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Reflections

Decolonising My Soul: My Journey to Reclaim African Spirituality

11 min read. 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

In Search of Grandmother’s Osuga Seeds

8 min read. OYUNGA PALA mourns the loss of indigenous crops and farming methods that were buried by capitalist modes of production that focus mainly on high yields and profit.

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In Search of Grandmother’s Osuga Seeds
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They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.

This poignant quote is attributed to the Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos. It formed part of a defiant response to the Greek literary community who criticised Christianopoulos’ poetry as provincial. The poem is part of a collection translated into English by Prof. Nicholas Kostis (1995). The original text read…

What didn’t you do to bury me
But you forgot that I was a seed.

True to text and like a seed, those lines have sprouted many versions of that phrase as mainstream metaphors for resilience and hope in the face of injustice, where individuals or groups of people go up against systems that are designed to bury them.

My own paraphrasing of those famous Christianopoulos’ lines would read:

They tried to bury us, we survived but we lost our way and forgot we are seeds.

The importance of seeds, and indigenous seed cultures, in particular, is a lost consciousness among the contemporary generation of African farmers. The introduction of hybrid seeds in post-colonial Africa progressively altered farming cultures and food systems. Commercial and certified seeds accompanied by a retinue of inputs, fertilisers, pesticides and the promise of high yields but only good for one season, have entrapped rural small-scale farmers in exploitative systems of the dominant agro-industry. Indigenous plant genetic varieties have lost significant ground to hybrid varieties, and consequently, the disappearance of indigenous food cultures and seed knowledge.

Discovering my roots

My own awareness of this crisis evolved over decades. I was brought up in a middle-class family, sojourned in Nairobi, chasing the Kenyan dream. My parents had one foot firmly planted in the ancestral village home, back in Gem, Siaya county.

As second-generation labour migrants to Nairobi, my parents arrived in post-independence Nairobi to secure residence, courtesy of the civil service, in the formerly “white” sections of the city. In these new upper-middle-class spaces, backyards were for recreation and not farming. Nonetheless, my parents never lost touch with their roots, perhaps informed by their acute awareness of the politics of belonging in Nairobi. The capital city was a marketplace where capital was accumulated and transfered from the centre back to the deprived margins. To augment the living costs of large households in the city and establish a security blanket in the event of political dislocation, they maintained a steady link with rural homes.

The importance of seeds, and indigenous seed cultures, in particular, is a lost consciousness among the contemporary generation of African farmers.

My father took us to the village every school holiday without fail. We learned to farm, mainly cash crops (maize and beans) as the staple. It was a labour-intensive crop when planted at scale without the aid of mechanisation.

My father was a civil servant securing measure of comfort after retirement and the loss of government perks. He invested in mono-cropping modern systems focused on high yield and scale for profit. It was during these excursions that I began to understand the clear gendered distinction between how men and women farmed. Men approached farming from a capitalistic frame modeled on the colonial imagery of “I had a farm in Africa” – that famous line by Karen Blixen in the book and movie Out Of Africa – while the women engaged in peasant farming, often associated with allotments around the home dominated by indigenous vegetables.

My grandmother’s permaculture garden

While seasonal farming of maize was a group family activity, my grandmother maintained a garden located outside her kitchen throughout the duration of her life. The kitchen garden was distinguished by plant diversity and the presence of diverse categories of food. Fruit, tubers, bulbs, rhizomes, an assortment of vegetables, fruiting creepers, medicinal herbs, spices and some grain.

Every plant in her garden had a function. To the unaccustomed eye, it appeared to be an unkempt and overgrown allotment, in stark contrast to the neat rows of maize that occupied our family’s three-acre farm. My grandmother practised an alternative style of farming that involved no pesticides, save for firewood ash, minimal tillage, composting and the allotment remained productive throughout the year. My grandmother’s generation employed permaculture principles that Bill Mollison, the Australian educator and co-founder of permaculture, brought to popular consciousness. Her philosophy of food production is captured in Mollison’s articulation of permanent agriculture.

“The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter.”

In hindsight, these gardens, a common background feature in most homesteads, served as the main source of the family’s daily nutritional needs. They acted as alternative food sources in the likely event of crop failure due to vagaries of the weather, the sporadic pest and wildlife damage and fluctuating market prices. Additionally, these granny kitchen gardens held something even more precious: a seed bank and a botanical lab where constant experimentation was taking place and heirlooms were preserved. The gardens epitomised food sovereignty in complete revolutionary terms.

My grandparents, who came of age in the nascent days of the British colony, suffered the disruption of an oppressive colonial order. The introduction of a cash economy and wage labour led to new methods of food production, initially as forced labour, and later as a necessity for economic security. While the men farmed to earn money, the women created alternative gardening spaces, delicately negotiating autonomy. A core part of the success of these allotments was seeds.

The loss of heritage seeds

We lost nearly all of the heritage seeds that my grandmother retained in her little garden. The tall pawpaws and red bananas that I thought grew wild as a child are non-existent. The chillies are gone, as are the medicinal herbs and the diverse indigenous vegetables. The traditional yellow-coloured maize known as nyamula of my grandmother’s time are rare sightings. All that I have left is lemongrass that I only went in search of after reading a feature article on its economic viability as a poor man’s cash crop.

In my ancestral village, the keepers of the seed are a generation of grandmothers whose significance is lost in the new agriculture order. The pockets of agribusiness prosperity in the village are exemplified by lush green maize fields propped by agri-tech groups like One Acre Fund that Christine Mungai writes about. Most of the village farms have been reclaimed by bush. Those outside the support network of agricultural companies or who lacked capital to fund farming activity sought alternatives after years of diminishing returns on depleted plots. The culinary habits, a quest for sophistication as an outcome of the colonial project, elaborated by Joe Kobuthi in an article on the hierarchies of food, are now fixated on processed staple substitutes of chapati, bread, mandazi and rice.

In hindsight, these gardens, a common background feature in most homesteads, served as the main source of the family’s daily nutritional needs. They acted as alternative food sources in the likely event of crop failure due to vagaries of the weather, the sporadic pest and wilidlife damage and flactuating market prices.

In a generation, I have witnessed the disappearance and loss of this oral knowledge on indigneous seed in not only food crops, but in trees as well. The predominant attraction to commercially viable eucalyptus, pines and cypress varieties has created tree farms in small holdings following the same ethic of plantation agriculture. Fast growth, high yield and maximum profit.

The indigenous fruits of Kenya are lost to memory and the fruits I now consider traditional, such as mango, guava, and avocado, have roots in Asia and South America. These fruit tree species dismissed for their poor market potential ultimately could not keep up with the evolving culinary habits. The nutritional value of indigenous fruits, such as tamarind, baobab, plums and berries, which grew in the wild, is well documented but restricted to the corridors of botanical research institutes.

Re-imagining food production

The industrialised food systems, with all their detrimental consequences, play havoc not just on our physical selves, characterised by the explosion of diseases of affluence but also on physical land through environmental devastation of water and air pollution and the depletion of biodiversity.

My foray into commercial farming was motivated by profit in an uncertain economy; it was an alternative source of income. I approached it armed with soil tests, fertiliser, certified seed, pesticides and the service of a freelancing agronomist. I decided to try my hand in scaling indigenous vegetables with a boom in demand for local veggies on supermarket shelves. I sourced my seed, the Giant African Black Nightshade (locally known as osuga) from a reputable company. My strategy was monocropping with a rigorous pesticide regimen. Despite my marginal success, it took two pest attacks on a half-acre plot to seriously consider alternative seed. The Catch-22 of hybrid seeds is the heavy reliance on agrochemicals for guaranteed yield. A Route To Food, an alliance against food insecurity in Kenya, conducted research that showed:

At least 32% of pesticide active ingredients that are currently registered and being sold in products in Kenya, have been withdrawn from the European market, due to their serious potential impact on human and environmental health.

This is what set me off in search of my grandmother’s osuga seeds.

Sowing seeds of hope

The seed stock was not available in my village and in the surrounding villages. Whenever I posed the question, I received a cursory response of “koth nyaluo tinde olal”. Indigenous seeds are no longer available these days. My persistence led me to the vibrant Luanda town market in Vihiga County. To my relief, I found a constituency of women selling regional varieties of indigenous vegetable seed, measured by the bottle top from as far as Ukambani. The seed retailed for a fraction of the cost of the certified seed I sourced from the local agrovet. When I asked the women about the stocks, they replied without hesitation, “Mbegu iko”. We have seed. They had formed communities where they collected, selected, exchanged, and preserved seed.

Seed developers have commercialised indigenous leafy vegetables with the emergence of several seed companies selling indigenous vegetable seed. The huge appeal has followed health concerns of meat and processed food-based diets and a return to healthy revitalising traditional plant-based diets.

In a generation, I have witnessed the disappearance and loss of this oral knowledge on indigneous seed in not only food crops, but in trees as well.

I remain aware that these market women in Luanda are an exception rather than the rule. This deliberate stewardship of resilient self-propagating seed is a response to the commercialisation of indigenous vegetable seeds, and in the face of capitalised seed control, they become the face of the resistance movement.

Their actions embody generations of knowledge and a tradition of survival in the midst of a sophisticated assault on the diversity of food crops. The number of peasant farmers on small-scale holdings that once produced the bulk of Africa’s food supply are dwindling. The place of seeds and their preservation is a conversation that happens in the margins amongst groups of community women creating alternative seed economies.

Seed movements

North America has witnessed a revival of native seed exchange banks as indigenous communities re-imagine management systems to store and protect native heirloom seeds that sustained Native American plant-based foods. Seed Keepers Networks are emerging to revitalise native plant species and the inherent rich cultural knowledge that accompanied traditional food pathways. Alongside that are foodie movements returning to tradition of reclaiming and re-imagining pre-colonial African diets that were largely vegan.

Similar initiatives with global visions, such as the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)’s Smallholder innovation for resilience (SIFOR) project, examine traditional knowledge-based innovation systems to strengthen food security in the face of climate change. Many of these initiatives abide by a funding model that involves foreign experts jetting in with capital to solve local problems that were exacerbated by neo-liberal economic policies. Where the women are acknowledged, they merely serve as mascots for narratives of rural poverty that appeal to saviour mentality complexes.

It is over two decades since my grandmother’s passing and I have only now come to terms with the significance of her garden and the loss we experienced. It is loss of knowledge, memory, culture and food sovereignty that is replicated among communities in the global South enduring the trauma of colonial dislocation.

The future of seed commons is going to be grassroots-based and sustained by networks of conscious actors organising to dismantle the power of the agroindustrial complex. The confluence of challenges arising from modern food pathways has triggered a case for re-imagination, not only of what we eat, but how we produce what we eat. What we need is culture recovery that revitalises the relationship with land and the foods we produce and consume.

And at the heart of this is replanting our grandmothers’ seeds that we ignorantly forgot to bury in fertile ground.

Written and published with the support of the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI) (www.routetofood.org). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

My Childhood: 1960s and 1970s

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

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

Burning Hair

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

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

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

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

Nigerians Come to Town

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

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

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

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

About the Exhibition

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

What follows is an exhibition of selected photographs.


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


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

 

My Stylish Mother
By Doris Rutere

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

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

 

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

***


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

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Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In care and love,

Karwitha

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