When it happened the second time, I felt marked. I believed that the darkness would always lurk around me and people would sense the vulnerability.
Every time someone brought the topic up, I would cringe on the inside, guilt would trail my thoughts and gnaw at my soul. But that wasn’t the worst. I felt shame. I was ashamed of something that wasn’t my fault. I have been on the brink of losing my sanity more times than I can recall. I didn’t know anyone who had gone through what I had gone through, so in my mind they couldn’t relate. All I wanted was to go back, maybe make different choices, maybe the outcome would be different. I was stuck, frozen in time. But looking back now, my choices had little to do with what happened.
Prior to the first incident, a family acquaintance had given me an article cut out from a newspaper about date rape. I was turning 17 in a few days. I guess she figured I would need it; maybe it was a premonition. I skimmed through it, and would remember what it said a few days later.
I was living in Eldoret with my dad, having finished high school as I waited to join university. My dad had gone for a workshop for a week and requested I help him out with a few things at the office while he was away. I had met this man earlier in my dad’s office and he had introduced us. I would run into him many times after that, in the lift or at the supermarket, and we would chat briefly and part. In December he came in my dad’s office to consult on something, and since my dad was not around I offered to help. Halfway through our conversation, as I searched for some file or other, he asked what I was up to that evening. I had another engagement, so I declined his offer for a date but asked him if we could reschedule for Thursday and he agreed.
He picked me up in Eldoret town at half past five. He had already chosen a place that I had no objection to, despite it being far off. I had known him for close to five months. He was friendly and cheerful. We chatted about his new job and my expectations of university, about the books we were reading. We ate, had juice, and at around a quarter to seven we headed out for him to drop me home, well within my curfew time. I had just turned 17 three days before.
On our way back, he asked if he could stop by his place. There was nothing sneaky about his character, so I didn’t think anything was off. I entered his house, and sat there, clueless really, until he came back from the bedroom in boxers. I froze at the thought of what was about to happen. I remember thinking with utter and sudden dismay that the charade was over; he was no longer the charming guy I had known. He was aggressive and relentless at having his way, fumbling with my clothes. I said no, many times, but my pleas seemed to fuel his aggression. I remember thinking about how short it would probably last, and that I would soon be home and forget everything. But I also knew that things would never be the same again if this happened, and so I kept fighting him off, knowing that there was a very slim chance that he would stop.
He raped me, and I thought it was over. But my nightmare was just beginning. He lifted his body from mine, mumbled something and went to the bathroom. I sat there for seasons, coiled up, shaking. I didn’t know which emotion to feel first – disgust, shame, guilt, anger, anger, anger…I fixed up my dress and took what was left of who I was, and walked to the door. He came out of the bedroom, and drove me home. I should have run, or screamed, or lashed out at him. But I didn’t. I was afraid of what might happen if I did.
And he did not fit the description of a rapist. He was not a stranger; I had known him for a while. As I showered at home that evening, I wished I had claws. His odour seemed to be everywhere, and it made me gag. It was like I had carried him with me. I lay there in the dark; it felt like an eerie living phantasm. I wanted it to stop. The agony and desolation was beyond what I could bear. I had never felt that powerless.
My dad had been misdiagnosed with hypertension a while before, and he still had a stack of pills in the house that he now never used. I knew they had the effect of slowing your heart rate, and I figured if I took enough of them my heart would slow down until it came to a complete stop. I’m one of those people who generally have a phobia of tablets, pills, medications of all kinds. But this time I didn’t need a nudge. I took a handful of them, and as I lay on my bed, within minutes I was spaced out, quiet, waiting for the end.
I had never thought of the world as ideal; neither did I think of it as that cruel. Of course I had heard stories; that so-and-so was “allegedly” assaulted or raped. Even in our language we always give power and the benefit of doubt to the perpetrator, and we reserve our default judgment for the victim – her demeanor, her character, it’s always her choices that resulted in rape. For the longest time after this I was deluded into thinking that there were factors that predisposed me to assault. I knew nothing about the experience of sex; I was a virgin. The information I had was abstract, basically warnings about the effects of premarital sex. That was all, and with just that information, how was I to presume that I could be assaulted? The assumption was that abstinence was a choice.
But even my first kiss was an unwanted one – a wet, sloppy, detestable, dreadful act. I couldn’t report it to anyone because I was ashamed, and worse, who would believe me? Maybe it was my fault. He was a hardworking man, active in church, and I felt like I was not going to ruin reputation because of an assault. I actually thought he felt sorry and that is why he stopped before it went any further. I convinced myself that leaving it in the past was ideal. Now I think of how many young women might have met my fate with him because I didn’t take an action against him. The guilt still breaks me.
After I took the pills, I woke up the next day feeling hazy and run down. The memory of the previous evening was so unreal that even the sun was numbing and hurt my eyes. I send my dad a message telling him I was ill so I could not go to the office. But he told me he needed me to send a parcel to Nairobi. So I showered and dragged myself to town, trying not to pass out. Just as I was about to get into the lift, I saw him. For a moment I froze. I knew I could not tough it out with him in the lift and so I ran for the stairs, running hard until the fourth floor and only stopping to catch my breath when I was in the office, the door locked behind me.
Over the next few months, I worked hard at trying to forget what had happened, suppressing any memory I associated with the assault, until it almost felt like it never happened as I refused to believe it had happened. But the second incident unearthed everything. I felt denuded, and I didn’t realise how much of a toll it had been taking on my mind to hold it in for all that long.
I was at the University of Nairobi, studying what I loved, and everything was on course. It was the second year of my study, the second semester in late January, and classes had not fully started so we had lots of free time on our hands. Esther, my roommate, and I had gone to the graduation square for some fresh air, feeling guilty that we had spent the day indoors alternating between sleeping and watching movies. It began drizzling so we started to walk back. I ran into a friend just before the tunnel that passes under Uhuru Highway; we had not seen each for a while, since before we closed school for Christmas.
Esther was not well acquainted with him so she excused herself, leaving me behind. It was a little bit past seven, and not very dark – sunset comes later in January to March in Nairobi, so it was still twilight. As we took cover from the light drizzle, reminiscing at how we had spent Christmas, he mentioned a comedy series he had, which I was happy to check out. He even offered to upload it on my flash disk, and as we walked up to his room I grumbled about the how long the flight of stairs was. We got into his room and he locked the door behind him. That wasn’t unusual in student rooms – we all did it to avoid random people barging in. There was always that crazy student moving up and down the hallways. By now the rain had intensified. We rarely experience such a downpour in January; it is typically the driest, hottest month of the year. Maybe that should have been my cue that this wasn’t going to be a normal evening. I sat on his bed as he scrolled through his laptop.
Out of nowhere he tried to kiss me, and I quickly rebuffed him. But there was this look in his eyes; he definitely did not take well to rejection. Maybe I shouldn’t have been so curt. He shifted suddenly from being friendly to purely aggressive. He threatened to call his friends, which was really a threat of gang rape, adding I would be doing myself a favour if I agreed to just him.
My mind couldn’t fathom it. I could not think of a life after that. So I pleaded, too scared to scream as I didn’t know who might hear me or come in, or worse, whether I might agitate him even more. He tried taking off my tights as he undid his pants. And then, maybe he got tired, or he changed his mind with all my fighting and squirming. He stopped, sat there and stared at the wall. I was afraid to move or even breathe. After what seemed like an eternity, he turned to me and apologised. He opened the door and insisted on walking me back to my room. But I just ran, and ran, and ran.
For the next few days I felt like his shadow was always trailing me. I was scared to go to classes as I had to go through a route that was next to his hostel. Again, I told no one. The fear of being ashamed made it even harder. Silence was preferable to being called a slut.
This time I couldn’t push it away. It triggered everything, and hit hard like a mudslide. It bore a hole into my soul and my sense of security. I kept up appearances, got better at dry laughs and feigning interest as I barely held on, crying myself to sleep for almost three months.
As days went by, I was hardly making it through the day. I stopped going for lectures. I know how it feels to not be dead yet not feel alive. I knew it had reached a critical point when I walked into traffic and it was the screeching of cars that brought me back to reality. When I got back to my room, I googled places I might find help, and I did find one place somewhere in Upper Hill. I booked a session that Friday, but ended up having only one session out of the five that were prescribed. Each cost Sh2,000, and even that was a student discount from the usual Sh3,500, I couldn’t afford all those sessions unless I talked to my parents to chip in, something I couldn’t do because it would have risked them knowing what had happened.
I instead enrolled in a programme on sexual and reproductive health rights at the Young Christian Women’s Association (YWCA) next to the university. That was my saving grace. There I met Camilla who took us through the programme. She opened up about going through rape. I no longer felt isolated. I spent a lot of time crying it out.
At the end of the session, I talked to a group of young girls about consent and sexual violence. I had more than fifty notes with questions on them, and that’s how I got to know about three other girls who had been raped. The statement that stood out was: “I am embarrassed and ashamed.”
One of the girls had been raped during the last school holidays. It happened on a day when she had not finished up some work that her mum had left for her to do. So when her mom returned, she was furious and wanted to hit her. The girl ran out of the house, into the darkness. She hid, terrified, trying to figure out her next move.
Then someone grabbed her, pinning her down in the thicket, tearing off her clothes. He raped her, and when he was done, he walked away like nothing had happened. She lay there, bleeding and overwhelmed.
She limped home, nauseated by the experience. Her mom is a nurse so she figured she would know what to do. But her mother looked at her torn clothes, and her tear-stained face, and instead of comforting her, shamed and berated her. She told her to shower and to go to the health facility alone the next morning, and not to mention her mother’s name – she did not want to be known as the woman whose daughter had been raped.
When she went back to school, she was traumatised. She began experiencing nightmares. Thankfully her friends noticed and informed the teacher in charge of counselling. I hope she and the other two girls get the help they need.
Sexual violence is about power. Men’s sexual desires are not uncontrollable. My experiences, and those of so many others like me, are the result of socialisation that makes boys feel entitled to girls’ bodies. That encourages silence and compliance in girls.
The conversation around sexual abuse and mental illness needs to shift; the stigma makes it a shameful secret that has to be hidden. Young girls and boys need to be talked to about consent and sexual violence. It has to be a priority, not an afterthought.
During orientation week when I joined university, there was a day they had mentioned drug and alcohol abuse, but no one talked about sexual violence. Maybe they had planned to do so the next day, but then a strike got in the way.
Emma Gama Pinto
To those who did not know her she was just “the wife of Pio Gama Pinto” but to those who knew her, she was Emma. Fearless.
The first time Emma Dias stepped foot in Kenya, it was jacaranda season in Nairobi. September 1953. She had flown from India to visit her twin sister Joyce, who had just married a Goan man working in the Kenyan civil service.
Emma was beautiful: shoulders set with assurance, face framed by strong, straight brows and a soft but deliberate smile. She had a good head on her shoulders. She was whip-smart, she stood her ground. You know the story. A beautiful, intelligent woman arriving in Kenya—a single woman? Of course Goan families began making “inquiries”.
Anton Filipe da Gama Pinto was eager for his son Pio to meet her. He was getting worried about Pio’s political activities. Goans were whispering that Pio was Mau Mau, that he was a communist, that he was—in hushed, scandalised tones—”politically active”. A.F. da Gama Pinto believed that marriage would “settle” his son. So inquiries were made, arrangements followed, and one day in Nairobi, Emma met Pio.
At the time, Pio was 26 years old. He was built like an athlete, with a thick, black shock of hair. But Emma found him, in other more important ways, unlike other Goan men. Pio was invariably kind, generous, with an easy laugh. He was sharp. He was driven. At the time, he was working as a journalist, writing for a radical newspaper. He was always getting thrown out of places for breaking Nairobi’s “colour bar” which segregated Europeans, Asians, and Africans in restaurants, buses, residences, and in virtually all other spaces in the colonial city.
Even as Emma found herself drawn into his laugh, it was clear to her that he “was not the marrying kind”. It was clear from the beginning where Pio’s heart truly lay: with the Kenyan people. Later, she would often wonder what made him decide to marry after all, when it was so clear that his first love was his “cause”.
Still, despite these very honest “terms and conditions”, Emma was dazzled by Pio. He was not patronising. “Pio was honest in a funny way,” she said. “He told me he did not make much to support me and I should therefore start thinking about getting a job myself!” And he was drawn to her quiet intention, the way she listened carefully to your words and folded them away in her mind. They chose each other.
Pio and Emma were engaged in October 1953. Within the three months that Emma had on her visitor’s visa to Kenya, she had become Emma Gama Pinto. The two honeymooned in Jinja.
Once they returned to Nairobi, Emma realised that Pio would remain true to his word. Their life was not comfortable. They lived in a bedsitter in the courtyard of a friend’s house. The four square foot kitchen had only a single-burner stove. The toilet was a hole in the ground.
Emma’s parents flew in from India to visit the newlywed couple. When they saw the conditions in which their daughter was living, they asked themselves in dismay if they had given their daughter over to a life of poverty. They gifted the young couple a car, a washing machine, and some cash. Later, Pio confessed that he had used some of that money to make a downpayment on a printing press. There were hardly any printing presses owned by Africans then, and Pio wanted to operate one as “the voice of the people” to print radical papers in the local languages. Emma knew then that she would be sharing her husband with the entire country.
She had married a flitting shadow, always moving, always working. He was hardly ever in their tiny bedsitter. He barely slept. To protect Emma, Pio compartmentalised his life and kept each compartment sealed. He kept his two worlds apart and made sure they did not overlap.
But in the end, Pio’s work would do more than just touch Emma. It would shape her entire life.
The film Softie, directed by Sam Soko, follows human rights activist Boniface Mwangi as he vies for the Pumwani Member of Parliament seat in 2017. The documentary follows Boniface’s campaign, but it features two main characters: Boniface and his wife Njeri.
Boniface has made a name for himself expressing raw fearlessness. He puts himself on the line, from photographing the frontlines of post-election violence in 2007 to leading demonstrations where he is shot point-blank with a tear gas canister. It is clear that Boniface’s vision of a better Kenya drives the risks, big and small, that shape his political life. It also becomes clear that his wife and three children are not always a part of that calculus. Through Njeri’s eyes, we see that, actually, they are more often an afterthought.
At one point during Boniface’s campaign, Njeri has no choice but to leave Kenya with the children and seek asylum in the United States because of escalating death threats. In one of many strained video calls, Boniface asks Njeri to return. He needs her by his side, he says. Njeri says that she would, in a heartbeat. She is always there for him. But he needs to be there for her.
The plotline of the revolutionary is familiar to us. We know how to speak of Boniface Mwangi and Pio Gama Pinto. With praise: that they have chosen country over family, country over self, country above all else. In these stories, their domestic obligations—if at all they are acknowledged—are cast, at best, as sacrifices made in fighting the good fight or, at worst, as impediments.
But the other plotline—that of Njeri and Emma—is not as familiar. Women who, of course, like anyone else, want a better Kenya. But women who also never felt like they were the first love. Women who advocated for a more complex worldview to husbands wearing blinkers. A worldview in which political organising carries a steep opportunity cost.
We do not yet have the language to fully honour people like Njeri and Emma in their complex contribution to struggles for liberation. Instead, we speak of them only in relation to their husbands. The work of Njeri—an active partner in the campaign who is often right beside Boniface on the frontline of demonstrations, and who pulls close to both their weight running the household so that Boniface is free to engage in the heavy, draining, consuming work of politics—is reduced in TV interviews to the question: “Do you worry about his safety?”, a question that is not only patronising but that also somehow manages to place the onus of care on Njeri and not, say, on the state violence against which both Njeri and Boniface are fighting.
“People don’t see me for me. They don’t know me. It’s like I don’t exist,” says Njeri in the film. “It’s like I don’t have my dreams, I don’t have my ambitions, I don’t have normal struggles, girl problems—it’s like I don’t have all that. Why are you introducing me as “somebody’s” while I am standing right here myself?”
Pio was arrested only a few months after he and Emma were married. It was a long time coming; Pio was deeply involved with the Mau Mau Central Committee based in Mathare. He had trafficked guns into Nairobi and had had them delivered to Mau Mau forest fighters. He had assisted Mau Mau in drafting documents, and had coordinated the non-military wing of Mau Mau in planning its “subversive campaign”. All of it without Emma’s knowledge.
Pio’s friend Fitz de Souza took Emma to see Pio at the Nairobi Prison. He was thereafter transferred to Mombasa, then to the detention centre on Manda Island, where the “hardcore Mau Mau”, the most incorrigible, were held under brutal conditions.
That was the last time she would see him for four years. The printing press which Pio had paid for with their wedding money, was lost after his arrest.
A year had not passed since Emma had arrived in Kenya. She was alone, unprepared to make an income in an unfamiliar country, in a nation that was undergoing a revolution, and married to a man who was inside the revolution.
In the first four years of her marriage to Pio, Emma heard her husband’s voice only through handwritten letters—censored, of course, by the colonial administration. She would not hear about the torture, snakes, and backbreaking manual labour to which detainees at Manda were subjected, nor the nine-day hunger strike that Pio staged to protest the inhumane conditions at the camp. She could only imagine.
Emma spent those years reading. She wanted to understand why Pio fought so hard for a country that was not his. A country that would one day betray them both.
On February 24 1965, Emma stood in her house, her mind muted with shock, her house spinning around her, a carousel of strangers and friends entering and exiting, asking her questions she could not hear, putting their hands on her, crying and wailing.
A heavy sky, a body wrapped in a pink blanket, shards of glass.
“Gosh. Pio looks so pale.”
The light in the house turned to a strange, warm color. Emma turned towards the back door and caught a glimpse of a huge fire burning in the backyard. Two of Pio’s close friends had gathered Pio’s books, papers, everything that they thought could expose and endanger other organisers around the world. Without thinking to ask Emma, they fed them to the fire.
A phrase that came to Emma’s mind, though she could not remember in which book she had read it, perhaps it was from one of those books on South Africa that she read while Pio was in detention: “Bitterness is like a fire in the corner of a house which will eventually consume the whole house.” Emma decided she could not give bitterness air to burn. Whatever she had folded and set aside in her mind as memories—those would be all she had. Pio was gone. His voice—even the familiar voice of his handwritten letters—was gone.
The country reeled from the news. Independent Kenya had lost its innocence; this, then, was how power would be wielded. Pio, a man who had given everything to the struggle for liberation, would be murdered by those together with whom he had fought only years before.
It broke the country, but it broke Emma more. Yet she had no time to reel. Emma, fearless.
This year, Emma Gama Pinto and the families of her three daughters Linda, Malusha, and Tereshka celebrated the 33rd anniversary of landing on the docks of Montreal. They set up a Zoom call with all three families and sang rounds of CA-NA-DA, the “Centennial Song”.
Because of the pandemic, Emma was moved from an assisted living residence into the home of her eldest daughter Linda, which turned out to be a true blessing. Emma’s final year was spent enjoying almost daily video calls with her daughters and her grandchildren, in different time zones.
Though I could not imagine a more beautiful way to spend her final days, the news of Emma Gama Pinto’s death broke my heart. I feel that, for months, I have been gazing at her life through a one-way mirror, collecting her words and memories through my research. I have been producing a podcast/radio series on the life and work of Pio Gama Pinto, alongside Brian “Stoneface” Otieno, a community organiser at the Mathare Social Justice Centre. Together, we aim to not only illuminate the various roles that Pinto played in the liberation struggle—Mau Mau ally, land justice advocate, trade unionist, radical journalist, and political mastermind—but to also use them as a lens to zoom in on the the central question of decolonisation: how was the nation of Kenya able to become free without the people of Kenya becoming free?
Stoneface and I were looking forward to sending Emma photos and notes from listeners who will have been deeply impacted by her husband’s work. Unfortunately, it was not to be.
But then again, I suppose Emma Gama Pinto is really the last person to whom an explanation of what a huge difference Pio Gama Pinto made in this country needs to be made. Although we would have loved for her to hear the voices of those “thousand beacons that arise from the spark he bore”—the epitaph engraved on Pinto’s grave—we know that Emma understands, more than anyone else in this world, how the price which both of them paid for a better Kenya will lead to the continuation of the fight for freedom.
In our correspondence, Linda Gama Pinto wrote this to me:
“Mum was a powerful match to my Father. Her strength, independence, non-conformist tendencies, and intelligence, freed Pio to pursue his vocation—justice for the Kenyan people. Without self-pity, she was proud of his work and his sacrifice.
To those who did not know her she was ‘the wife of . . .’ To those who knew her, she was Emma! Fearless!”
Emma Gama Pinto died peacefully on 28 October 2020 at the age of 92 in Ottawa surrounded by her loved ones.
An Encounter With Blackness in Amsterdam
Observing the largest gathering of black people I had ever seen in Amsterdam, I realised that their pain was familiar, yet we knew so little of each other, separated not just by geography and language, but also by a suppression of our stories.
The Dam square, a major tourist trap in Amsterdam, is one of its busiest locations, often teeming with visitors flowing from the streets of Kalverstraat, Damstraat and Nieuwendijk in the heart of the Amsterdam canal zone.
Dam Square is within walking distance of the Red-Light district and the Amsterdam Central Station. On the east side of the tram tracks is the Amsterdam national monument, a prominent obelisk erected in 1956 in memory of the World War II soldiers, that I hardly noticed when I arrived in Amsterdam in September 2019 from Nairobi, Kenya.
Dutch historian, Leo Balai, author of the book Slave Ship De Leusden, noted that there are two stories of the Amsterdam canal zone. Amsterdam’s Golden Age in the 17th Century, is a story of pride and prestige but also one of astonishment shrouded in shame.
The Dam square is an architectural marvel that is of great historical significance to the makeup of the city. Built as a dam in the 13th century at the mouth of the Amstel river to hold back the sea, the city grew around it and the modern metropolis of Amsterdam would emerge from these origins. This square was considered the birthplace of capitalism when the 1st Stock Exchange in the world opened in 1611.
These were to be my impressions of Amsterdam’s history were it not for two significant events that happened in 2020. The first was the coronavirus pandemic and the second was the murder of George Floyd. The Dam square morphed into an intriguing site of conflated memories, depending on who you asked.
At the height of the coronavirus health restrictions in early June, I broke protocol to join a massive crowd that filled every inch of the square in solidarity with the BLM protests in America following the lynching of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Despite stringent public gathering restrictions, residents of Amsterdam showed up in full force. The gathering was in violation of the 1.5m distance rule and despite the pragmatic Dutch sense, it was impossible to observe the social distancing demanded by the organisers.
The protest, galvanised by a collective of anti-racism activists in Netherlands, attracted a multicultural crowd. Young Dutch nationals of all extractions gathered to listen to fiery speeches from a group of select speakers, the most prominent being the organisers of the KOZP (Kick Out Zwarte Piet, Black Pete) campaign in the Netherlands. All of the speakers were black. Activist after activist, reiterated the same message, Black Lives Matter in America and in the Netherlands too. An African American man who had lived in Amsterdam for 27 years, said this kind of black agency was unprecedented in the Netherlands.
Out of the many stories of the black experience in this country, it is the story by Jennifer Tosch, a Dutch cultural historian and the founder of the Black Heritage Amsterdam Tour, that enlightened me the most, being one of the few English speakers. I did not know that slavery was a central part of Amsterdam’s legacy. The city hall that overlooks the Dam square was built in 1648 and became the home of the Society of Suriname, established in 1683, when the city of Amsterdam became a share holder in the colony of Suriname.
A month earlier, another unprecedented event occurred in this same square. On the 4th of May, the king of Netherlands, Willem-Alexander, walked into an empty Dam square, to lay a wreath. (The 4th of May is a day of remembrance of fallen war heroes in the second World War.)
King Willem-Alexander asked for an apology pointing out that the profiling of the Jews started with a sign in the famous Vondelpark that said ‘No Jews Allowed Here’.
My Afro Dutch friends pointedly maintain that the black people of the Netherlands are still waiting for their apology. Presently many Dutch people like to say they do not see race and express great pride for being a society that espouses high social principles.
As an African categorised as a black person, it is easy to recognise racial undertones in a series of cultural mannerisms that define relations with non-white Dutch citizens. Perhaps none more jarring than the Dutch cultural phenomenon of Zwarte Piet, the helper of Sinterklaas, where white people traditionally appear in black face being the highlight of the festivities. This tradition is so deeply embedded in the Dutch cultural psyche that I have met several Afro Dutch citizens who grew up loving Zwarte Piet as a benign folk festival character, being none the wiser to the racial stereotypes it reinforced. In 2020, Prime Minister Mark Rutte stated that the government had no role in banning Zwarte Piet, which was described as a folk tradition, even as he empathised with the sentiments of those opposed to it.
As an African from Kenya, examining the demographics of the city, one can recognise institutional racism, based on where the black immigrants stay and how they slot into society as labour, basically essential workers on the lower tier. Europe’s black presence is tolerated as long as black people do not challenge the established status quo or as James Baldwin famously put it, “As long as you are good”.
Observing the largest gathering of black people I had ever seen in Amsterdam, I realised, their pain was familiar, yet we knew so little of each other, separated not just by geography and language but also a suppression of our stories.
In Africa, we identify with ancestry and nationality and typically develop race consciousness when we travel abroad and discover we are ‘black’. In the Netherlands, I was confronted with the politics of color and belonging. In my regular commute, I often ask black Uber drivers, if they are Dutch. Typically, the reply would be: “I am born and raised in Netherlands but my parents are from Morocco (Suriname, Aruba, Curacao or Ghana)”.
One generally identifies with where one truly belongs, all others just become labels, necessary for navigation in an unequal world. I see a generation of young Dutch who hail from immigrant backgrounds, grappling with nationalism of the country they were born. Where the notion of belonging is beholden to whiteness as the singular representative of authentic Dutch nationality.
In July, one month later, I returned to the Dam square, this time as a participant in a tour organised by Jennifer Tosch. She organises tours presenting the reality of Black experience in Amsterdam hiding in plain sight, in the built architecture as a testament to a memory from another time, a past hauntingly never really vacating the city.
It is fascinating to discover that just a little above eye level are symbols to the city’s past held in time. The tour starts at the Obelisk in Dam square where Jennifer points out that black contribution to the struggle against Nazi-occupation is notably minimised. The history of the Dam square is a tale of two peoples, one held glorious in time and another forgotten and erased.
Jennifer’s tours are borne out of her search for belonging, as a child of Surinamese parents who immigrated to America, and a desire to reconnect with her Dutch heritage. She was soon to discover that memories accorded to Black people of the Netherlands are sparse and only recently getting mainstreamed.
The tour involves an interrogation of Amsterdam’s architecture from the Golden Age and how the city remembers its black presence revealing how racial superiority can be built into architecture. Coming from Kenya, where colonial records were expunged and burnt, Amsterdam’s slavery heritage seems treasured as valued memory, representing an age of prosperity.
As Jennifer poses, what does one do with this knowledge? What does one do when one becomes aware of what these symbols mean and represent? In Dutch schools, like in Kenyan schools, the critical colonial history is scantly taught. It is more the reason why we need new stories to help us bridge these gaps in knowledge.
The aim of a story is to give root to cultural foundations but stories have to be true even when they are painful to recollect. Institutionalised racist systems are still a challenge given the various ways they manifest around the globe.
Our duty should be to challenge stories that have been weaponised against people of colour. The goal of solidarity is enhanced by access to stories that open up avenues for cross cultural perspectives on shared histories. As novelist Arundhati Roy noted, “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced or the preferably the unheard”.
The Black Heritage tour ends at Rokin street, a few metres from the Dam square. Here we are confronted with the tableau of a black figure on the gable of a city house facing the street. Jennifer tells us that it is the figure of a black moor owned by Bartholemeus Moor, who was a slave trader and original owner of the property. This is about all the information she has managed to gather on this individual so far.
I stare at this unknown figure and in it, I see a waking reminder of why we have to look back into our past with critical eyes. In the spirit of the Twi-Ghanaian tradition of Sankofa, look back for that which is forgotten to gain the wisdom and power needed to craft a new future.
This article was first published by ZAM Magazine.
Letter from the New American Pariah State
Our flaw is that we denied we ever had any; vanity and pride will kill off the American century in a hail of faux arguments, overwhelmed COVID wards and conservative values.
American values during the coronavirus pandemic have become a contagion unto themselves. The very ethos of the country has become clear now, crystallised over six horrific months that will only fully have their gravity realised somewhere around October of 2025. To paraphrase James Baldwin, simplicity and immaturity are the values of this country, especially if one is sincere. I’m now 31 years old and throughout my entire life, the all-American concept of “liberty” has been elusive to me. Now, in the age of corona, as I hear it more frequently, I understand that it means ignorance, and because I am a white American exempt from consequence, it is inherently my liberty to refer to “liberty” as a term used exclusively by the ignorant.
The US right now is more clearly the location where ignorance and immaturity intertwine as cultural norms, sustained by the righteous rich to keep us all in line and the world turning as it does. When you look at this country, in its white-enough-for-history-books form, it makes more sense: America as a colony was made up of a bunch of puritans — White Christians — too uptight to remain in 17th century England.
They came here and stewed for years, decades, centuries in their self-righteous stiff ignorance; and let no one impede their ideals, especially those endowed with melanin. That heavy-handed colonialism-tinged brand of Christianity requires one to adhere to it; rocking the boat can get you ostracised, or, if you are non-white, you could face a more sinister fate. When unfettered capitalism grabbed the reins then realised that the two rigid parameters, puritanical Christianity and the profit motive, could be melded, those ideals distilled into a marketing ploy called the American Dream. Buyer beware however; normalcy in the American context is continuation of subservience. Ignorance is bliss as long as someone above you gets “theirs”.
Keep the wheels turning. Die for it. Be a Patriot. Do your job.
All resistance to these parameters must be swiftly struck down by the American soldiers of God. Bucking the system, bucking one’s own ignorance, is not a part of the plan; “How dare you not buy the newest Nikes? How dare you question their methods of slave labour? Are you some kind of subversive?” As we pushed globalisation forward into the late 20th century, it came with some resounding grace: “Through accessing information, we’re closer together than we are apart” while also realising that “since we all have so much in common, everyone on earth can (and should) become addicted to Kentucky Fried Chicken.” Clearly, the latter ideal has won during COVID-19.
It is a pandemic that cuts across race and ethnicity, gender and nationality. But that is for future historians. Blacks and other people of colour have less and less access to capital, and this systemically reinforces their position as disposable to the capitalist mantra. They have died in greater numbers during this crisis, forced back to work at corporate entities that are now pushing for protection from any sort of liability from a bought-and-paid-for Republican Senate. The pandemic suddenly became less urgent as it became evident who were the majority that were dying from it. Arguments about wearing masks are still going on in the media while some politicians tell us all is well and we should continue spending money we don’t have on things we don’t need that benefit people infinitely richer than us. Otherwise, we’re too lazy to work at jobs that don’t exist.
Proposals about how to handle the situation have become mired in bickering and weirdness since March, as the richest country in the world nickel-and-dimes the poor for short-term profit margins that don’t actually exist outside of Jeff Bezos and about 157 other random nameless titans of industry. “Economic stimulus, for who? Well, that will disincentivise the poor”. We don’t understand yet that this could be our fall. Rome wasn’t built in a day but it came undone in a generation or so. Machismo and stupidity ushered in the Asian century; cruelty and lies will be America’s exit.
We have done so terribly in this crisis that our once privileged passports are now handled with latex gloves and sanitiser. We are unwanted and deservedly so. For Americans it’s an unfamiliar position — we are used to having doors opened to us, smiles granted, courtesies extended, to being hurriedly ushered through customs checkpoints. At this point, one of the only regions that will accept Americans through their points of entry is East Africa; as of 1 August 2020 we can enter Tanzania, Kenya and Rwanda. Our creeping financial reach carries us through checkpoints but such allowance is disgraceful international relations. It is telling of Kenya, of how deeply the market-capital Kool-Aid has been drunk; only 24 hours after taking America off the non-quarantine list, Americans were back in the good graces of the non-quarantine camp.
How will letting red-blooded Americans back into East Africa go in the coming months? Don’t worry about it, they have dollars to spend. Other nationalities have money, so what is so special about American dollars? From every corner there is new money and old, black market and “market share” money. The paradigms have shifted since March 2020 and it is hard to see them rapidly changing back to the global “norm”, at least in any sort of respectable sense. That’s where the globalisation bandwagon of the latter half of the 20th century can get ugliest; we were just too good at marketing our failing model.
The dramatic shift over the past year begs heavy questions, ones that the “developing” world will hopefully learn from and flee as though they were the coronavirus itself. These questions range from “what if one ethnicity gets to ask constant questions while another gets beaten for merely raising their hand?” all the way to “is everything in the modern system a lie?” Because things are impossibly worse than you ever thought possible.
In this doomed nation, 199,000 had died by the 21st of September. Meanwhile we are mired in our own filth; the richest economy in the world decries public assistance even as we are lapped by nations like Germany, New Zealand and Rwanda.
At the right Nairobi embassy party, a keen eavesdropper will hear frequent mention of the Singapore model, a “developing state” becoming a first world economy in one generation. Do-gooder development types speak of Singapore as though it is a miracle; “How could they impress, adhere to and benefit the West? What a progressive little country they are”.
The inverse is much more plausible and frequent; ask a Kenyan about the differences between Moi in 1979 and the 1989 incarnation of the same man, paranoid and sliding deeper into ill-fated financial dealings.
The only difference? That Americans literally have a theory of thought called “American Exceptionalism” that is easy to instill when you give examples of mediocre daddy’s boys somehow turning 35 million dollar fortunes into 50 million dollar caches.
In that sense, the Trump administration is the most quintessentially American of all; Trump is us at our most base. He is the embodiment of deadly privilege wielded through stupidity and a misplaced sense of manifest destiny. The Trump administration represents global entitlement just as white America does — a gathering of aging idiots who think the stripper is really into them. Our desire to be special has led to global norms becoming horrific injustices; masks-turned-fascism, lockdowns-turned-atrocity, public good-turned-Stalinist Russia. Inconvenience doesn’t equal oppression unless you make it so.
The very awkward leader of our doomed little experiment has to date held the biggest indoor gathering since the pandemic hit in March. Stalin himself once plucked a chicken alive, leaving it writhing in pain, only to lead it begging and bleeding around the room by feeding it stale bread crumbs. The masses, he explained, would put up with any injustice just as long as you gave them something little. Millions of Americans have long considered kernels as grand gestures, ones that they probably don’t deserve.
During all of this, schools are looking to open in many districts, often at the urgent behest of a Republican leadership calling for “normalcy” in vastly odd times, clinging to the belief that “normalcy” in the modern context is a good thing. The next six months will bring this government’s dereliction into sharp focus; the Republicans will probably lose in about six weeks, then immediately sit on their hands and blame the Democrats for winning. For some, the strategy will even work, but the damage may just be too great to bear this time round. Make America Great Again, surely.
I must admit that it is a strange feeling to have my dark blue American passport looked at with suspicion. it was an undue golden ticket in the age of globalisation, opening any door I knocked on as long as I could make the nut to afford a flight. Now, the hoops are mounting, rapidly and consequentially. And deservedly so.
If for nothing else, it may be prudent to start to look at what the future of global travel will look like. Not in any “tech” sense but in terms of the biases that travellers face. If as of August 13th anyone can fly into Rwanda provided they can provide negative COVID-19 certificates, isn’t that a model worth following? The merit of one’s health and ability should trump nationality, and now that the cat may be out of the bag as some nations beg to regain a tourism foothold, it is unlikely to go back.
Even now, as schemes and plans come together, anyone seeking to leave the US feels like a rat escaping a sinking ship where all the passengers remain stuck in denial. Our flaw is that we denied we ever had any; vanity and pride will kill off the American century in a hail of faux arguments, overwhelmed COVID wards and conservative values.
East Africans must have been reading the tea leaves of the last four years of American politics with a feeling of “I-told-you-so”. But in the US it was never understood — as the people of this region have long been aware — that no one is beyond the grip of a truly corrupt system. I used to get side-eyes from a wide swath of American acquaintances with my constant compare-and-contrast-Trump-with-various strongmen but such people are now sheltering in place, out of a job or being forced back to one.
“It is what it is”. I don’t think Trump has ever spoken truer words throughout his entire wretched political career. Now he floats ideas like banning Americans from returning home — with the obvious subtext of suppressing the vote of those at large.
Now steeped in our jingoism, it is impossible to look inward. It is impossible for us to distinguish that the “profit motive” that drives capitalism is the same motive that keeps us turned inwards, ignoring our greatest problems whilst elevating our lesser ones. Blissful ignorance has never been quite so putrid. Modern America is to be studied as a cautionary tale as the world shifts away from coronavirus towards a more equitable future. Beware a failed experiment.
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