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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

The Night Watchmen: Hustling in a Time of Coronavirus

In this legendary city of chestnut trees, gabled rooftops, fairy tale bridges and winding canals, the nights belong to the young and the restless.

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The Night Watchmen: Hustling in a Time of Coronavirus
Photo: Wikipedia/A. Bakker
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“Big man, they killed our little brother.”

“Who?”

“Amanuel.”

“Who is, Amanuel?”

“Your friend. They killed him.”

“Who, are you talking about?”

“Amanuel-Maantje!”

“You mean Little Man? The little light-skinned guy?” I asked now, linking the messenger to a fresh-faced kid I had met at the beginning of the first coronavirus lockdown some nine months ago in March 2020.

“Yes My brother! They killed our little brother. I knew I had to come by here and let you know. You know I always saw he liked to talk to you.”

All of a sudden I felt my heart drop, I didn’t want to accept that he was gone. I didn’t even know his name.  All I knew was that he was a really nice guy.

So reading the news report literally broke my heart.

“Between late night Tuesday the 18th and the morning of Wednesday 19th November 2020, a 30-year-old man was severely wounded in a shooting incident on the Krugerplein in Amsterdam’s eastside. The victim was rushed to hospital. His outlook is said to be ‘critical’.  ‘He had to be resuscitated before they took him,’ said a witness at the scene.”

I called him “Little Man”.

It had been weeks since I had seen him. Our first meeting was purely by chance. I was doing a job providing security in the heart of Amsterdam’s red light district when our paths crossed.

My task was to position myself in front of the establishment at around 1.40 a.m. and provide a physical deterrent for loiterers, vandals and robbers.

“It’s a breeze, all you got to do is stand here. Make sure no one messes up the place. You don’t have to fight with anyone.  All you have to do is let them see you.”

Motivated by an immediate financial need, I agreed to give the job a shot.

To be honest, I just didn’t have the luxury of saying no; the offer was a godsend given we were entering a lockdown.  Upon accepting the job, the most wonderful things began to unfold.

He was a “hustler”, a “kid from the streets”, but I didn’t know that at the time, or really what a hustler or kid from the streets really meant. All I knew was that he was a nice guy who confessed to me that his “gangster” persona was just an act.

I had spied him coming down the street. It was already well after 2 a.m. but the streets were still busy with the throngs from the pubs, bars, cafes that were now closing. I heard him shouting as he walked, parting the crowds.

It was during that random encounter that I realised the importance of not condemning the young.

“I’m famous in these streets, nobody messes with me around here, not even the cops. They all know me around here, Opa.”

I wanted to know what he was doing out in the streets knowing we were suffering a pandemic.

“You either play football or you hustle Opa. You know how it is!” he said with a big cheeky grin on his face. I could only manage a forced smile, understanding the struggle to survive.

Thirty-year-old Amanuel Nelson Cornelio was a cheerful young man who grew up in one of Amsterdam’s poorer neighbourhoods.

“Americans say soccer, right Opa?  But we here in Dutch, say football. You know, I played in a league for ten years”, he said before adding earnestly, “I call you Opa from respect. You are my elder, I could be your son,” he said, and this unsolicited admission made me feel good.

“I used to be real good, I was fast,” he continued. “Look at my legs, they’re strong,” he said and I had to smile.  This exchange between strangers under the lamps on the Plein in the wee hours of the night felt like it was the middle of the day.

“But I messed up Opa.  See, I come from these streets, I was born here. These streets raised me”, he said, then he paused, causing me to wonder if his last statement was an excuse or an indictment on society. I suspect it was the latter.

When he first called me Opa I had to laugh not to feel insulted. I am only fifty-five years old. It seemed like only yesterday that I was out there running the streets carefree like he was, filled with fire and wonder for everything new.

I was 28 years old. Back then life was so different. For a while I thought the parties would never end. It was heaven on earth and I was as free as the breeze. Every day was an adventure. Everyone was an artist or a visionary and we all had big, big dreams for the future.

There was no European Union. The Dutch had their own currency. People were happy and connected in what was truly the most tolerant city in the world. It was truly unreal. A mother’s love reigned over the land, a stark contrast to the patriarchal system I had escaped from in America.

I remember when we danced all night in the streets. When peeing in the canals was a rite of passage. You hadn’t really lived until you sent one downstream.  Today, it will cost you a 90-euro fine if you’re caught.

When the Dutch became a part of the union, switched to the single currency and opened their borders, life changed. A global economic crisis that left five of the 17 member-nations in need of financial aid and a mass influx of migrants to European shores in 2015 kept jobs and progress at a slow pace.

Coincidentally, that same year I hit two milestones in my personal life. I turned 50 and I was made redundant and seemingly unemployable, forcing me to face the fact that my time had come and gone.

Which is why I was standing out in the night air at 2 a.m., working as a night watchman surrounded by sex workers and the traffic that visits the infamous red light zone.

In this new, unique position as a casual observer I learned that no matter their position, everyone is only trying to be their full complete self. Straight across from the Royal Amsterdam Palace adjacent to the Bijenkhof building on the Damstraat is a quote placed on a street tile that marks the beginning of the red light district.  The quote is from John Locke, and it states, “Inside every person, is a part of himself that is only his property and belongs only to him”.

“It’s an easy gig, all you got to do is stand there and watch the place.  You don’t have to engage anyone. You are not there for that. if something happens call me. You have the police station right across the Plein but they usually ride by every 15 minutes to check.”

I had to admit I was a little nervous, performing a job that until then I thought was beneath my previous social status.

After leaving a military career spanning over a decade and relocating to Amsterdam in 1993 with a small severance package, I was able to carve out a pretty successful life for myself here in the Netherlands.

Things began to fall into place almost immediately upon my arrival. I had an advantage in the workforce; I was a native English speaker in a new Europe, a more united Europe that was beginning to raise its head. I was able to jump from one opportunity to the next until the economic crisis that swept across the globe in 2008 hit, changing everything as jobs became harder to find.

In the Netherlands, one is employed on a contractual basis that ensures that the rights of the worker are at all times respected. If an employer takes you on, they cannot break the agreement without respecting the law. Now, the downside to this system is that employers are less likely to take on new senior staff whose contracts are more expensive and harder to break than those of younger, inexperienced workers.

This dynamic has left many senior professionals marooned on the island of ageism, forcing them to find new avenues to earn a living.

“No sleeping, eating, drinking or gathering in front of the shop. Don’t engage with them. If they come under the awning just direct them to keep it moving. Don’t argue with them, if something happens, call me but you have the police station right in front of you. You can go just across the Plein.”

Those were the instructions.

“Ok, I’ll try it,” I said with only one thought in my mind: I needed the money.

My shift started at 2 a.m. Travelling across town was surreal. It was as if this legendary city of chestnut trees, gabled rooftops, fairy tale bridges and winding canals belonged to only me. Until I learned who really owns the nights. The nights belong to the young and the restless.

It was just supposed to be me and my thoughts out in the open air when suddenly, from around every corner, every bend,  as if an alarm had gone off forcing them from out of their holding places, young people emerged from everywhere I looked, at a time when we had been instructed to maintain social distance. I thought no one else would be out.  It was the first weekend of the public restrictions to curb the pandemic.

I was supposed to be the only one on the streets, but when I arrived the scene was a circus. Bars and cafes with outside table service were jam-packed, my work station was right in the middle.

Everyone seemed to have ignored the warning to stay indoors; the young and the old, Black, White, Asians and Browns. Day-trippers, transients and party guests, hustlers and dealers all moving among streetwalkers and foolish hearts looking for a good time. It was a completely different eco-system.

Maantje means Little Moon, but the pronunciation is similar to Mannetje which literally means “Little man”. I gave him that name when we first spoke but what I learned after his death was that he was a street hero. I just hadn’t known it.  All I knew was he was a really nice guy.

“Where are you from, I mean, your people?”

“I was born here but my family comes from Curaçao. But they are all here now.  I stay not too far from here with my grandma. These are my streets, I’m telling you. You know what? My Uncle used to run these same streets back in the day. He was one of Amsterdam’s original gangsters. He died right there,” the young, talkative kid said, extending his arm out to show the spot where his uncle took his last breath, across the empty square close to Nam King, the iconic Chinese restaurant famous for its oysters.

“That’s sad,” I said.  As I stood there searching for what to say next, a darker, older man came cycling around the corner, an apparent acquaintance of Little Man.

Little Man waved him over.

“Tell him who my uncle was. Tell him he was killed right over there,” Little Man said to his friend who I had determined had Afro-Surinamese roots. The darker guy looked closer to my age than to Little Man’s.  He greeted me unceremoniously.

“Yes, my brother, he was a serious gangster,” he said, his voice thick.

“Really?” I said, which gave me away.

“Where are you from Big Man?” the darker man asked, but Little Man answered before I could.

“He’s American. Man, I would like to go there, not to live there but to see it, Opa.  I listen to a lot of music from America, rappers out of Baltimore. You know Baltimore?”

It just so happened that I did. “I used to live not too far from Baltimore, before moving here,” I said before adding, “Maybe one day, after this coronavirus is over and travelling begins again, you’ll get the chance to go?”

To which he replied, “Nah, Opa, they are never going to let me in. I have a record. I just got out [of prison]. I tell you I’m known in these streets, but I’ve been trying to turn that around. Now this lockdown.”

Listening to him and his story I knew how it felt being stuck, being trapped, your ambitions fading from you and you being unable to do anything about it. But I was pressed to know his age.

“Little Man, how old are you?”  I asked. To look at him you would have expected to find him kicking football around the Plein, or sitting under old trees with a pack of other kids, talking loudly at one another, just having fun.

I couldn’t see how a kid like him could have committed a crime that would warrant a prison sentence. Not here in the Netherlands. The Dutch have one of the most civilised judicial systems in the world.  When I first got here, you could kill someone and the most you would get behind bars was four years, but even that had changed over the years.

“I want you to know, because I saw you looking at me, what you saw, what I do out here is  just an act.”

The entire time we spoke, he wanted me to know he respected me ticking the box in the code of a thinking man, and if “Opa” was another form of that code of brotherly love, I wanted to encourage that because in all aspects he could have been my son. I was his elder and could imagine that all he really wanted, like everyone else, was better.

“I’m thirty.” He said smiling while handling his phone which must have showed an incoming call.

“I got to go now Opa,” Little Man said, jumping on his bike and waving as he rode away into the night, to which I could only offer, “Be careful out there.”

I watched him riding away and I imagined he was off to be with friends. Little did I know.

“To say that he will be missed is an understatement,” began the follow-up headlines. “The 30-year-old victim of the shooting on the Krugerplein in Amsterdam’s eastside has been identified as local street hero ‘Maantje’.”

The article went on to describe how much loved he was. “Maantje was known for his enthusiasm and his spirit. He was also loved on the sporting field having played ten years for an indoor club.” The article went on to say that Maantje had lived a street life which was first immortalised in 2011 when photographer Paul Blanca put him in front of the camera for a series of photos of Amsterdam’s street gangs. Blanca remembers Amanuel quite vividly and recalls one particular photo of a younger 20-year-old Maantje staring deeply into the lens of the camera with the most menacing look on his face. The series of photos was titled, “Mi Mattie,” a phrase borrowed from the Surinamese language which means “My Friends”.

To say he will be missed is a serious understatement. It’s a bloody shame. When I asked what actually happened, I was told that it was due to the many months of lockdown. The two assailants arrested for his killing were young people aged 21 and 24.

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Reflections

Coming of Age Under Moi’s Shadow

I was born on the wrong side, the opposition side. The side that attempted a coup d’état to overthrow President Moi.

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We are poor because we are not in government. These words, said by my grandfather, my father, my uncles, and later by my compatriots at various stages of life, have stuck with me. They were simple enough words, but their weight was hidden in the everyday realities of the men and women whose communities were perceived as the opposition, viewed as enemies of the government. That government was one man. President Moi. For 24 years he dominated the national psyche, changing people’s lives the way a hyperactive child switches between television channels.

If you caught Moi’s attention by doing something as mundane as composing a song in his name during the national drama festival, you could become rich overnight. Not being in government was tough. This is because the Kenyan government has been set up to strengthen ethnic dominance, rather than to build national cohesion. I grew up at a time when my community was strongly represented in the opposition. This made us fair game for the government of the day.

Like many Kenyans, I was anxious about joblessness. I was young when my uncle Ben graduated from university in the nineties. His stories of desperation and despair for a job, and his death four years after graduation, were a constant source of anxiety as I studied at Kenyatta University. Like many graduates, Uncle Ben did not have connections in Moi’s government. Our people were not in power. Even the local district officer in my hometown was from the president’s tribe. And the local administration policemen too. The entire police force spoke the dialect of a single tribe. The president’s tribe. The police force was supposed to mirror the face of the nation. That was on paper. In reality, it was the face of ethnic dominance, an expression of the desire of the ruling elite to control power.

The public kept up hope nonetheless, and every year, young men and women across the country would be taken through a grueling marathon of physical exercises in the hot sun, running until they were broken. The few who would make it back to the stadium, sweating, almost fainting, were not guaranteed success. They could still be disqualified because of a missing tooth.

In a country where dental care is difficult to access, replacing a tooth is not something that is within the reach of the poor. Uncle Ben ticked all the boxes. He was an athlete. Six feet and three inches tall. Perfect teeth — except for the nicotine stains from smoking to relieve stress. But he didn’t make the cut. Year after year. My father said it was because we didn’t know anybody important in government. That seemed to be the only pathway to employment in the late 80s and 90s when the economy was shrinking under Moi’s stewardship.

Moi’s twenty-four years at the helm ended in 2002. 2001 had been a pivotal year in Kenyan politics and Moi’s reign was coming to an end as I was coming to the end of my second year at Kenyatta University. The fear that Moi would be president for life was wafting away like a bad smell. We were ecstatic. We were also aware that the late Prof. George Eshiwani, our vice chancellor then, did not share in this excitement. His exit was perfectly aligned with Moi’s. State agents were no longer at Prof. Eshiwani’s disposal and student leaders who had challenged him in the past started showing up on campus. Word was also going around that lecturers who had been thrown off campus like homeless people, were agitating to return. One of them, Prof. Kilemi Mwiria, would later head the education docket in the new government. If Prof. Eshiwani did not leave willingly, we would force him out. We forced him out.

President Kibaki took the reigns of power in 2002. Unlike Moi, he was a closed man. We waited with bated breath to see how he maneuvered. Up to then — and still to this day — only two tribes had ruled over the other forty-plus tribes. And like in many African countries, the elites from these two tribes had been awarded plum positions and government contracts. There was entrenched ethnic dominance. I was born on the wrong side, the opposition side. The side that attempted a coup d’état to overthrow President Moi.

Adhiambo, one of the soldiers involved in the attempted coup, lived less than five miles from my maternal grandfather’s home. He was released after many years in jail. People gossiped that he came back a shadow of his former self, whispered about his inability to have children. And that sometimes he talked to himself. He settled in his father’s shop. I walked by that shop a few times with one of my uncles just to get a glimpse of the man. To see just how much his body had been broken at Kamiti Maximum Prison.

Moi’s daily presence in our house — for a minimum of fifteen minutes during the seven o’clock news and for another fifteen minutes during the nine o’clock news — was a source of tension. When home, my father would demand that we switch off the television. My mother on the other hand would plead with him to allow us to watch Moi. We young ones enjoyed watching the beautiful schoolgirls and their teachers dancing for Moi. They seemed to be in a bubble of security and infectious happiness. We marveled at how privileged these children were that Moi would visit their schools to fundraise for development projects. How lucky they were to be on TV, to take pictures with Moi.

My father hated the obsession with the president, abhorred the spectacle of grown men and women pontificating about Moi being their father and mother. He hated it even more when the local chief came to our family’s tailoring shop, a small business my father had set up to supplement the family’s income. The chief was enforcing an order from the district commissioner. Word was that Moi would drive through our rural town on his way to nearby Rongo, the hometown of one of his new friends from my community. He had risen quickly through the ranks to become a powerful minister of internal security. It was rumored that he was the custodian of a secret.

Moi was on his way to open the massive Seventh Day Adventist Church that his new friend had constructed in Rongo. A gift to his people. And a sign of gratitude to God for his newfound power. Potholes on the Kisumu-Kisii-Migori road were hastily filled with red volcanic soil and a thin layer of tar. There were also security meetings where the local chiefs were instructed to ensure that the local KANU offices had a fresh bright coat of red paint with the party symbol, a red cockerel, clearly visible. The show of loyalty had to be explicit in these opposition zones.

In addition, local businesses, like my father’s tailoring shop, needed to clearly display Moi’s image on their walls. When the chief and his men came, my father was not there. They confiscated the sewing machines and demanded that my father collect them with proof that he had Moi’s framed photograph on the wall of his shop. The local KANU offices were selling framed portraits of Moi at a profit. Who didn’t love the president? Who didn’t want Moi following them with his warm reassuring eyes as they went about their business?

Uncle Ben took a newspaper, cut out Moi’s image, stuck it on a cardboard and framed it. I expected the chief to be furious but he relented. His two sons were in the school where both my parents were teachers and he always needed my father’s help with school fees or a contract to supply maize and beans. Also, why start a fight with my father when there was no chance Moi would see this image of himself plastered onto cardboard? After all, all businesses would be closed when Moi passed through so that people could stand by the roadside and wave to him.

I remember Moi’s convoy driving through my hometown at high speed. I remember the disappointment on people’s faces as the convoy disappeared into the distance. I remember people sighing and trying to console themselves: “I saw his car”. “But which car was he in?” “The one with the flag”. “But there was more than one car with a flag”. “Don’t worry, he will stop on his way back,” our school principal consoled us. He said that Moi had been busy, that he needed to keep time for his next appointment. He reminded us of the need to keep time like Moi. We had waited for Moi for over five hours. The school choir had run out of songs of praise for Moi.

Later that evening, my father bemoaned the time wasted composing and practicing songs for Moi. The time wasted standing in the sun, the school hours lost.

In the early 90s, with the rise of opposition politics, a circular was sent to schools instructing teachers to shave their beards. The government wanted presentable teachers. Also, people with beards had been seen to be sympathetic to the opposition as well as harboring Marxists ideas in parliament. “The six bearded sisters”, a group of opposition members who had mustered the courage to criticise Moi, were under government surveillance. My father was made aware of this circular by the head teacher of the school where he taught. He was instructed to shave. The government was not only controlling freedom of expression. It was controlling freedom of personal appearance. My father protested. Word started spreading around that teachers were getting shaven forcefully by the local administration. The Nyanza provincial commissioner was reported to have supervised one of these forced beard shavings. I didn’t see my father much during those days. He would play cat and mouse with the school administration, teaching his classes before going into hiding in our rural home.

Moi was a good man. He did not drink alcohol. Not like Mobutu Sese Seko. The only beverage that would corrupt his body was coca cola. Which he also drank in moderation. Moi was also in church every Sunday, where the pastor would pray for his good health so that he could continue guiding the country away from the unpredictable hands of the opposition, lest Kenya descend into chaos like our neighbour Uganda. Or Sudan. Or Congo. Or Rwanda. Or Somalia. Or Sudan. And occasionally we would also get free milk at school. We would carry it home, or drink it under a tree during break. With our stomachs full of milk, we knew we were lucky because Moi loved children. Otherwise, why did he work so hard to provide us with milk?

In 1992, when I was ten years old, uncle Ben came home abruptly. Unannounced. Dr Robert Ouko had been killed. He had been very loyal to Moi. Uncle Ben and my father were glued to the television screen as riots engulfed the streets of Nairobi and Kisumu. Many people died in Kisumu, Dr Ouko’s hometown. My father and Uncle Ben seemed defeated. We are poor because we are not in government. And when one of us gets into government, they kill him. It was hard to reconcile the images of Moi the all-loving father of the nation, Moi the God-fearing, humble servant with the Moi accused of heinous human rights abuses. And to reconcile this with the message from my pastor every Saturday that all leaders come from God and that, therefore, God had given us President Moi for twenty-four years.

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Reflections

Living on the Edge: From the Favelas of Rio to Life in Mathare

Both Mathare and Alemão are full of human endeavour and misfortune in equal measure, and in both places young men, specifically, are at high risk of coming to a violent end.

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Living on the Edge: From the Favelas of Rio to Life in Mathare
Photo: Flickr/Rachel Strohm
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Lethal violence is fact in Mathare. On the day I first visit the community, tweets hashtagged #CopRashidCorruptDeals appear on my Twitter feed. I already knew of Rashid, having watched the BBC documentary about him and his team. I follow the hashtag and find this tweet from a local journalist:  “Rashid has wiped all thugs around Eastleigh, Mathare and Huruma. To us residents he is a nice guy.” The journalist in question has twenty-three thousand followers.

I’ve only been in Mathare a matter of minutes when an invisible hand runs gently over the dome of my head. It’s a familiar, yet strange, feeling. I quickly realise that this is because it is neither my own hand, nor that of Inés, my wife. The hand actually belongs to a man standing behind me. Feeling vulnerable, I move away quickly, saying “COVID” in justification for my abruptness. “19”, he responds, completing my words. It’s a funny moment and I relax.

My new acquaintance is one of the many addicts who share a rubbish dump with a large number of highly energetic and boisterous children. The children have transformed a corner of the tip into a gymnasium. The gym includes a climbing frame/assault course (improvised from an abandoned wooden structure) and a springboard — a large black tyre — from which the tiny gymnasts gracefully launch themselves. The kids are well organised. They stand in a nice queue. There are fast ones, skilful ones and learners. After a quick sprint they hit the tyre with both feet. It projects them and they spin defiantly, airborne above the garbage for a split second, before landing on the piece of carpet that serves as a crash mat. Fans gathered to watch the spectacle make approving sounds for the best leaps and twists. The contrast between the shiny-eyed bounce of the children and the glazed stagger of the addicts is stark and saddening.

I’m in Mathare to visit members of the Mathare Empire collective. The enterprising young members of this group have recently occupied and redecorated an abandoned building at one end of the trash pile. Their porch provides front-row seats from which to watch the young athletes practice their somersaults. It is fittingly decorated with a painting of a child with huge boxing gloves and a stop-corona mask. This is one of several large and handsome murals depicting faces that gaze patiently over the dump.

Despite the distracting vivacity of the young gymnasts, the garbage heap is treacherous.  It almost swallowed up a little girl recently. The piles and layers of trash hide pools of rainwater, transforming the junk into something akin to a deadly swamp. The girl, running to greet her father, sunk into one such concealed crevice and began to go under. Quick-witted bystanders saved the day, plucking her out before she disappeared.

The purpose of my visit is to present and discuss projects in Rio de Janeiro, where I lived until recently. In Rio I first worked for Amnesty International, documenting and campaigning against human rights violations in some of the city’s 1000+ world-famous and, sadly, ultra-violent favelas. I later became involved in grassroots cultural and youth initiatives aiming to empower and raise the self-esteem of Rio’s young people and communities. This work is documented in a book titled Culture is Our Weapon and included a project by JR — a TED prize-winning French artist — called Women are Heroes. Most recently, in 2019, I helped to organise the construction of a skatepark in Maré, a neighbourhood made up of sixteen favelas originally constructed on swampland.

We have lots to talk about. While sharing ideas and stories with the group, I discover they have recently taken part in a video call with Raull Santiago, a prominent human rights defender from the Alemão (German) complex, one of Rio’s most violence-hit communities. The issues faced by the residents of Mathare and Alemão are similar yet different. Both are very big, but Mathare is much more densely populated and much poorer. While both places suffer violence, Alemão is a war zone. Both are built in a valley and are full of human endeavour and misfortune in equal measure. In both places young men, specifically, are at high risk of coming to a violent end.

We go for a walkabout. My guides show me how and where they have staked out green spaces, planted trees and painted structures with bright murals, (part of their work for the Mathare Green Movement). These actions bring levity and freshness into the often airless and monochromatic environment. I’m struck by their colourful imaginings of other universes on the walls of public toilets. Just one of these strong-smelling units can cater for the needs of five thousand Mathare residents. I also learn that the toilets are centres of socialisation — children’s friendship networks in Mathare are built around who shares the facility nearest your house. Kids playing in front of several of the vibrantly decorated loos that we visit demonstrate this. The pictures on the walls imagine other possibilities — outer space or lush tropical forests — while others remind users of their current terrestrial responsibilities: don’t forget your mask!

I suffer from sensory overload walking around Mathare. As in Rio, there are myriad sights, sounds and smells to take in all at once. Because of COVID-19, school is out when I visit. Children are everywhere. The community is spread across a gentle valley, not the steep escarpments of many favelas in Rio. Corrugated iron shacks — so close together that visually they form a vast iron sheet of rusted red, grey and brown — cover the slopes. The poverty is grinding. Narrow paths zigzag between lean-tos and rank smelling drains. Most of the shacks are low and many look as if they might fall down should you push them.

In contrast, residents are mostly well dressed and clean. Commerce, licit and illicit, crowds the pathways and thoroughfares. Cheap, ripe fruit and vegetables abound. I taste sweet pineapple and see watermelon, avocados, tomatoes, garlic, peppers and onions. Vendors hawk pastries, eggs and sausages. Cooks stir delicious smelling dishes over wood fires. In Rio, obesity in low-income communities is a serious issue. Here I’m impressed — most people in Mathare look healthy and strong.

We pass a wealth of legal, illegal, social, spiritual and commercial activities — khat stalls, illicit hooch making stills, drug dealing areas, NGOs, schools, churches, mosques and markets. Public soap dispensers and water for handwashing remind us that COVID-19 is ever-present, even though social distancing is impossible. Besides the sale of food there is plentiful commerce—mobile phone businesses, hardware shops, beauty salons, charcoal vendors, boda boda riders and stalls selling new and second-hand clothes. Authentic second-hand garments are considered infinitely more stylish than bogus new ones, I am informed. Fake clothes in Mathare = a serious fashion crime! It’s the same in Rio, where favela residents take pride in their appearance. However, Brazil does not have such an abundance of second-hand imports. And so in Rio, the emphasis is more often on an item’s newness, not necessarily its authenticity.

Yet despite the trading, hustle and bustle and a resilient-looking population, the overwhelming sensation I have in Mathare is that of risky living. I can only try and imagine the heat inside the shanties in high summer or what happens during the rains, when sewers flood and the metal shanties become dangerous because of electric shocks from exposed wiring. But although Mathare is economically poorer and less developed than similar communities in Rio, I do not feel suffocated by the inescapable threat of violence. In Rio’s battle-scarred favelas, gun-toting teenagers patrol the alleyways. Bullet holes in the masonry all around inform you that the weapons are not just for show. Violence is real and present and you are constantly reminded of this.

When I ask my guides about the tweet concerning Rashid they tell a very different story from that of the journalist who described him as “hero”. For young men in Mathare, Rashid is the grim reaper in human form and something of a shape shifter, known for his ability to camouflage himself and merge with the surroundings. He carries pictures of targets on his phone. Businesses pay him to go after miscreants. However, innocents, friends, associates or just the unlucky often end up dead.

The guys I am with are mostly in their early twenties. Statistically, they are the group most at risk from police violence. The presence of killer cops does not make them safer or protect them from crime. Local thieves, they tell me, refer to after dark as “office hours” and can even rob someone they know because those are “the rules and young thieves will take everything you have—even your girlfriend. They take drugs that make them fearless and immune to pain.” These include pills called “cosmos”, sold by local dealers. Cosmos pills come in different colours according to strength and stain the user’s lips. The tablets are apparently prescription medicine for mental illness, stolen from the public health system.

Law-abiding young men in Mathare live between a rock and a very hard place. When they talk about problems, conversation revolves around work and danger. While dignified employment is scarce, even for the well-educated, the threat of violence is permanent. Rashid — seen as something of an executioner-in-chief — exercises the power of life and death through his actions and their multiplication in the public imagination.

The youth in the favelas of Rio favela suffer from precisely the same issue. Police killings (extrajudicial executions by any other name) in the city are among the highest  — if not the highest — in the world. The slaughter takes place in the context of a so-called drug war whereby society overlooks illegal police action in return for perceived security. Young men in favelas are also at risk from gangs inside their communities who also kill without pity. Fierce and chaotic gun battles between police and lawbreakers very often leave behind victims of stray bullets. By the end of 2019, Rio’s police force had shot and killed 1,810 alleged suspects in supposed confrontations, the highest annual number on record and almost twice the 1,003 victims of police violence for the entire US that year. In 2020 lethal police violence and operations in favelas in Rio continue at full steam; they did not abate even under COVID-19 lockdown.

As in Nairobi, where some locals describe Rashid as a hero, the Brazilian media and public have long tolerated and encouraged extrajudicial executions as purported crime fighting. Typical practice is to execute a victim in a fake shoot-out. In just a few hours in February 2019, during a single operation in a favela, Rio police shot and killed 13 suspects. These included nine young men in a house, who, according to witnesses, were trying to give themselves up. However, sometimes they don’t even try to pretend — as was the case in a Rio suburb in 2005, when off-duty police in cars shot and killed 29 civilians in a single evening.

Widespread public consent for criminal state violence in Brazil is encapsulated in the popular saying “a good thug is a dead thug”, first adopted by police death squads operating in the 1960s at the beginning of the country’s 20-year military dictatorship. In 2018, future president Bolsonaro took the dictum to extremes by pledging to unleash waves of violence across the country when elected, saying, “if a policeman kills 10, 15 or 20 with 30 bullets each he must be decorated, not charged”. Other politicians followed suit, campaigning on explicit platforms of lethal violence. Despite the extremely high numbers of police killings, individual cases of which are rarely scrutinised, Bolsonaro committed to the introduction of new legal mechanisms to further protect killer police from investigation.

In Brazil, killer cops, drug traffickers and death squads have long terrorised low-income communities across the nation. In rural areas, local police and hired gunmen provide such a service. In cities and their peripheries, the absence of the state and lack of regulation in poor neighbourhoods and favelas offer a wealth of illicit opportunity. Whoever provides security in these areas can step in to control the local economy, provision of services and crucially, access to the electorate. Paramilitary groups, known in Rio de Janeiro as militia, have lately appropriated this model — a fusion of traditional politics, organised crime and territorial control. Usually linked to police, prison and fire services, today the militia operate in more than half of the city’s neighbourhoods.

Cameroonian political scientist Achille Mbembe has identified this process — the political management of vulnerable populations through their exposure to death — as “necropolitics”. Necropolitics clearly regulates life in Mathare as much as it governs Rio’s favelas. Police like Rashid are not there to fight crime. They defend a status quo.

When I am about to leave Mathare after my first visit, I have an indication of what the maintenance of this status quo entails. Two very burly policemen brandishing enormous sticks barge their way along the street and disappear behind some huts. People double their speed to get far away from them. Doors close and the street empties. Twilight falls. A palpable tension replaces the relaxed late Saturday afternoon coming and going. Onlookers inform me that the police are there to extort payment from vendors who sell glue and “jet fuel” — ultra-cheap ethanol for inhaling — to the crushed adults who converge on the garbage dump.

***

Thankfully, the next time I visit, there is a much more pleasant atmosphere in this corner of Mathare. The area outside the bungalow, as the Mathare Empire members call their HQ, is swept clean. Local and guest artists perform on a brightly coloured stage, made from pallets painted purple, red, yellow and green, to a hyped crowd who occupy the kids’ gymnasium at the edge of the dump. They talk, sing and rap about police violence and issues of the day, like COVID-19. But the event is not a political lecture and nor is it gloomy. The group had spontaneously decided that what was originally going to be a concert would instead be the first ever “Mathare Futurism Day” – a gathering of local painters, artists and musicians to celebrate community, address current issues and reimagine Mathare. “Moments like this”, Wyban Mwangi says, “remind people about the beauty of self-dignity and the constant need to struggle for a better, healthier and safer place to live”. In communities governed by necropolitics, such resistance provides vital hope, freedom and breathing space.

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