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Reflections

In a World of Gatekeepers, Binyavanga Held the Door Open

8 min read.

Literary scholars have a way of frowning upon other literary media not in their stable. 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.

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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.

Discovering Kwani?

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.

Read series: Binyavanga Wainaina

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.

Coming Out

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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Silas Nyanchwani is a writer and journalist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Reflections

Head Teacher’s COVID-Induced Headache or When the Government Abdicates Its Responsibilities

The coronavirus has laid bare the government’s failings in the education sector over the last 60 years. Even now, faced with the challenges brought by COVID-19, it has opted to place the responsibility of ensuring that students can safely return to school squarely in the hands of school managements.

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Head Teacher’s COVID-Induced Headache or When the Government Abdicates Its Responsibilities
Photo: Unsplash/Mwesigwa Joel
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The head teacher of our local primary school reminds me of Mr. Musili, who ran the primary school I attended in downtown Nairobi back when Kenya was newly independent. He was greatly respected, little feared, and much loved by the pupils, as is our head teacher at our local primary school.

The school is old, built in 1947 by the colonial administration and which, up until very recently, had pit latrines that were prone to flooding every time it rained. Kids barely out of their nappies would chase after Head Teacher across the quadrangle, “Teacher! Teacher! Choo zimejaa!”, and off he would go to call the exhauster, throwing 52,000 shillings down the toilet with each exhauster visit.

Head Teacher’s budget for running the school is meager; he receives each year – in three tranches – the grand sum of 335 shillings for each of the 846 pupils that are enrolled at the school. With that sum, Head Teacher must pay the electricity and water bills, buy firewood for the kitchen, maintain the school in a proper state of repair and generally keep everything ticking nicely. Luckily, his financial management skills are peerless; each of the 335 shillings is milked for all its worth and, somehow, the 11 shillings per year that the government deems sufficient for the purchase of sanitary towels for each pubescent girl suffice.

The fees paid by the parents of the 297 pupils that board at the school (26,500 shillings per student per year) are crucial to Head Teacher’s budget, bridging the gap between the government’s disbursements and paying the salary of the groundsman (who also takes care of the two cows that provide the milk for the morning tea), as well as the salaries of nine other support staff. That money also covers the cost of all meals and the sorghum, millet and maize flour uji the boarding pupils enjoy during the mid-morning break.

Head Teacher is a true educator; his is a calling driven by a passion to mould young minds and bring the best out of each of his charges. And so, despite the challenges and the lack of resources, our local primary school has built itself a reputation, drawing pupils from as far away as Nairobi, and attracting pupils away from local private schools.

Now the coronavirus has come to put a spanner in the smooth workings of Head Teacher’s finely calibrated budget, with the government placing squarely in his lap the responsibility of ensuring that the school is COVID-prepared when pupils return next year. Head Teacher has been advised by the education ministry that he will have to find ways to ensure that handwashing facilities are placed outside each classroom and office, outside the dorms and the kitchen, by the door of the school hall, in the toilets, at the gate and in the playing fields. Liquid hand soap must be provided, and a thermo gun is foreseen, as well as hand and surface sanitisers.

A sick bay must also be established and a qualified nurse engaged. The non-teaching staff will need to be equipped with personal protective gear and the cooks in the kitchen will require food-handling certificates. The government doesn’t say where the money for all this is to come from, or indeed how adequate water supplies will be maintained come the dry season when water is prone to rationing.

To adhere to the one-metre social distancing rule, the school would need 48 classrooms. But a sudden increase in classroom space is unlikely to happen in an institution where the number of classrooms has risen from one, when the school was established in 1947, to 24 today. The Education Cabinet Secretary, George Magoha, has proposed the installation of temporary tents and the use of teleconferencing by teachers to ease congestion.

Well, as far as computer technology is concerned, Head Teacher is in possession of exactly one projector (without a screen) which was supplied by the government, together with the tablets that now lie gathering dust in their purpose-built strongroom for want of material that is suited to the recently introduced competency-based curriculum. In any case, the school only has five teachers who have received basic two-day computer-skills training as part of the government’s now collapsed Digital Literacy Programme. So CS Magoha’s proposal is moot.

The government also says that pupils found sharing textbooks shall be considered to have committed an offence. Well, at our local primary school, a textbook is, of necessity, shared between two pupils and so, based on that threat alone, the school will not be able to reopen. It used to be that the government would allocate a budget for books according to the size of the school population. With his usual careful use of resources, and zero tolerance for loss or damage of learning materials—and by organising book harvesting events—Head Teacher had managed to bring the number of pupils sharing a textbook down from one book for every ten pupils in 2013 to one book for every two pupils within five years. Then in 2018 the government decided to take over the supply of books to schools, but even today, in half the classes, one textbook is still shared between two pupils.

It is also highly unlikely that the boarding facilities will be expanded in time to meet the social distancing requirements and so, either the number of boarding students will have to be drastically reduced or the section will have to be closed down altogether; in either case, Head Teacher’s finely tuned budget will take a direct hit.

And as if the headache of ensuring that the school will be COVID-ready when classes recommence is not bad enough, Head Teacher has also been given the responsibility of “ensuring access to education [through] guidance and counseling” for those pupils who have fallen pregnant or have been caught up in drugs and alcohol abuse during the long COVID-induced break. Needless to say, even if Head Teacher were in a position to discover which among his pupils have been whiling away the time indulging in alcohol and drugs, there is not one trained counsellor on his staff to deal with the problem, even though the education ministry’s directive asks Head Teacher to “strengthen the guidance and counselling departments to help pupils and staff deal with the psychosocial issues in the wake of corona pandemic [and] prevent stigmatisation and hysteria in case of a detected case”.

The coronavirus has laid bare the government’s failings in the education sector over the last 60 years. That a school established over 70 years ago only recently managed to raise enough funds to build modern eco-friendly, wheelchair-friendly toilets is a clear indicator of the government’s neglect. It took the inventiveness of Head Teacher and his management board, the collaboration of parents and the support of the old students’ network to come up with a solution to save the 160,000 shillings lost annually to pit latrine exhaust services. And so, the toilet ratio of one urinal for every 30 boys and one toilet for every 25 girls is the one requirement that the school will be able to respect when schools reopen.

Still, something good for Kenya’s pupils might yet come out of this coronavirus pandemic; the government is reportedly considering moving the preference to day-schooling, with boarding schools reserved for pupils who must of necessity travel long distances to get to a school. This, in my view, is as it should be. Head Teacher should not have to confront an irate parent, fed up with having to deal with a troubled youth at home, or the complaint that the food budget has gone through the roof because the school holidays have been too long.

We Kenyans have long abdicated our responsibilities towards our youth, abandoning even the raising of our children to teachers, thus unwittingly widening the emotional gulf between children and parents and creating intergenerational alienation even as the government criminalises the youth, and issues edicts laced with threats each time it is confronted with a problem affecting them.

As Wandia Njoya says, “We have to grow up and think maturely about solutions such as restructuring our education system, revisiting the question of boarding schools, and treating adults who abuse the children they are supposed to take care of as criminals. Portraying youth as cheats and criminals, while failing to provide the education and social institutions they need to be functional adults, is irresponsible and an abdication of our responsibility as adults to care for the young. And we must care, not just as individual parents of nuclear families, as the evangelical narratives driven by the churches tell us to do. Instead, we must demand, collectively as voters, better political decisions that nurture our youth.”

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Reflections

A George Floyd Moment and the Reality of Being African in China

To a smaller but yet equally profound extent, Eric Jackson became our George Floyd, not dying under the knee of a racist cop, but under the crushing weight of a deeply racist and complacent system that denied him a duty of care.

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A George Floyd Moment and the Reality of Being African in China
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I was at a trendy French salon in the heart of Beijing’s popular Sanlitun neighbourhood organising a photoshoot for the magazine I work for. The model on the shoot was a young Russian woman, our photographer Chinese and the owner of the salon was from France. As we went about prepping for the shoot, I noticed a little girl cowering behind one of the stylists. She appeared anxious. I was concerned, so I tried to get closer to find out what the matter was only for her to jump back and let out a shriek.

She told one of the Chinese stylists that a scary, ugly black man was looking at her. It took me a moment to realise it was me she was talking about. I am not sure whether the child and the stylist both assumed I didn’t understand Chinese, but the stylist proceeded to extol my virtues to the inconsolable child, saying how nice I was, how cool my hair looked, and telling her that she had no reason to be afraid of me. But the child repeated the same thing over and over again. I was black, ugly and scary. That coloured the rest of the day. I picked a corner in the waiting area where I had little chance of bumping into the little girl and stayed away from the styling area where the model was having her hair and makeup done until it was necessary for me to be there.

In Kenya, I had become used to the crippling ethnic profiling that was part of my life because of my last name, and the comments made about my appearance, my skin tone, or my facial features which were deemed undesirable or not conforming to those of the people from my ethnic group. I had learned to navigate the stereotypes, working to dismantle those that worked against me, while embracing the positive ones as a rudder towards growth. In this clash of numerous cultures, I had an identity. I could find my bearings easily, and remain grounded. But leaving Kenya confronted me with a whole new identity. I was no longer a Kikuyu guy from Nairobi’s Eastlands with all the baggage that came with that. I was black.

I have come to learn that being black has nothing to do with my culture, and very little indeed to do with my skin colour. It is a global metric by which my worth as a human being is measured.

China is not the easiest place to be black. It is a country with a long history of colourism amongst its own people and against outsiders, and a tendency to push towards homogenisation. Therefore, being black creates a visceral reaction among many locals which results in xenophobic and racist sentiments. Being proudly African, in whichever way that exuded from me, was quickly met with incomprehension at best and absolute disgust at worst. Why would anyone wish to be black, African and proud of it? I encountered a broad definition for people who looked like me, an extensive catalogue of black, ranging from the mildly acceptable, to the tolerable, to the unacceptable.

I have been told that I am not as dark as “real” Africans. And I have seen relief sweep across people’s faces when they realise that I am not from Nigeria. To be dark and Nigerian is to embody a negative stereotype both within and outside the black community. People tend to cling to those of their nationality, forming chat groups on WeChat, China’s version of WhatsApp, where they share their stories of racism and offer support to each other. For the chosen few who are welcomed into African American circles, the situation is no better as conversations and sentiments almost exclusively centre around the Black American experience in China and around the world. Many African Americans I have encountered in China, though proud to be affiliated with Africa, are often ignorant of its peoples and its cultures. It comes then as no surprise that when the Black Lives Matter movement started getting traction globally, Africans were expected to show solidarity, yet the conversation about what it means to be black and African in a country like China is not a single story.

As an African who identifies as Kenyan in China, my cultural and national identity are subsumed by a greater racial-cultural one. In North America in particular, being black represents an entire culture of Afro-descendants. Such broad identities leave no room for ethnic, regional and national identities from Africa. I have often been engaged in conversations with African Americans in China who automatically assume our lived experiences are to a large extent similar if not entirely identical. They refuse to engage with the notion that, as someone from a majority “black” country, my experiences of systemic oppression are not within the context of race. The man at the top consolidating power for himself and his cronies isn’t white but black. The face of oppression in my experience is my own.

And this subsuming of my cultural and national identity is adopted by the Chinese community, where the parent identity of people who look like me is African American, and so it is my job to align myself with that identity as much as possible if I hope to survive. China acts as a petri dish for how the world is stratified, not only along racial lines but along national identities as well. Towards the tail end of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in China, Chinese landlords in Guangzhou province systematically targeted African tenants, making unfounded claims that it was they who had and were spreading the virus. This was despite ample evidence to the contrary. The fear had been sparked by the growing number of cases imported into China before the borders were closed indefinitely. A negligible number of the imported cases were attributed to foreigners returning to China, and fewer still were attributed to Africans. This however didn’t stop the evictions, leading to a public outcry both in China and in the rest of the world.

However, to a large extent, African Americans were not singled out. This is because, according to popular belief in Chinese society, “blacks” from America and Europe are better. They can be trusted more. The hierarchy of races in China is ordered from the top in this way: white English speakers, white Western Europeans, white Eastern Europeans, white South Africans followed by Black Americans, South Americans, black South Africans, East Asians, Middle Easterners, Southeast Asians, Pacific Islanders, blacks from the Caribbean and, at the very bottom, the African, the generic term for sub-Saharan Africans. There is a premium placed on being from countries classified by the Chinese government as Native English speaking countries. These are The UK, the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, and South Africa. It narrows the pool of potential candidates for the highly sort after English teaching jobs in the country. Since there is little else in the way of jobs for foreigners in China, anyone who has passable English jostles for the few opportunities. Often, African nationals from English speaking countries are passed over for these types of jobs, even when the employer is willing to hire illegally. Some Africans resort to claiming American or South African nationality, a fact which angers Americans and South Africans in China, as they claim such individuals soil their national reputations.

A recent revision of the Chinese Greencard application process, which sought to make it easier for highly skilled professionals to gain permanent residence in China, laid bare the fear of the African. Chinese netizens took to Weibo (Chinese Twitter) and other Chinese platforms to express their displeasure at the possibility of an influx of foreigners into their land. The outcry took a decidedly dark turn as Chinese nationals expressed their displeasure at a possibly blacker, more Africanised China in future. Africans are already stereotyped as unhygienic, disease-infested layabouts, and the possibility of their being granted permanent leave to remain in China was more than many could contemplate.

China’s perception of people of colour is largely informed by the media. Stereotypes played out in TV shows and reinforced by sports are held as gospel truths. All African Americans are therefore either gun-toting gangsters, or tall pro basketball players, while Africans, especially Kenyans, are incredible marathon runners motivated by the need to run away from lions since we all come from the Maasai Mara. The African is an alien other in the Chinese consciousness. I have had to resort to showing photos of Kenya, of Nairobi, videos of the hustle and bustle to prove that I come from a city just like any other in the world. That phenomenon is not unique to the Chinese. I was once in an argument with an African American friend of mine about where Kenya was located in Africa. He insisted that Kenya bordered Nigeria and could not be dissuaded. Not until I showed him a map but even then, he fell back on his “American innocence”.

The stereotype of Africa as a disease-ridden, famine and war-ravaged continent is still taken as the gospel truth by many in China. There is an unwillingness to engage with the “masses of African people” who populate Chinese cities and study in Chinese schools. This misconception that all Africans are poor has spawned the belief that all Africans are economic migrants to China, constantly taking advantage of the Chinese government’s generosity in the way of the scholarships extended to seemingly undeserving African students, while Chinese students allegedly continue to go without. But these are the same scholarships extended to other Asian, European and South American countries, with the key link being the bilateral agreements forged between China and countries far and wide. Oftentimes, the students on these scholarships only receive them on the condition that they return to their countries of origin upon graduation, because Chinese-educated Africans are a greater asset to the Chinese government back in Africa. In actual fact, investing in African students is investing in China’s future. But your average Chinese citizen will be oblivious to this fact, instead choosing to vilify African students and the merchants who are a direct source of capital for Chinese businesses.

To exist as African is to exist in a state of apology. The proximity to whiteness that African Americans and Black South Africans have spares them the inconvenience of negative stereotypes. Africa sends some of its best and most brilliant to represent them in Europe and Asia. The African who does not fit into the negative stereotype becomes an exception to the rule rather than an example of what Africa has to offer. It means that in a society as stratified along racial and national lines as this one, the few opportunities available to foreigners in terms of work and education are measured out in relation to one’s proximity to whiteness. The African remains at the bottom, a position from which he is still expected to be gracious and grateful.

This ignorance is exhibited not only by the Chinese against Africans in China but also by African Americans and Europeans, who display a lack of interest in fully engaging with my story of blackness. This is particularly ironical considering the overwhelming support which Chinese netizens have shown the Black Lives Matter movement in America, with the protests in America and across the world receiving massive airplay on national Chinese news outlets.

When tenant evictions started happening in Guangzhou, however, it was through friends and families abroad that most found out what was happening. The horrific racism against Africans did not receive any news coverage beyond the government’s denial after international news outlets started reporting about it. The same government that called racism in America a social ill remained silent as its own citizens shared racist, xenophobic sentiments against Africans evictees in Guangzhou.

Anyone, regardless of race or nationality, can display a geographical ignorance of the world and the peoples that inhabit it. But this classification of nationalities and races by Chinese society has ensured that certain groups achieve and maintain superiority over others. The “Native English Speakers”, whether black or white, possess that thing so desired by China’s nouveau riche; to become an English speaker and thus attain the ultimate status of upward social mobility and be welcomed into the Anglophone world, portrayed as the world of the accomplished.

Africa is a massive continent with a population of 1.4 billion people. We come from 55 countries that are as distinct in their populations as they are in their cultural compositions and heritages. To some extent, one might describe African nations more as confederacies of distinct ethnic groups under various national flags rather than a united body of Africans.

Every crisis presents an opportunity. As African Americans confront systemic racism, Kenyans are also turning their attention to our own political history. In various WeChat groups, Kenyans in China are engaged in fervent discussions, expressing their political hopes for the future. It is to these groups that Kenyans turned when their situation was dire in places like Guangzhou and Shenzhen, receiving help from fellow Kenyans when the Kenyan embassy was slow to act. And it was to these same groups that those stranded in China—unable to afford the Sh80,000 airfare for repatriation—turned for donations when they were told in no uncertain terms that ndege sio matatu, you shouldn’t expect to catch a flight as you would a minibus taxi. In Kenyan WeChat groups, members are spoiling for a revolution of some kind. We all want change, but it falls apart at the seams when mention is made of tribe or political party affiliation. Yet we know that our silence and our refusal to engage with issues of social justice, equality and corrupt systems will not save us.

A disturbing event recently took place that fully encapsulates the terror of being black and African in China. In Kenyan and African groups across the country, people began sharing the photos and videos of Eric Jackson, a Ghanaian man who was turned away from four hospitals due to fears that he had COVID-19. A hospital eventually took him in but it was too late. Jackson died while undergoing treatment. He died of cardiac arrest. Videos of Jackson’s agonising last moments, and of his corpse on a gurney at what I speculate to be the entrance to a morgue, were a stark reminder of our place in this country. It was a terrifying manifestation of the Chinese rejection of our colour and our race. In one of the videos, his friend is heard pleading to be let into the hospital in fluent Chinese but the guard at the gate refuses and sends them away. He is heard asking, “Is this not a hospital? Do you not treat sick people here?”, and getting no response.

This incident knocked the air out of my lungs. To a smaller but yet equally profound extent, Jackson became our George Floyd, not dying under the knee of a racist cop, but under the crushing weight of a deeply racist and complacent system denying him a duty of care. In the Kenyan WeChat group, an outpouring of grief was followed by an important question; even if Jackson was dying of COVID-19, did he not deserve to be treated? Had he been a Chinese national, or even white, would he have been turned away? COVID-19 was the pretext for medical professionals to not only shirk their responsibility, but for individuals to go against that very human instinct of preserving a human life under threat. Jackson was denied medical help because to them his black skin and his origin meant his life wasn’t worth saving. Jackson wasn’t worth fretting over, and his death was not a loss. His friend’s desperate pleas, in their own language, did nothing to weaken their resolve.

We all recognised in that moment that Jackson was us and we were him. That could have been my dead body on a gurney somewhere in the south of China. Those could have been my final moments captured on short WeChat video clips for the world to see. That could have been my life devalued and ultimately lost because I was born black and African.

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Reflections

For Men’s Eyes Only

The evil power we wish to keep safe and to ourselves as men it seems, is the power to use the bodies of women for our own inconsiderate ends. We must begin having conversations about rape. Friday afternoons will have to be about more than just football. We need to talk.

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For Men’s Eyes Only
Photo: Unsplash/Olhar Angolano
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Friday afternoons are for football, everybody knows that. There is a soccer pitch along the road that connects Manyanja Road to Umoja Estate that I sorely miss. I travelled to ushago in early March to wait out the pandemic and took my football boots with me. My mom’s farmhand Lemuel* and I dribble and pass the ball on the lawn in the afternoons sometimes.

On the day we went into town to buy the football, Lemuel accepted Jesus Christ as his personal saviour. He had gotten himself in trouble the week before that. My mother had found him outside the property, in the bushes growing next to the nearby primary school. He was courting a young girl of school-going age. He is about twenty himself. My mother found the girl’s younger sister waiting with a pile of firewood Lemuel had cut for them. The guilty betray themselves I suppose. When the girls saw my mother approaching, they ran. My mother ordered Lemuel to pack his bags immediately. He was out of a job. I watched him drag his feet as he walked back inside the compound, tears welling up in his eyes.

The week before Lemuel was found with the girl in the bushes, I had interrupted a transaction between them, although at the time I didn’t realise that that is what it was. I had heard rustling behind the fence near the chicken coop and on going to investigate, found her standing by the corner of the homestead, waving at Lemuel. I was on the inside, so she didn’t notice me until I asked loudly,

Itimo ang’o kanyo? What are you doing there?

Ne amoto’, she ventured weakly before walking away. Fetching firewood.

Lemuel had been pruning the Grevillea trees along the fence and when I went outside. I saw that he had cut one branch and thrown it over the fence. I walked up to him and asked him about it.

Nyako no ne kwaya mana yien, he explained. The girl was asking me for firewood.

To ka yien e ma okwayo, opondo e tok chiel nang’o? If it is firewood she wanted, why was she hiding behind the fence?

An akiya. I don’t know.

The task of fetching firewood often falls to young girls and puts them in the crosshairs of property owners. I didn’t think much of it then. Only after he was caught with her did I begin to see that his position here gives him power that he can exploit. And to understand my full responsibility as his friend and employer.

Lemuel’s life has not been easy, no doubt about that. He lost his mother to illness as a child and grew up being shuttled between relatives. A few years in one home, a few more in another. He never had a chance to go beyond primary school. He has had to work. His father is what we jokingly call in these parts a terorist—no spelling mistake there. Tero is the notorious custom of wife inheritance as practiced in Luoland. It means his father has been absent even from his own home and children, mostly living in the homesteads of the widows he terorises.

Lemuel has a curious mind though, always asking questions and cracking jokes. Lately he has been trying to learn English. I gifted him a book and a pen to help. It is now full of drawings, including a rough sketch of the plan of a semi-permanent one-bedroom house. Whenever he goes home, he does what we call lawo nindo—chasing sleep. He spends a few nights with this cousin then a few nights with another. He intends to build a house when the pandemic ends and is saving money to buy the materials. This time Lemuel dodged the bullet; for now, he is still working for my mom on tenuous terms as she decides his fate.

News of hundreds of thousands of young school age girls getting pregnant after falling victim to acts of rape committed during the COVID-19 lockdown came about a week after Lemuel’s transgressions, as he was settling back into a regular routine. It came on the radio just as we sat down to dinner. My mother asked me to turn up the volume. And then she turned to Lemuel.

Be iparo gik ma nyocha awachoni? Mago to ang’o?

Can you remember the things I was telling you about the other day? What are those?

Koro iwinjo gik ma timore?

Do you hear what is going on?

Saa ni nyathi ma timo timbego manyo ich, omanyo korona, to be omanyo ayaki!

Right now a child engaging in such behavior is looking for pregnancy, Corona, and HIV!

Be uneno situations ma nyithindo kete ji?

Do you see the situations children put people in?

Lemuel, usually full of funny observations about news stories on the radio, knew to keep his mouth shut. He got an earful indeed. Lemuel tried to catch my eye across the dinner table but I did not interfere in their conversation. It reminded me of myself, making mistakes as a child and getting on my mother’s wrong side. It struck me too, how hiring a worker on your property makes you responsible for their actions. Lemuel is now my mother’s responsibility, like I once was.

After supper that night, as Lemuel prepared to wash the dishes and I prepared to feed the dogs, he commented on my silence. He calls it kukula neno when he is berated.

Eh ndugu, in iweya ka akula neno kenda ma ok iwach kata gimoro. Saa moro iremaga.

Eh brother, you let me get quarreled alone without backing me up. Sometimes you fail me.

It is at moments like these when men affirm each other in misogyny and violence. I wanted to break that cycle for him. We have our way of talking to each other.

Onyali kabisa. Kendo go ne nyasaye erokamano ni mathe e ma ne oyudi chieng’ cha. In di sani in achiel kuom jokma oland ni omiyo nyithindo ich go. Kendo in di ne oluong nyaka nyingi e radio.

You thoroughly deserved it. You better thank God it is Mathee who found you that day. You would have been announced today as one of the people impregnating children. In fact, they would have mentioned you by name on the radio.

He grumbles.

Aaah, ndugu. In be saa moro iduoka chien. An timbego aseweyo.

Aaah, brother. Sometimes you take me backwards. I have quit those habits.

Though he denies having any untoward intentions, we all know that if my mother had not found him when she did, that girl last week might have been one of them. I can hear him complaining still as I head for the kennels. For his sake, and for the sake of young women everywhere, I hope he is listening. I know it will take more than small talk.

Fast forward to last Friday and I’m dribbling the ball near the fence that borders the eucalyptus when I hear cracking sounds from across the fence. I go to the fence and try to peer through the thorns. I see a shape, bent over the rocks among the trees doing something on the ground. They are on the property without anyone’s knowledge or permission. I run to the gate and out along the fence to see who they are, and what they are doing on the property.

Turning the corner of the fence I come upon a teenage girl, 16 at most, with a small pile of dry sticks in the crook of her elbow. She is trespassing, gathering firewood. She is startled and starts to bolt but stops at the edge of the grove of trees because there is a climb and she still has the wood in her hands. She turns to face me, cornered. Her knees are shaking and her eyes are wide with fear. The news of those hundreds of thousands of pregnancies from the radio the night before comes back to me.

Kenyan government officials are famous for knee-jerk reactions to social problems, reactions that most often involve criminalising underprivileged youth, especially young men, and exacting violence upon them as a form of deterrent., Speaking about the shocking statistics, Ezekiel Mutua was quick to blame popular Kamba music. However, in the weeks that followed, a DCI officer raped a woman being held in police custody in Embu and police officers in Isebania in Migori County illegally detained a 12-year-old girl who had been raped by her father, also a policeman. Popular Kamba music still?

Whenever the perpetrators are the police or older male figures with some power and influence, officials like Mutua can’t seem to find the words to speak out against them. Their authority on morality, like police authority to perpetrate violence, is most present and powerful when underprivileged youth are its targets.

Our political culture and the letter and intent of our existing laws also play into this equation. Activists have renewed calls for the abolition of many current forms of policing and punishment following the brutal murder of George Floyd in the United States and among the many points being made is the observation that much policing work is intrinsically oppressive.

The law seems to place its enforcers and property owners—who also make up most of the political leadership and are mostly men—in a position of having “more human rights” than those who are less fortunate, and women. So one of the first questions a rape victim is often asked when reporting a rape is, “What were you doing there/at their house (on their property)?” As though being on someone else’s property or on public land for whatever reason makes you less human and your body more deserving of violence and abuse.

It is thinking that has justified countless violations and endless police harassment of the poor who are arrested and often brutalised merely for existing in a public space. The rich and powerful seem to be freer to move at all times of the day and night. This issue of legality also crossed my mind as I stood before that young girl in the eucalyptus grove. Was she to blame for our encounter? Should anyone be blamed for trying to survive? If anything untoward had happened to her during that encounter, it should be me that would have been to blame.

It may well have been in a situation exactly like the one I found myself in that Friday afternoon that led to Lemuel’s meeting with the girl he was caught with. A situation of unequal power and great vulnerability, a result of structural inequality. A situation where one’s choice of action could have devastating consequences for the life of another. Lemuel certainly understands this. When I asked him what he might say to a young man such as himself facing a similar choice, he didn’t hesitate.

We nyathi sikul otiek sikul. Mano e gima anyalo nyise.

Let a schoolchild finish school. That’s what I can tell him.

So I know he understood the huge risks that his choices could have imposed on that girl’s future. I believe that all over the country, , similar encounters are happening every day and with greater frequency due to the lockdown. And men like Lemuel, like the police officers in Embu and Isebania—and like me—keep choosing to harm young women and girls for mere moments of selfish pleasure. Simply because we can. We must do better, as individual men and as a society.

Banning works of music and targeting violence against mostly underprivileged perpetrators will not achieve anything without quality sex education that equips society with the understanding of why crimes such as rape and sexual harassment are harmful and wrong. I believe that instead of deterring crime and violence, such actions create and cement a concept of “otherness” in the psyche of many people and convince them that they are a different demographic (from the rich and powerful), to whom the law applies randomly, illogically, and disproportionately. And they express this by developing a relationship with the law that is performative—only being lawful when consequence is imminent.

Criminality, especially where it relates to property laws and the rights of others, is seen as a normal and necessary part of survival. This has been the status quo, the normal, for so long that this culture has permeated all of society, especially in leadership and political circles where policy is made. The poison has spread to the heart.

It seems that even though men are willing to see the victims of police violence as people with rights who are deserving of humanity and respect, we simply refuse to do the same for women in relation to sexual violence. It is easy to hate feminists and to say they exaggerate when they say men are this or that. What is difficult it seems, is to stand in front of a vulnerable young girl or woman and to see more than female flesh. What we do not seem to want to try is empathy. To put aside male sexual desire and imagine the human life within the body of a woman. The soul. To think of her as someone with hopes, dreams, parents, siblings, friends, children, a future.

The evil power we wish to keep safe and to ourselves as men it seems, is the power to use the bodies of others, especially women, for our own inconsiderate ends. And judging by the number of rapes perpetrated by male family members and friends against female victims, it seems this imperative matters to men even above family ties and friendship.

That afternoon as I saw the young girl off, it became clear to me how easy rape can be for anyone with property and power. How easy for those policemen. How easy for Lemuel. How easy for me.

The men who abuse girls and women are family, close friends, neighbours. They are breaking bread, smoking ganja, reading this article with us. They are playing football with us. They are you and me. We can do the most good within our closest circles, with ourselves and with each other. And we must, because it is becoming ever clearer that the only reason we have not been doing it thus far, is because far too many of us are also part of the problem. We must begin having conversations about rape with fellow men, it is urgent. For me and Lemuel now, and hopefully for you and your friends, Friday afternoons will have to be about more than just football. We need to talk.

*Lemuel’s name has been changed for reasons of confidentiality.

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