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Decolonising My Soul: My Journey to Reclaim African Spirituality

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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, writer and facilitator of regenerative presents and futures rooted in African lifeways. She is hearth keeper for the collective Afrika hai that researches, reconnects to and reimagines indigenous Afrikan knowledge and practices for regeneration. She is based in Ongata Rongai and blogs at wangui.org.

Reflections

Policing Black Women’s Hair

The policing of black hair often begins at a very young age, in the most subtle and intimate spaces, long before you get to school.

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Policing Black Women’s Hair
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The thickness and texture of my black hair was under constant scrutiny when I was a child. My aunt used to call me bossiekop (from the Afrikaans, meaning bushy head). The kids at school would use terms like Goema hare (candyfloss hair) and kroeskop  (fuzzy head). My cousin would joke: “You can’t even put a comb through your hair.”

Black women’s hair has been big news in South Africa over the last several years. In 2016, protests at South African schools across the country saw brave young women stand up against racist policies in the various ‘codes of conduct’ enforced in their places of learning. The demonstrations at middle class, Model C (former whites-only public) schools like Pretoria Girls High, Sans Souci in Cape Town and Lawson Girls High School in Nelson Mandela Bay – all schools where the students are mostly black and the teachers mostly white – were about much much more than hair, but these protests spoke to our roots as a site of struggle, and a route for resistance.

The policing of black hair often begins at a very young age, in the most subtle and intimate spaces, long before you get to school. I hated when my mother “did” my hair. From a young age I knew the hairdryer wasn’t hot enough and the rollers not tight enough to tame my curls. I knew the brush she was using would never leave me with hair straight enough to flick back, or cut a fringe.

My sister and I would sit between my mothers legs. Her on the couch, us taking turns on the pillow at her feet. Armed with a hairdryer and a brush she would pull and tug at our scalps, trying her best to get it “manageable.” My hair would turn out big. Just big. A huge soft afro that was long enough to tie back for school, but nowhere near “tame” enough to delicately shake off the shoulder.

When my mother was done with my hair I would stand in front of the mirror in the room I shared with my older sister, look at my reflection, and cry. I felt so ugly and so helpless with my afro. I knew that my mother could never make me look like the white women in the shampoo adverts. It was only the aunties at the hairdresser who had all the right tools to “fix” my locks.

I have more memories of the hairdresser down the road than I do of nursery school. I must have been as young as five when the women with the dye-stained apron, hair clips gripped to the bottom of her t-shirt, would stack white plastic chairs at the basin so that my head could reach the sink. My neck would ache in the basin dent, the water would always be either too hot, or too cold and the hairdressers’ vigorous shampoo scrubbing would make me dizzy. The rollers were always too tight, the hair pins would be jabbed into my tender, young scalp and the hour sitting under the hot dryer felt like a lifetime.

No one understands the phrase “pain is beauty” like a young black girl who has just been to the hairdresser. And after all that pain I would indeed feel beautiful. I had long, straight hair that I could leave loose, flick and comb through. But it was temporary. My hair would “last” for a mere two days, more specifically, my hair would “last” until school swimming lessons on a Wednesday.

Throughout primary and high school, the code of conduct stated that hair should be “neat,” and is just one example of the many way these institutions, which have their own roots firmly growing from our colonial history, govern not only children but also parents. The outdated and outright racist rules were something our parents tolerated during term time, but over school holidays our curls were left to grow.

Summer holidays would be spent at my cousins house in Atlantis, about an hour from downtown Cape Town. They had a caravan, a massive garden and a huge swimming pool (our favorite). We would swim until our feet and fingers turned rubbery. Our eyes would turn blood red from the chlorine, and we would lie belly-down on the hot bricks to warm our shaking bodies before jumping back in to the freezing cold water. Those were days of Kreol chips, fizzers and two-rand coins pushed into your palm by an adoring aunty or uncle for a Double O soft drink. Bompies (frozen juice) and sugary bunnylicks (ice lollies) would leave your tongue rainbow green, red or orange. But most importantly, they were days of afros, when parents rarely fought the tangles (there was really no point considering we spent most of our time in the pool) and left our hair to it’s natural state because there was no “code of conduct,” no threat of punishment.

The joy of swimming, and bunnylicks and afros was limited to school holidays. During term time swimming would more often than not be followed by tears. I recall my aunt sitting on the edge of the bath and pulling at my cousin’s long, mousy-brown hair as she sat in a tub of amateur alchemy. Everything from whiskey to egg was sworn by to nourish and soften. Half-used jars and tubs of the latest conditioners, oils and moisturizers would line the windowsill above the bath like ammo, a site of battle between mother, and daughter’s curls, all for the sake of looking “neat.”

My white friends hair always looked neat and they didn’t know the amount of time it took, or the pain I had to endure to get my hair looking like theirs. They would plait each others thin, blonde strands while I looked on with envy. After swimming their hair would dry “perfectly” whereas any form of humidity or moisture was my nemesis. Anything from shower steam to a light mist was enough to provide extreme levels of anxiety about whether my hair would “mince” or “go home.”

By that point my curls were long internalized as a mark of shame, and what I was expressing on the outside had much to do with how my hair was managed within the home and at school. A prime example was weekend family gatherings. You see, in my family, Sunday lunch would always be followed by “Sunday hair” in order to get ready for the week ahead.

As the aunties washed the dishes and the uncles read their newspapers waiting for tea at five (I shake my head thinking about the gender norms enforced through mundane family rituals, but that’s for another time), the cousins (all girls), had our own rituals. Relaxer would be followed by curlers, blow drying and a swirlkouse, which would leave the room hot, and smelling like product and burnt hair.

With the money I earned from my first job, for instance, I bought a large hairdryer, rollers and an assortment of round brushes and as a teenager I saw these tools as allies. It was only at university that I threw them all out.

Reuniting with my curls was less a conscious decision to rebel against the system of whiteness that taught me self-hate, and more about being free from the pain of curlers, the dizzying heat from the hairdryer and the hours spent fighting what naturally grew from my head (I would “blow out” my hair almost three times a week, it would take as long as three hours a time).

But of course you’re not free from the arrogance of whiteness once you’ve taken this route. Since going natural I’ve had numerous instances of my hair being touched, patted and pulled at by strangers (mostly white women), who’ve called it “exotic,” have compared it to a pineapple and referred to it as “surprisingly soft.” Hairdressers tell me that they don’t do “ethnic hair” and an Australian tourist once grabbed onto my curls and said “It’s like a sheep” before turning to her husband to say “go on, touch it, she won’t mind.”

To this very day, my grandfather will pass comments before the Rooibos tea has even been poured “Leila, what’s happening to your hair, why don’t you brush your hair?” Why is black hair such a threat?

Thinking back to those Sunday hair sessions, above the hum of the portable hairdryer, we laughed, we shared secrets, we gossiped, we spent time. Isn’t that the real beauty when it comes to black women’s hair? The ritual between sisters, mothers and daughters, spending time and passing down knowledge. Why were we not styling afros and dreads, why not twists and braids, cornrows and locs?

Every black woman has their own stories about their hair, their curls and societies endless need to tame, manage and straighten whether at school, in the home, or both. But the young black women who used their natural hair as a form of protest this month have clearly stated that they will no longer tolerate the racist frameworks, formal and informal, that teach them self-hate.

This post is from a new partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Reflections

To Be Black in America: One Tuesday Morning With George Floyd

Until America’s Black population is free from the tyranny of a racist and biased system, none of us, in Europe, Asia, Africa, or the Caribbean will ever be free.

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To Be Black in America: One Tuesday Morning With George Floyd
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We were supposed to be dropping seeds. It could have been me instead of George Floyd, trapped, choked, dead and gone. None of it seemed real, much less right.

I thought we’d be out hugging trees by now, but it’s 7 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, months after and we just can’t get it together. It’s like they’re trying to rip your heart out, like they want to destroy that part of you that is divine and God-given. Your ability to love, to feel generosity, kindness, forgiveness and to share it all, loudly, boldly and freely.

But instead, they watch your pain and, not changing, they condemn another generation to the hell you’re living in. It makes you weak, saps your spirit and reeks of pain.

How can they not understand? How can they not see and know what he was feeling or what you’d be feeling?

Pain and more pain.

And the utter horror and grief, because you know, we are better than this. We should be so much further than this, yet here we are.

I thought when I immigrated to the Netherlands, Amsterdam, that it was only white Americans that couldn’t be trusted and I somewhat believed that Europeans were different, that they would move the marker of skin colour from the stratification of human definition. But the reality at present makes me unsure about this world. About them and about us.

I don’t even know about Tuesday mornings anymore because the indifference spreads and I feel the pressure all around me. It is the kind of pressure that brings shame because you know your suffering doesn’t reach them and that brings grief. You know you are at the bottom, at the very rock bottom of love. Your heart amplifies these feelings and the words you hear bring tears to your eyes, welling and then streaming down your cheeks from the never-before-aired footage of the last moment of Mr George Floyd’s life that knocks you to your knees as you try to resolve the purpose of the latest video. And the silence of politicians and world leaders, ignoring a clear public cry for help, burns a hole in your head. Deep is the humiliation and despair triggered by the new reporting, played again and again, ravaging our sensibilities as those who should know better, be better, stand aside unmoved by the sight of Mr Floyd’s demise.

I recall the years given defending the freedom of the Europeans who hold tight to their traditions today and it hurts me to the core.

The Dutch, the French, the Belgians, the Spanish, the Italians, all allies of the United States, have taken a position and their complacency speaks louder than words. My emergency, the Black man’s emergency is just not their concern.

I thought about the past revolutions and wars, and the many concessions that were made so we could at least achieve a semblance of dignity that no government would impose its weight on its own citizens, but nothing was as it should be.

I thought about the early Berlin conference and the scramble for African wealth that would pull apart an entire continent to be exploited and plundered under the guise of colonialism and a new imperialism. I was a fool to believe these same people didn’t know the wickedness of their deeds. They knew.

Imagine a meeting hosted by the Germans, attended by a league of White Europeans, all the nations present, all playing a part. The Dutch, French, Germans, British, Austrians, Belgians, Swedes, Italians, the Portuguese, the Russians, Spanish and the Americans sitting down at the table and agreeing to bring havoc to an entire continent and its people for their own personal interest.

I thought about the thirteen-year-old Jewish girl Ann Frank, hiding from the Nazis with her family in a small room in a house I’ve walked or biked past a million times before. The house today serves as a memorial to the holocaust, a testament to the evil men can do when there is no moral restraint or self-control.

Tourists gather to see the view she had while she waited for someone with a heart to save her and her family. Thank God for the tree she had to look upon while she waited. She waited for months. No one came. She died in a prison camp. Ann Frank’s room and her diary is just something to do, something to talk about over a coffee and a croissant, if it doesn’t move you. It’s only public relations if we keep dying.

I thought about the twenty-seven years I’ve spent in the Netherlands and that surprising turnout (in Amsterdam), in support of George Floyd. On that day, whites and blacks of Amsterdam and the surrounding regions came out in record numbers, risking their health and their safety to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Protesters in America. The surprising show of support was inspiring and welcomed.

I was inspired standing with so many of my young sisters and brothers on the Dam square and practically moved to tears in the Bijlmer for it’s always been obvious to me, America doesn’t like Black people. And I’ll say it again, America doesn’t like Black people. But that day I felt their energy, thousands of people, white and black people with fists raised in the air saying with one voice,

‘’Black lives matter’’, and I was deeply moved.

The solidarity at both these protests in Amsterdam was inspiring and for a good moment I was proud of the Europeans, all of them except for the political leadership. Not one leader came out to speak against Trump’s anti-Black sentiment like President Reagan did in 1987, when he took a stand for the human rights of German citizens in Berlin. President Ronald Reagan changed the course of history when he delivered a simple, bold message to Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev that would usher in a new era for the German families separated by a wall.

“Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Reagan made history on the 12th day of June 1987 at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, speaking directly to Russian President Gorbachev because he could imagine a different kind of world, a world without the Berlin Wall, and I was proud to be an American, and proud to be wearing the army green, and proud to be a democratic military presence among the Europeans, even back then.

As a former military intelligence non-commissioned officer, I wanted to overlook the silence from local leaders as mere protocol but with the weeks of civil unrest in America and President Trump’s highhanded response to the protests, the silence coming from European political leaders was deafening, questionable and telling.

How could you not see the pain?

And already I was seeing people moving away from what mattered, from saving Black Lives to fighting over privilege, over monuments that honour confederate soldiers, men who fought to keep Blacks in chains (men who lost the civil war), to fighting to get economies to reopen (when the science advises against it) and fighting to remain simple-minded and elitist, instead of listening to evolve.

“What do you want? The cops to kneel to you Black guys?”

“They want to destroy our monuments, our businesses, our homes, to rewrite our history.”

People are generally poor listeners, but they would listen if leaders provided moral leadership. Destruction, chaos and anger reign, and the US President’s reluctance to denounce the White supremacist groups along with his repeated denial of the serious threat of the COVID-19 virus while the statistics show that the number of people dying is mind boggling—until you see, until you learn that the virus disproportionately affects the homes of the poor, often African American and Latino, communities.

All this should make you sit up and take notice. We should be in a much better place, far from here, from the senseless violence, killings, racial hatred and economic prejudice. But the disease of indifference is worse than any virus, because indifference gets to the newcomers, the ill-informed incapable of understanding the legacy of slavery and the brazen impropriety which resembles hate. I know this because Europeans talk, and many sound like Trump’s MAGA supporters.

But I also know the Dutch like van Gogh knows hands. I know they think they don’t have a role to play. For one like me, who knows Dutch history and the Dutch way, who knows how the provinces of the low country became a state after the Calvinistic protest that would gain them independence from Spain, setting in place the economic structure and belief that would define the Dutch in this modern era.

Out from under the authority of the church, the Dutch turned the once forbidden practice of money lending into a business, pooling their funds and their knowledge of sailing, which happened to coincide with the technological advances of gunpowder and made them a force to reckon with. With the emergence of a banking system and a stock exchange, they entered the business of trafficking Africans across the Atlantic to work and die on plantations in the Caribbean and in the Americas.

This lucrative venture would usher in a period the Dutch remember as the Golden Age (1575-1675). During this period everybody was making money and the first model of the contemporary middle class society was born. Before then there were only two classes of men; the rich and the poor. Two hundred years later in 1885, the Dutch would meet with other European nations and sign an agreement to go back into Africa, this time not just to capture and enslave the people, but to take their land.

President Reagan claimed his moment in history by speaking in a clear, loud voice, “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall’’.

To see the Berlin Wall fall two years later in 1989, and the oppressed people running towards freedom, has always been a happy memory for me but today it feels like a slap in the face with a brick. For one like me who remembers traveling to Warsaw, Poland in 1999 and visiting the ghettos, the part of the city where the Jewish population was confined by the Nazis before being sent to the death camps, it is incredibly disheartening. It is also really sad, as a former volunteer soldier who served in four top NATO assignments before being sent to war and then going back to America to the Rodney King beating and the famously disappointing verdict that would set America’s inner cities ablaze.

We should have been much further than we are. How are we going to ever recover from this?

My mind is scrambled, and the tears won’t stop flowing. I had hoped to make it to the grocery store before the crowds. A young Muslim cashier greets me every time, with a big smile. Nothing crazy or romantic—she just found out I was an American and her eyes lit up, as is often the case.

In Europe being an American carries a certain sort of notoriety, a certain sort of celebrity. I get that, but today, I am wondering how she is, how we are going to come back from this, after this, without tears from all sides.

No one was listening to Mr Floyd. Now he’s gone. No playback button on this one. You begin to think crazy, insane thoughts, maybe they can’t see us, maybe it’s true and they really think we don’t feel pain or suffer. But we do, every time that we are excluded, pushed aside, ignored or mocked by the government or in the media or the news.

It gets into the heart, suddenly tears floods your face, because you know your cry falls on deaf ears, so you turn to the only help you know, the one that’s always been there for you.

You turn to her and you pray just maybe the mention of her name strengthens and sustains you behind the weight of doom. Mr Floyd cried out for help in handcuffs for eight minutes and 46 seconds for just one someone to save him and no one came.

But now George Floyd is gone. You want to stop the utter horror and grief but you can’t. You want to distance yourself from the graphic image being broadcast around the world but for some reason, you can’t switch channels. You try to convince yourself that maybe you are too emotional. You didn’t even know the man or his momma. So why all the tears?

Because you know how it feels to be powerless, you know how it feels to want your mother in a difficult or bad situation. You know the centuries’ old abuse. You know the European adventures. You know the freedoms of the Dutch. You know the road it took for you to be here. You know Vermeer’s blue skies, and the Dutch Spirit Jenever. But none of it brings you any relief.

Sunday night, and a new video on my social media page showing a Black male, 29-year-old Jacob Blake, in a dispute with a police officer that ends in another shooting of another Black man.

As I watched the video I prayed it was a fake. I wanted more than anyone to learn that the video was a hoax, sent out to further divide the ill-informed.

One could only have hoped that since the death of George Floyd and the weeks and months of protest that happened on a global scale, every police officer would know that when it came to a show of force, pulling out a gun was just not to be done.

Emotions were already too high.

However, soon after watching the video I would learn over mainstream media that the horrific shooting in Wisconsin was real. A police officer had shot a man seven times in front of three little children who witnessed those seven rounds going into Mr Blake’s back.

While listening to the report, I couldn’t help but think of Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s book, “Why We Can’t Wait”. As he wrote from a Birmingham jail cell back in 1963 about the reason he protested despite the threat of violence directed at him and his followers, Dr King knew that it was time.

Just as Dr King believed, I know that today young Blacks all over the world are watching what’s happening in America, they know America is not living up to its creed, and they just aren’t going to take being treated as second-class citizens anymore.

An ordained minister and Reverend of the Baptist faith, Dr King knew that seeing their uncles, fathers, cousins, brothers dying at the hands of those who were employed to protect them would only incite young Blacks to extremes.

If significant visible gains were not seen and felt in the Black community, America could never trust the freedom it boasts of. Dr King believed America could make real the creed of its nation and all men would be treated equal under the constitution, if only we “commit to live together as brothers or perish as fools”.

This latest shooting of another unarmed Black man joins a long list of others killed for being Black in America, and brings us yet again at to new milestone, not only for Blacks but for Whites as well. We must do all that is in our power to rid this world of racism.

We are on the precipice of change, our humanity is in the balance. We can’t romanticize the systemic racism, or the ill-treatment of Blacks by law enforcement agencies or the call for reparations. We can no longer sit on the sidelines. We must commit to overcoming this evil.

We must have the uncomfortable conversations about the underrepresentation of Black leaders on the work floor, in the boardroom and across the board.

We must begin to look one another in the eye as human beings, regardless of race, class or gender.

Beyond imagining an all-inclusive world, we must all become ambassadors ushering in a new era, a new age and a new way of being.

The age of real partnership, where all life is precious and endowed with certain rights that can’t and must not be denied, including the right of any man to rebel against any authority that doesn’t support his interest.

Until America’s Black population is free from the tyranny of a racist and biased system that allows officials to take Black lives so easily, I tell you none of us, in Europe, Asia, Africa, or the Caribbean will ever be free. For as the Rev Dr Martin Luther King so rightly wrote some fifty years ago, “Injustice anywhere in the world directly effects justice everywhere”.

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Reflections

Capitalism and the Pied Pipers of Our Time

The tale of Elkhorn is not one of a town laid low by rampant diphtheria but one of business as usual in spite of that awful disease. This once-thriving mining town in the United States became collateral damage in the capital wars among the one-percenters of the Gilded Age. With COVID-19, it’s happening again today, but at a vastly greater scale and with devastatingly widespread consequences.

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Capitalism and the Pied Pipers of Our Time
The ghost mining town of Elkhorn, Montana. Photo: Flickr/Henry Smith
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After nearly five months locked down at home in the small city of Bozeman in southern Montana, my wife and I recently ventured out for a hermetically sealed road trip. Many of our compatriots were still not taking the COVID-19 pandemic seriously enough, and we wondered if there was someplace within a day’s drive where we could avoid unmasked human spillover from local taverns, family reunions, birthday parties, football games, rock concerts, rodeos, political rallies, county fairs, farmers’ markets or protest marches.

Although rich in social activities, Montana is better known for its big sky landscapes, isolated nooks and crannies and local populations that can be counted on the toes of your two feet. Here, a GPS is useless for lack of detail, so we consulted a real, 3-D atlas to find a suitably quiet spot for a picnic, and off we went.

Just over an hour out, we turned from a minor highway onto a dirt road and followed old tree blazes, breadcrumbs, chunks of rusted cast iron and other detritus deep into the mountain forests of the southwest corner of the state. Our excursion came to an abrupt end at the forlorn little hamlet of Elkhorn. (Population:10)

In the 1880s and 1890s, Elkhorn was at the centre of the richest silver mining region in the world. The nearby town of Boulder boasted that it had more millionaires, per capita, than any place on earth. Elkhorn’s population once topped 2,500 and consisted of miners, engineers, shopkeepers, teachers and a sufficient number of doctors, dentists, lawyers, surveyors, assayers, carters, blacksmiths, bartenders and prostitutes. Unusual for a Montana mining town, many of the workers, mostly from Europe, brought their families with them.

The mine and most of the remaining structures are now in ruins, with only a couple of buildings reoccupied by service sector hands dangling trinkets or claiming to be hunting guides. What caught our eye immediately was a rustic sign pointing to the Elkhorn cemetery, which was almost a mile out of town, around the backside of a mountain along a rocky, overgrown, forest track. There we found the perfect day-trip destination in a COVID-infested world. All the residents were practising horizontal and vertical social distancing; they sported full-body covering; and, there was one hundred percent sheltering in place.

Tombstone tourism

My wife and I are tombstone tourists. We like to wander through churchyards and cemeteries, reading gravestone obits and epitaphs. Each odd-angled monument and slab reveals something about the place and its people – even if it’s only a couple of dates and a name. Each is a particle of evidence, waiting for Wikipedia to provide context. It’s a painless way to learn history.

The Elkhorn cemetery occupies the side of a steep hill with perhaps a hundred and fifty graves scattered among the pine trees and boulders. We could identify a few oldsters, but most of the dead seemed to be in their twenties and early thirties. That was strange. More startling was a whole section of the hillside where were buried only children – dozens of them from age zero to about ten. And all had died within the two years between 1888 and 1890. Clearly something awful had happened in Elkhorn.

That awful something was diphtheria, a bacterial disease with symptoms and effects eerily similar to COVID-19. Unlike COVID, which is known to prefer vulnerable elders, diphtheria selects the young. Even though Elkhorn lies isolated high in the mountains, in its heyday, inhabitants moved in and out fluidly without restriction. There was even a narrow-gauge railway with daily service twelve miles down to Boulder city. This measure of mobility exposed nearly everyone to diphtheria. The close environment of the mines created conditions for transmission among many young men. One-room schools, packed with kids, helped to spread the deadly disease among the town’s children. In that pre-vaccine era, the deceased were isolated from the living by locating the cemetery at what may have been thought to be a safe distance from town. This primitive form of zoning was Elkhorn’s only apparent response to a virulent disease.

The diphtheria epidemic was not the direct cause of Elkhorn’s demise. In fact, the high death rate did little to deter the town’s frantic pursuit of profit. Mining persisted for several years after the epidemic peaked. Elkhorn’s downfall was actually the result of a crash in the silver market.

In an attempt to loosen the national money supply, which was backed by the country’s gold reserves, the Silver Purchase Act of 1890 required the U.S. government to buy tonnes of silver. This had the effect of driving up the price of silver, which greatly pleased the miners. An alliance between grassroots populists and the silver mine owners lobbied to place the USA on a bimetallic (gold and silver) currency standard, but the movement eventually lost steam. Gold, not the relatively abundant silver, would continue to back the value of paper money well into the 20th century. Soon there wasn’t enough gold in reserve to secure the amount of paper currency in circulation, and the Panic of 1893, a great depression, hit the whole country like a flash fire in tunnel 13.

The crash of the national silver market left Elkhorn’s remaining residents with no economic reason to stay in their once-thriving community. With no market for its silver, Elkhorn finally withered and became a ghost town. External forces, political and economic, had made planning for Elkhorn’s future impossible and unnecessary. The town became collateral damage in the capital wars among the one-percenters of the Gilded Age.

A Kenyan detour

As we unwrapped our cheese and pickle sandwiches in front of the boarded-up Home for the Feeble Minded (that’s what they used to call people with developmental disabilities), my wife asked, “Why do you suppose they put a mental institution like this in such an out-of-the-way corner of the state?”

We had decided to save lunch until we got back down to Boulder to investigate the grand Italianate Revival red brick edifice that had first opened in 1905.

“It could have been a gift from the state legislature at a time when Boulder was losing its economic base,” I said. “All those millionaires must have had some political influence. Or, it could have been to hide people with embarrassing conditions…embarrassing to their families. The atlas says this area produced 4 million pounds of lead, which is often associated with silver. The toxic waste from that much lead coming out of the mines must have dropped everyone’s IQs lower than squid shit.”

She gave that some thought and asked, “What does this place remind you of? No, not this place. The old mining operations.”

Without waiting for my brain to engage, she answered herself. “It’s like Kenya and the colonial capitalism that was going on when we left. Developers from outside – from the UK, Holland, USA, China – put up the capital, upped the value of their investments with tax holidays, underpaid workers and monopolies given out like royal land grants and carted away the profits. Minus twenty-plus percent for the president’s favourite charity.”

“Yeah,” I agreed, “they even brought their own cart. But there’s been nothing like a diphtheria epidemic in Kenya, where workers and their families would have been forced to endure with little help. Unless you count malaria. Besides, the jobs created by foreign investment paid pretty well didn’t they?”

“I think I said ‘underpaid,’ didn’t I? Certainly not paid enough for decent housing, school fees and retirement. And capitalism has brought its own versions of the plague to Kenya. Think about the conditions in Nairobi’s massive slums. Political corruption. Destruction of fragile ecosystems. Pollution of Lake Naivasha from chemicals and fertilizer. So, what about the flower business, itself?

“I see your point.” I wasn’t going to argue. I had read that weddings and other big flowery events have been cancelled all over the world after COVID jumped the pond. At the time, Kenya was employing something like 150,000 workers in the flower business and shipping US$1 billion worth of geraniums, roses and carnations per year. Forty-two cargo flights every week, just to the Netherlands. Now, all those flowers are going straight into the compost.

“So, the bottom dropped out of the Kenyan ‘silver market’,” she said, shaking her head. “Where did that leave all those workers? Selling trinkets in a ghost town?”

“Luckily, Naivasha isn’t a one trick pony, it’s a town with options. Not 150,000 worth of options, though, and, if the pandemic doesn’t end soon, Kenya may be dealing with more than a few ghost towns. I suspect people are already moving back upcountry.”

“That’s always been the Kenyans’ main safety net, hasn’t it? That’s where Rose’s family went during hard times.” (Shortly after we left Kenya for the US, our Kamba neighbour and good friend, Rose, decided to look for work upcountry and took a job at a clinic in Embu. Nairobi had always been tough on her kids.)

“Wups! We had better get moving.” I could see in the mirror that the sky was filling with black clouds and streaky lightning. “Those clouds look like they’re getting ready to let loose the artillery. This car is too flimsy to hold up in a barrage of Montana ice bombs.” We both were remembering the hailstorm of 2010 that kept the panel beaters happy for a year.

Business, as usual

After returning to Bozeman later that evening, we saw in the day’s newspaper that Montana’s institutionalised elders were being hit hard by the virus – one memory care facility already had fifteen deaths. Nationwide, old folks living in congregate care facilities make up just one per cent of the population but are now close to fifty per cent of all COVID deaths in the US, where elder care is a lucrative and poorly regulated business.

From a sidebar on page one, we learned that President Trump is insisting that all children in the US are to be sent back to school in the autumn despite the danger from forced proximity. The better to hasten their parents’ return to the labour force and, thereby, reduce the unemployment numbers prior to the general election in November. The paper reported that seventy-five per cent of our local parents agreed with the president’s policy of sending their kids daily into a petri dish of potential disease! The need for a basic income with which to purchase the necessities of life was overriding medical science, good policy, common sense and even parental responsibility. Where was our government?

Turning to page two, we found Congress dithering over the allocation of money to temporarily provide a minimum income to families out of work or otherwise in need because of the virus. Service employees were especially hard hit, as restaurants, bars, beauty shops, nail and hair salons and other close-contact businesses shut down for the duration, which might be forever as far as anyone knew.

Further down the page, the governor of Florida was cooking the COVID death statistics so he could justify reopening the state’s economy. Look! Things aren’t so bad! Back to work! On to Disneyworld! Spend! Florida soon had the highest COVID infection rate in the US, the country with the highest infection rate on the planet. Young adults, anxious to get out and party in a state that specialises in partying, took heed of the governor’s fairytale justification, went out, scooped up the virus and generously spread it around. The governors of many states that had already closed down buckled under pressure from their chambers of commerce and allowed or mandated businesses to reopen prematurely.

Businesses at the gateways to nearby Yellowstone National Park applauded the government’s decision to open the park to visitors from around the world, none of whom would be subject to quarantine. Employees of park concessionaires are already testing positive for COVID.

Even our state university, a local money-spinner with 16,000 students, was saying that it will reopen this fall with in-person classes – but no testing! We wouldn’t want to cull the herd too early, before tuition fees have been paid.

To read about it in the news, the whole country was performing a high-wire act without a safety net. For over a century-and-a-half, a limitless array of business deals and their promised billions had hogged the spotlight in America’s economic circus, leaving public health and other social issues with little more than pennies from heaven. The tale of Elkhorn is not one of a town laid low by rampant diphtheria but one of business as usual in spite of that awful disease. It’s happening again today but at a vastly greater scale and with devastatingly widespread consequences.

Hello! Emergency assistance?

Ignorance of biological causation was a contributing factor in earlier epidemics. We can’t say that today. We know that immobilising whole populations, prohibiting all large and most small gatherings, restricting travel to zero, quarantining, face covering, minimising exposure to others, social distancing, testing, contact tracing and frequent sanitising are all necessary to stop the spread of the virus. Modifying social behaviour is the key to successful suppression, even if it requires enforcement of stringent regulatory measures and cutting off sources of income.

With incomes diminished, we also know that greater social security payments, paycheck supplements, universal healthcare, loan forgiveness, rent subsidies, free child care, school fee waivers, home care for the vulnerable and accessible technological surrogates for face-to-face contact are needed before individuals can afford to modify their behaviour. Such an array of social and economic lifelines, normally paid for by progressive taxation and deficit spending, will be required for the country to survive this pandemic. Why, then, are we not organising our resources to do these things?

Hope is on the way

Years ago, I worked with a British ex-air force officer who had had the job of predicting the weather for the Allied invasion of Normandy. In other words, to determine what day would be D-Day. The secret in that era of primitive weather forecasting was what meteorologists called the Persistence Theory. That is, tomorrow’s weather in the English Channel will be much like the weather today. If the weather has been slowly trending toward less rain and wind, the trend should persist for a few more days. Not much hard thinking involved, he said. Just note the trend and work with it.

The same is true of anything riding on capital markets, which is to say almost everything in America. There is a great amount of inertia in waiting for venture capital to turn a profit and for existing assets, like oil wells, to be thoroughly wrung dry. This results in a perverse lack of planning. American cities march to the discombobulated cadence of opportunistic capital investment schemes, both public and private. In a capitalistic environment, order won’t be created by the occasional regulatory device. And, it certainly won’t be commanded by city planners that don’t understand the stakes. Our cities are a farrago of costly investments and will not easily trade their sunk costs for some more organised vision of the future. Disorder, in the service of greater profit, is a dominant trend in our society and we’ll stick with it.

Investors, financiers and other capitalists believe they can tolerate the dead bodies, social disruption and lingering after-effects of a pandemic – or of global warming, for that matter – as long as dividends, interest and other payments arrive on time and in sufficient quantities. And, if profits fall below expectations, the rich are powerful – and corrupt – enough to demand that the government provide a bailout even before it provides personal protective equipment, testing kits and ventilators. And this dystopian state of affairs will persist until the day we realise that health, safety and the general welfare can only be guaranteed within a completely reformed socio-economic system that puts human life ahead of profit – by transforming the greedy frog into a munificent prince.

As we adjust to living with COVID, we may notice trends that signal a growing popular response to social and economic pressure, and we may try to accommodate those trends. We may begin to see that people, seeking healthier environments, are moving from more dense urban to less dense suburban and rural settings, like Kenyans moving upcountry.

Cities and towns may then become aware of a commensurate shift in infrastructure needs. People are already gathering in fewer large public venues much less often and at lower densities. Will these venues – schools, universities, stadiums, arenas, churches, concert halls, theaters – remain viable? If not, will they need some kind of support? Will they convert to virtual venues? Or will they wither away? What about changes in the volume and patterns of our consumption? Our housing? Our mobility? It’s too early to say if we will even be able to adapt to the coming disruptions on our own terms. External factors, like an election, the weather or a pandemic may determine our lives from now on.

On the radio the next morning, we heard that the American economy shrank by over thirty per cent last quarter. This is the greatest downturn ever. Despite all efforts by the business community and its praetorian politicians to reassure Americans that normal is just around the corner, we aren’t buying it. Most of us are too frightened. When we can see the bodies stacked in front of makeshift morgues, we know there is a problem so serious that the usual propaganda and marketing abracadabra won’t work. We’re just not going to do the things that have kept money in circulation. The COVID pandemic is already gnawing at the foundation of our consumptive (pun intended) economy.

But, this is still capitalist America. Before our plutocrats and oligarchs divert their wealth to build a people-friendly, post-pandemic state – a new “city on a hill” – they will first reap the profits that lie along the present path, as rocky as it may be for the rest of us.

Meanwhile, they offer us hope that the old normal will return with the discovery of a vaccine. A very profitable vaccine.

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