I generally consider myself a happy person. My body speaks for me most of the times, my excitement lifting me up to a low tree branch, just to touch it. It sometimes strikes me with bolts and sprints, and you might find me racing against no one in particular, sidesteps, goosesteps, jump steps.
A close friend once described me as an excessively physically active person, even for a male. He made sure to remind me of this “fact” when were walking together in town. He said to me, “Considering our physiques, you need to minimise your jumping around. We aren’t so big, but just realise you might scare an innocent person or draw unwanted attention to us.” I don’t know if I have scared anyone yet, but I have certainly got the unwanted attention. Three times so far; twice in the space of one week.
The first incident.
There is some sort of radio communication from the Israeli Embassy’s watchtower. Officers on the ground patrol the road, and the guard at Fairview hotel also monitors the movements outside. Probably wanting to be part of the action, the guard stops me first and asks, “What is wrong, why are you running running?!”
I hold my calm and ask, “Am I not supposed to run here?” I could have added that this is a public road, and I was practising my freedom of movement whether by walking or running. But two intimidating figures suddenly engulf me.
“Do you know this is a protected area?” one of them asks. He’s in a pair of jeans, denim shirt and black baseball cap, and could have easily passed for an ordinary person on the street if it weren’t for the radio on his side.
“Why are you running running behind a car, do you want us to think you are a terrorist?”
“Are you a Kenyan?”
The questions come in such quick succession that I don’t know which one to respond to first.
So I just say, “yes”, and hand over my ID. His colleague just stands there, saying nothing, probing with his eyes.
My place of birth is Kapsengere, a village in a place called Kapkerer in Terik. They must have considered it remote enough to not be able to produce a terrorist. They advise me not to make myself conspicuous, and then they smile to themselves as they return to position. A naive villager. I want to think this was the reason they let me go, but hindsight gives me a different view which you are going to see when I tell you my third run-in with security agents.
But first, the second incident.
I was stopped on the same road again, at the junction opposite Loreto Valley Road. I had noticed a Red Beret watching me walk down 3rd Ngong Avenue. He stopped me and asked me what I had in my bag. I told him it was my laptop and books. I opened the bag and let him see inside it and then he let me go. But he didn’t look satisfied. Since then, I have been avoiding 2nd and 3rd Ngong Avenue as I go to the library from Valley Road; I’ve been taking the much longer route on 1st Ngong Avenue. I’ve been telling myself that it doesn’t matter, a road is just a road; what matters is that I get to the library, right?
And now, the third incident.
It’s a few minutes past midnight but the night feels young. I’m walking fast, partly skipping and hopping, towards Bus Station trying to get there before the last matatu leaves town. I’m turning right at Naivas on Kenyatta Avenue towards the National Archives on Moi Avenue. Moi Avenue is that conveyor of the city’s nightlife that cuts the city into two, from Memorial Park all the way to Jeevanjee Gardens. The western side of the road is uptown, the other side is downtown.
Moi Avenue at this time of night is like a river, with predators on both sides of the banks. Herds are crossing the valley oblivious that they are prey; the beasts are lurking everywhere, camouflaged, waiting. A stray member of the herd may just step into their snare.
Just as I cross on the other side, I see a commotion. Two older men are throwing kicks and blows at a young man fixed between a canteen and a shoe shine stand. There are three other men around who do not seem disturbed by what’s going on. I didn’t need to think twice about it. It was obviously a robbery. I shout, and run to help the guy. It never occurred to me I would need more than a good heart and legs with this one.
“Kijana, we ndo unatetea huyu hapa, mko pamoja na yeye eh?” (Young man, so you are defending this guy because you are together?)The gang pulls me in and is about to drag me on the ground when two Administration Police (AP) officers show up.
“Afisa… Afisa nisaidieni!” Help me, I cry out loud, but the gang is not at all shook by their presence. The police officers on their part seem not to be in any kind of rush.
“Afisa!” I cry out again, this time with my big voice, and it sends both parties cracking in laughter.
“Hao pia ni afisa,” (those are also cops), the APs announce as they pass, leaving me in the hands of five men, all plainclothes officers.
“We ni activist sindio, hebu fungua hiyo bag tuone uko na nini ndani!” (You’re an activist, right? Open your bag and let’s see what you have inside it!)
They call me an activist because I was rushing to someone’s aid.
I empty all the contents of my bag on the dusty pavement. Two of the officers fan out; one stands next to a lamp post, another lingers on the opposite side. The remaining three encircle me in the middle, where they alternate in interrogating me.
“Hii ni laptop yako, ebu washa?” (This is your laptop, right? Turn it on.)
“Haina battery na inahitaji moto kuwaka,” (The battery is dead), I say, holding it out for them to see. I’d just started to breathe easy again when they hit me with a totally unexpected plot twist.
“Wapi risiti yake?” (Where’s its [purchase] receipt?)
“Sina,” I tell them. (I don’t have it).
“Haya. Rudisha vitu zako ndani ya bag, uende ukae na yule rafiki yako muliiba naye.” (OK. Put your things back in your bag, and go sit next to your friend and fellow thief.)
I settle next to a man humbled to silence by a proper beating.
“Eh… so you are a student?” The unit leader now speaks. He is a tall, light-skinned man in his forties whom we shall call Tooth. (He has at least two missing teeth in his lower jaw.) He says this while cuffing my left hand the man’s right one. I didn’t want to think about what this meant, choosing instead to focus on the question. I answer him.
“Storyteller and writer.”
“Sasa hii yote inafanyika you are going to write eh?” Tooth asks. (Oh, so you’re going to write about all this?) It’s rhetorical, but my gut’s intention is to keep the conversation going,
“Hapana! Naandika history na oral literature.” (No! I write history and oral literature).
“Haya, pigeni stori na huyo jamaa akwambie kile amefanya.” (OK, so talk to that guy and let him tell you what he’s done.) Tooth climbs up to the seat of the shoe-shining stall, not looking, but surely keeping an eye on us with his ears.
For the first time I engage “the suspect”. He has been squatting silently, as if he was trying to make himself disappear.
“Me nilikuwa tu nimetulia pale,” pointing to other side of the road, “Mse mwingine tu akakam akaniambia tuende tunyang’anye huyu kijana hapa simu, kidogo kidogo nikaskia watu wameanza kunipiga. Hata sijui ule jamaa, mi nasukumanga trolley huko Bus Station.” (I was just chilling on the other side of the road, and some guy told me we should go grab a phone from a boy who was standing here. Before I knew it people were beating me up. I didn’t even know the guy; I push a trolley there at Bus Station).
He adjusts the sleeves of his jacket. I notice he has a silver watch on his left wrist, and a closer look at him shows a face that appears too clean for someone who just got kicks and fists to his head. Now, another person I had not noticed before says he is the victim, and insists that the suspect was holding a broken glass bottle that was used in the robbery.
“Unaona sasa, watu kama hawa ndo unataka kutetea. Ingekuwa ni wewe, tuseme akudunge na chupa ungesema nini?” Tooth says. (Now see, people like these are the ones you want to defend. If he had stabbed you with the broken bottle what would you have said?)
For a moment, Tooth seems empathetic, and I almost get Stockholm syndrome, trying to see things from my oppressor’s point of view. I actually almost feel safe in this moment. With the police, and not the thieves. Wait, I am cuffed together with a thief!
Meanwhile the other officers are on a harvest in the streets. All the targets are young males. Their first catch is a short young man in a black cap with combat (military fatigue) patterns on the front.
“Kijana, we ndo unajifanya unataka kuvaa kama sisi?” (Young man, so you want to wear clothes similar to ours?) The young man is frisked head to toe then told to sit down on the steps of the stall, cuffed to a metal bar.
The second catch surprises me, a street boy barely thirteen years of age brought to Tooth. He (the boy) is not a Nairobian; this I know from the scanty Kiswahili and Kisii he won’t stop speaking. Let’s call him Sokoro.
“Mbona mnafuata fuata watu mkiwasumbua, iko wapi simu?” (Why are you following following people and disturbing them, where’s the [stolen] phone?) Tooth demands of the boy as another cop warms his palms on Sokoro’s cheeks. He cries a few things in Kisii before he is gagged and left in the hands of Tooth.
Tooth is a real beast. He grabs Sokoro’s arm and starts twisting it, not for a moment setting his eyes off the boy who lets out a painful cry. He stops then repeats his question.
Sokoro is now silent. Tooth is irritated. He brings him closer to where I am and uses the metal bar the combat boy is chained to as a fulcrum. I helplessly watch as Tooth twists and pulls Sokoro’s arm like he would if he wanted to break an adult’s.
“Aaah…aki unanivunja, wacha wacha…” (Stop, please…You’re breaking my arm!) Sokoro screams with tears now welling up his eyes. Tooth pulls one last time then stops.
The other beasts are still harvesting. Two unsuspecting young men, both in beanie hats, are about to be flagged. One of them senses it and tries to escape but the grid is locked. Tooth mentions something about young men dressed like them (in beanie hats, tight pants, sports shoes and Timbaland boots) being troublesome. The procedure is simple and the same for everyone: stop, show ID, get frisked then proceed to the ground after shackling.
Sokoro has broken free! He is running and screaming at the same time. His small frame was his key out the cuffs, but it is also his weakness; he never gets far.
Tooth is the first to land his hand on our boy when he is forced down. Another beast opens his arms wide for a clap. Sokoro is in between. I look away and prepare myself to forget what I’m about to hear.
“Now you want to tell me this one is not a criminal?” Tooth is addressing me now. “Whoever defends such people becomes an equal partner in crime, what we call an accessory. You don’t run shouting, ama do you know each other?”
Then he surprises me by saying, “Haya, tafuta kifunguu ya pingu.” (Look for the keys to your handcuffs.) There is a bunch of keys in his hand; in the middle is a small key, the cuff key. I look at him, then back at the keys.
“Si you say you are a literature man, tafuta kifunguu ya pingu.” It takes me a while to figure out what he meant – he wanted money. I had two hundred shillings in my pocket; I tell him I have only one.
Tooth opens the cuffs and sends me to his partner, “Enda nunulia yeye credit.” (Go buy him some airtime.) The cop refuses to take my one hundred shillings. I go for my bag next to Tooth’s seat, and before I leave Tooth’s partner takes out a pen and notebook, writes my name, ID number and phone number and declares, reading out my name first ,“You are an accessory, an aide to criminal activity and we have pardoned you.”
My legs trembled all the way to the National Archives, with cold air freezing my bones. I never wanted it to be the case of Lot’s wife, and my body seemed to understand this very well. The universe seemed to understand this too, and I walked stiffly all the way to Bus Station. I was glad to be safe, to be heading home. But what about Sokoro? Tortured for being helpless and homeless. What about the others? The combat guy, the beanie hat guys. The ones who were equally innocent as myself. They never did anything, what about them?
The Moi Avenue incident is obviously the most violent encounter I have had with the beasts compared to the other two. However, the Red Beret encounter is the scariest one now that I think about it; I was one of the beanie hat boys but on the right side of town, the other side of Moi Avenue. His dissatisfaction with my innocence is the same dissatisfaction Tooth and his unit had with the young men’s innocence, based on just their dressing. It didn’t matter that they passed every test they set; they looked like criminals and were therefore guilty.
My physical appearance that night with Tooth and Company was almost formal; I didn’t fit the profile. At the Israeli Embassy though, I was in jeans and a T-shirt, generally a sporty look. If I had a beard and hair on my head, would things have been different?
In hindsight, there are many reasons why I’m still a free man. Key among them is that I probably did not fit the profile of a criminal or terrorist at the time of the encounters, and when I did, I was in a privileged side of town where things tend to go down much different – where the benefit of doubt is afforded.
I changed my route to 1st Avenue, avoiding 2nd Avenue that is much closer to the library. Just to be safe.
But why do I have to go through all this? I do not want to have to change my route because Israelis feel unsafe with me running outside their embassy in my country. I don’t want to change my dressing, my hair’s look; I do not want to suppress my joy and happiness.
I want to be able to speak when something goes wrong; I do not want to pretend I do not know that torturing a crime suspect or a minor is wrong. I do not want to feel unsafe whenever I am around people who are supposed to protect me. I do not want to be scared, to feel helpless enough to want to give a bribe.
I do not want to be estranged from myself. I want to be free.
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Nairobi, Nairobae, Nairoberry
Cacophonous, labyrinthine, gluttonous, angry, envious, charming, paradoxical, mysterious, confusing, alluring.
Nairobi. A cacophony of matatu hoots and booming bongs from church bells. All in inexplicable harmony. Like a Beethoven piece. A muezzin’s melody moves the ummah from a minaret here, a bus conductor — shouting from the most pimped out mathree — moves umati there. A hawker here. An ambulance there. But there’s also a silent monotone. The sound of hope dying. Of someone stealing two billion every day, of the clock going tick-tock from your 9 to 5. There’s that saying: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? But what if it’s in the middle of Waiyaki Way? Just because someone thinks giving us an expressway will absolve him of war crimes. While in reality, all it does is leave all the marabou storks homeless.
Nairobi. A labyrinth of lipstick-stained shot glasses and semi-filled ashtrays. Where a party starts regardless of where the limbs of the clock point. And only ends when everyone is browned out and on the brink of calling the one that got away. Nairobi is looking for coins during traffic because you want to help the beggar, who is patient enough to receive the donation before snatching your phone. It is being stagnant in that same traffic for long enough to buy crisps made with transformer oil and served in compact disk wrapping. And like clockwork, you put the window back up because Nairobbery isn’t just a play on words. But the ones that hurt the most are the conmen, because nigga I trusted you!
Nairobi. Where gluttony is second nature. A kaleidoscope of too much gold tequila and too many smokie pasuas. Of good pasta and wine in overpriced restaurants. Of ramen noodles and pre-cooked meat. Where nothing is ever enough. We drink and eat to our fill because life sucks. Why wouldn’t it? Our last president’s advisor was the bottom of a Jameson bottle and our current one’s advisor is Jesus. The spirit guides the nation either way, I guess. But still, Nairobi tastes like chances and do-overs. It tastes like anxieties and aspirations and I know it doesn’t feel like it but today you omoka na 3-piecer then one day you omoka, for real.
Nairobi. Reeks of piss and thrifted clothes. Fresh bakeries and Subway. Old currency and that one cologne every man in their early 20s wears. Smells like fighting your titans and sending a million job applications. Nairobi. Where you can go weeks without a lover’s touch but only days without a cop grabbing you by the wedgie into a mariamu because you shouldn’t be idle as you wait for your Uber outside Alchemist. Because of course in that time you should take up a sport, play an instrument, solve world peace, et cetera.
There are few occasions when pride will linger. Like when Kipchoge finishes a marathon in under two hours. When Lupita wins an Oscar. The hubris you feel when your copy makes it to the billboard on UN Avenue. Or when your lame joke gets five retweets because Kenyans on Twitter will massacre you if you think you’re the next Churchill. Orrrr that one time we were all watching Money Heist and so gassed that Nairobi was one of the characters.
Sadly, Nairobi pride also comes in with its individualism. Everyone is out here on their own trying to get some bread whether they’re in the upper class getting baguettes and rye bread or in the lower class getting Supaloaf. I get it though, the city doesn’t let anyone rest from the grind and the hustle and the drudgery. And the wealth gap is bigger than Vera Sidika’s bunda. But ironically, the city is a paradox. An optical illusion. Sometimes the people are so ready to convene in community that it kinda revives the fickle hope you have in humanity. From safe spaces to fundraisers to a simple hearty conversation with your Uber driver.
And there’s obviously that murky feeling of greed that comes from 90 per cent of our politicians. When you’re at the bottom of the food chain it’s called hunger, but the higher you climb the more you want and it becomes indulgence. Greed makes them say and do all kinds of things. Like apologising to Arab countries that are exploiting Kenyans because they don’t want to be cut off. Y’all know any juakali guys we can commission for guillotines? – Heads gotta roll. Because how will I steal cooking oil and flour and end up in a cold cell but they’ll steal billions and end up with a second five-year term?
I think wrath is the most Nairobi-esque of the cardinal sins. We’re angry at the police. At the government, at global warming, at nduthis, at KPLC, at Zuku, at Safaricom, at KCB, at each other. Agonizingly though, our anger fizzles out as fast as it blazes up. I don’t think we’re ever angry enough.
And then there’s the envy. You know you’ll get there eventually but that gets lost in translation when you see someone with better because that sparks something in you even though we are all on different paths at different paces. Whether it’s a BMW or an airfryer, the question stays: Why not me? And also I’m personally jealous of the people who’ve managed to move out of Nairobi to Naivasha, Watamu or wherever. It feels like they’ve figured their way out the maze while I’m still at a dead end wondering whether I can just hop out the sides. Doesn’t matter what it is, our eyes are as green as the parks and spaces we so desperately need in this godforsaken city.
Nairobi. The city of miniskirts and cheers baba jackets. Lust dripping down the sides of our mouths because we can’t seem to contain it under our tongues. I don’t even know why people bother to go to Vasha for WRC when they live in the city of sexual debauchery where the only thing that’s on heat more than the sun is whatever’s between people’s legs. Where even Christian Grey would pause and do a double-take. Where ropes aren’t just for skipping and leashes aren’t just for dogs. If you find ordered love in the city, you must have saved refugees and orphans in your past life. This is the city where the flesh is truly willing.
You know that intense sloth-like feeling when you wanna wake up for Sunday brunch at Brew Bistro or K1 and then later watch Hamilton race at around 4 when all the mimosas have hit your head and you’re surprised that your wig is still intact? Or the next day when you’re trying to get out of your covers and you’re thinking about that beastly Nairobi traffic you’re about to face and all you can do is tweet “Nimewacha pombe mimi”. Truthfully though, other than that and a few other instances, the pace is too fast for me. I just wanna be in a dera next to the beach drinking a passion caipiroska and eating viazi karai cause why are y’all always running?
And y’all are way too fast when coming up with new words too. There’s like a million words for currency, ass, sex, sherehe, et cetera. Truly, there is a certain linguistic je ne sais quoi when it comes to the Nairobian’s language. It stops being a transaction of random syllables and begins to become an understanding of feelings, emotions and behaviour. I, especially, like how we knead it into our art. We sneak it into our music and get phenomena like gengetone.
We compress it into our films and get Nairobi Half Life. We squeeze it into our visual pieces and get Michael Soi. One thing about Nairobians is we do not cower in silence, we have words to say and we shall say them. Even if that means running a president out of Twitter. That’s why our writers are as staggeringly sensational as they are. Ngartia. Sookie. Grey. Muthaka. Laria. Abu. And those are just my friends, dawg.
But it’s not just the writing. The fashion. Rosemary Wangari. Nicole Wendo. Samantha Nyakoe. The music. Mau from Nowhere, Vallerie Muthoni, Karun, Maya Amolo, XPRSO. Just a Band. The films. The painting. Muthoni Matu. Zolesa. The architecture. The cinema. The theatre. Too Early for Birds is back! et cetera. Man, I gotta tell ya, when God was cooking up the cauldron of this city, he went hard on the talent. Quote me on this: a lot of exceptional creatives from this city are gonna hit the world with a head-splitting bang in a couple of years.
Nairobi. Despite the crowds, the queues and the poor drainage, it still has a charm. Mysterious. Confusing. Alluring. Despite the fact that you can only truly enjoy the Nairobi experience if you’re a bird or an expat, me I love it still.
Nairobians, keep sinning, keep winning!
The Enemy Within
Death hangs heavily over people with cancer – it is always there, reminding you of your mortality.
So, this is what happens when a doctor tells you that you have cancer. The first response is disbelief (how can this be true?), followed by anger (I don’t deserve this, I never hurt anyone), and then a deep sense of grief and loss (what will I miss when I die, and how will my loved ones cope without me?)
They say cancer is the result of pent-up anger and resentment. Apparently, years of holding on to these emotions make your cells misbehave and become toxic. Cancer cells end up eating up healthy cells, leaving the body so full of poison that it collapses from lack of vitality. The jury is still out on whether lifestyle choices generate cancer in the body because people who lead healthy lives seem to be as prone to cancer as those who don’t. Nonetheless, when you find out you have cancer, your first reaction is to blame yourself. It is sort of like being told you have HIV. (Was I responsible for this? Was I reckless? Should I have used a condom?)
Friends and relatives will tell you that breast cancer is beatable, that they know so many women who had breast cancer and lived healthy lives years after treatment. What they don’t tell you is that all the literature points to a short life expectancy after the discovery of cancer. The chances of recurrence are high, even with chemotherapy, mastectomy or radiation, the traditional methods to “cure” breast cancer. I have read studies where women who had chemotherapy had an equal chance of recurrence as those who didn’t. So, death hangs heavily over people with cancer – it is always there, constantly reminding you of your mortality.
Most people are so afraid of cancer that they can’t even say the word. The receptionist at an oncologist’s office actually asked me what kind of “C” I had – never used the word cancer. Yet she deals with cancer patients every day. Another oncologist I consulted couldn’t even make eye contact with me and rushed me through a diagnosis I couldn’t understand, perhaps believing that my cancer was contagious?
The thing is that cancer is not like any other disease that can be cured through surgery or drugs. It requires months of treatment and constant monitoring. It’s not like having malaria or a broken bone. It is like having an enemy residing in your body, hostile, predatory, waiting to pounce at any moment.
It seems a positive frame of mind is critical in recovering from cancer. I got calls from women who told me they bounced right back into their lives after months of treatment as if nothing had happened, that I mustn’t believe all the literature, that I should get all the treatments done and go back to living a normal life. They didn’t explain to me why they have been working from home since their treatment started and since their so-called “recovery”. Others are more honest about their experiences. A South African women called to tell me that her experience with chemotherapy had damaged her heart, and she is on life-long medication that makes her urinate every few minutes, which means she can no longer work in an office. Instead of destroying the cancer, the chemo destroyed healthy cells in her heart. She is cancer-free but now disabled in other ways. Another friend told me her aunt died not from the cancer, but from the chemo.
What the doctors and the optimists don’t tell you is that both chemotherapy and radiation have debilitating impacts on your body. They literally are poisons injected into your body to kill another poison. Sort of like a vaccine but not quite because they do not boost your immunity. Both chemotherapy and radiation therapies involve weeks of hospital visits that cost an arm and leg. Nausea, burns on your body, fatigue are common side effects.
A friend from Boston who has studied alternative ways of healing from cancer (including not getting any treatment at all) tells me that each woman with breast cancer has to make an individual choice about what kind of treatment she should get. Doctors trained in Western medicine will be quick to put you on chemotherapy and the other treatments without giving you other options. Desperate and eager to cling onto life, the patient with cancer readily accepts any treatment, not realising that not only is it a very long process, but very costly as well. Mental preparation and psychological support are also necessary before embarking on the long and arduous journey called cancer treatment. People become life-long patients; some recover well, others not so well. Some women opt for no treatment, preferring to lead a good quality of life before the disease ravages the body.
I am looking at alternative methods of healing, including Pranic healing that works on your energy fields and chakras. So far it seems to be helping me, but only time will tell if I will be a success story. I have certainly started eating more, and those dizzy spells in the morning seem to be getting rarer.
The biopsy results are not yet out, so I am still not sure what the oncologist will prescribe, but in Kenya, the modus operandi seems to follow the same script: mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy or radiation and some kind of hormone treatment. Am I ready to go there? Not sure. Women who lose their breasts speak of feeling like an amputee; the loss of an organ that defines their femininity impacts their identity and self-esteem. Others are more casual about losing their breasts, (“It’s just fat,” one woman told me). `
The other thing about cancer is that when you have it, you think of nothing else. Everything is a blur. Someone wants to make small talk, and all you want to do is look the other way or scream. (Can’t you see I have cancer? Do you really want to discuss the weather?) You think about your life in vivid film shots. Your past suddenly comes into sharp focus, both the happy and sad days. You begin questioning the meaning of life in ways you never did before. Cancer prepares you for death the way a fatal car accident doesn’t. Is sudden death preferable to dying slowly because you can’t see it coming? Not sure.
But let me not be the purveyor of doom and gloom. The reason I am writing this article is that I have learned wonderful things about myself and other people. One of the things I have learned is that people can be kind and generous when they know you are in pain. People I don’t even know and have never met have sent me good wishes, prayers and even money for my treatment. Friends and family have sent food and offered accommodation. An Indian friend called to say that if I opted to go to India for treatment, I could stay in his home for as long as I needed. These generous and kind offers have literally brought tears to my eyes.
What I also learned is that my life’s work has not been a waste, and that my readers love and admire me for my writing. I didn’t realise I had inspired so many people, not just in Kenya but around the world, through words I have penned. That is a really important things for me to know and hold onto right now – to realise that I had a gift that I used well, and which helped others. And to know that when I go, my writing will live on.
I also learned that life is very, very short. So, we must not postpone the things we need to do. If your job makes you unhappy, quit. If a relationship is toxic, leave it. If people around you are making you feel bad about yourself, walk away. Surround yourself with people who love and cherish you. Love is very important for human survival, so distribute it freely. Be kind and generous. This thing called life is temporary, so enjoy every moment and live it as if every day is your last.
Someone’s Grandmother Just Died!
It is painful to always have to consider the feelings of others while legitimate calls for acknowledgement of racial injustice and reparations are consistently ignored and dismissed.
Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, I watched the televised service at St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh attended by the royals and various Scottish dignitaries, as well as the many hundreds who came out to pay their respects or to be a part of this historical event.
As I watched the outpouring of public emotion, I couldn’t help but wonder what emotions the queen’s death would invoke in those whose lives have been blighted because of the British colonial policies that killed millions and left a legacy of misery and disenfranchisement in countries far too many to name.
At first I was saddened by the news. But then came the reactions of global figures the world over, with some proclaiming outright that Queen Elizabeth had been a guiding light, a symbol of hope and stability in the world. One broadcaster went so far as to say “She was everybody’s grandmother.” My problem was that she wasn’t mine.
My grandmother, born in 1923, was just three years old when the Queen was born, my 81-year-old mother told me when I called to get her reaction to the news that the Queen had died. “She would’ve been 99 years old today if she had she lived,” my mom said. I could hear the emotion in her voice as she remembered her mother. My grandmother died in 1983; she was 59 years old. I was then just 18 years old. I said, “Mom with all the things we know about the racist systems that have kept Black and Brown people oppressed, I really don’t know how I want to feel about the death of the British Queen.” Never one to mince her words, my mom replied, “She was a human being, and we, well you know, we mourn the loss of any life.”
Yes. She may have been a grandmother to many but to me she was a symbol of institutionalized racism in its clearest form. Images of British dynasty have been present in the education of every American who has gone through the public school system since the Second World War during which the United States allied with Britain in their quest for global power and dominance. Yet here was the evil of the Crown being portrayed in the media—as it’s always been portrayed—as providence, something divine. As I listened to a special broadcast by the popular British talk show host James Corden talking to an American audience about the Queen’s passing, his tone struck me as odd: “She will be missed, she was everybody’s grandmother,” he said, going on to tell us how well she had served the country and the world.
As I was listening to Corden and wondering why I was so irritated by his outpouring of emotion, it dawned on me that racism moves from generation to generation, falling back on the old practices of how to colonize a nation: You teach them to love you more than they love themselves. Racism survives because the symbols of racism never die. We carry the symbols in our hearts and in our minds and once we have identified with them, we seek to justify their existence. While I could empathise with those that felt a special connection to the Crown, what I realized and felt most immediately, was the insensitivity I received as an African American who bears the scars of the legacy of slavery that has made the British Empire one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world today.
The next day I watched the funeral procession move through the streets of Edinburgh, the commentators conveying the solemn mood of the people who came out to pay tribute to their Queen. All the while I couldn’t see past the 1989 image of Princess Diana hugging a child suffering from HIV/AIDS. On her first unaccompanied trip overseas, Princess Diana spontaneously broke with protocol and showed compassion towards a suffering Black child with all the world watching, at a time when the stigma of HIV/AIDS was as bad as the disease, and Blacks were being impacted the most and no one else seemed to care. Diana’s humanity helped solidify her reputation as the “People’s Princess” and it radically changed the way AIDS sufferers were perceived.
While the news played on I thought about two recent exchanges I had had in Amsterdam, just outside my front door. The first exchange took place in a cafe.
I was sitting at the bar having a coffee. Another Black male of Surinamese origin was sitting a couple of tables away. It was midmorning and we were the only ones there. In an attempt to start a conversation, as men do, he asked my opinion on the war in Ukraine. I told him I thought it was crazy, all too unreal. The white Dutchman behind the counter leaned over and candidly shared, “I don’t give a shit about the war in Ukraine.” I didn’t speak again and left the bar so abruptly the young brother asked, “You leaving?” I was in no mood to have that conversation so early in the day, having experienced the backlash of the “Black Lives Matter” protest with the counter-narrative that All Lives Matter; I’ve learned that sometimes it’s better to just hold one’s peace and walk away. (It literally is your peace.)
Shortly after that incident, a couple of days later, I had another encounter that made me realize that we simply can’t afford not to care. I had wandered into a tool shop on the corner of my street that looks more like a men’s gift shop inside than a hardware store selling nails, drills and plywood. Behind me walked in a man who apparently knew what he wanted because we reached the cash register at the same time, he with a power drill in his hand. I moved aside to let him be the first in line, not sure if I was done.
The Dutchman behind the counter seemed not to have noticed that the man with the drill wasn’t Dutch and didn’t speak the language. But to his credit, he did know what he wanted: the drill and a bag in which to put the canisters of spray paint he had already placed on the counter. Being familiar with Eastern Europeans, I assumed the man was Polish and asked “Polske?” “No! Ukraine!” he said, then, smiling, added, “Close.”
“Hij wil een tas.” He wants a bag, I said to the clerk; bags are not automatically handed out after a purchase these days. The clerk then understood and reached under the counter. I was pleased I could help and the Ukrainian was happy as well. To my surprise, as I placed my items on the counter, the Ukrainian tapped my shoulder and offered a fist bump.
I say all this to say of the human condition that people appreciate what they understand. And sadly enough, we rarely think about injustice until it is visited upon us.
Whose permission do we now need to talk about racism and the policies that still impact us today? Africa and the African diaspora’s historical issues are and always have been about racism and this is why members of this group, my group, will always hold a contrarian view when the West attempts to compel us to join them in their moment of grief. My grandmother died in 1983, at the young age of 59, in a small southern town next to a river; there was no horse and carriage, no media. The British Empire once covered the whole world, a dominance that was achieved through suppression and oppression. Many atrocities were committed and entire communities decimated under the authority of the Queen. I was raised never to speak ill of the dead because they aren’t here to defend themselves but I will submit this: it is painful to always have to consider the feelings of others while legitimate calls for acknowledgement of racial injustice and reparations are consistently ignored and dismissed. Where is the same fervour and energy for those issues that matter to us?
When we as Black people keep the peace, we empower the presence of the historical lie that we are inferior and thus require control. When we remain silent we allow the systems of the institutions and the prejudices that block our collective growth to thrive. Why should we care about the death of the Queen when the Queen has stood for the oppression of our people? Why should we be guilt-tripped into silence, into not speaking out about the dead, into not pursuing our freedom? When will our emergency, the issues that impact Black and Brown people, become a top concern for the White world? When will I be able speak without fear of being branded just another angry black man, angry for what I don’t have that others do?
Sad as the Queen’s death is to those that survive her, honouring her service is a symbolic gesture that must be contextualized because, for many, and not just in the UK but all over the world, the English monarchy is a symbol of oppression. I recently listened to a podcast in which a Black podcaster scolded an guest who said this of the Queen: “She is the symbol of colonialism and racism for many; however much we want to romanticize the Queen of England’s long reign on the throne as a stabilizing force on earth, she has also allowed many human rights violations on her watch”. The podcaster’s response was a classic putdown, “Why do Black people have to always bring up racism? Someone’s grandmother just died!”
Racism endures because when we identify with its symbols, we will do anything and everything in our power to justify and defend them.
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