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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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By

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

Marseille 2021: The 2nd Scramble for Africa

I come back home a worried man, even more perturbed than I was before, about the march of colonialism under the guise of conservation.

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Marseille 2021: The 2nd Scramble for Africa
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Dear Natives, do you know any conservationist who was in Marseille, France, in the last couple of weeks? If you’re a conscious African citizen, you need to ask them exactly what they were doing there and what they discussed at the IUCN World Conservation Congress. Personally, I was there as part of a group organizing resistance against the relentless advance of colonialism throughout the global south under the guise of conservation. Like most conservation conferences today, this meeting was full of backslapping and self-congratulatory nonsense exchanged between celebrities, politicians and business people. This is the ultimate irony because this is the group of people most responsible for the consumption patterns that have landed the world in the climate predicament we’re in today.

They created the most effective filter to keep out people from the global south (where most biodiversity exists), the students who may be learning new scientific lessons on conservation, and the independent-minded practitioners who would be there to share their views, rather than show their faces, flaunt their status and prostitute their credentials for the benefit of their benefactors. This filter was the registration fee. The cheapest rate was the “special members fee” which was 780 Euros (slightly over KShs100,000).

While most of the Kenyan conservationists are now back from Marseille gushing about the beauty of the South of France (which is true), I come back home a worried man, even more perturbed than I was before, about the march of colonialism under the guise of conservation.

For any African proud of their heritage, this worry is heightened by the unending queue of Home Guards and Uncle Toms lining up to sing for the crumbs and leftovers from Massa’s table, the small jobs, big cars and trips to conferences where the only thing prominent about them is their dark complexion and not the intellectual content of their contributions. These heritage salesmen and saleswomen give themselves all sorts of fancy titles, but their brains are of no consequence to the European colonizers. They are as much props as the obviously (physically, mentally, both?) uncomfortable woman unfortunate (or foolish?) enough to have her ridiculous image carrying a pangolin used on the blueprint for the new scramble for Africa.

The biggest thing out of Marseille was the European Union’s grand plan to capture Africa’s natural heritage through a programme called NaturAfrica. Since they know that they have selected partners in Africa to whom prostitution comes easily, they drowned the announcement in noise about doubling of funding for conservation on Twitter.

Marseille 2021: The 2nd Scramble for Africa

EU’s Philippe Mayaux presenting the NaturAfrica initiative.

In the first photo above, you can see the EU’s Philippe Mayaux presenting the audacious grand plan. He expressly stated that they are going to use the “Northern Rangelands Trust model” which has served them well thus far. I’ve been saying for the last 5 years that NRT is a model for colonialism and some invertebrates here have been breaking wind in consternation at my disrespect for their cult. The financiers have now said that it is a pilot for their planned acquisition of Africa’s natural heritage. What say you now? Who’s in charge of the plantation? Do the naïve majority now understand the violence in northern Kenya? Do the naïve majority now understand why foreign special forces are training armed personnel (outside our state security organs) to guard the so-called conservancies?

Following this extravagant declaration by Mayaux, the CEO of the NRT, Tom Lalampaa, barely containing his joy, took to the podium and gushed that “NaturAfrica will be welcomed by all Africans.” Only the irrational excitement brought on by Massa’s praises can cause a mere NGO director to purport to speak for the 1.3 billion inhabitants of the world’s second largest continent. Kwenda huko! Get out of here! We can see through the scheme!

Tom Lalampaa, CEO of the NRT

Tom Lalampaa, CEO of the NRT

On the map presented by Mayeux, you can see the takeover plan (the dark green areas); Tsavo, Amboseli and Mkomazi in northern Tanzania is a colony of the WWF “Unganisha” programme. To the west is The Nature Conservancy colony consisting of the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association in Kenya, and the Northern Tanzania Rangelands Initiative. The rest are the NRT colony (including the Rift Valley, which is clearly marked) and the oil fields in northern Kenya. East Africa’s entire Indian Ocean seascape is marked for acquisition; spare a thought for the Island nations therein, because they have been swallowed whole. The plan has already been implemented around the Seychelles and documented.

I will repeat this as often as necessary: the biggest threat to the rights and sovereignty of African peoples in the 21st century is not military conflict, terrorism, disease, hunger, etc. It is conservation organizations and governments that seek to dominate us through conservation. They will bring their expatriates, their militaries, and their policies. If you look at the map, the relatively “free” countries—like Nigeria, Congo, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, etc.—are those where international conservation NGOs haven’t been able to get a foothold. Here in Kenya, our state agency, the Kenya Wildlife Services, is busy counting animals, not knowing that it is well on the way to becoming an irrelevant spectator in our conservation arena. If you think this is far-fetched, ask someone there why there are radioactive materials dumped by the Naro Moru gate to Mt. Kenya National Park. Or why the Kenya Forest Service is standing by without any policy position while the Rhino Ark goes about fencing Mt. Kenya Forest, a UNESCO world heritage site.

Has anyone asked the EU why this grand plan isn’t global, but only focused on Africa? Are there no conservation concerns in Europe, Asia, or the Americas? Ours is the land of opportunity and this is why they want it. The funding will facilitate immigration and pay to employ the expatriates that will look after their interests in our homelands. Their militias will keep us out of our lands which they need for “carbon credits” so their industries can continue to produce and pollute unabated. Lastly, they need our land for export dumping of their household rubbish, toxic waste and, most of all, radioactive material. This is obviously a continental initiative, but addressing my compatriots (Kenyans), can you now see what I have been talking about for years, even as the European colonists tell Maasais, Samburus and other pastoralist communities that they shouldn’t listen to me because I am Luo? Can you now see how miniscule that school of thought is, how easily your attention has been diverted to discussing irrelevant minutiae in the face of the scale of their grand scheme?

As I said in the beginning, my mission, together with colleagues in Survival International, is the de-colonization of conservation in Africa and the global south. The routine violation of indigenous people’s rights, and the violence constantly meted against them, is the most visible symptom that brought this problem to our notice, but we must understand that the violence isn’t just for sport, as much as these organizations revel in it. Like 18th and 19th century colonialism, it is a commercial venture where political interests follow in its wake because it is too big to remain private. When Leopold’s Belgians massacred people in Congo, it wasn’t just for sport (although at some point it looked like that)—they were there to collect rubber and other resources. The conservation militias don’t just kill indigenous Africans for sport. They are here to protect colonies on behalf of capital interests. It is not about the wildlife—that is just the window dressing. After all, the people and the wildlife were here for thousands of years before their militias came.

This is why we cannot afford to give up. It’s not just about biodiversity. It’s also about our identity, our resources and our children. This is why we must fight intellectually to develop our own conservation philosophy and reject this violent and elitist Tarzanesque Western model. In order to restore the rights of indigenous peoples, we must tackle the reason why they are being oppressed, tortured and sometimes killed. It is commerce. Conservation is just the attire in which it is clothed.

Find an African who was in Marseille and ask him or her what they were doing there. If they cannot demonstrate that they spoke against this colonial project, they had better show you a lot of photos of them shopping and spending a wonderful holiday in the south of France. If they can do neither, then be sure they were in France selling or facilitating the sale of our heritage to corporate pirates.

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Reflections

Surviving the Hood: A Walk Through Nairobi’s Iconic Neighbourhoods

For us hood folk – no matter where we land – especially if we survive the hood – then it is forever home

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Surviving the Hood: A Walk Through Nairobi’s Iconic Neighbourhoods
Photo: WikiCommons/tropenmuseum
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What you up to I asked.
I’m going back home to take some pictures for my foundation was the answer.

For us hood folk – no matter where we land – especially if we survive the hood – then it is forever home. Because we remember how far we have gone.
And no matter what trauma and hardships we suffered – we remember this time through rose tinted glasses.

What? Going back home, home I said
Yes, won’t be there for long but we can meet after. No way! I am coming with you. I am going home too. And so, we set off.

First stop Kaloleni – Ololo – for a walk and picture taking.
You see for them Americans to give their hard-earned cash – we have to reaffirm our poverty and massage their saviour ego.
But today I am not on that soapbox.

I am 7 years old, visiting a relative in Kaloleni – eating peanuts that Nyaredo (my uncle) has bought us.
I am 7 years old – waiting for the medicine man to bring a variety of roots that need to be boiled and me washed with it. You see at age 7 I have terrible eczema and the many trips to Aga Khan courtesy of the KQ medical cover has not helped.
Dana knows the cure – and so off we go to Kaloleni.

We say hi to Mama. She is shocked to see me. I am happy to see her.
And of course, I come bearing gifts. I know she loves flowers – and these are bright orange. My Mama loved orange.
Mothers are precious and I do miss my own Mama, so I channel that love to any mother I come across – especially my friends Mums.

These houses looked much bigger when I was 7. They seem shrunken – but we have grown. This takes me back to the sights and sounds of our homes growing up.
Wow – it must have been loud – with laughter, joy, tears and hopes.

We walk around the old neighbourhood.
There is a beautiful old building that was the maternity clinic back in the day. A safe place. Walking distance from any home for mothers to welcome new life.
The library is next – open – recently renovated.
The social hall still stands …and there is a handball pitch too.
Hmmm – handball I inquire – yes, it has been here since our childhood.

This estate was planned.
Every common space has a tree.
The wooden shutters – painted green and that city council sky blue are still present. I am 7 years old, eating peanuts as I wait for the medicine man.

Next stop is my hood. Jericho.

Jogoo Road has changed but it is still the same.
Barma market – where we bought live kukus for those special Sundays still stands. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

We exit Jogoo Road as we remember the number 7 and 8B bus routes. Long live Kenya Bus Service!

Bahati estate is still the same. Jennifer would get off here.
She was beautiful – Arab looking Kamba gal – Evelyn Tei’s cousin. Next
Evelyn and Davi would get off at Kimathi.
These were the it houses! 3-bedroom stand-alone homes – yo!

I was then in the bus by myself or with Agnes till Jeri.
Funny – no one lived in Jerusalem or Ofafa Jericho…maybe they did, and we just didn’t take the same bus…

Welcome to Trench Town

The sign greeted me as the bus turned into my road. Then I knew I was home safe!

Oduko so – the big shops – the main shopping centre – our Mall
I ate mtura there and ferried metal birikas of soup from there to neighbours’ homes. I got my shoes mended there at the cobbler outside the bar.
My feet grew like weeds – no new shoes, mended shoes for me.
My Mum’s local – drinking those small Tuskers with my Godmother and various aunties. Laughing.

The field next to the dukas was where the monthly open-air movies were screened. To this day I wonder who was behind that…
Bringing a screen and projector and showing a free movie to the masses.

Then the clinic…
The clinic where you had to buy an empty small bottle for your cough medicine. In the hood, Actifed came in 5 litre jerricans.
The clinic where Starehe Boys volunteered during the holidays.

Them in their very colourful uniforms – ever so smart. Patrick Shaw smart. The clinic that I ran to when I broke my toe…
Which was not set properly – and has given me wahala ever since.
I remember the day clearly because my uncle Cliff was there volunteering that day… The game was tapo…or blada…or cha mkebe
Anyway
I ended up with a broken toe that healed funny.

St. Joseph’s …my nursery and local catholic church. Weird place, looking back.
Lots of light skinned kids …pointies…running around. The only white jamaas were the…. yeap! ‘nuff said!
We drive to the parking lot and I am 12. I loved a boy from that house.

He smelled sooo good – Old Spice I remember.
First place I ever heard Tracy Chapman.
His brother was playing his guitar to ‘Fast car’. But alas, he was smelling good for someone else…

Celestine’s house.
Her mother told her not to talk to me because ‘I knew too much’. Celestine got pregnant in Standard 8…
Clearly, I knew nothing!

Wiki’s house – Wycliff – his full name was too long for us kids. First boy and last male who ever slapped me.
Heard my brother defended me by giving him a thorough beating! The joys of big bros in the hood.

Hilary’s house.
Now that was an anomaly…
Hilary lived there with his Mum. The end.
Just him and his Mum…in that huge 2 bedroomed house! My family of 5 kids was the smallest…the average was 8 kids We had a cousin and house help living with us…
We slept in one room.
So, you see the thought of just Hilary – alone – in the room – solo…that was mind boggling!

Owanjo so…the big field Looks so small now.

Walking to church along the bougainvillea fence…
Wondering why the boys are allowed to watch football whilst I have to go to church.

Oti Papa – towering tall. The coach. Superstar Someone scores, the crowd goes wild…
I walk to church…

I am 10.
Walking across the field after school to the far far corner to buy deep fried mhogo… Laughing with my two mates – Pauline and Mamie
Pure bliss
Them Mushrooms are having a jam/rehearsal session. The drums sound good, I fall in love with the guitar We eat and listen…

Thoma’s house.
First real rejection. I am 15 going on 16
Standing in the kitchen – the gally kitchens of Jeri… Gathered courage to go in for a kiss.
Dude jumped back as if I was about to stab him…
Note to self – do not make any sudden movements towards the male species. They are somewhat fragile when not in control.
Years later – we are back in the kitchen. Him from Sweden, me from my new hood. He has lost his Dad; I am saying pole.
And I remind him …ai ai ai…wacha hiyo story Posh (my hood nickname). We laugh and he goes – lakini you are free ku jaribu tena.

The car park.
With the Maasai watchie wrapped in his Raymond’s blanket, armed with his bow and arrow. It must have been a good year for Peugeot…everyone seemed to own one…or so it seemed. There was the occasional Datsun, Nissan and my Mama’s VW – KGG 908.

My street. Our house.
Laughter – it is a Saturday and Mama is having her bura – she is laughing, my aunties are laughing, gossiping, listening, helping, soothing, accounting for the monthly contributions. They are drinking and laughing, and Franco plays in the background.
Sisterhood – this is what it looks like.
Joy – Earth, Wind and Fire – blasts from the record player. I am mesmerised by the sparkly cover.
Fear – people running, horses…what? horses in Jericho? Screams… the 82 coup has arrived. Tears – loud wailing – my Uncle’s death – HIV – early days…he makes it into Newsweek… Violence mwizi comes the rallying call. We all pour out of our homes…
Nyerere with a panga, blood everywhere, leta mafuta…
Later on I wonder how witnessing that affected us kids…
Domes – the wall shook…my neighbour battering his wife. Her head made contact with the wall.
The late-night knocks, the crying, black eye, broken bone – letting in a weeping female who needs to make it to hospital…
Clear thought goes through my child mind – never marry a Kisii or a Luo for that matter…

The big easy – remembering the lazy Sunday afternoons, the footballers walking home, Leonard Mambo Mbotela asking us je, huu ni ungwana.
The only time I think Luo men my Dad’s age attempted to understand Swahili.

The Bus Stop
My stop – 3 steps and I am home.
The bus stop where Mwangi gathered courage and gave me a love letter via Freddie.
In their Martini uniform. Martini which I later realised was Martin Luther King Primary School. Go figure!
Mwangi from Ziwani.
As I got off the 8B – he got on. At times he didn’t.
He sat there with a clear view of our kitchen and veranda. Young love.
I turned him down gently…he swore to love me fore

The Obembo tree.
Weeping Willow – I discovered years later in my adulthood.
Dhi kel kedi – go bring a stick. God help you if you got a dry one!
It had to be flexible…so as it came down on you, you were dead just from the swishing sound it made.

I am 9.
In standard 3…
I have a toothache.
I take a nap after lunch and I miss my afternoon classes. The maid reports me to my Dad with glee!
Dhi om kedi. I die a thousand deaths. I am sick, in pain, my tooth!
All my Dad hears is that I skipped school…like that is my fucking nature!
I pick a nice flexible one because even in my misery, I want to be good and obedient and get a good kedi.
I have seen this guy cane my brother.
Watched my brother cry – my defender, my hero against the hood boys… I can’t imagine that wrath reigning down on me.
My Dad is speaking… I can’t hear him…
I am dying – can’t he see? I am crying – I am the good one. I am screaming – I am not lying! He raises his arm…
I pee…right there where I stand. He looks at me in shock…
I look at him in shock… He tells me to go shower.
He never raised his hands again…to me. But everyone else got it…sadly.
That is why only one boy has ever slapped me. One. Once. The end.

The hood.
We connected at a basic level
No pretence. No explaining. No pity. No judgement Just simple memories…
The medicine man The bus ride Sunday football Them Mushrooms
The Weeping Willow – which caused a lot of weeping Love – young unrequited love
Friends – rest in peace Mamie Tracy Chapman
Old Spice.

I am 45.
Standing in an empty car park Facing owanjo so
The bougainvillea is long gone
There is a stone wall instead – protecting the space from land grabbers…Kenya! The grass and red soil are now gone…
It is astro turf
Kids play in their bright yellow jerseys…dreaming… Oti Papa would be proud.
I wonder about Celestine, Wiki and Hillary…

Me at 45
Standing in the car park Old spice in my memory
But now not quite Old Spice but an expensive scent Tracy in my memory…
Nvirri the Storyteller on my mind
Football in the background
And in front of me… Home.

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Reflections

Die Kijana Die: The Crime of Being a Young Poor Man in Kenya

Growing up in Mathare, we all start out with beautiful dreams. A dream of becoming a doctor, police, engineer, professor, pilot, and so many more. Teachers used to tell us these dreams will only become true if you work hard. Maybe that’s why Motiso worked so hard to achieve his dream—to be a dancer.

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Die Kijana Die: The Crime of Being a Young Poor Man in Kenya
Photo: Julian Myles on Unsplash
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If you want to see colonialism alive and well in 2021, one of the first places you should look is Mathare, or any of Nairobi’s informal settlements. These are places where people are still not treated as full citizens, but rather, as sources of cheap labor. Citizens deserve publicly provided or accessible water, electricity, healthcare, education, roads, etc. But the people of Mathare are not treated as citizens. They are treated as disposable.

One of the ways that disposability is made most clear are police killings. In August, there was one week when police gunned down seven uncharged, unconvicted young men. But, while criminal suspects in other parts of the city are arrested and jailed, police kills the “disposable” young men of the ghetto because society, in its complicit silence, has agreed that it is more efficient this way.

We know that Kenyan civil society has long spoken up against police killings. The recent murders of Benson Njiru Ndwiga and Emmanuel Mutura Ndwiga while in police custody in Embu have rightfully incited public outrage. But what about the seven young men who were shot dead by police in Mathare within that one bloody week in August?

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On 9 August, 2021, a young man called Ian Motiso sat down to take a late lunch at a kibanda in Mlango Kubwa, Mathare when a killer cop called Blacky passed by. Blacky took out his gun and shot Motiso down then and there. Just like that, Motiso is no longer with us. He was 21 years old.

Another extrajudicial execution. Another life cut short.

Even though police killings continue throughout Kenya, people are speaking up about it now more than ever. A couple weeks ago, the Ndwiga brothers were detained in Embu by police. While in police custody, police beat them to death. The public responded with anger. National news covered it widely. Lawyers have taken up the brothers’ cases.

But what about Motiso? What about the other six young men killed in Mathare within that week? Almost silence.

People say that the young men police kill in the ghetto are “thugs.” People say that those who speak out against police killings simply do not understand what it is like to be a victim of crime in informal settlements. I was born and raised in Mathare. I have been a victim of crime. I know the pain of being robbed of valuable property. I know the pain of beatings from heartless young men. I know the pain of losing loved ones to “boys” who stab with knives.

Motiso committed crimes. Motiso personally attacked me. And Motiso did not deserve to be extrajudicially executed. I believe this, even though I still have a wound behind my right ear from when he bashed my head.

Two months ago, Smater Zagadat and I had just arrived at the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) to lead rehearsals for the MSJC Kids Club as usual. MSJC Kids Club is an initiative that uses dance and community theatre to advocate for social justice. Smater and I are the coordinators. That afternoon, I was wearing a black T-shirt with the logo “Dance with Zagadat”—Smater’s brand—so Smater took our her phone to take a picture of it. Within seconds, three teenagers swooped in and snatched the phone. We ran after them down towards the river and managed to catch the guy who grabbed the phone. Some kids from MSJC Kids Club followed behind.

We grabbed the thief and dragged him back up to the office so he could return Smater’s phone. But, suddenly, a group of young men came out of nowhere and attacked me. I only remember feeling their punches coming from all directions. Their fingers were covered with heavy coated rings. My teeth almost came out. I could not see what was happening, but I could see blood coming out of my mouth. All of this happened in the early evening on Mau Mau Road, between the bridge that connects Kambi Safi Road to Kosovo Hospital Ward, a very busy area—yet no one came to my rescue, except for the MSJC kids who shouted and cursed the attackers.

I recognized one of the attackers. Even though he recognized me back, he didn’t stop beating me. He felt no shame attacking someone he knew. He was Motiso.

Let me take you back, because I want you to understand something important. Motiso was born and raised in Mathare. He knew all six wards of Mathare very well, from the elderly to children. By the time he was 16 years old, he was already a very talented dancer and was a part of the Billian Music Family (BMF), together with Smater herself.  The community loved these dance groups, and in return, the groups inspired many kids in Mathare, including myself.

The first time I saw BMF’s Dance group, I was just out of primary school. The dancers were performing “Vigelegele” by Willy Paul along Mau Mau Road. That was the first time I heard the name Motiso. The kids, yelling above the booming speakers, cheered for him as he danced.

“Umecheki vile Motiso amedo hiyo Stingo?!”

“Atakua dancer mgori!”

He was just that good, and I guess that’s why he easily became famous.

Growing up in Mathare, we all start out with beautiful dreams. A dream of becoming a doctor, police, engineer, professor, pilot, and so many more. Teachers used to tell us these dreams will only become true if you work hard. Maybe that’s why Motiso worked so hard to achieve his dream—to be a dancer.

Maybe if he wasn’t born into a poor family, his hard work would have turned his dream true. But Motiso was born into a place that reeks of all sorts of human rights violations, of poverty, of ecological injustice. His dream was shut down because of the environment he was brought up in. So, did he give up? Yes, Motiso gave up.

Imagine the struggle he passed through. First, he was unemployed. Motiso, like many of us in Mathare, was trapped in a cycle of wage slavery. You wake up, go to job, get a salary, barely make food and rent, sleep, repeat until you die. But your work never turns into a dignified life. You’re just trapped.

Second, Motiso was in the danger zone of being a man in his twenties living in the ghetto. As young men in Mathare, when we reach this age, we automatically become an enemy of the state. The ghetto is a place where a child grows up innocent, then later on becomes a victim of predators who target, hunt, and prey on them.

So Motiso went ahead and jumped on a bad bandwagon. He left dancing and got involved in crime like petty theft. The reason why he chose crime over a path of straightness is simple: He needed to survive.

Some people criticize his decision, asking why he should commit crime when the government has offered plenty of job opportunities to the youth, like one program called Kazi Mtaani. But, if those people understood that Mutiso was a victim of structural violence created by the system that we are born into, they would understand that they are demanding a young man to make “good” decisions while he chokes inside a system that has never treated him as a human.

Mutiso did try to join Kazi Mtaani, actually. A few months ago in Mathare, a group of young men went to the administration to register for Kazi Mtaani. But they were surprised to find that, in order to participate, they would first have to bribe the Area Chief 1,000 KES ($10). How can you look a young unemployed man in the eye, when you know he has no job, and ask him for money? Maybe the thieves who snatched Smater’s phone wanted to sell it in order to bribe the Chief and get a job.

Motiso will always be remembered as a thief. He robbed many. Many are still crying because of what he did.

But remember—he was also a friend. He was a family member.

He never deserved to be born into a system that does not care for poor people.

He never deserved to live in a world that kept poor people powerless in order to exploit them and, when they did what they wanted to survive, killed them off.

He did not deserve to be killed by the people whom we expect to protect us.

He never deserved that.

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