” had been cemented in my parents’ minds. From then on, I heard my parents add a new phrase in their lingua: “Terrorism” which after the September 9/11 attacks in the United States morphed into the “The War on Terror”. It sounded like they pronounced it in capital letters to imitate the manner the subject of terrorism was broadcast in the news.

********

Over a decade later, in 2009, my brother and I were walking home from an eatery at the Oil Libya petrol station along Mombasa road on a Thursday at 9:17 pm. We lived in South C, a middle-class suburb in Nairobi that had in the last decade bourgeoned into a cosmopolitan neighbourhood with the influx of nationals from Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. South C transformed into a place of refuge for nationals fleeing conflict in their home countries.

On this fateful day, a police patrol unit accosted, threatened us with arrest and threw us into a police vehicle on the suspicion as terror suspects.

Mnaranda randa usiku, kwani nyinyi ni Al Shabaab?” barked a policeman. (Why are you loitering about, are you Al Shabaab?)

Hapana boss, tumetoka kwa duka, tunaelekea nyumbani.” (No sir, we are just headed home from the shops), replied my elder brother,

Unadhani mimi ni mjinga? Wale wa kutoka kwa duka ndiyo hutembea na bomb. Ingia hapa nyuma haraka sana.” (Do you think I’m a fool? In fact those who are ‘just from the shops’ are the ones who walk around with bombs. Get into the back of the vehicle!)

In the patrol vehicle, I noticed that my brother and I were the only suspects who did not bear the physical resemblance of Somali people. The state-led counter-terrorism operations had led to the profiling of Kenyans Muslims, particularly from the Somali community. Members of the community were subjected to police harassment, arrests and human rights violations while publicly scorned as associates of Al Shabaab terrorists.

In the patrol vehicle, one of the police officers remarks that were effectively Al Shabaab terrorists under arrest and our freedom rested on our ability to ‘speak’. This was a new experience for my brother and I. Our fellow “felons” seemed to get the drift and reached into their pockets. Each one parted with a bribe as they alighted from the vehicle and we followed suit. There was little choice to make. The “War on Terror” had robbed us of our moral agency.

*********

I met Leila through a mutual friend. We struck a rapport immediately, and shared many intellectual interests. We would often meet up after class, and walk down from the University of Nairobi, talking as we meandered through the maze of Nairobi’s central business district. She was tall, beautiful. Muslim and Somali. Despite coming from different worlds, religiously, culturally socially and politically, our friendship grew. We created our own little universe where we could share our feelings, ideas, grief, hopes and dreams.

My mother was impressed when she met Leila. By her poise, respect for elders (important for my mother), her confidence and emotional intelligence. In spite of all these good attributes, my mother harboured some cultural prejudices towards Leila. A few days later, she sat me down and told me: “You are now in fourth year and about to finish university and start life. As your mother, I want you to get a good Christian wife and succeed in life.”

I didn’t have a response. It was one of those things that parents ostensibly say with love but cut you deeply. We never talked about the incident again but I was affected by her words even as I tried to understand my mother’s prejudice. I finished campus a few months later and my friendship with Leila drifted apart. We soon lost touch.

After the 1998 terror attack, the bombings in New York during 911 and the emergence of Al Shabaab, it seemed that my mother, like many, needed an image to embody the angst, fear and anger that “terror” had brought into her life. Perhaps the need to put a face to the enemy influenced her prejudice and denied Leila her individual autonomy and humanity.

I partly understood it. This was her way of defending herself, a coping mechanism. The “War on Terror” had erased her ability to recognise the humanity of Leila and her story. It simplified her view to labels: brown, Somali, Muslim and danger.

********

4:10 pm: #DusitAttack is trending on my Twitter feed.

4:12 pm: I check my Twitter news feed for a reliable source. I find one, Africa Uncensored’s Twitter handle: “Terrorist attack at DusitD2 hotel, 14 Riverside underway”

4:15 pm: I call my wife. “Babe, are you okay?” “Yes, I am” she responds. “Okay, I’m leaving the office now. Be safe.” I hung up.

4:20 pm: I send out a generic message, “I’m safe,” to my WhatsApp groups to calm my friends and family.

4:28 pm: I packed my bags and I leave the office.

On the afternoon of Tuesday, 15 January 2019, armed gunmen stormed into 14 Riverside, an office complex in Westlands, Nairobi that hosts offices of various organisations, a restaurant and a hotel, DusitD2. The attack began at 2:30pm and was concluded a few minutes before 10:00am the following day. Initial reports were of gunfire and two explosions at the hotel. The attackers, estimated to number between four and six arrived in two vehicles. One of the attackers went in discreetly and blew himself up next to the Secret Garden restaurant. After the blast, the remaining terrorists fired on the guards at the gates of 14 Riverside Drive and lobbed grenades setting some vehicles parked in the parking bay ablaze. The attack left more than 20 people dead.

On my way home, I scribble on my notebook the words. DUSIT ATTACK AND WHAT IT MEANS FOR THE WAR ON TERROR! This is an opening line to an editorial brief I think of writing so that I can commission a few think pieces to shed light on this issue. I would spend the next couple of days thinking about this, until it dawned on me that I had only viewed the Dusit attack as a function of my job: A story to be written, an analysis to be done and a conversation to be had. Not what it really was: pain, death, trauma and dysfunction.

As far as terror goes, I had been alienated from my humanity and myself.

*******

Political vernaculars, writes Keguro Macharia, “are the words and phrases that assemble something experienced as the political and gather different groups around something marked as the political. They create attachments to the political, and they also distance us from something known as the political. They create possibilities for different ways of coming together—from short-lived experiments to long-term institution building—and they also impede how we form ourselves as we from formations, across the past, the present, the future, and all the in-between times marked by slow violence and prolonged dying. Vernaculars are ways of claiming and shaping space.”

Keguro goes on to say that vernaculars are a discipline producing habits, dispositions, behaviour, feeling and thinking. Most of Kenya’s official political vernaculars—corruption, impunity, national security, for instance—are disciplinary. They name real issues, but they also manage how those issues are handled. They shape the possibilities for what is thinkable. They flatten thinking into habits, repetitions, and negations…they create frames on how we see each other, the world and what possibilities we can conceive.

The “War on Terror” is one of Kenya’s political vernaculars. It is the go-to word to arouse fear, anger, racism and religious hatred; to justify bombing, invasion and illegal detentions; to call for major new investments in military capabilities; to justify dependency on the western nations and to muzzle and curtail freedoms.

The implications for African governments governed by despots, warlords or even democrats is an incentive for tyrannical rule. The War on Terror serves the interests of retaining political power and justifies terrorizing of disenfranchised citizens. To the citizens, the word represents disruption, a normalising of an absurd reality, a privation of humanity, a shape-shifting enemy that yearns for innocent lives and souls; the menacing colonial state with new fangs.

We are in need of another lexicon to explain us to ourselves, to frame our sensibilities, our histories and our humanity, in the mists of absurd political vernaculars. We need words that can help us imagine what kind of world we want to build together.

We need new words untethered to the state that can help us imagine how we want to live with each other. Now, more than ever we need the strength to love and dream.

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Reflections

Millennials II: Speaking up in the Silences

We are still trying to understand who we are and how our society got here, and in doing so we reject the mantra of ‘accept and move on’ or ‘don’t rock the boat’ like many of our parents embodied. There will be a culture clash, but maybe it is necessary, so we can redefine ourselves, redefine family, and redefine Kenya.

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MILLENNIALS II: Speaking up in the silences
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“Kenya’s official languages are English, Kiswahili, and Silence.” ~ Yvonne Owuor

It is always interesting to see the confusion in our parents and older generations with Millennials. It is a clash of cultural values. They may have raised us, but we occupy a place in a global and information culture that they never imagined possible. I see them struggling to understand.

I was born in the 1980s, when the attempted coup was still fresh in people’s minds, and the screws of repression were increasingly tightening. I was too young to know about the agitation for multi-party elections and only later read about it from my grandfather’s collection of The Weekly Review magazine, one of the few publications at the time that was consistently speaking truth to power.

In the 1990s came the liberalisation of the airwaves, and my generation was exposed to much more music, television programmes and movies than our parents were aware of. I remember for the longest time wanting an FM radio so I could listen to Capital FM and later Kiss FM. My evenings from school were often spent shifting between doing homework, and dancing to the music on Rastrut, Jam-a-delic and other weekly music shows. This was a time when African American culture had a kind of golden age on TV. The shows we watched were everything from Sesame Street to In Living Color, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Family Matters, Renegade, Sarafina, The Bold and Beautiful and so many more. Today, if someone my age who grew up in the urban spaces that I did starts a discussion on our childhood, we have many common memories and attachments through these experiences, even though we might have disparate upbringings in other ways. Even from many miles away, we were part of that collective cultural moment, and social media now unites us with our peers across the world, over both the mundane and serious. While we too have many points of differences there is a unique connection to each other from the global and local exposure we have.

It was a time when Kenyan art, and especially music, was starting to find its identity. Hip-hop, comedy and poetry were on the forefront of this shift. A strong emphasis of the art being created at the time was questioning of the status quo, extra judicial killings, and the dysfunction of the political state. It created a healthy skepticism in authority and authority figures. Some of my earliest ideas and understanding of another Kenyan narrative from the streets and the grassroots came from hip hop artists like Ukoo Flani, Kalamashaka, Mashifta and others. The comedy trio Reddykyulas was hugely influential too, allowing us to see ourselves, and critique who we had become as a people, without fear.

On the other hand, our parents grew up in a fractured culture straddling the traditional cultures and the colonial ethnocentrism that despised and looked down on traditional culture. Kenya is 55 years old and still grappling with what colonialists did to us, whether we realise it or not. The colonisers subscribed to notion of Social Darwinism that believed that the closer a culture was to European (and in our case British) culture, the more advanced it was. Given that African culture was completely different, we were seen as uncivilised, despite the fact that we had lived and thrived for centuries before.

Colonialism systematically destroyed our families and destabilised all aspects of society that had functioned until then. Colonial tax obligations pushed people into the cash economy, creating a migrant labour market, and thus separating families. They confiscated land, leading to a large, landless class of laborers who traveled from place to place in search of work. Breaking communities up like this was certainly an easier and more secure way of obtaining money for taxes and for selling goods to them. This economic subjugation still continues in various forms today, with insecure land tenure systems, and families still vulnerable to eviction, land grabbing, and cartels.

The colonisers employed violence against grown men and women if they were not only obedient but also sufficiently deferential. Alyse Simpson recalled whites in1920’s Kenya: “They boxed their own and their neighbours’ servants’ ears if they failed to be servile enough, which in their childlike simplicity they sometimes forgot to be.” That notion of Africans having ‘childlike simplicity’ was not a benign one. It means that we were assumed to be incompetent in our own governance. It upended the structure of society where adults were adults, and were worthy of making decisions. It is highly likely that the violence visited on them resulted in powerless frustration that was then transferred onto the next generation.

Despite being supposedly ‘independent’ since 1963, we never really sat to examine what had happened to our society and technically just exchanged one ruler for another. You see it in the way we casually infantilise grown men and women by assuming the state will make better decisions than they ever could for themselves. We do it too in our families to our poorer relatives or those who dare deviate from the norm.

I sense that our parents were brought up to obey unquestioningly, a result of the kind of violence and censure that defiance would bring upon them. My generation however learned to ask questions, perhaps as a result of the global culture we were exposed to, and so we do. Even though we may not have been as inquisitive in the open as we were in private – we are still our parents’ children, after all, and we were taught to behave in public – the Internet and social media have recreated a quasi-private space that allowed us to continue to question the status quo.

Traditionally Africans had structures for bringing up children and teaching them how to handle themselves as adults. We would learn to cook, herd animals, care for children, find herbs that could cure diseases, prepare for seasons, and so on. This all happened within a certain social context, where an older person would teach a younger one. With colonisation, and especially the disrupted social ties that urbanisation brought, these teaching moments fell away. Those lucky enough to live around aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents learned a lot from the community. Those who didn’t have these structures simply ended up learning from older siblings who may not have always had the right information. More than that we learned from each other, from our neighbours, our classmates and other peers around us.

Teaching requires a voice. But many of our parents had lost their voice and hope, perhaps without knowing. Maybe it was the difficult economic conditions, the secret police and the threat of torture chambers that hung ominously over their heads. Confronting their own situations and the loss of their dreams at the hands of a powerful and corrupt government that killed many who stood up to it must have been an impossible task then. With time I believe the silence grew to encompass even more of their lives and who they were. I wonder if we will ever truly understand what they went through. Facing up to this anguish and loss was avoided by just forging ahead in some ways and at other times acting out in the private family arenas. It has become the ‘norm’ of Kenyan social conditioning for people to turn social media as a space for confessions and on FM station talk shows. Those who could leave Kenya emigrated to Western capitals, those who chose to stay and fight became pariahs, and the rest kept their head down to avoid trouble in a sense of learned helplessness. For those who accepted the status quo it meant a constant adjusting to the changes, a constant policing of their own behaviour and of those they loved to save them from the state sanctions of the day.

Many of our Kenyan notions of respectability can be traced to British colonialism. As long as the orange is waxed, shiny and orange on the outside it does not matter if the inside is rotten and full of worms. In Kenya a person’s importance is often based on what they do, which family they come from or which influential person they are close to, who their spouse is and finally how wealthy or famous they are. It often does not matter what vileness they have been part of, the wealth and fame become like a sanctifying agent. No wonder folks say pesa ni sabuni (Money is like soap).

The breakdown of traditional African society and the public accountability that came with it was replaced with a desire to be respected according to colonial values. For many of our parents a sense of worth was built on how others saw them and spoke of them. Their children were often extensions of this. Many times our own personal choices, even as adults, were not seen in the light of the people we are but as active antagonistic choices against them and the reputations they hold so dearly. Our personhood is not known to them no matter how hard we try to show them.

This is a journey I see many of my peers going through. We are still trying to understand who we are and how our society got here, and in doing so we reject the mantra of ‘accept and move on’ or ‘don’t rock the boat’ like many of our parents embodied. There will be a generational clash, but maybe it is necessary, so we can redefine ourselves, redefine family, and redefine Kenya.

When many of my peers sit and talk to recall our childhood very few of us had good childhoods or teenage years. The truth that our parents did not want to face was that one can only keep up appearances for so long – it always happened that glass of respectability shattered at one point, destroying everything in its vicinity. It would be in the discovery of infidelity in one or both parents, or that there were other entire families who called your father dad. It was in finding out about a secret child your mother had before but kept hidden. It was financial ruin, domestic abuse, rumours of witchcraft in families, evil in-laws, or unexplained absences of parents for years, all hidden under a veneer of respectability.

Discovering any of these for a child or a teenager is traumatic; it’s even worse so if there is no reliable adult to help them talk through these things and make sense of them. But it’s impossible to talk about anything when respectability is the constant demand. What will people think is the first, and the most powerful reprimand. Many times we were told that voicing these concerns is tantamount to publicly humiliating your family. Very often the child/teenager/young adult attempting to talk will be castigated even more than the adult who caused the incident or trauma. Instead of protecting our children from the trauma of past actions, we force them to pretend all is well, never bothering about their emotional and psychological state. All these affect the adult this child grows up to become. Many times the alcoholism, drug and sex addictions are ways of dealing with internal pain, not to mention depression, anxiety and panic attacks and other mental health illnesses.

Growing up without my primary parent for 20 years nearly destroyed me. I went through depression, abandonment, homelessness and a myriad of other situations before I finally was able to find my way out. My larger extended family still does not understand why I am this way because I went to “good schools”. But a boarding school does not make child or create a home for them. Neither is it a place to show you that you are loved and worthy, that’s what a family is for. There are those who definitely did try, but the truth is, parenting is a constant effort and not a peek-a-boo performance where one appears and disappears at will. The unfortunate bit is as a society we have been unable to diagnose, discuss and fix the political and economic issues that create these conditionings. We often don’t see the larger governance issues causing them. Why did so many of our fathers have secret families? Why were we constantly battling financial ruin? Why the silence, why the abuse, why the trauma? What was going on in Kenya to make our lives so painful?

The person I credit most for helping me find my way out and holding my hand and parenting is an aunt who I only got to know well after high school. She truly listened to me and asked me questions, offered advice and even when I didn’t heed it she would still be there for me. Her acceptance was total. That was what made the difference and helped set me off on a long journey of self-searching, healing and forging a new path for myself. It has not been easy but it has led me to a path of peace and a better life than I could have imagined for myself.

I see my peers talking about their trauma, depression and discontent both anonymously and publicly, on Facebook groups and Twitter, finding in each other kindred souls to encourage and advice. I see an increased acceptance of therapy and pychological counseling. The ability to be vulnerable or see someone you admire be vulnerable is what gives us the courage to keep going. The culture of silence is slowly being dealt with in many spaces. Still, there are many who are unable to process things, and drown in various addictions like alcoholism and drugs. They need to understand that what we are facing is not a result of individual failure but as a result of a collective failing to deal with our problems in a holistic way, which will continue to claim our people in different ways. Others who haven’t faced the same trauma and pressure do not easily understand the weight of the burden Millennials carry. The only way we move forward is if we start being honest about what is going on with us.

My peers are incredibly resilient in difficult situations. They are also incredibly creative, hardworking and daring. Not a week goes by when I don’t see someone trying to do something amazing. We are our own people. We dare to dream and we dare to live our dreams and over ‘respectable’ professions such as law, engineering and others. We forge ahead, fuelled by a heady mix of invincibility, fear, daring, anxiety and hope. We own our decisions the good, the bad and the sometimes stupid. We realise you can live an entire life trying to please people and still fail spectacularly.

What has failed us are the systems, society, and the continual bashing because we refuse to fall in line. Our parents’ formula of silence and moving on doesn’t work in our world at all. Just being educated doesn’t guarantee you a job. Having a job doesn’t mean you can afford to be sick. Being an entrepreneur isn’t always the path to a comfortable life. Being on a salary doesn’t always mean you can afford a mortgage. Being wealthy doesn’t mean you are protected.

We will continue asking questions, we will continue pushing the dial, we will continue creating, we will continue until we find our personal and collective freedom.

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Reflections

Unseen and Unremarkable: The Invisibility of Women’s Labour

Erasure confines the work women do into a box which has nothing more than ‘women’s work’. Erasure makes us forget women who explicitly used their nakedness to shame the government into releasing their sons held as political prisoners in 1992. It makes us oblivious of Field Marshall Muthoni, a woman ranking equal to our most famous freedom fighter, Dedan Kimathi.

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Unseen and Unremarkable: The Invisibility of Women’s Labour
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Lwanda Magere is a famed folk tale that many Kenyan children know. He was the man of stone, a great warrior of the Luo, whose skin could not be pierced, and who could not be defeated even by the fiercest enemy. The Nandi people, who neighboured the Luo and fought with them over territory, pasture, livestock and water, were tired of being defeated by the Luo. So they sent the most beautiful girl in their village over to the Luo to extract information. Her only task was to find out how to pierce the skin of the man of stone. Against the advice of his first wife and the community elders, Lwanda married this beautiful Nandi girl as a second wife. One day, when his first wife was away, he fell ill and the Nandi girl had to take care of him. After much soothing and coaxing, she found out that his shadow was the vulnerable spot, and sent word back to her people. In the next great battle between the Nandi and the Luo, Lwanda was sure to win the battle for his people, but one man remembered the story of the shadow. He threw a spear into the shadow and blood started to spurt out of the ground. Lwanda was killed, and the Luo were overcome.

In Lwanda Magere’s story, we don’t know the name of the Nandi girl.

***

Women are erased. Constantly.

It doesn’t matter how great you are.

You could be Fatima al-Fihri, an Arab Muslim woman, founder of the oldest existing university in the world. Or Emmy Noether (officially Amalie Emmy), the mathematician behind Noether’s Theorem, and whose work was so consequential that Einstein himself wrote an obituary for her. You could be a distinguished scientist or a renowned artist, you can map the ocean, uncover the secrets of the stars or the secret behind life itself, but, if you are a woman, you have to fight to be remembered.

It happens even in daily interactions. It happens every time a man repeats exactly what a woman said in a meeting, to great applause. Every time a man echoes sentiments and language women have been articulating for years, he is celebrated for being “so progressive”, “so woke”.

When we – my fellow writers Laura Ekumbo and Aleya Kassam and I – wrote our theatrical production ‘Too Early For Birds – The Brazen Edition’, we wanted to name the women. Our task from the beginning of the writing processes was to ‘uninvisible invisible women’. Kenyan playwright and author Micere Mugo once asked, ‘Where are those songs/ my mother and yours / always sang / fitting rhythms to the whole vast span of life?’ Virginia Woolf said, “Anon, who wrote so many poems without signing them, was often a woman.” The anonymous is often a woman and, now, we refuse to be anonymised. Women have been calling out to each other, remembering that in the silence there is a forgotten woman’s song, that in ‘Anon’ there is a forgotten woman’s name, that in the invisible there is a woman made invisible. Remembering women, is in many ways remembering yourself.

In the famed fable of Lwanda Magere, what struck us was the existence of a girl, in one of our country’s most famous folktales, who was reduced to nothing but a plot point. This girl went into enemy territory as a spy, leaving her life and home behind. This girl won the war for the Nandi. This girl betrayed the Luo. This girl was as dangerous and powerful as Delilah. This girl was a badass.

No one knows her name. In our research, we did not find her name recorded by either community. At least we could not find any proof of her name, not in the way Lwanda is Lwanda, or Mumbi is Mumbi. The name we could find, “Nyalang’o” literally means ‘Nandi girl’ in Dholuo. As far as we could tell, she was just the most beautiful girl in the village.

This girl remains unnamed.

***

The truth of a story is always determined by the teller. We knew we wanted to speak to her, with her, bring her perspective to light. Of course, you can tell the story from the perspective of the men (Lwanda, the elders from both communities, the warrior who threw the spear) but we were writing about women.

We could have told the story of his first wife. In her, we saw an intelligent, loyal woman who saw a spy come into her home, and did everything she could to protect not just her husband, but her community. She made sure that this strange woman was never alone with her husband, especially when he was ill. By some twist of fate, she had to travel and while she was away, her husband fell sick and let his secret out. The first wife returns home to find the truth is out and dreads someone would destroy him one day.

So why Nandi?

The truth and fact is I didn’t know much about the women we wrote about before we did. Yes I had heard of a few – Chelagat Mutai, Mekatilili wa Menza, Wangu wa Makeri – but vaguely, imprecisely. I didn’t know about Field Marshall Muthoni wa Kirima or Zarina Patel at all, and they are both alive and well. The latter two are not just in the annals of history: they are here, and I didn’t know about them.

The Nandi Girl captured exactly why we didn’t know about them. It doesn’t matter how pivotal you are, if the stories are about men and their battles, as a woman, you will be relegated to a footnote. Her name was lost and instead she became an archetype: A Delilah figure. A seductive woman who takes down a man using her feminine wiles. And not even that, she just got the information and disappeared, seemingly never to be heard from again.

But make no mistake: this erasure is deliberate.

Erasure confines the work women do into a box which has nothing more than ‘women’s work’. Women freedom fighters become unthinkable in a country where parliamentary debates to meet the constitutionally required two-thirds gender rule are presented as a periodic annoyance, rather than a necessity.

Erasure makes us forget the Kenyan women who explicitly used their nakedness to shame the government into releasing their sons held as political prisoners in 1992. It makes us oblivious of Field Marshall Muthoni, a woman ranking equal to our most famous freedom fighter, Dedan Kimathi, a woman revered by him not just as a fighter but as a strategist and thinker. It erases that Field Marshall Muthoni fought her whole life, starting by supplying food and information to fighters in the forest as a young girl, and when she went to the forest herself, she rose up the ranks and was known as “The Weaver Bird” for her ability to navigate the forest. It erases that she continues to be in resistance, refusing to cut her hair until we find true freedom as a nation. It erases the fact that we have not found true freedom.

Erasure reduces women to ‘political flower girls’ – the media actually uses this phrase – and we cannot fathom women as a fundamental part of revolutions. Mekatilili wa Menza is often depicted as young girl because we erase the fact that she was in her 70’s when she led the Giriama uprising. Erasure knows that a feisty young girl fighting a common enemy is tolerable – one can always blame the folly of youth – an enraged, mature woman pushing back against an unjust system is not.

We forget Chelagat Mutai was part of a core group of parliamentarians that stood up to the government during one-party rule, when most of the other men in the House were very silent. We forget that Zarina Patel continues to fight for our freedoms, our right to public spaces and did so against not just the government, but her own family. We don’t even know, or want to know, that sex workers were among the first African property owners in colonial Nairobi. We erase how women, these women, were revolutionary in spirit because they stepped outside of the bounds restraining them. It does not do to have women who use their rage, name their abusers, name the problem, name themselves.

It does not do to have examples of women of power, because then maybe every woman will feel like she has power too.

If they must be named, if there is no way to erase them entirely, Erasure sanitises them. It makes them fit the mould of the patriarchy, and reconfigures them into a good and comfortable woman who fought just hard enough, but not too hard. Wangari Mathaai is today remembered as the woman of peace and trees, not the divorcee who was described as a ‘mad woman’ with ‘insects in her head’; who was under constant threat, whose kindness was iron-hearted. From Winnie Madikizela-Mandela to Rosa Parks, women’s work is reduced to a form that can be footnoted in men’s; the great man’s wife, the woman who just sat down.

This, by the way, only happens if you are ‘important’ enough to be reduced. Erasure is built into our every day reality.

One of the most insidious ways women are kept out of the history books is because so much of the work women do, or relegated to do, is considered ‘insignificant’ or ‘inevitable’. Of course the most beautiful girl in the village became the seductress. What’s special about that?

This bracketing of ‘women’s’ roles minimises the labour women do. The labour you do turns out to be your responsibility as a mother, sister, wife. Women’s labour does not make it into the record. The emotional labour you put in caring for others, the domestic labour that keeps men running the world, the innovations of womanhood like weaving, cooking, sewing, are all unremarkable because they were supposed to happen.

In 2013, during the terror attack on Westgate mall, I remember the then-unnamed woman who made tea, and served the police, soldiers and volunteers who were working to end the siege. I saw her do what every Kenyan mother is expected to do as if born doing it; make pots of tea. She was praised, rightfully, for going out of her way to support the men and women working to end the terrorist attack.

Yet, when I saw that image in the newspapers and on television I was filled with rage and sadness. I couldn’t stop seeing how early she must have gotten up in the morning, how long it had taken to brew that much tea, how much money it had cost, how much help she would need. I was filled with rage at a country where we know that tea, sustenance for people fighting in that situation, wasn’t guaranteed. I was angry that in such a moment, we couldn’t be sure that everyone was being well fed and taken care of. I was sad that only a woman, Grace Wambui Odongo, who must do such labour everyday, would even think to do this basic act of care. I was sad at how many women labour, make lots and lots of tea, because they do not have time for mourning.

Women need to be remembered, not just for big, but for the small. For the cups of tea.

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