Growing up, The Bold and The Beautiful was a must watch for me. Even though it was not advised for viewers under the age of 16, I still watched it. I sometimes had to struggle to stay awake past nine o’clock to watch it, but I was somehow proud of that; I felt that it gave me an edge over my kindergarten counterparts. But at times, I wonder, did this, and other television shows I watched as a child subliminally programme me to prefer white partners over African and black ones?
My earliest recollection of indirect contact with white men was on this show. Ridge, Thorne, and Eric Forrester, two brothers and their father, were so enamoured by the love of one woman – Brooke Logan – that they were willing to lay everything on the line, including their filial ties, for the sake of her love. They were the definition of crazy in love for me before Jay Z and Beyonce sang about it. They expressed their love for the women they loved unashamedly and unabashedly, suffering heartbreak and humiliation, but never abetting in their quest for everlasting love. It was magical to watch this saga unfold on screen, not in the least because it was the men who made absolute fools of themselves in pursuit of true love. It underscored the ‘difference’ between emotional men and women. An emotional man is ‘passionate’ whereas an emotional woman is ‘hysterical’. These men were surely passionate.
Comparing this to locally produced programmes, it was evident the local fare never stood a chance. From the slapstick comedy stylings of shows like Vioja Mahakamani and Vitimbi, I got my preliminary insight into the contrast between African men and those on American shows. For one, the men on Vioja and Vitimbi seemed to relish lying to their wives, in the process making buffoons of themselves, trying to cover their tracks, and ultimately being discovered to hilarious results. While their intention was to presumably depict a simpler folk with simpler problems, the result was an imprint on a young mind of the untrustworthiness of black men, which was so prominent to their female counterparts that from episode to episode, the ladies on screen sailed from hysteria to hysteria.
As far as programmes verging on serious dramas went, the same pattern held, only these depicted authoritarian who did everything to keep their womenfolk in their place, or lower if they could, while the women constantly tried to find ways to outsmart them. The verdict was in. Kenyan men were unnecessarily bossy and ultimately witless. I mean, if they insinuated that women were lesser than them but still managed to be outsmarted by them at every turn, they must not have been very smart, must they? The aim of these shows, I believe, was to speak to a marginalised generation of women with an aim to subtly empower them to find their own way around patriarchy. But this might have had adverse effects on younger generations such as mine, who were as yet, unable to comprehend the nuances in programming but rather took what was offered at face value.
Regional and international black programming wasn’t any better either. Watching the likes of Egoli and Generations from South Africa, I was exposed to a more violent side of the black/ African man. I knew, as a child in the Kenyan education system, male teachers were certainly more punitive and less understanding than female teachers, and seemed to relish using corporal punishment. The pattern seemed to fit. Black American comedies seemed to patch things up, but only to a certain extent. It seemed, though happy, these depictions of happy black suburban families were constantly on the verge of being broken up by alleged infidelity, sexism and colourism. At a very young age, I knew that my father had a penchant for women. He had several wives and numerous girlfriends. I took this to be the reason why I would go for months, sometimes years, without seeing him. Again, the pattern seemed to fit. So even though I was cognisant of geographical and cultural differences between peoples of colour from Africa and the Diaspora, time and time again, from Nigerian films, to Kenyan and American sitcoms to South African dramas, the patterns were consistent and continually reinforced. This was a community to avoid. But how does one do so when, despite having this knowledge, one still identifies with and shares the same geographical and physical characteristics as the very group he is trying to avoid?
I had even further incentive to distance myself from this seemingly violent group when my sexuality was discovered in my early teens. Teachers both in upper primary and high school, mostly male, made it their mission to make an example of me, taunting me, calling me names, putting me in awkward situations just to prove a simple point – that as far as being a ‘real African man’ was concerned, I didn’t make the cut. But at the time, I had no interest in being a typical African man. I had already had an introduction into the world of ‘the real African man’ by way of my father, and my mother’s colleagues who took advantage of my mother’s single status to constantly try and romance her, despite most of them having wives and children of their own. They lied, drank too much, cheated, were the source of anguish for their families, and in the end, died too soon as a result of their reckless lives. Never more than then did I wish to escape, to have my very own white knight to rescue me from all the madness around me.
In my teens, I turned to online dating apps. In high school I’d had a few friends who were more exposed than I was, and who had been experimenting with their sexualities online for years. I, on the other hand, was still struggling to get the hang of using a computer, which I could only access in school or at cyber cafes in my neighbourhood. By this time I had suffered tremendous abuse and relentless attacks from Kenyan men who wished to change my ‘problematic’ sexuality while secretly trying to take personal advantage of it. It was enough of a motivation to log onto sites recommended by friends. From television shows, and now the Internet, I understood that there were safer spaces for people like me. And importantly, they all lay outside of Africa, in countries that promised nothing but the Ridges and Thornes of the world in abundance. The dating apps, and later Facebook at its infancy, were a sanctuary.
Whenever I met Kenyan men on these platforms, however, they had a few things in common. They would preface the online dating ritual by emphatically saying they were actually married, or say that their foray into same-sex love affairs was just a passing phase, a rest stop on the way to heteronormative marriage and life. I’m not a faggot like you but I think you’re cute, as long as you can keep this a secret, maybe we can have something. Needless to say, this was all quite off-putting. The white ones however, were quick to declare their desire, infatuation and love for me. They loved my physical features, my dark skin, my slender body, where their Kenyan counterparts wished I was a little lighter skinned, had curlier hair and was a littler rounder. There was also the issue of my being effeminate. While for the Kenyan men, this was an absolute turn-off in the larger sense, for the white ones this added to my charm. White men declared their intention of finding none other than Mr. Right, shipping him over to their country and settle down. I got to star as Brooke in my very own digital version of the dark, young, bold and beautiful and it was intoxicating.
This was also the time when I got to connect with a few returnees and ‘summer bunnies’ – Kenyans who had lived abroad – who shared their dating realities with me. The message was clear. If I wished to be treated right by a man, if I wanted pure unadulterated love and devotion, then I needn’t waste my time with black men. White men were the way to go. Not long after that, I got my shot. By then, the Kenyan programming sphere had been infiltrated by South American shows, depicting the all sensual, mysteriously handsome, athletic and hot tempered (read as passionate) Latin man who would stop at nothing to get the woman (or man) of his dreams, including sweeping gestures and garish declarations. If the Forresters were crazy in love, then these Latin men added a deliciously heightened, even forbidden level of insanity to the love game. And as it happened, I landed myself a Spaniard. He was not, strictly speaking, Latino (Central/ South American), but a pretty good approximation by my estimation; my friends agreed.
But that is where I began to understand the pathology of the broken man rather than the shortfalls of an entire race. For, while he was indeed European, he had very distinct ideas about his and my place in the world. He was the appointed saviour and I was the appointed impoverished African looking to be rescued. He was a racist bigot, who saw nothing wrong in insulting an entire continent simply based off of the actions of a few individuals he had encountered or heard about in Europe. Even though he sought after me, he insinuated that I was only after the almighty European passport as a way to save myself and my family from wretched poverty, which was apparently consuming Africa, my loved ones included. I voiced my concern with those around me about his behaviour towards me, but again, the message was clear. Even at his worst, he was still better than the best Kenyan around. Was it because of the promise of what he could offer me or just by virtue of his nationality? No one could say, but they held firm in the belief.
Even after the end of said relationship, I was questioned constantly about why I would let such a catch get away. Apparently, trauma suffered while in the relationship was not enough to warrant a breakup. Frankly, I was told, Kenyan women and men stick around suffering a lot more at the hands of their Kenyan or African partners, for a lot less in return. I was aware of the changed perception of me held by others. I was now ‘one of those’- The ones that date white men for whatever reason. The ‘whatever’ being a passport, money or status, none of which I was interested in. But public opinions had changed. Subsequent dating experiences proved that. My Kenyan dates would ask whether I was constantly comparing them to my ex, and then bring up the inevitable sexual innuendo that no man can ever satisfy me as well as an African man can.
My Kenyan dates, like I mentioned earlier, were quick to point out the transient nature of our soon to be liaisons, as they were actively hiding their sexual orientation from their families and the women they hoped to marry. In short, it was ‘I’ve got hoes in different area codes’. I was made to understand that I was one of many to be seen and serviced as often as my dates’ schedules and affinity for me allowed, and for this, I had to be grateful. I was also informed that my aesthetic wasn’t exactly to their taste, as I leaned more towards the androgynous-looking, overtly sexually deviant, while they were looking for the regular boy-next-door who could pass for straight in a pinch. For this reason, I would never be granted access into their inner sanctums of family and friends. If I wished to proceed, I would be a lone star orbiting them and their lives while simultaneously having nothing to do with them. Even though at the time I had sworn off white men and what I believed to be their potential for craziness, I felt compelled to reconsider the idea of dipping my toe in the interracial dating pool once more.
By this time I was working in the television industry – a hilarious coincidence that I ended up there after my early formative experiences via television – and I noticed a pattern, particularly among my female colleagues. The more successful, well travelled, educated and financially stable they were, the more likely they were to be dating or be married to a white man. In passing conversations, I asked why this was the case, and they recounted the same horror stories that I had experienced. Shameless infidelity and physical violence, jealousy at their success and admiration by other men, deep-seated insecurities, and lack of emotional maturity. The list was as long as the women were different. But the conclusion was the same. The women said they never suffered this level of horror at the hands of their white partners. Granted, white men were far from perfect. There were the odd cheaters, and jealousy was a natural part of life, but for the most part, they were more supportive, loving and entirely faithful, with a policy of absolute honesty which even went to termination of relationships in the event of incompatibility. Never having to guess what their partners were constantly thinking, trying to read in between the lies for half truths in whole lies, was a freeing experience.
I wondered how many of them were shaped by the early images of the white knight and his willingness (more than ability) to move mountains for his fair maiden. Or did it go deeper to our encounters with the men around us and how we watched them interact with us, our mothers and those around them? Did they all have experiences of their fathers cheating on their mothers? Many admitted to this. Did their fathers subjugate their mothers? Another overwhelming yes. Were they themselves victims of violence and abuse at the hands of men around them? Another overwhelming yes. Were their looks or intelligence called to question by the men around them? Another yes.
I think though, that the long enduring image of the white knight, loyal, faithful and honourable, is a notion that is being disabused from the minds of the Kenyan, and I suspect, African Millennials. Africa’s new economic boom has seen the surge of western infiltration in certain key sectors. The expat is a mainstay in certain cities, especially Nairobi, where they are found grazing on croissants in top tier coffee houses, lunching at five-star hotels, dancing all night at the latest hotspots and jetting down to the coast every weekend or so to unwind from their incredibly strenuous lives in the city and take some sun. With them has come the advent of dating apps like Grindr catering to an exclusively gay clientele, as well as Tinder and Bumble that are more inclusive in preferences. The expats might arrive bright-eyed and bushy-tailed hoping to embark on their own African romances, and find their own African princes and princesses to ride into the sunset with.
But this dream is typically not long lived. For one, they realise that the demand for those with their complexion and nationalities is high, while supply is low. For every white face you see on a dating app somewhere in Africa, are over twenty locals trying, some desperately, to woo the foreigner. Some quickly enter into relationships with locals that also quickly end on allegations of cheating on the part of the local. And after this earth-shattering experience, the expat is lost to the world. Most assume a ‘take no prisoners’ attitude in the dating scene, often having multiple partners and being quite open about it, because they realise, while this might be unacceptable back home, in their host countries, this is not only acceptable but encouraged. Everyone wants a piece. Everyone wants to be seen on the arm of the tall, blonde, blue-eyed stranger while strutting into the club, and as such, is not subject to the demeaning security checks or even worse, being turned back at the door.
The expats soon realise that they are social currency and they use it to their advantage, getting their pick of the most intelligent, attractive, wealthy, socially mobile, well educated urbanites in their host country, where back home people with such attributes honestly wouldn’t give him the light of day. It becomes a world of Average Joes dating super models, successful professionals, public figures and personalities while not being expected to be anything other than their regular white/European selves. And even though there have been instances of public outcry, particularly on social media on ‘blancos behaving badly’, society still continues rewarding them by upholding them as the ideal, what to aspire to. Whites can do no wrong. They are only in the wrong places and the wrong time. Secretly, parents continue to wish their children end up with white men, if only for the social recognition and social mobility their new status would afford them. But that is a story for another day.
The truth of the matter is, despite best intentions on either side of the colour and race divide, we Kenyans were groomed on drastically different imagery as compared to our European and North American counterparts. Much like my Alejandro turned wacko; most of the west was raised on the images of starving African, eyes and stomachs bulging, in need of urgent help. If not hunger, then war and genocide – in Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia… Africa, for all its diversity and relatively rapid growth and development, is condensed to handful of desperate situations, which didn’t even last forever.
When Europeans see African migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea in those flimsy boats, it confirms that long held assertion by the western imagination that justified historical atrocities of colonialism and slave trade. The African is a savage that needs to be saved from himself. He is responsible for his own hell. He has brought hunger, war and death upon himself and it is up to the west, once again, to rise and save him from himself.
How then does a modern white man, who believes he not a racist by virtue of dating, loving, even marrying a person of colour, then reconcile these images of the disenfranchised African with the reality of present day African Millennials? In my experience – not so well. For while the myth of the white knight still beguiles many in Kenya and the African continent, the complex of absolute salvation hangs heavy on the shoulders of the to-be knights. For every white knight, there surely must be a damsel in distress.
Granted, times are and have changed somewhat. With the push for equality, mass education through the media and the emergence of Africa as a new and formidable world player, the perception of Africa, Africans and people of colour around the globe has began to shift. But what has replaced it is the illusion of fantasy. Africa is where it is now hunger campaigns have since been retired, but they have since been replaced with a dramatic presentation of Africa the beautiful, a land where the sun never sets, with ever welcoming natives, curvaceous, sun baked beauties frolicking on white sandy beaches between intermittent dips in the crystal clear waters. Then you have the highland maidens and their complicated coffee customs, or the southern African topless dancing beauties that are unabashed about their sizeable endowments.
A western man, who wishes to be a part of this new world by falling in love with a person from the continent, falls in love with a holiday package fantasy. Standards of beauty have changed, replacing pale with bronzed skins, such that even the people of Africa have become something to acquire and possess. We are shiny new toys sold under the banner of exotic, expressive and smouldering sensuality. All the while, the images being presented to the people of Africa are still aspirational. They continue to advertise the west, and all that emanates from it as the ideal, as a goal to achieve. A convergence of both illusions creates a fertile ground for fetishisation rather than understanding.
The white man is no better placed to explain why he is suddenly looking to Africa and peoples of colour as possible romantic liaisons other than the fact that it being advertised as not only permissible but also highly encouraged in order to be a part of globalisation. The attraction for the European is the African and his or her potential. Africa no longer represents savagery, but rather something interesting to experience and acquire. It is the birthplace of the Chimamandas and the Binyavangas of the world. It is an intellectual powerhouse more connected with the present and the future, while the west stagnates and ossifies. It is the land of potential and holds much the same appeal it held hundreds of years ago when the first Europeans ‘discovered’ its ‘undisturbed’ ‘virgin’ land the bounty it held. Is there anything more intoxicating than the notion of salvation and the notion of potential, mixed together in a heady combustion of cultural fusion? And while the Kenyan woman or man seeks be more accepted in the world via his or her white partner, the white partner seeks to be a part of progress, using his black partner as proof of evolution in a culture in decline.
In Search of Grandmother’s Osuga Seeds
8 min read. OYUNGA PALA mourns the loss of indigenous crops and farming methods that were buried by capitalist modes of production that focus mainly on high yields and profit.
They tried to bury us, they didn’t know we were seeds.
This poignant quote is attributed to the Greek poet Dinos Christianopoulos. It formed part of a defiant response to the Greek literary community who criticised Christianopoulos’ poetry as provincial. The poem is part of a collection translated into English by Prof. Nicholas Kostis (1995). The original text read…
What didn’t you do to bury me
But you forgot that I was a seed.
True to text and like a seed, those lines have sprouted many versions of that phrase as mainstream metaphors for resilience and hope in the face of injustice, where individuals or groups of people go up against systems that are designed to bury them.
My own paraphrasing of those famous Christianopoulos’ lines would read:
They tried to bury us, we survived but we lost our way and forgot we are seeds.
The importance of seeds, and indigenous seed cultures, in particular, is a lost consciousness among the contemporary generation of African farmers. The introduction of hybrid seeds in post-colonial Africa progressively altered farming cultures and food systems. Commercial and certified seeds accompanied by a retinue of inputs, fertilisers, pesticides and the promise of high yields but only good for one season, have entrapped rural small-scale farmers in exploitative systems of the dominant agro-industry. Indigenous plant genetic varieties have lost significant ground to hybrid varieties, and consequently, the disappearance of indigenous food cultures and seed knowledge.
Discovering my roots
My own awareness of this crisis evolved over decades. I was brought up in a middle-class family, sojourned in Nairobi, chasing the Kenyan dream. My parents had one foot firmly planted in the ancestral village home, back in Gem, Siaya county.
As second-generation labour migrants to Nairobi, my parents arrived in post-independence Nairobi to secure residence, courtesy of the civil service, in the formerly “white” sections of the city. In these new upper-middle-class spaces, backyards were for recreation and not farming. Nonetheless, my parents never lost touch with their roots, perhaps informed by their acute awareness of the politics of belonging in Nairobi. The capital city was a marketplace where capital was accumulated and transfered from the centre back to the deprived margins. To augment the living costs of large households in the city and establish a security blanket in the event of political dislocation, they maintained a steady link with rural homes.
The importance of seeds, and indigenous seed cultures, in particular, is a lost consciousness among the contemporary generation of African farmers.
My father took us to the village every school holiday without fail. We learned to farm, mainly cash crops (maize and beans) as the staple. It was a labour-intensive crop when planted at scale without the aid of mechanisation.
My father was a civil servant securing measure of comfort after retirement and the loss of government perks. He invested in mono-cropping modern systems focused on high yield and scale for profit. It was during these excursions that I began to understand the clear gendered distinction between how men and women farmed. Men approached farming from a capitalistic frame modeled on the colonial imagery of “I had a farm in Africa” – that famous line by Karen Blixen in the book and movie Out Of Africa – while the women engaged in peasant farming, often associated with allotments around the home dominated by indigenous vegetables.
My grandmother’s permaculture garden
While seasonal farming of maize was a group family activity, my grandmother maintained a garden located outside her kitchen throughout the duration of her life. The kitchen garden was distinguished by plant diversity and the presence of diverse categories of food. Fruit, tubers, bulbs, rhizomes, an assortment of vegetables, fruiting creepers, medicinal herbs, spices and some grain.
Every plant in her garden had a function. To the unaccustomed eye, it appeared to be an unkempt and overgrown allotment, in stark contrast to the neat rows of maize that occupied our family’s three-acre farm. My grandmother practised an alternative style of farming that involved no pesticides, save for firewood ash, minimal tillage, composting and the allotment remained productive throughout the year. My grandmother’s generation employed permaculture principles that Bill Mollison, the Australian educator and co-founder of permaculture, brought to popular consciousness. Her philosophy of food production is captured in Mollison’s articulation of permanent agriculture.
“The greatest change we need to make is from consumption to production, even if on a small scale, in our own gardens. If only 10% of us do this, there is enough for everyone. Hence the futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, and who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter.”
In hindsight, these gardens, a common background feature in most homesteads, served as the main source of the family’s daily nutritional needs. They acted as alternative food sources in the likely event of crop failure due to vagaries of the weather, the sporadic pest and wildlife damage and fluctuating market prices. Additionally, these granny kitchen gardens held something even more precious: a seed bank and a botanical lab where constant experimentation was taking place and heirlooms were preserved. The gardens epitomised food sovereignty in complete revolutionary terms.
My grandparents, who came of age in the nascent days of the British colony, suffered the disruption of an oppressive colonial order. The introduction of a cash economy and wage labour led to new methods of food production, initially as forced labour, and later as a necessity for economic security. While the men farmed to earn money, the women created alternative gardening spaces, delicately negotiating autonomy. A core part of the success of these allotments was seeds.
The loss of heritage seeds
We lost nearly all of the heritage seeds that my grandmother retained in her little garden. The tall pawpaws and red bananas that I thought grew wild as a child are non-existent. The chillies are gone, as are the medicinal herbs and the diverse indigenous vegetables. The traditional yellow-coloured maize known as nyamula of my grandmother’s time are rare sightings. All that I have left is lemongrass that I only went in search of after reading a feature article on its economic viability as a poor man’s cash crop.
In my ancestral village, the keepers of the seed are a generation of grandmothers whose significance is lost in the new agriculture order. The pockets of agribusiness prosperity in the village are exemplified by lush green maize fields propped by agri-tech groups like One Acre Fund that Christine Mungai writes about. Most of the village farms have been reclaimed by bush. Those outside the support network of agricultural companies or who lacked capital to fund farming activity sought alternatives after years of diminishing returns on depleted plots. The culinary habits, a quest for sophistication as an outcome of the colonial project, elaborated by Joe Kobuthi in an article on the hierarchies of food, are now fixated on processed staple substitutes of chapati, bread, mandazi and rice.
In hindsight, these gardens, a common background feature in most homesteads, served as the main source of the family’s daily nutritional needs. They acted as alternative food sources in the likely event of crop failure due to vagaries of the weather, the sporadic pest and wilidlife damage and flactuating market prices.
In a generation, I have witnessed the disappearance and loss of this oral knowledge on indigneous seed in not only food crops, but in trees as well. The predominant attraction to commercially viable eucalyptus, pines and cypress varieties has created tree farms in small holdings following the same ethic of plantation agriculture. Fast growth, high yield and maximum profit.
The indigenous fruits of Kenya are lost to memory and the fruits I now consider traditional, such as mango, guava, and avocado, have roots in Asia and South America. These fruit tree species dismissed for their poor market potential ultimately could not keep up with the evolving culinary habits. The nutritional value of indigenous fruits, such as tamarind, baobab, plums and berries, which grew in the wild, is well documented but restricted to the corridors of botanical research institutes.
Re-imagining food production
The industrialised food systems, with all their detrimental consequences, play havoc not just on our physical selves, characterised by the explosion of diseases of affluence but also on physical land through environmental devastation of water and air pollution and the depletion of biodiversity.
My foray into commercial farming was motivated by profit in an uncertain economy; it was an alternative source of income. I approached it armed with soil tests, fertiliser, certified seed, pesticides and the service of a freelancing agronomist. I decided to try my hand in scaling indigenous vegetables with a boom in demand for local veggies on supermarket shelves. I sourced my seed, the Giant African Black Nightshade (locally known as osuga) from a reputable company. My strategy was monocropping with a rigorous pesticide regimen. Despite my marginal success, it took two pest attacks on a half-acre plot to seriously consider alternative seed. The Catch-22 of hybrid seeds is the heavy reliance on agrochemicals for guaranteed yield. A Route To Food, an alliance against food insecurity in Kenya, conducted research that showed:
At least 32% of pesticide active ingredients that are currently registered and being sold in products in Kenya, have been withdrawn from the European market, due to their serious potential impact on human and environmental health.
This is what set me off in search of my grandmother’s osuga seeds.
Sowing seeds of hope
The seed stock was not available in my village and in the surrounding villages. Whenever I posed the question, I received a cursory response of “koth nyaluo tinde olal”. Indigenous seeds are no longer available these days. My persistence led me to the vibrant Luanda town market in Vihiga County. To my relief, I found a constituency of women selling regional varieties of indigenous vegetable seed, measured by the bottle top from as far as Ukambani. The seed retailed for a fraction of the cost of the certified seed I sourced from the local agrovet. When I asked the women about the stocks, they replied without hesitation, “Mbegu iko”. We have seed. They had formed communities where they collected, selected, exchanged, and preserved seed.
Seed developers have commercialised indigenous leafy vegetables with the emergence of several seed companies selling indigenous vegetable seed. The huge appeal has followed health concerns of meat and processed food-based diets and a return to healthy revitalising traditional plant-based diets.
In a generation, I have witnessed the disappearance and loss of this oral knowledge on indigneous seed in not only food crops, but in trees as well.
I remain aware that these market women in Luanda are an exception rather than the rule. This deliberate stewardship of resilient self-propagating seed is a response to the commercialisation of indigenous vegetable seeds, and in the face of capitalised seed control, they become the face of the resistance movement.
Their actions embody generations of knowledge and a tradition of survival in the midst of a sophisticated assault on the diversity of food crops. The number of peasant farmers on small-scale holdings that once produced the bulk of Africa’s food supply are dwindling. The place of seeds and their preservation is a conversation that happens in the margins amongst groups of community women creating alternative seed economies.
North America has witnessed a revival of native seed exchange banks as indigenous communities re-imagine management systems to store and protect native heirloom seeds that sustained Native American plant-based foods. Seed Keepers Networks are emerging to revitalise native plant species and the inherent rich cultural knowledge that accompanied traditional food pathways. Alongside that are foodie movements returning to tradition of reclaiming and re-imagining pre-colonial African diets that were largely vegan.
Similar initiatives with global visions, such as the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED)’s Smallholder innovation for resilience (SIFOR) project, examine traditional knowledge-based innovation systems to strengthen food security in the face of climate change. Many of these initiatives abide by a funding model that involves foreign experts jetting in with capital to solve local problems that were exacerbated by neo-liberal economic policies. Where the women are acknowledged, they merely serve as mascots for narratives of rural poverty that appeal to saviour mentality complexes.
It is over two decades since my grandmother’s passing and I have only now come to terms with the significance of her garden and the loss we experienced. It is loss of knowledge, memory, culture and food sovereignty that is replicated among communities in the global South enduring the trauma of colonial dislocation.
The future of seed commons is going to be grassroots-based and sustained by networks of conscious actors organising to dismantle the power of the agroindustrial complex. The confluence of challenges arising from modern food pathways has triggered a case for re-imagination, not only of what we eat, but how we produce what we eat. What we need is culture recovery that revitalises the relationship with land and the foods we produce and consume.
And at the heart of this is replanting our grandmothers’ seeds that we ignorantly forgot to bury in fertile ground.
Written and published with the support of the Route to Food Initiative (RTFI) (www.routetofood.org). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.
Our Grandmother’s Miniskirt: A People’s History Through Photographs and Stories
8 min read. It was the women of that time that intrigued me most and I was watching their lives with the impatient envy of a child. I wanted to grow up and wear those cat-eye glasses and cute kitten heels, burn my hair straight, drink Babycham and laugh like they did, with a hand full of bangles held out at just the right angle.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been inviting people to share photos of their mothers, grandmothers and aunties looking stylish in the fashion of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The idea, which we are calling “Our Grandmother’s Miniskirt”, is simple enough, crowdsource photographs from Kenyan homes of women dressed in the style of that era; the photographs will be accompanied by reflections, essays, short stories or poems. The aim is to capture a history of ordinary people and to share this history through physical exhibitions, an online archived exhibition, and a coffee table book. I see the project as a celebration of Kenyan women and gives a snap shot of the emergence of the modern Kenyan woman.
By the time we staged the first mini-exhibition with a selection of 27 photographs submitted by people from around the country, I had come to understand that projects are not easy in that they all require planning and careful execution, even if they excite people. Getting people to send their scanned photographs from precious family albums has been challenging. The project goes into the intimate spaces of families and asks them to override their tendency towards privacy and share their lives with strangers. Of course this was always going to be a trial. It was not surprising that although the daughters or granddaughters were enthusiastic to participate in the project, their mothers and grandmothers — the subjects of the photos — sometimes refused to allow them to share these images. But I’m glad the images are trickling in.
Implementing the project over the last few months has helped me see its possibilities and expanded its scope in so many ways. Most important I am now looking for photographs before the 1960s and of Kenyan women wearing a variety of dress and hairstyles. The secret to the power of the project has furthermore revealed itself in the act of crowdsourcing. This approach has allowed people to connect and own the project, much more than if the photos were purchased from a media source.
My Childhood: 1960s and 1970s
The photographs have unleashed a collage of memories for me. I was a child in the 1960s and the 1970s watching Nairobi slowly emerge from its colonial yoke and my parents seemed to be at the centre of it all. They were amongst that group of Africans who were literally stepping into the shoes left by our colonial powers. My late father’s (William Ndala Wamalwa) career developed quickly and after only two or three years in government service, he stopped driving himself and moved to the senior government ranks.
But it was the women of that time that intrigued me most and I was watching their lives with the impatient envy of a child. I wanted to grow up and wear those cat-eye glasses and cute kitten heels, burn my hair straight, drink Babycham and laugh like they did, with a hand full of bangles held out at just the right angle. But most of all I wanted to wear those glamorous clothes that I saw women wear to parties and dinners – there seemed to be a party or dinner every other weekend! Miniskirts, bell-bottom trouser suits, halter tops, maxi dresses, stilettoes, kitten heels. I wanted to dance to the very dangerous James Brown, the elegant Supremes, the cool Fadhili William, the revolutionary Miriam Makeba, and the handsome Harry Belafonte. I thought all these musicians were my parents’ friends. Imagine my shock when I grew up enough to understand that these were distant celebrities.
For African women, hair means everything. Women spend large sums of money on our hair and even more woman-hours on styling it. Braiding can take eight hours. Typically a myriad of products are used on African hair, from oils, pomades, sprays, gels, dyes, treatments, conditioners and shampoos. How seriously do African women take their hair? Well in the days when we still had plastic bag around, Kenyan women could be seen risking their reputations by wearing plastic bags on their heads in broad daylight, to stop their hair from getting wet during an unexpected downpour.
But when it comes to hair, there was a simpler time. In the early 1960s, hair straightening was not yet fashionable and chemical relaxers had not yet arrived in the country. Kenyan women still wore their natural hair and fashioned it using African hairstyle traditions that involved elaborate cornrows, braids and plaiting. Saturday was the day when hair was dressed, typically with the help of skilled friends or relatives. Hair salons were still a faraway concept and the hair industry was a rudimentary affair and not the billion shilling industry of today.
In our home, many Saturdays found Aunty Truphena dressing my mother’s hair. Aunty Truphena was not my mother’s sister. But she and my mother were closer than sisters. They came from one of the smallest of the eighteen Luyhia sub-tribes, the Abanyala ba Ndombi, who are located in Navakholo division, north of Kakamega forest, in western Kenya. At that time, not many people seemed to have made it out of my Bunyala and it was rare to meet a Mnyala in Nairobi.
Sometimes Aunty Truphena straightened my mother’s hair using a hot comb heated on a charcoal jiko. She divided the wet hai,r drenched it in liquid coconut oil, and burnt it straight with the hot comb. Next she rolled the hair onto pink rollers and pinned it down. I wondered how she had learnt to dress hair like that. Her own hair was forever hidden under the flowered scarf that she always wore.
Nigerians Come to Town
The late 1960s were marked by an influx of Nigerians who came with their loud laughter, outsized personalities and strange food. They were mostly Igbos who had fled to Kenya as refugees from the Biafran War (1967-1970), but there was nothing “refugee pathetic” about them. In fact they came and took over our live,s adding flavour and passion like I had never experienced. I remember the names of one family in particular: Chief Jerome Oputa Udoji, his wife Mrs. Uzoamaka Udoji (Aunty Uzo) and their three children Scholastica, Osita Paul and Peter Ebelechukwu. The photograph of my mother below was taken at that time, and it was Aunty Uzo who made me realise just how beautiful my mother was, when she loudly exclaimed that my mother looked like Miss Kenya.
Mrs Rose Nanjala Wamalwa (Sitawa Namwalie’s mother) as an executive secretary at the Ford Foundation in Nairobi, Kenya (early 1970s). Photo Credit: Studio One.
Aunty Uzo was a force of nature. She and the other Nigerian women introduced me to a different way of being African. They were militant in taking on any vestigial racism that still had the temerity to cling on and even fight back, so soon after Kenya’s Independence. Aunty Uzo often regaled us with stories of the many battles she fought when white people dared to assert their colonial-era privilege. For us Kenyans, would so often acquiesce to everyday racism from the British, but not a Nigerian and definitely not Aunty Uzo. She fought with the priests at St. Mary’s school in Lavington where her sons were enrolled and she fought when white people tried to jump queues in banks or supermarkets and she argued with African waiters who tried to ignore her in restaurants. She was strong and assertive, always encouraging Kenyans not to be cowed by white people.
There were days when Aunty Uzo took over our kitchen and taught my mother how to cook Nigerian food, subjecting us to strange new flavours and aromas. Every so often our kitchen was overwhelmed by the strong smell of a dried fish imported direct from Nigeria which was even more pungent than our sivambala catfish dried in the hot sun of western Kenya. I learnt that Nigerians waste very little, cooking all parts of the goat,:the skin, meat, innards and hooves. The one dish that really tested my rather narrow palate as a child was a soup that combined beef, fish and chicken which Nigerians seemed to particularly love. When the war in Nigeria ended, our Nigerian friends left, leaving us changed for ever. But soon their place was taken by Ugandans fleeing the abuses of Idi Amin who began his rule in 1971, but that is a story for another day.
About the Exhibition
These photographs have triggered so many memories for me and it is my hope that they will do the same for all who see them. They document the social history of ordinary people in Kenya. I’ve learned that the past can be another country, sometimes a more interesting country than the narrow ideas that populate the present. I shared the premise of “Our Grandmother’s Miniskirt” with a young man, Basil Ibrahim who taught me the word hagiographic when he wrote the following in an email about the project;
“…a particularly interesting deviation from the hagiographic custom of The Great Men model of history-making…It is a model for bringing the archive to life, using memory, popular culture…in an experiment to provoke us to think about the implications the past has on the future we want.” (17 August 2019)
What he meant was that we tend to make saints of certain “great men” of the past (hagiography means the making of a saint), while ignoring the stories of ordinary people, who lived through those times. I hope that this project will correct that tendency towards hagiography.
When arranged chronologically, the photographs begin with one from1945 of a woman named Gatoro Ndugi M’Chabari, dressed in the traditional dress of the Tharaka ethnic community. The type of dress she wears was worn by married women. The unmarried ladies had their breasts left uncovered. The photograph was submitted by Mr Simon Mitambo, Gatoro’s nephew and shows her in what can only be described as a brief miniskirt. The photo was taken in Meru town in 1945, after entertaining the then colonial governor of Meru. In discussing her traditional dress, Gatoro Ndugi M’Chabari — who is over 90 years old — had the following to say: “Although we looked almost naked in miniskirts, there were no cases of sexual harassment.”
Gatoro Ndugi M’Chabari, from the Tharaka ethnic community. 1945, Photograph submitted by Mr Simon Mitambo.
In another story entitled, “The Village Woman and Son, Bound for England” John Sibi-Okumu pays tribute to his mother Maria Ajiambo, wa Agostino Munika nende Sarah Mbaye (the names of her parents.) She was also addressed as Naliali, her clan name from the Samia of Western Kenya. John estimates that she was born in 1936.
Maria Ajiambo wa Agostino Munika nende Sarah Mbaye, mother of John Sibi-Okumu. The photograph was taken in 1958 at Noble Studio in Nairobi when John, her first born son, was four years of age.
John’s story of his mother reveals many intriguing circumstances, first being that his mother was born on a sisal estate in Juja, Kalimoni, where his grandfather worked as a nyapara or ‘overseer.’ John notes that Tom Mboya was born in similar circumstances, showing the country had already started to change with people migrating from their homes and making new homes in different parts of the country.
Rosalie Kere wearing a “Stiff” skirt and her “Beehive” hairstyle (1961). Photograph submitted by Caroline Kere.
Caroline Kere shared the photographs of her mother Rosalie Kere – the first photo above – who had the distinction of being a poster girl for soap called “Nakasero” and “Lux” in the early 1960s. Caroline’s tribute story to her mother has the intriguing title, “The Amazing Story of How my Father Found my Mother”. Her mother and father’s story is such an improbable romance story worthy of a blockbuster Nollywood film, that you can read for yourself at the exhibition, the online archive or in the coffee table book that is to come.
What follows is an exhibition of selected photographs.
Grace Ntini, from Narok County. The photograph was taken in Nairobi in 1969. Grace was 24 years old and worked for Avis Rent-A-Car Company. The photograph was submitted by Grace’s sister-in-law, Rosemary Mesopirr.
Rosemary Mesopirr, who was 14 years old and a primary school pupil in the rural areas of Narok County. This photograph was taken in Mombasa in 1974. This was the first time she travelled to the Kenyan coast to visit her father who was a civil servant then. It was her first time to board a bus.
My Stylish Mother
By Doris Rutere
My mother Cecilia Kanyoe was a copy typist at Marimanti Rural Training Centre back in 1975. She was always detailed and careful in her choice of office wear. In this photograph she is wearing closed toe heels and has broken her suit with a turtleneck that matches her head gear, a chain and a wrist watch. I think they present a level of sophistication making her refined and chic. Next to her is Esther Muthoni, who was my mother’s friend. In the picture, she wears a wide belt on her cute mini-dress to create contrast while matching her head gear partly with her shoes.
Both women are quite careful in how they let their hands rest on their thighs.
Joyce Akoth, pregnant with her fifth born in 1973. This picture was taken in the early 1970s when Joyce worked as a teacher and before joining the Ministry of Public Works. The photograph of Joyce Akoth was submitted by her daughter Esther Adiambo.
Nancy Wanjiku Kimani , the photo was taken outside Kijabe Nursing Institute, where she was undergoing training as a nurse in Kijabe Town (1969). The photograph was submitted by her daughter Ruth Kimani.
A Letter to Stella Nyanzi: “You Teach Us to Lay Blame Exactly Where It Belongs”
6 min read. Too often we are willing to believe that if we are calm enough, if we are silent enough, polite enough, eloquent enough, poised enough, then the tyrants will listen. We believe that if we are ‘’well mannered’’ then we will be heard. You remind us that this is deception.
My sister Nyanzi,
I used to think tyranny means one-party rule, one media station and army garrisons everywhere. Now I know tyranny also means that who we love, how we live, how we die and even the speed of our death is chosen for us by people that never have to face us, by people that have learned not to fear our wrath or our collective pain. You have taught me this, because both of us live under tyrannies. As I write this, you are in Luzira Maximum Security Prison contending with the tyrannies of the prison authorities, the judicial system, the police, Makerere University, Museveni and his state and personal machinery. We live under multiple tyrannies at once, some more immediate than others, all of them intent on silencing us.
I am writing this from Kenya. I am writing from a country reeling through an economic recession that the state’s press statements will never admit exists. A manmade recession fueled by the looting that seems to grow more arrogant with each day. As I write this, many Kenyans are dying in public hospitals because there is no medicine or the doctors have not been paid or someone stole the money for the equipment. As I write this, there are young people attending endless seminars on entrepreneurship because they face grim rates of unemployment, this too is manmade disaster. I don’t know how many young men the police have killed today; I don’t know how many women have been sexually abused or killed by a country that just seems to hate its women. There are also the university students who are teargassed and beat up every time they try to march, and the many communities unhumaned by the state. I don’t know how many queer people have been stripped or raped or mocked or told to prove they are human beings today. These are the tyrannies I live under.
We share some of these tyrannies and for this, I call you sister. Allow me to call you Stella.
When you staged your first nude protest at Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), several academics gave media interviews to say that they condemned your protest and found it to be ‘’too much’’, they mockingly asked if negotiations had failed for you to go to such lengths. More insultingly, some said while they agreed you had legitimate grievances, you could have been more civil. They seem to think that you should have spoken more sweetly. I laughed when I heard them. You know how tyranny works Stella, how it works especially well in bureaucracies. You know how good bureaucracies are at silencing and ignoring. You and I know that bureaucracies move at exactly the speed dictated by tyranny, no faster and no slower.
It is a maddening thing to realize that even in the hallowed halls of universities, we are ignored and insulted and treated anyhow, as our people say. It is more maddening to know that our emails, our eloquent letters and our pleas will go unheard when tyranny is present, as it was at MISR. Tyranny often wears a nice suit and can be well spoken and well respected. At Makerere, you used the tools at your disposal in defense of yourself. The tools on that day were red paint, cellotape, your body, your voice and camera. Those were the tools available to you. The other important tool in your arsenal, arguably the most potent, is your refusal of respectability.
So often, women are only celebrated when we protest in service of the men in our lives — our brothers, our fathers, anyone but ourselves. I think of all of us who are scared of speaking in our own defense, scared of organizing for our own wellbeing, our reproductive freedom, our sexual freedom, our safety. I think of how we have been intimidated to believe that this is entitlement, as if being entitled is a bad thing. How many of us have swallowed indignity after indignity because the only person being humiliated is us?
Here, I pause, in the middle of my letter to acknowledge and greet you in the movements you come from, the movements that have shaped you and supported you. We know that often people are isolated from their movements in order to make them messiahs. But messiahs always fail because they don’t really exist. I greet you in the name of the #RotAtMISR , #WomensMarchUG , #ThisTaxMustGo , #PeoplePowerMovement and the many offline political actions you have taken. From standing in solidarity with students of Makerere when they protested arbitrary inclusion of fees, to caring for the Arua 33 that were victims of state violence, to dealing with menstrual injustice through the #Pads4GirlsUG movement.
It is from your movements that you have dealt with the effects of Museveni’s tyranny intimately, by seeing how your comrades are brutalized and seeing how relaxed the dictators can be even in the face of impassioned pleas for even a small measure of justice. You have seen your movements forced to wait on the dictator’s time. We all do so much waiting after all. We wait for enough money to take our relatives to decent hospitals and decent schools, we wait for courts to vindicate us and for the churches to speak for justice and for the police to stop killing. On both sides of the Malaba border, we wait. A feminist sister, Mumbi, has written about how we are forced to wait on the state’s time, wait on tyranny’s time, in order to live as human beings. Mumbi considers that one of the ways we can disrupt the state’s time is through the communities we build and how we care for each other.
You have given us another answer to how we can disrupt the state’s time; by abandoning respectability and politeness. After all, the tyrants know exactly what they are doing when they abuse our humanity. From your political actions, your Facebook posts, and your court appearances, we learn to call the tyrants by name and declare their shame to them. I read somewhere that your father died because of the poor healthcare system in Uganda, and in your writing, you lay the responsibility for this on Museveni’s head. Rightfully so. Another feminist sister, Sunshine, says that this is reminiscent of what Fela Kuti did when his mother (and our feminist ancestor) Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti died from injuries she got after the Nigerian police raided Fela’s home. Fela took his mother’s coffin to the army barracks, to Olusegun Obasanjo, who for all intents and purposes had killed Funmilayo. When you call Museveni a pair of buttocks, that is exactly what you are doing, connecting the tragedy of all the deaths and suffering caused by a sick state to the head of the state. Truth telling can start there, by us clearly naming the tyrants and abusers.
For some reason, tyrants hate this. They are shocked at the idea that we might call them what they are: abusers, misogynists, sexists, thieves, robbers, murderers, homophobes. You teach us to lay blame exactly where it belongs, to practice the radical truth telling that refuses to be distracted by bureaucracy. Stella, you say that politeness has been held captive, and the powerful don’t listen anymore, and sometimes we have to say fuck it and then people will listen.
Too often we are willing to believe that if we are calm enough, if we are silent enough, polite enough, eloquent enough, poised enough, then the tyrants will listen. We believe that if we are ‘’well mannered’’ then we will be heard. We think if we bend ourselves enough, the tyrants will feel some pity for us. You remind us that this is deception. Good manners are decided by the powerful, and after all — isn’t it the worst manners to steal and oppress? Yet no one accuses tyrants of having bad manners. No, bad manners are left to be a cross for us to carry to hasten our own silencing, our own internal and final deaths. Respectability protects the comfort of the tyrants. Your political actions show us that when we shed politeness, we can disturb their peace in potent ways.
You, like Audre Lorde, know that our silence will not save us. Not only that, but politeness and niceness cannot save us either. You know that we only get silent to work out our internal convictions and from there, we use whatever tools we have to shout, be it our bodies, our phones, our voices. We shout. We shout because we are being killed either way. Your poetry, court appearances and nude protest are all political actions, asking us what we are still afraid of. What do we gain by protecting the comfort of these tyrants to enjoy their theft, their tyranny unoffended?
Stella, you are a woman who has reached into herself and taken joy, taken brazenness and categorically refused shame. Your body is your manifesto, as you say, and with it, you declare and live your radical queer feminist politics every day. We are affirmed by you.
Some people think you are fearless, others believe you are unashameable, I don’t believe either of them. Even with the best intentions, they are trying to make you iron, invulnerable, and otherworldly. I know different. You are not otherworldly Stella, you are fully human.
In care and love,
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