I remember the patriotic pride that swelled in me, as a teenager when I saw Binyavanga Wainaina on the cover of a Daily Nation pullout, when he won the Caine Prize in 2002.
The beaming beady eyes. The dreadlocks. The chunky body frame. With a kitenge top, to complete what we typically call the ‘African look’. And then, there was the name. Who names their kid Binyavanga? But in that little hardware shop run by my aunt and guardian, I knew a Kenyan had won some international award for a short story, and it was a moment of inspiration for a young man who loved books.
As an excitable teenager, I never thought in a few years I would shake his hand, that he would agree to my request to interview him for a piece that would appear in a third-rate, Indian, Delhi-based newspaper, and through him, I will meet some of my childhood and adolescent literary heroes such as Micere Mugo, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Yvonne Owuor.
In my community, when someone dies at a relatively young age, with so much yet to give, women cry in a very specific way.
They touch and knock the coffin, screaming, all the while quarrelling with the body of the deceased, as if the body cares. They always ask the deceased: “Why have you shamed us?”
They ask in a manner that even the most macho man break down in tears. It is the palpable pain in their cries. Because, not all deaths are equal; some leave us more devastated than others. And I am sure, for the Kenyan literary community, Binya’s death, despite the premonitory strokes that he suffered in recent years, feels the same. He has shamed us, really mocked us. He pulled a fast one, choosing rest over work, and at only 48, when the life of a writer starts to peak.
Personally, I have been waiting for his novel, and newer works, as he promised during my last interview with him back in 2013. Because there has never been a better prose writer than Binyavanga, who with surgical eyes, pointed out at the idiosyncrasies and inconsistencies of modern life in Kenya and the world, and whose prose brimmed with vivacious sentences, peppered with wit, irony, humour and brevity that only an intelligent mind can conjure. And oh! His candour.
You just need to re-read his cinematic short story, Discovering Home, and how little has changed since he wrote the story about 18 years ago.
After high school, when it dawned on me that I would not earn a place in medical school, and my cash strapped background meant I could not privately sponsor myself for a degree in medicine, I wanted to be a novelist.
The mid-2000s were a beautiful time to be a creative. When I joined the University of Nairobi for my degree in Literature, among my earliest memories are the Kwani? Open Mic poetry sessions then held at Club Soundd along Wabera Street in downtown Nairobi.
We were young, new in town, smelling like freshly cut arrowroot. Our lecturer took us to Club Soundd, and we would meet journalists whose bylines we worshipped, poets so good but so understated and underrated, and the entire Kwani? brigade. The Open Mics were the best of the carefree freedom Kenyans were reclaiming since KANU was chased out of State House in that euphoric 2002 election. Annoyingly though, the drunkards always got in the way of some of the pithiest presentations. Still, to us, it was eye-opening, and my classmates of poetic disposition always had a chance to read their poems.
Local creatives in this city rarely have a place, much less a consistent platform where they can express themselves, even today. Places like the British Institute, Goethe Institute and Alliance Francaise often provide the physical avenues, but rarely do we have a truly local space where we can be Kenyan without trying too hard to fit into the sensibilities and artistic expectations of the benefactors. And that is what the Kwani? Open Mic was all about. Through it all, we were able to look at ourselves in the mirror, as the youth expressed their angst, capturing the zeitgeist of the 2000s, with tribalism, extra-judicial killings, corruption, the ever-widening class gap, and the soon to erupt post-election violence.
The Open Mics were made possible because of Binyavanga’s bohemian incorporation of all forms of art – poetry, music, prose, performance, painting and everything with artistic spirit in it. Literary scholars have a way of frowning upon other literary media not in their stable. Like the way poets often assume theirs is the best medium. Those who study prose think it is the only serious discipline in the department.
But Binyavanga was keen not to bring the scholarly cherry picking and the endemic genre in-fighting. He allowed Kwani? to incorporate everything artistic. And the results were amazing.
As a first-year student in 2008, I remember when Kwani? brought the future Nigerian superstar, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to my university. At that time, her second book, Half of a Yellow Sun was fresh off the press, and anyone with a literary brain knew that she was on course to be a super star. She was in conversation with Sierra Leonean author Aminata Forna and Angolan author Sousa Jamba.
In a discussion moderated by the great late Prof. Okoth Okombo they talked about the role of conflict as a crucible of creativity. And these writers came in the aftermath of the 2007/8 post-election violence that crushed the myth of Kenyan exceptionalism in Africa. All the authors came from countries that had endured civil wars. Chimamanda Adichie’s novel was about the Biafra war that has refused to wash away from the conscience of the Igbo people. Forna’s mother country, Sierra Leone, had endured a protracted civil war and was just recovering. I remember Prof. Okoth Okombo saying that countries that have gone through traumatising events produced better music (DRC, he said), better novels (Nigeria), because conflict forges the best of writers and artists. I think this was an attempt to make the horrors of the post-election violence somehow redeemable for Kenyan creatives. I’m not so sure how well it worked.
In successive literary festivals, 2010, 2012, and additional events we would meet young and old, globally acclaimed authors such as Okey Ndibe, Teju Cole, NoViolet Bulawayo, Taiye Selasi, as well Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Mukoma wa Ngugi and Micere Mugo. In all the festivals, Binya always hovered at the periphery, not addicted to hogging every space. He also wrote worthy praises of Yvonne Owuor’s Dust, a book that explored our collective silence towards the old wounds that hurt our country the most.
And for these fond memories, we can all be grateful to Binya, because it was the seed he planted a decade earlier in Kwani? that made it possible.
A Kenyan Literary Gem
In many ways, Binyavanga to me was like Bakayoko, the main character in Sembene Ousmane great novel ‘God’s Bits of Wood’. He is the absent leader of a revolution, only spoken in scattered references for nearly two-thirds of the books and only appears towards the end. But whose spirit is felt throughout the revolution. He was multifaceted, idealistic and practical, unrestrained, loquacious, arrogant where necessary, but always with good intentions.
Usually, in the literary sphere, older writers and seniors always look down upon young upstarts. Rather than accommodate new voices and new approaches to doing things, they sit prim in their quaint offices pining for the good old days, rhapsodizing about canonical writers of their time. Binyavanga did things differently, giving young creatives a chance, because with no one to hold the door open for you, you can die with your talent. And the door Binyavanga opened paved the way for many award-winning writers to launch their careers.
It is this generosity in a world of selfish gatekeepers that helped create the Kwani? fortress from whose well we would all drink the wisdom of our time. For this, I take a bow at the man we just lost.
Earlier in May, I complained to a friend that my biggest beef with Binyavanga was that he was less prodigious that he should have been. But I was thoroughly impressed by Isaac Otidi Amuke who made an online archive of all of Binyavanga’s writing, and what an oeuvre is he leaving behind! Someone should anthologise everything in a one-volume reader.
Still, I would have appreciated some more fiction from him. But maybe fiction was not his forte, as he was more a memoirist in the mould of James Baldwin, as Mukoma wa Ngugi mourned him in his tribute in Africaisacountry.com. Baldwin, indeed, is better when writing essays than in fiction. As a travel and food writer, few writers in Africa did a better job than Binyavanga. In the multiple magazines he wrote for, locally and internationally, his prose and cunning eye for irony leaves one breathless.
The best trait of writing is longevity. When he came home, from South Africa in the aughts, he caught the spirit of the time, by his photographic prose of Nairobi in the early 2000s, and re-reading it now, I noticed little has changed since then. It is even worse, under the Jubilee regime with its similarities to the worst of the KANU regime.
At Nyamakima in downtown Nairobi, where he goes to board a matatu and travel to his hometown of Nakuru, here is how describes what he observes;
A man wearing a Yale University sweatshirt and tattered trousers staggers behind his enormous mkokoteni, moving so slowly it seems he will never get to his destination. He is transporting bags of potatoes. No vehicle gives him room to move. The barrow is so full that it seems that some bags will fall off onto the road. Already, he is sweating. From some reservoir I cannot understand, he smiles and waves at a friend on the side of the road, they chat briefly, laughing as if they had no care in the world. Then the mkokoteni man proceeds to move the impossible.
An ordinary writer may not have observed the irony of poor soul in Africa pushing a cart donning a Yale University sweatshirt. These images still recur in Nyamakima today. Despite the transition of two regimes in power, what he captured in the short story is still evident, a perfect demonstration of our stagnation as a country, even with its perceived growth.
Or his piece of satire for Granta, How to Write About Africa, still regarded the SI Unit of Satire; so illuminating, so piercing, that most white people who come to Africa, have to pay homage to the piece, and keep it in the conscience as they write about the African content.
In the interview I had with him for the Delhi based newspaper, he sounded more optimistic about a renaissance of the African arts, and at the time, he was contributing to Chimurenga, the irreverent South African publication that cherishes African languages, something Binya told me would grow in the days to come. And as you may notice, most Africans are now conscious of their image to the world. And when American and British media outlets that have tried to write nasty things about the continent, they have found themselves on the wrong end of the ire of the African Twitterati. I know Binya will stir from the grave every time a foreign journalist will attempt to misrepresent Africa.
In his memoir, ‘One I will Write About this Place’ the outstanding feature is his candour. He talks about masturbating to Pam Ewing with teenage exuberance. This is the same openness that makes him to tell off some Europeans who ask him to travel to Sudan and write about his experience. When they spurn the work he wrote for having unseemly language and not meeting the sensibility of the donor, he told them to ‘fuck off’.
“I start to understand why so little good literature is produced in Kenya. The talent is wasted writing donor-funded edutainment and awareness-raising brochures for seven dollars job. Do not complicate things, and you will be paid well…”
He would write more about what it meant to be a Kikuyu in Kenya in the disastrous years of the Kibaki administration, leading to the post-election violence. Some have accused him of falling to the trap of ethnic supremacism claiming that the undertones in his works tend to cultivate the myth of Kikuyu superiority.
Binyavanga was bold enough to come out in a country where most gay men lead double lives, because coming out will ruin their careers and family.
Most people hold strong reservations on what being gay means. Rather than try to understand, many choose to hide under the cover of religion or culture when they want to trounce on the rights of others.
To me, Binyavanga understood that you only live once, and rather than lead life as a hypocrite, you can still live a richer, far fulfilling life, if you are honest with yourself.
While his death has robbed us a literary genius, we can always remember his great writing, his fervor fighting for the African image, and most importantly, for defining the Kenyan and literary scene in the first two decades of this millennium.
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The Injustice of COVID-19 Apartheid
Now there are vaccines. But many are begging the universe, screams of grief erupting within them, with no one to hear. Elsewhere there are enough vaccines to cover each citizen many times over.
Thousands of people gathered in Wembley, going to the stadium for the Euro 2021 match between England and Denmark.
The fans returned to one of the homes of football, echoing the wider situation in the UK as things return to “normal”.
Many restrictions have been lifted, people can socialise, eat and drink inside pubs and restaurants. Schools are open and so are shops.
All that remains is for the masks to come off collectively, to be able to travel to any part of the world without needing to quarantine upon return and for social distancing to end (although that rule seems to be out of the window without the government’s consent).
The calls and messages from friends and family asking to meet up.
The discussions over which vaccine you had.
The sigh of relief at knowing your parents and other vulnerable loved ones are fully vaccinated and can resume some semblance of a life.
The word formed part of one of the most used phrases during this pandemic; “new-normal” is it not an oxymoron of some sort. How can the ordinary and mundane suddenly be new?
Is it like a celebrity singer making a comeback? New look, new branding, new genre of music?
Or a product which is now packaged differently, shiny wrapping, bold letters: NEW NORMAL, NOW EVEN BETTER THAN BEFORE, GETS RID OF STAINS FASTER THAN EVER!
As I watch people embrace this return to normality (that which existed before the “new normal”, I question how.
My normal has been altered forever as I go out into a world that no longer includes the three family members I lost to the virus and the loved ones who passed away during that time whom I was not able to mourn properly.
I am not the only one.
How to resume life when there are human-shaped holes everywhere we look?
There are so many topics which form part of the “reunion discussions” here as people sit opposite those they have not seen in months, everything from love lives, to what you watched during lockdown, to which vaccine you had.
But there are also those of us who will gather, carrying loss and you wonder, who should offer their condolences first? Will we say in unison, “I am sorry for your loss?”
In September 2020, my younger grandad in Dubai was hospitalised with COVID-19. Days later, my uncle, the one my mother referred to as her “twin”, was also taken in.
For days on end, the family WhatsApp groups were a hive of activity as everyone kept checking in with each other on whether there had been any updates on them.
Getting into bed would leave many of us gripped with terror as we kept the phones right next to us, ringer on, willing it to not ring in fear that the news of loss would arrive.
The days merged into one, phrases and words such as “oxygen level”, “ventilator”, and ”lung function” became a part of everyday conversation.
And we waited.
Because that really is what this pandemic has been about for so many of us.
One big wait.
Waiting in a queue to get into the supermarket.
Waiting to feel like a human being again.
Waiting for (an often inept) government to tell you what next.
Waiting for the international community to act on vaccine nationalism, on supporting the hundreds of millions of people whose lives have been destroyed as a result of problematic pandemic policies, on all the global injustices and oppressions which continue to be ignored or treated with a vile indifference.
Waiting to find out if people you love will make it. If you will ever experience those elements of them that your mind and body have connected to, a unique chemical reaction which can never be replicated.
Every year on the 9th of October, my younger grandad would call my mum to wish her a happy birthday, later in the day a bunch of flowers and a card would arrive.
On the 9th of October 2020 the phone rang, and this time it brought the news of his death.
In the days that followed, I watched my mother wrestle with a creature that was invisible to the rest of us, that which morphs into existence following the death of a parent or a parental figure.
While grief sat gently on our shoulders, we clung on to hope with our hands that my uncle would be ok.
The primary coping mechanism became conversations with family members and friends which would feature anecdotes of other people they knew who had contracted the virus and fallen severely ill and somehow made it through.
On the 3rd of November I met with my best friend for breakfast, it was my birthday, and as I bit into my celebratory waffles, my phone rang.
My uncle had passed away.
In those last hours they tried to get as many people on the phone as possible to say goodbye. When it was my mother’s turn, she simply asked him not to leave. She reminded him of the way they would argue over things as kids and promised that if he just stayed, she would never bicker with him again.
My mother’s posture is different now.
She carries loss on her shoulders.
How to put down that burden?
In my culture, like in many others, coming together and performing certain rituals following the death of a loved one is the norm.
There is the funeral and then during the 12 days after there are communal prayers while people come to offer their condolences.
Some aspects of this coming together can be challenging for some; the copious amounts of tea to be made for the guests, the lack of comfort some get from phrases like “he’s in a better place now” or “it was God’s will”.
Simultaneously however, for many people there is comfort to be found in being surrounded by loved ones. Some bring food, others give well-meaning words of comfort, stories are shared about the person who has passed away and there are moments when the touch of an aunt or uncle or cousin provides momentary respite.
Due to travel bans, limits on the number of people allowed at a funeral and the risks around holding large gatherings, people were denied the opportunity to partake in this communal grieving, the pandemic not only taking our loved ones, but also denying us access to spaces of comfort.
The “zoom funeral” has been among the most peculiar experiences for me.
Watching the last rites being performed and swinging between gratitude for technology and utter disbelief that this last goodbye involves you sitting in front of a screen as if you are watching a film or a Netflix show.
And then. It’s all over.
As other people begin to logout, you stare at the “leave” button, daring yourself to click it.
The decision gets taken out of your hands as a notification pops up, telling you that the “meeting” has ended.
What next? You switch off the laptop, go put the washing machine on, open the mail, call the mechanic to book an MOT and start preparing lunch, while swallowing down a grief that burns the back of your throat?
How can someone just no longer exist?
In the months that followed, I lost more loved ones and loved ones lost loved ones and on and on it went.
Login to social media and there were posts every day in which people shared that someone they love had just died of the virus, and in between these would be those featuring headlines stating, “xxxxxxx number of Covid-19 deaths recorded today”.
These formed some kind of pattern, a reminder that people are not statistics and that behind each number was a living, breathing human being whose death had felt like the end of the world for someone.
Grief laid bare, tears spilling out into the social media feeds, all of us drowning in sorrow.
Amid all this, a number of countries began rolling out Covid-19 vaccines. At home in the UK, those in the high-risk category began to receive their first shots in early 2021. Suddenly, hope was in the air.
The start of the pandemic saw the slogan “we’re all in this together” being bandied about worldwide. However, the perceived exit point, a vaccine, revealed that this not to be the case.
As countries like the UK return to “normal”, many countries in the global south, including those on the African continent are experiencing the opposite as they once more go into lockdown.
Mortuaries in Namibia are at full capacity, 16 doctors in Uganda have died from the virus in the space of 14 days, lockdowns in countries including South Africa and Rwanda mean that people’s lives and livelihoods are once more severely affected.
Addressing a media briefing on the 1st of July 2021, World Health Organisation Regional Direction for Africa Dr Matshidiso Moeti said, “The speed and scale of Africa’s third wave is like nothing we’ve seen before.”
That same week World Health Organisation Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said he was asked about vaccine hesitancy in Africa and that his response was “there is no vaccine so why do we even talk about vaccine hesitancy. Those who have vaccines are getting better and opening up their society, those who don’t are facing serious Covid-19 situations. We need vaccines in Africa now.”
Speaking at the Milken Institute Future of Health Summit on the 22nd of June 2021, Strive Masiyiwa, African Union Special Envoy to the African Vaccine Acquisition Task Team, said that when he approached vaccine manufacturers in December 2020, he was told all capacity for 2021 was sold, “The people who bought the vaccines and the people who sold them the vaccines knew that there would be nothing for us.”
Ironically, in December 2020, Business Insider reported that Canada “has enough COVID-19 vaccine doses to cover each citizen five times over”.
18-months-ago the global sentiment being pedalled was one of “standing shoulder to shoulder” in facing the pandemic, but it has become increasingly clear that there is a group of entities for whom preserving global inequalities which allow them to stand on a self-created pedestal is far too important.
As Kenyan writer and activist Nanjala Nyabola tweeted in response to an announcement that the United States will purchase and donate half a billion Pfizer vaccines to 92 low- and lower-middle-income countries and the African Union, over two years, “We asked for justice. They are giving us charity.”
Vaccine consignments through the COVAX facility and other donors arrive in dribs and drabs, the International Monetary Fund saying, “The vaccine rollout in sub-Saharan Africa remains the slowest in the world. Less than 1 adult in every hundred is fully vaccinated, compared to an average of over 30 in more advanced economies”.
There has been another pandemic running parallel with COVID-19, that of injustice.
I think back to those anguish-filled days when my uncle and my grandad were in hospital, the numerous moments of bargaining with the universe to just make them ok and the feeling of the floor falling away from me when I was told they had gone.
At that time, talk of vaccines and rollouts was not widespread.
Now, there are vaccines.
Yet there are many begging the universe as I did back then. There are those sat in front of a screen being forced to say a final goodbye with the click of a button, screams of grief erupting from within them, with no one to listen.
And there are those, double-vaccinated, who walked into a football stadium, their screams in unison with a thousand others, heard all over the world.
South Africa: No One Should Use Our Rage Against Us. We Own Our Rage.
To riff off James Baldwin, there will be a fire next time in South Africa. The embers and kindling are in place. What matters is what South Africans do between this fire and the next.
Two of South Africa’s most populous provinces are on fire. Others teeter on the brink. Together with many others who are observing this iteration of the smoldering blaze, I am caught in the confluence of all kinds of emotions. My sisters and their children live at the center of the fire that is raging in Pietermaritzburg. They are terrified. Even though I am observing the fires from Maputo, their horror at the destruction is an affect that they have drawn me into as well. Social media is flush with the devastating images. Acquaintances have lost businesses that they remain mired in debt over. I have internalized the fear of my family and others whose terror I watch on Twitter. In moments of life altering change, we are usually counseled to sit respectfully and to learn from the experience. For this reason and because I am depleted by the effects of COVID-19 on African lives, and as a consequence of the conflicting emotions jostling within me, I had decided to be quiet and to learn.
Over the past decade, I have been thinking of the rogue emotion of collective rage that occasionally surfaces and sweeps us in its wake. For this reason, Pumla Gqola tweeted asking that I remind tweeps about the work of collective rage in this moment. I write in response to this invitation to think through the lessons of rage and its fires. To begin with, we might think of rage as intentional and networked anger rather than as a free standing emotion. Rage builds on sedimented anger but it is not reducible to anger. It transforms individual grievances into shared problems and structures anger into collective action. In the words of Fred Motem, rage is love and care under duress. This is because it forces the downtrodden to choose themselves and assert their presence even when the world has blotted them out.
To rage is to say, “fuck it, I love myself too much to allow this.” Steve Biko reminded us that we are either alive or dead and when we die, we don’t care anyway. Rage is patterned on history because the grievances build up over time and their expression finds resonance with old and evolving forms of protest. I do not have to remind the reader of just how deep South Africa’s protest history goes and how it folds into and out of social sanction and respectability—attributions of good and bad. Following the old feminist adage, the personal (anger) becomes political (rage). Because of what it represents and does, property has always been the target of rage.
These protests and looting bare the hallmarks of rage. Unemployment sits between 60 and 80 percent among black youth. Many are unemployable. They watch us live comfortably and they see the excess of jet setting Moet lives. Businesses come to squarely represent excess. They’ll never get jobs at a shopping centre or mall from which they are routinely chased out and seen—with justification at times—as potential thieves. In Pietermaritzburg there are tons of young men that sleep on the streets, in parks, under shop awnings, bridges, road overpasses, and the city’s cemeteries. Everyone knows to look out for the “paras” despite this being the seat of the unseeing provincial government. The “paras” broke into my sister’s house twice while the family slept. The children are traumatized. The “paras”want food. Some take drugs to numb the pain. And then they need money to buy the drugs. Because they already live in the street, their fate is not tied to the cashiers and waiters who work at the burning shopping centers. This is to say that if their mothers and cousins lose their jobs as a consequence of a burned shop, this will not have material bearing on their overlooked lives. And those who are not homeless already live precarious lives. They see the dimness of their futures.
When someone strikes a match and invites them to take from the shops, the young people are more than ready to rage and eat. Even if for a day or two. The feeling of fleeting control is priceless. To watch the things that taunt and mock you go up in flames is to finally experience the adrenaline of living. It is to turn the world upside down so that we can all feel the destabilizing effects of marginality. With or without shops in the neighborhood, they will always experience hunger and humiliation. So they don’t believe that they are cutting their own noses. Today is their day. For today, it is we who are terrified and uncertain. Tomorrow they will watch us rummage through the ashes. They know the feeling too well. They live in urine stained ashes.
With reference to the Vietnam war, Spike Lee’s protagonist in Da 5 Bloods says “No one should use our rage against us. We own our rage.” It is apt here. Jacob Zuma and his children have attempted to own the rage of the unemployed. Those they forsook and overlooked when they led the rampant feeding at the trough of political patronage. Now they seek to use the rage of the forsaken to fight the reckoning that must follow reckless and wanton corruption that robbed the poor and swelled the ranks of the unemployed. They lit the match and tossed it. It has landed on dry tinder. Now the flames are engulfing us.
On this precipice, we too have to sit with the warning. “No one should use our rage against us.” As the middle classes and the tenuously employed working classes, do we hit out at the raging youth or do we help in closing the growing gulf between the poor and the wealthy. Not through slogans about old Stellenbosch money, but our own money, political decisions, and privilege that we use to build walls around our properties. Even if we got our hands on all the white Stellenbosch money and imprisoned apartheid generals and war mongers, our problems will not be overcome. Not to use the rage of the unemployed calls on us to end our problematic relationship to property and to recenter the public good. It is insufficient to take care of our families and to complain about black tax. It is to take seriously that the raging youth own their rage and that it is an expression of their self-love under duress. We might condemn their destruction of property but to take rage seriously is to reconsider the social role of property not as enrichment but as public good. This moment is one of reckoning. It shines the spotlight on the government’s ineptness, the fissures between us, and the violence of property.
Perhaps the rage will die down in a few days. Rage always burns itself out. But all it needs are reckless political feeders who thrive on attention and self-importance to light the kindling. Proxy political battles, xenophobes, fascists and others will fill the yawning fissures of inequality. We will return to this place again. We have been here before. Those old enough to remember the fires of the 1980s and the transition years know the fires of rage. Those who came of age in the 1970s nurse the burns of the Soweto and Langa uprisings. The Durban strikes. And earlier still, in the 1960s, the Mpondo revolt and Sharpeville massacre had their own fires. The women who marched on the Union Buildings know the heat of rage.
To riff off James Baldwin, there will be a fire next time. The embers and kindling are in place. What matters is what we do between this fire and the next.
The Voyage of Life: The “Zapatista Invasion” Has Begun
Welcome, compañeroas, compañeras and compañeros zapatistas, to the diverse geographies of the continent that will soon be renamed Slumil K’ajxemk’op.
After months of preparations, and weeks at sea, a delegation of the Zapatistas has touched down in Europe. The “reversed conquest” has well and truly begun.
It was a genuine surprise when the Zapatistas published their communiqué “A Mountain on the High Seas” on October 5, 2020, announcing a tour of the EZLN (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional) across five continents, starting with Europe. Even though the Zapatistas have not shied away from organizing initiatives in Chiapas and across Mexico — the March of the Color of the Earth just 20 years ago is a case in point — it is basically the first time since 1994 that they are leaving the borders of their homeland behind.
Then, on January 1 of this year, they published a Declaration for Life, co-signed with hundreds of individuals, collectives and organizations, outlining the objective of this voyage: making a contribution to the effort for anti-capitalist struggles — which are inseparable from the struggles for life — to converge in full consciousness of their differences and unhampered by homogenizing or hegemonizing forces.
In the past six months, extensive organizing has taken place at the European level, as well as in each individual country or “geography,” according to the Zapatista vocabulary. For instance, a francophone coordinating body has been established, which includes eight regional federations of collectives and local initiatives.
Meanwhile, the EZLN confirmed that a large delegation of more than a hundred members, three-quarters of which are women, was getting ready. The delegation is also said to be accompanied by members of the National Indigenous Congress–Indigenous Council of Government which unites Indigenous struggles across Mexico, as well as a contingent of the People’s Front in Defense of Land and Water of Puebla, Morelos and Tlaxcala which is fighting against the installation of a massive power plant that is threatening to divert water resources indispensable to the peasants in the region.
The Voyage for Life — Europe Chapter
On April 10, the anniversary of Emiliano Zapata’s assassination, they announced the departure of the first party of the Zapatista delegation, destined to make its voyage by sea. We had expected to see them leave the caracol of Morelia that day, where the members had been preparing themselves for months. A formal ritual was performed for the occasion, with traditional music, incense and purifying acts (“limpia”), upon a life-size model of a ship’s prow.
But the group did not set out on their journey right away: first they went into a 15-day quarantine to ensure that no one leaves the Zapatista territory carrying any other virus than that of rebellion. This decision is in line with the EZLN’s resolution to take all the required precautionary sanitary measures to avoid the spread of COVID-19 upon themselves and outside of state mandates. This had led them to issue a red alert and close off access to all Zapatista caracoles since March 15, 2020.
The maritime delegation was baptized “Escuadrón 421” because it is composed of four women, two men and one transgender person (“unoa otroa” in the Zapatista lexicon), who were individually introduced in a communique of Subcomandante Galeano.
After another farewell party on Sunday, April 25, accompanied by the exhibition of numerous paintings and sculptures, encouraging speeches by the Council of Good Government and a communal ball, the delegation departed the next day from Morelia. From there they reached the Mexican harbor at Isla Mujeres where a ship named “La Montaña” was awaiting them and they set sail for the Atlantic crossing on May 2.
The Escadron 421 is now at the mercy of the ocean’s wiles, under the capable seamanship of the ship’s crew. They should be within sight of the European coast at the port of Vigo in Spain in the second half of June.
Simultaneously smaller celebrations were organized by the sound of drums and all sorts of encouragements to accompany the departure of other members of the Zapatista delegation, leaving their villages in the Lacandon jungle, at times using canoes to descent the rivers of this tropical region close to the Guatemalan border. They are part of different groups of the Zapatista delegation, which will reach the old continent, by air travel this time, from the beginning of July onwards.
So will begin months of intensive activities, meetings and exchanges all over Europa for the Zapatistas. Thus far they have received and accepted invitations from a great number of “geographies”: Austria, Basque Country, Belgium, Bulgaria, Catalonia, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Sardinia, Serbia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, UK and Ukraine.
Hundreds of meetings and activities have been proposed to the Zapatistas, which are currently being coordinated. These events will be made public by the organizing collectives when the time comes. This might also include larger gatherings/rallies, around all current struggles: from the Gilets Jaunes to ZAD’s, in the case of France, and other resistance groups fighting destructive mega projects; feminist collectives, migrant support initiatives, groups struggling against police violence, as well as movements aiming to undo colonial forms of domination; mutual aid networks based in cities and rural areas as well as those involved in building alternative ways of living; not forgetting the critical mobilizing efforts compelled by, as the Zapatistas emphasize, the bloody tragedies of our wounded planet. The list — incomplete here — is long in the vast constellation of rebellions against capitalist brutality and struggles for other, more desirable worlds.
Above all, the Zapatistas have explained that they are coming to exchange with — that is, to speak, and even more so, to listen to — all those that have invited them “to talk about our mutual histories, our sufferings, our rages, our successes and our failures.” Especially in grassroots meetings so there is enough time to get to know and learn from one another.
The Zapatistas have long since argued for our struggles not to remain isolated from each other, and have underlined the importance of constructing global networks of resistance and rebellion. There is no need to enumerate all the international events that they have organized in Chiapas from the First Intercontinental Encounter for Humanity and against Neoliberalism (also referred to as “Intergalactic”) in 1996 until the Critical Thought in the Face of the Capitalist Hydra seminar in 2015. But in August 2019, while announcing the recent advancement in local self-government with the establishment of four new autonomous communes and seven new Councils of Good Government, the Zapatistas had made it clear not to be organizing any large events anymore. Instead they were planning to take part in “meetings with groups, collectives, and organizations that work [struggle] within their geographies.”
There was no question back then of touring the five continents, but it could be — among many other reasons to set out on such a journey — a way to initiate this very process. If such an approach may indeed resonate with the widely felt need to weave stronger bonds between existing struggles, this requires not only an exchange to identify the commonalities and differences but especially a human-to-human encounter that can forge interconnection.
The Zapatistas are calling this journey the “Voyage for Life,” and it will present an opportunity for a vast number of people to meet the Zapatistas and learn more from their experiment in autonomy and dignity, persevered against overwhelming odds for over a quarter century. And, hopefully, many will allow themselves to be won over by the virus of rebellion of which the Zapatista are contagious carriers.
Let’s also hope that all those who identify with the Declaration for Life and for whom the autonomy of the Zapatista is a shining source of aspiration and inspiration will be ready to welcome them, support their itinerant initiative and participate in a manner best suited to each and every one on this Voyage for Life.
The Continent Renamed “Slumil K’Ajxemk’Op”
Returning to the Escadron 421. Since the first announcement, the Zapatistas have talked about their voyage towards Europe as a reversed process of conquest. The idea of the inversed invasion — this time with consent — amuses them. Obviously, it is said in jest — but are we entirely sure? When the delegation left, scale models ironically alluded to the caravels of Christopher Columbus: “No soy una Niña” and “Santa Maria La Revancha”; but it was also clarified that it is only if the members of Squadron 421 manage to land on European soil that it can be truly said that “the invasion has started.” If all goes well, they will be in Madrid on August 13, 2021, to celebrate in their own way the quincentenary of the conquest of Mexico-Tenochtitlan by the army of Hernan Cortés.
The Indigenous population of Chiapas, like all those on the American continent, have for five centuries suffered the implications of colonization, including all the forms of internal colonialism and racism that extend it. The Zapatistas have made it clear, however, that they are not coming to Madrid to get a formal apology from the Spanish state or the Catholic church. They reject the essentialist condemnation of the “West” as evil and fully assimilated to the colonizers, as well as the attitude that relegates the colonized to the role of victim. On the contrary, they are intending to tell the Spaniards “that they have not conquered us [and] that we are still resisting and in fact in open rebellion.”
To make this voyage in reverse is to nuance a history that has assigned deeply entrenched and unambiguous positions to the vanquisher and the vanquished, and unlock the possibility for an alternative history.
When the maritime Zapatista delegation reaches Europe it is Marijose, “unoa otroa” of the Escadron 421 that will go ashore first. The following is how Subcomandante Galeano described the scene in advance; an inversion of the gesture by which Christopher Columbus — who disembarked on October 12, 1492, neither as a conqueror nor as a discoverer, since he was only seeking to find the already known lands of Japan and China — rushed to plant his cross and impose the name San Salvador on the island of Guanahaní:
Thus, the first foot that will set on European soil (that is, if they let us disembark) will not be that of man or a woman. It will be the foot of another.
With what the deceased SupMarcos would have described as “a slap with a black stocking in the face of all the heteropatriarchal left,” it has been decided that the first person to disembark will be Marijose.
As soon as they will have planted both feet firmly on European ground and recovered from seasickness, Marijose will shout out:
“Surrender, pale heteropatriarchal faces who persecute that which is different!”
Nah, I’m joking. But wouldn’t it be good if they did?
No, on stepping out on land the Zapatista compa Marijose will solemnly declare:
“In the name of women, of children, of men, of elders and, of course, of other Zapatistas, I declare that the name of this land, which its natives today call
“Europe” will henceforth be known as: SLUMIL K’AJXEMK’OP, which means “Rebel Land,” or, “Land that doesn’t yield, that doesn’t fail.”
And thus it will be known by its inhabitants as well as by strangers as long as there is someone who will not abandon, who will not sell out, and who will not capitulate.”
Welcome, compañeroas, compañeras and compañeros zapatistas, to the diverse geographies of the continent that will soon be renamed Slumil K’ajxemk’op.
Editors Note: This is an edited version of an article first published by ROAR magazine. It is republished here as part of our partnership with Progressive international.
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