My relationship with second-hand clothing a while back was very intense. By 2011, I knew the second hand Gikomba clothes market in Nairobi like the back of my hand. You could blindfold me, put me anywhere in the market and I would know exactly where I was. I knew most of the vendors by name, and—despite my severe allergies—still got an amazing rush rummaging through piles and piles of clothes, because I would find the most incredible pieces. As I sorted through mountains of shirts—each costing Ksh50—my parameters for making decisions changed; at that price, it’s not really about cost any more, as it so often is with racks of new, ready-to-wear clothing.
I would pick a shirt for particular reasons—not for its colour, but the buttons, or how the sleeves fit. It is here that I begun to find myself stylistically. These open-air stalls were far more accepting of my curiosity than the air-conditioned boutiques we had in the few shopping malls in Nairobi back then. These stalls have been—and still remain to a large extent—the places where most of Nairobi’s and indeed Kenya’s fashion trends begin. It was here that new trends popped up first. If cigarette pants were in, the second-hand stalls would ride that wave way before any retail outlets in Nairobi did. The people who wore mitumba (used clothes) were actually the most fashion-forward in the city. Mitumba vendors led these trends, because they always had first access to the best piles. I found amazing treasures there, like a black Calvin Klein overcoat, and a fur stole.
With my friend Jim Chuchu, I started a project called Stingo—an old Kenyan slang word for ’style’ or ‘mode’. The general idea with Stingo was to organize regular photo shoots around any ideas we wanted to explore as a group. Jim also called up some other friends: producer Lucille Kahara and makeup artist Kangai Mwiti. I was the designated fashion stylist. Since there was no budget for shopping, every piece we used was mine: ‘stylist’s own’. I had to cheat by casting models who were my size. We put out the images resulting from the shoots on the project website and on Facebook—this was in the pre-Instagram age—and the response was wonderful. There was such excitement around the idea of a group of Kenyans coming together to create such images. We kept shooting every fortnight or so.
However, visiting Gikomba market became tedious—I now noticed the flaws in the second-hand clothes: a small hole from an iron burn, a frayed hem. While I could erase or hide these in the final image, I was no longer satisfied with just being able to put together a look. I was becoming interested in the story behind the garments. This made us wonder: was Stingo a design agency, a modeling agency or an online magazine? Beyond composing, styling and publishing beautiful images, could we do more to feature local design, and help address some of the challenges faced by the designers around us? I stopped sourcing clothes for the Stingo shoots from secondhand markets, and began to dress models in original pieces that had been locally designed and produced.
One of the first local designers we featured was Sheila Amolo. I had met her at a small backstreet fashion show and I thought her clothes were stunning. I remember this one jacket she had made—it had beautiful peplum detail at the waist, long before such waistlines were trendy. I fell in love with it immediately.
We were overwhelmed by the response from our fast-growing audience: some wanted to collaborate with us, many wanted to model for the shoots, and others were excited to discover the very cool, new fashion designers we featured such as Blackbird and Blackfly, interested in buying their clothes. The requests by aspiring models were by far the most. Those we had already shot became incredibly popular online and were soon able to access a kind of instant celebrity status, based purely on these campaigns.
We continued to work with more designers, such as Kepha Maina. My interactions with him and other designers gave me a lot of insight into the fashion value chain in Kenya. I witnessed the development of garments from a concept to a toile, and eventually into a collection. The design process captured me: the time and effort the designers spent obsessing over the exact line of a collar or where to place a seam. It also began to bother me that I was working to create visual narratives and stories about my contemporary Kenyan fashion experience, but was not wearing clothes from local designers. After the shoots, I would fold the pieces neatly and hand them back to the designers. I gradually changed my wardrobe, moving away from affordable thrifted gems to pieces that had been designed and made by Kenyans.
By this point, the Stingo team had become very busy with other projects.
Kangai had started her own beauty channel, Lucille went to culinary school, and I was out of school and working full-time at a boutique hotel in the city, and Jim had partnered with our friend George Gachara on what eventually became the multidisciplinary space we call The Nest.
From the many interactions and conversations we had with designers, we realized that many fashion designers were really struggling with the distribution of their clothes. Since most of them did not have retail spaces and often worked from home, we sought to find a solution that was effective and that would not cost much. Jim, George and I designed an online retail experiment and called it Chico Leco. We stocked a funky, edgy collection; a mix of locally designed accessories with some one-of-a-kind vintage pieces. We preferred accessories because they were easier to obtain— and we didn’t have to figure out sizing. Because of this, they were a lot easier to sell.
We put together a selection of ankara button earrings from Otenge, ankara bow-ties from Anyango Mpinga and some feather earrings from Bizzy Lizzy. We later added a few retro sunglasses I picked up from a really old optometrist’s store in Ngara neighbourhood in Nairobi that stocked amazing vintage frames from the 60’s and 70’s. We also got a few brooches from an obscure antique store that stocked delightfully elaborate costume jewellery. Brooches are usually a thing that only older people wear, which is such a shame because they are so beautiful and such an easy way to accessorise.
We put everything in place, including figuring out mobile payment options and delivery solutions. When the website went live, we were so excited the moment someone actually bought a pair of ankara button earrings! Chico Leco was soon receiving many orders and we were fast learning how fashion retail business worked. Soon, we gained some courage and began selling clothing. We stocked some cigarette pants from Kepha Maina in black and cobalt. We carried cropped pants with ankara roll-up detail from Nick Ondu, and some crop-tops from Katungulu Mwendwa. Jim and George ran the store in between their day jobs, and I—with any minute I could spare from my full-time job—curated the catalogue.
Since the early Stingo days, we had been disappointed by the rather uninspired safeness of the fashion images that had populated the mainstream until then: nothing was really fresh, new or exciting. Our editorials therefore had a rather sexual charge, ranging from coy and flirtatious to unashamedly risqué. We were exploring our adult freedoms and stretching them to shameless limits—‘manufacturing desire’, we called it. We became increasingly aware of how powerful images could be, and the clear space for considered image composition in the marketing of fashion.
Chico Leco was the first of its kind at the time, establishing an online Kenyan retail space in the early days when e-commerce here was such an experiment. However, most of our customers still preferred to see, touch and fit the clothes—just like they would in a physical store—before making a payment. As a result, our sales were mostly the accessories and other one-size items. Realising this, we widened our selection with leather laptop sleeves and clutch bags from Rift Valley Leather and clutches from Adèle Dejak. We also commissioned wool snoods—in black, white and cobalt—from a local women’s group.
We encountered many of the problems faced by young brands: effective pricing, packaging, managing overheads and logistics, ensuring a consistent supply of high quality products, as well as finding enough storage space for all our wares, which we had to move between our homes. We would have liked to expand our product catalogue, but we had limited working capital and would strain our cash flow trying to buy stock upfront. We were also aware that the consignment model was not sustainable for the young brands we were stocking. After about a year of operations, these persistent challenges led us to the decision to take a break from the retail part of our experiment in order to figure out a better way to grow the designers and their product, as well as the fashion value chain.
In 2012, I left my job at the hotel to join The Nest with Jim and George, and we absorbed Chico Leco into The Nest as a program. We learned that fashion presentation was a recurring frustration for the numerous designers we were in conversations with. Many of them were growing disenfranchised with the model of fashion shows, as they are understood in Kenya. Designers are routinely asked to pay a fee to be included in the vast majority of shows, and these fees were often quite high—out of reach for many young designers, and without the certainty of any tangible returns or brand growth. The shows seemed to only benefit the event organisers, who would treat the runway as entertainment alongside dance and other performances.
Photographers covering these events were also not aware of the specific needs of fashion imaging, and would often shoot only the faces of the models, leaving out the clothes. Video coverage of these shows tended to focus on the general event. Therefore there was nothing that the designers could use for their own marketing after the show. We decided to use Chico Leco to address this, and our first project was a film project we called Chico Leco Presents. We called up some of the designers we had interacted with since the Stingo days and commissioned collections from them. In this project we carried collections from Katungulu Mwendwa, Sydney Owino and Zeddie Loky (Blackbird), Ruth Abade (Blackfly), Sheila Amolo, Kepha Maina, Wambui Mukenyi and Nick Ondu. I also challenged myself to create a collection alongside the others. I had dabbled in design since high school and through university, sporadically conceptualising and producing garments for myself, but never executing more than a few pieces at a time.
Referencing my multicultural background, I created a cross-seasonal menswear collection called Sun Seeker. It was an exploration of structures: fitted blazers worked in a variety of plaid suiting, slowly moving towards more relaxed silhouettes emphasised in light, richly coloured cottons. Working with a producer, a makeup artist and several models, the Nest team conceptualised and created short fashion films for each collection. We challenged ourselves to shoot eight videos in one location in a day and actually pulled it off!
We also wrote all the press releases that accompanied the fashion films. This was a necessary exercise in storytelling, designed to shift local fashion journalism from the use of vague adjectives such as ‘nice’, ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’, and make stronger reference to the technical and design elements of the collections. We put the videos out on YouTube, and the result was very exciting. We got unprecedented press coverage— with much better language because they quoted and expanded on our press releases—and generated a much larger audience than even the biggest local fashion show could offer. Two of the short films in the project—Dinka Translation and Urban Hunter—screened in festivals such as the Fashion and Film showcase at the Guggenheim, and art shows in other countries. This confirmed to us that there existed far more effective tools for fashion presentation than were being used locally.
In 2015, we decided to have a go at another audiovisual fashion showcase, and this time we challenged ourselves and our designers to develop elements around an original narrative. We developed a short fiction script titled To Catch A Dream, then commissioned the designers Kepha Maina, Katungulu Mwendwa, Namnyak Odupoy, Ami Doshi Shah, Jamil Walji and Azra Walji to create pieces that would befit the fictional characters as described in the script. We also got additional complementary pieces from Ann McCreath and Adèle Dejak. It took about four months for the designers to develop concepts for the film, and produce finished pieces. After that, there were a few more months for pre-production, and four intense days of shooting in four different locations. We were incredibly privileged to have Ajuma Nasenyana play our lead character.
The resulting film allowed us to instigate conversations around the ability of Africans to access fantasy narratives in mainstream media, and ask many other questions beyond both fashion and film—particularly on the use of African languages in film (the film utilized six indigenous languages). To Catch A Dream went on to screen at numerous fashion and film festivals, and even won the Best Original Music award at the Berlin International Fashion Film Festival.
Many things have evolved in the local fashion industry since my early Gikomba days, when designer shop fronts were sparse, and local ones even fewer.
With a rise in cultural pride, Kenyan fashion is gaining visibility within the region, expanding possibilities for successful production and retail of local designs. There is a thriving industry in fashion support—bloggers, influencers and stylists; models who are becoming recognisable brand names; fashion photographers; overlaps between fashion, beauty, lifestyle and wellness; specialised fashion PR, etc. Conversations with government are also much more productive. They have become more open to the sector’s huge economic potential especially regarding job creation, and are figuring out how to chip in through policy reforms, as well as manufacturing and import subsidies.
Far beyond the commercial viability of the sector, I believe that fashion remains one of the most complex languages of human expression. It is capable of multidimensional communication by both the designer and the consumer, superseding seasons and trends. I have curated wardrobes for movies and TV series, as well as various design showcases and museum exhibitions, but in many ways, I remain a student of style, always rediscovering the immense power clothing and dress practice has to alter people’s moods, attitudes, the quality of their interactions and their experiences of their surroundings.
It is amazing to be part of expanding the collective imagination, as well as my own, with regard to how human beings occupy public space. With every new project I lead or am involved in, I am continually fascinated by and careful to harness the power of garments and their combinations to appease, honour, protest, subvert and transgress.
As part of The Nest Collective, we have continued to ask cultural questions through fashion. We have put together these ideas and images from a selection of emerging Kenyan designers who are contributing to the shifting aesthetic of our country. In this interrogation of what exactly qualifies as ‘authentically African’, we challenge narrow definitions of African design and showcase original, unencumbered thinking and practice in this challenging sphere. Not African Enough was our translation of a voyage into Kenyan contemporary fashion as an exploration of wider issues regarding Africa’s place in global cultural debates and dialogues.
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Nairobi, Nairobae, Nairoberry
Cacophonous, labyrinthine, gluttonous, angry, envious, charming, paradoxical, mysterious, confusing, alluring.
Nairobi. A cacophony of matatu hoots and booming bongs from church bells. All in inexplicable harmony. Like a Beethoven piece. A muezzin’s melody moves the ummah from a minaret here, a bus conductor — shouting from the most pimped out mathree — moves umati there. A hawker here. An ambulance there. But there’s also a silent monotone. The sound of hope dying. Of someone stealing two billion every day, of the clock going tick-tock from your 9 to 5. There’s that saying: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? But what if it’s in the middle of Waiyaki Way? Just because someone thinks giving us an expressway will absolve him of war crimes. While in reality, all it does is leave all the marabou storks homeless.
Nairobi. A labyrinth of lipstick-stained shot glasses and semi-filled ashtrays. Where a party starts regardless of where the limbs of the clock point. And only ends when everyone is browned out and on the brink of calling the one that got away. Nairobi is looking for coins during traffic because you want to help the beggar, who is patient enough to receive the donation before snatching your phone. It is being stagnant in that same traffic for long enough to buy crisps made with transformer oil and served in compact disk wrapping. And like clockwork, you put the window back up because Nairobbery isn’t just a play on words. But the ones that hurt the most are the conmen, because nigga I trusted you!
Nairobi. Where gluttony is second nature. A kaleidoscope of too much gold tequila and too many smokie pasuas. Of good pasta and wine in overpriced restaurants. Of ramen noodles and pre-cooked meat. Where nothing is ever enough. We drink and eat to our fill because life sucks. Why wouldn’t it? Our last president’s advisor was the bottom of a Jameson bottle and our current one’s advisor is Jesus. The spirit guides the nation either way, I guess. But still, Nairobi tastes like chances and do-overs. It tastes like anxieties and aspirations and I know it doesn’t feel like it but today you omoka na 3-piecer then one day you omoka, for real.
Nairobi. Reeks of piss and thrifted clothes. Fresh bakeries and Subway. Old currency and that one cologne every man in their early 20s wears. Smells like fighting your titans and sending a million job applications. Nairobi. Where you can go weeks without a lover’s touch but only days without a cop grabbing you by the wedgie into a mariamu because you shouldn’t be idle as you wait for your Uber outside Alchemist. Because of course in that time you should take up a sport, play an instrument, solve world peace, et cetera.
There are few occasions when pride will linger. Like when Kipchoge finishes a marathon in under two hours. When Lupita wins an Oscar. The hubris you feel when your copy makes it to the billboard on UN Avenue. Or when your lame joke gets five retweets because Kenyans on Twitter will massacre you if you think you’re the next Churchill. Orrrr that one time we were all watching Money Heist and so gassed that Nairobi was one of the characters.
Sadly, Nairobi pride also comes in with its individualism. Everyone is out here on their own trying to get some bread whether they’re in the upper class getting baguettes and rye bread or in the lower class getting Supaloaf. I get it though, the city doesn’t let anyone rest from the grind and the hustle and the drudgery. And the wealth gap is bigger than Vera Sidika’s bunda. But ironically, the city is a paradox. An optical illusion. Sometimes the people are so ready to convene in community that it kinda revives the fickle hope you have in humanity. From safe spaces to fundraisers to a simple hearty conversation with your Uber driver.
And there’s obviously that murky feeling of greed that comes from 90 per cent of our politicians. When you’re at the bottom of the food chain it’s called hunger, but the higher you climb the more you want and it becomes indulgence. Greed makes them say and do all kinds of things. Like apologising to Arab countries that are exploiting Kenyans because they don’t want to be cut off. Y’all know any juakali guys we can commission for guillotines? – Heads gotta roll. Because how will I steal cooking oil and flour and end up in a cold cell but they’ll steal billions and end up with a second five-year term?
I think wrath is the most Nairobi-esque of the cardinal sins. We’re angry at the police. At the government, at global warming, at nduthis, at KPLC, at Zuku, at Safaricom, at KCB, at each other. Agonizingly though, our anger fizzles out as fast as it blazes up. I don’t think we’re ever angry enough.
And then there’s the envy. You know you’ll get there eventually but that gets lost in translation when you see someone with better because that sparks something in you even though we are all on different paths at different paces. Whether it’s a BMW or an airfryer, the question stays: Why not me? And also I’m personally jealous of the people who’ve managed to move out of Nairobi to Naivasha, Watamu or wherever. It feels like they’ve figured their way out the maze while I’m still at a dead end wondering whether I can just hop out the sides. Doesn’t matter what it is, our eyes are as green as the parks and spaces we so desperately need in this godforsaken city.
Nairobi. The city of miniskirts and cheers baba jackets. Lust dripping down the sides of our mouths because we can’t seem to contain it under our tongues. I don’t even know why people bother to go to Vasha for WRC when they live in the city of sexual debauchery where the only thing that’s on heat more than the sun is whatever’s between people’s legs. Where even Christian Grey would pause and do a double-take. Where ropes aren’t just for skipping and leashes aren’t just for dogs. If you find ordered love in the city, you must have saved refugees and orphans in your past life. This is the city where the flesh is truly willing.
You know that intense sloth-like feeling when you wanna wake up for Sunday brunch at Brew Bistro or K1 and then later watch Hamilton race at around 4 when all the mimosas have hit your head and you’re surprised that your wig is still intact? Or the next day when you’re trying to get out of your covers and you’re thinking about that beastly Nairobi traffic you’re about to face and all you can do is tweet “Nimewacha pombe mimi”. Truthfully though, other than that and a few other instances, the pace is too fast for me. I just wanna be in a dera next to the beach drinking a passion caipiroska and eating viazi karai cause why are y’all always running?
And y’all are way too fast when coming up with new words too. There’s like a million words for currency, ass, sex, sherehe, et cetera. Truly, there is a certain linguistic je ne sais quoi when it comes to the Nairobian’s language. It stops being a transaction of random syllables and begins to become an understanding of feelings, emotions and behaviour. I, especially, like how we knead it into our art. We sneak it into our music and get phenomena like gengetone.
We compress it into our films and get Nairobi Half Life. We squeeze it into our visual pieces and get Michael Soi. One thing about Nairobians is we do not cower in silence, we have words to say and we shall say them. Even if that means running a president out of Twitter. That’s why our writers are as staggeringly sensational as they are. Ngartia. Sookie. Grey. Muthaka. Laria. Abu. And those are just my friends, dawg.
But it’s not just the writing. The fashion. Rosemary Wangari. Nicole Wendo. Samantha Nyakoe. The music. Mau from Nowhere, Vallerie Muthoni, Karun, Maya Amolo, XPRSO. Just a Band. The films. The painting. Muthoni Matu. Zolesa. The architecture. The cinema. The theatre. Too Early for Birds is back! et cetera. Man, I gotta tell ya, when God was cooking up the cauldron of this city, he went hard on the talent. Quote me on this: a lot of exceptional creatives from this city are gonna hit the world with a head-splitting bang in a couple of years.
Nairobi. Despite the crowds, the queues and the poor drainage, it still has a charm. Mysterious. Confusing. Alluring. Despite the fact that you can only truly enjoy the Nairobi experience if you’re a bird or an expat, me I love it still.
Nairobians, keep sinning, keep winning!
The Enemy Within
Death hangs heavily over people with cancer – it is always there, reminding you of your mortality.
So, this is what happens when a doctor tells you that you have cancer. The first response is disbelief (how can this be true?), followed by anger (I don’t deserve this, I never hurt anyone), and then a deep sense of grief and loss (what will I miss when I die, and how will my loved ones cope without me?)
They say cancer is the result of pent-up anger and resentment. Apparently, years of holding on to these emotions make your cells misbehave and become toxic. Cancer cells end up eating up healthy cells, leaving the body so full of poison that it collapses from lack of vitality. The jury is still out on whether lifestyle choices generate cancer in the body because people who lead healthy lives seem to be as prone to cancer as those who don’t. Nonetheless, when you find out you have cancer, your first reaction is to blame yourself. It is sort of like being told you have HIV. (Was I responsible for this? Was I reckless? Should I have used a condom?)
Friends and relatives will tell you that breast cancer is beatable, that they know so many women who had breast cancer and lived healthy lives years after treatment. What they don’t tell you is that all the literature points to a short life expectancy after the discovery of cancer. The chances of recurrence are high, even with chemotherapy, mastectomy or radiation, the traditional methods to “cure” breast cancer. I have read studies where women who had chemotherapy had an equal chance of recurrence as those who didn’t. So, death hangs heavily over people with cancer – it is always there, constantly reminding you of your mortality.
Most people are so afraid of cancer that they can’t even say the word. The receptionist at an oncologist’s office actually asked me what kind of “C” I had – never used the word cancer. Yet she deals with cancer patients every day. Another oncologist I consulted couldn’t even make eye contact with me and rushed me through a diagnosis I couldn’t understand, perhaps believing that my cancer was contagious?
The thing is that cancer is not like any other disease that can be cured through surgery or drugs. It requires months of treatment and constant monitoring. It’s not like having malaria or a broken bone. It is like having an enemy residing in your body, hostile, predatory, waiting to pounce at any moment.
It seems a positive frame of mind is critical in recovering from cancer. I got calls from women who told me they bounced right back into their lives after months of treatment as if nothing had happened, that I mustn’t believe all the literature, that I should get all the treatments done and go back to living a normal life. They didn’t explain to me why they have been working from home since their treatment started and since their so-called “recovery”. Others are more honest about their experiences. A South African women called to tell me that her experience with chemotherapy had damaged her heart, and she is on life-long medication that makes her urinate every few minutes, which means she can no longer work in an office. Instead of destroying the cancer, the chemo destroyed healthy cells in her heart. She is cancer-free but now disabled in other ways. Another friend told me her aunt died not from the cancer, but from the chemo.
What the doctors and the optimists don’t tell you is that both chemotherapy and radiation have debilitating impacts on your body. They literally are poisons injected into your body to kill another poison. Sort of like a vaccine but not quite because they do not boost your immunity. Both chemotherapy and radiation therapies involve weeks of hospital visits that cost an arm and leg. Nausea, burns on your body, fatigue are common side effects.
A friend from Boston who has studied alternative ways of healing from cancer (including not getting any treatment at all) tells me that each woman with breast cancer has to make an individual choice about what kind of treatment she should get. Doctors trained in Western medicine will be quick to put you on chemotherapy and the other treatments without giving you other options. Desperate and eager to cling onto life, the patient with cancer readily accepts any treatment, not realising that not only is it a very long process, but very costly as well. Mental preparation and psychological support are also necessary before embarking on the long and arduous journey called cancer treatment. People become life-long patients; some recover well, others not so well. Some women opt for no treatment, preferring to lead a good quality of life before the disease ravages the body.
I am looking at alternative methods of healing, including Pranic healing that works on your energy fields and chakras. So far it seems to be helping me, but only time will tell if I will be a success story. I have certainly started eating more, and those dizzy spells in the morning seem to be getting rarer.
The biopsy results are not yet out, so I am still not sure what the oncologist will prescribe, but in Kenya, the modus operandi seems to follow the same script: mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy or radiation and some kind of hormone treatment. Am I ready to go there? Not sure. Women who lose their breasts speak of feeling like an amputee; the loss of an organ that defines their femininity impacts their identity and self-esteem. Others are more casual about losing their breasts, (“It’s just fat,” one woman told me). `
The other thing about cancer is that when you have it, you think of nothing else. Everything is a blur. Someone wants to make small talk, and all you want to do is look the other way or scream. (Can’t you see I have cancer? Do you really want to discuss the weather?) You think about your life in vivid film shots. Your past suddenly comes into sharp focus, both the happy and sad days. You begin questioning the meaning of life in ways you never did before. Cancer prepares you for death the way a fatal car accident doesn’t. Is sudden death preferable to dying slowly because you can’t see it coming? Not sure.
But let me not be the purveyor of doom and gloom. The reason I am writing this article is that I have learned wonderful things about myself and other people. One of the things I have learned is that people can be kind and generous when they know you are in pain. People I don’t even know and have never met have sent me good wishes, prayers and even money for my treatment. Friends and family have sent food and offered accommodation. An Indian friend called to say that if I opted to go to India for treatment, I could stay in his home for as long as I needed. These generous and kind offers have literally brought tears to my eyes.
What I also learned is that my life’s work has not been a waste, and that my readers love and admire me for my writing. I didn’t realise I had inspired so many people, not just in Kenya but around the world, through words I have penned. That is a really important things for me to know and hold onto right now – to realise that I had a gift that I used well, and which helped others. And to know that when I go, my writing will live on.
I also learned that life is very, very short. So, we must not postpone the things we need to do. If your job makes you unhappy, quit. If a relationship is toxic, leave it. If people around you are making you feel bad about yourself, walk away. Surround yourself with people who love and cherish you. Love is very important for human survival, so distribute it freely. Be kind and generous. This thing called life is temporary, so enjoy every moment and live it as if every day is your last.
Someone’s Grandmother Just Died!
It is painful to always have to consider the feelings of others while legitimate calls for acknowledgement of racial injustice and reparations are consistently ignored and dismissed.
Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, I watched the televised service at St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh attended by the royals and various Scottish dignitaries, as well as the many hundreds who came out to pay their respects or to be a part of this historical event.
As I watched the outpouring of public emotion, I couldn’t help but wonder what emotions the queen’s death would invoke in those whose lives have been blighted because of the British colonial policies that killed millions and left a legacy of misery and disenfranchisement in countries far too many to name.
At first I was saddened by the news. But then came the reactions of global figures the world over, with some proclaiming outright that Queen Elizabeth had been a guiding light, a symbol of hope and stability in the world. One broadcaster went so far as to say “She was everybody’s grandmother.” My problem was that she wasn’t mine.
My grandmother, born in 1923, was just three years old when the Queen was born, my 81-year-old mother told me when I called to get her reaction to the news that the Queen had died. “She would’ve been 99 years old today if she had she lived,” my mom said. I could hear the emotion in her voice as she remembered her mother. My grandmother died in 1983; she was 59 years old. I was then just 18 years old. I said, “Mom with all the things we know about the racist systems that have kept Black and Brown people oppressed, I really don’t know how I want to feel about the death of the British Queen.” Never one to mince her words, my mom replied, “She was a human being, and we, well you know, we mourn the loss of any life.”
Yes. She may have been a grandmother to many but to me she was a symbol of institutionalized racism in its clearest form. Images of British dynasty have been present in the education of every American who has gone through the public school system since the Second World War during which the United States allied with Britain in their quest for global power and dominance. Yet here was the evil of the Crown being portrayed in the media—as it’s always been portrayed—as providence, something divine. As I listened to a special broadcast by the popular British talk show host James Corden talking to an American audience about the Queen’s passing, his tone struck me as odd: “She will be missed, she was everybody’s grandmother,” he said, going on to tell us how well she had served the country and the world.
As I was listening to Corden and wondering why I was so irritated by his outpouring of emotion, it dawned on me that racism moves from generation to generation, falling back on the old practices of how to colonize a nation: You teach them to love you more than they love themselves. Racism survives because the symbols of racism never die. We carry the symbols in our hearts and in our minds and once we have identified with them, we seek to justify their existence. While I could empathise with those that felt a special connection to the Crown, what I realized and felt most immediately, was the insensitivity I received as an African American who bears the scars of the legacy of slavery that has made the British Empire one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world today.
The next day I watched the funeral procession move through the streets of Edinburgh, the commentators conveying the solemn mood of the people who came out to pay tribute to their Queen. All the while I couldn’t see past the 1989 image of Princess Diana hugging a child suffering from HIV/AIDS. On her first unaccompanied trip overseas, Princess Diana spontaneously broke with protocol and showed compassion towards a suffering Black child with all the world watching, at a time when the stigma of HIV/AIDS was as bad as the disease, and Blacks were being impacted the most and no one else seemed to care. Diana’s humanity helped solidify her reputation as the “People’s Princess” and it radically changed the way AIDS sufferers were perceived.
While the news played on I thought about two recent exchanges I had had in Amsterdam, just outside my front door. The first exchange took place in a cafe.
I was sitting at the bar having a coffee. Another Black male of Surinamese origin was sitting a couple of tables away. It was midmorning and we were the only ones there. In an attempt to start a conversation, as men do, he asked my opinion on the war in Ukraine. I told him I thought it was crazy, all too unreal. The white Dutchman behind the counter leaned over and candidly shared, “I don’t give a shit about the war in Ukraine.” I didn’t speak again and left the bar so abruptly the young brother asked, “You leaving?” I was in no mood to have that conversation so early in the day, having experienced the backlash of the “Black Lives Matter” protest with the counter-narrative that All Lives Matter; I’ve learned that sometimes it’s better to just hold one’s peace and walk away. (It literally is your peace.)
Shortly after that incident, a couple of days later, I had another encounter that made me realize that we simply can’t afford not to care. I had wandered into a tool shop on the corner of my street that looks more like a men’s gift shop inside than a hardware store selling nails, drills and plywood. Behind me walked in a man who apparently knew what he wanted because we reached the cash register at the same time, he with a power drill in his hand. I moved aside to let him be the first in line, not sure if I was done.
The Dutchman behind the counter seemed not to have noticed that the man with the drill wasn’t Dutch and didn’t speak the language. But to his credit, he did know what he wanted: the drill and a bag in which to put the canisters of spray paint he had already placed on the counter. Being familiar with Eastern Europeans, I assumed the man was Polish and asked “Polske?” “No! Ukraine!” he said, then, smiling, added, “Close.”
“Hij wil een tas.” He wants a bag, I said to the clerk; bags are not automatically handed out after a purchase these days. The clerk then understood and reached under the counter. I was pleased I could help and the Ukrainian was happy as well. To my surprise, as I placed my items on the counter, the Ukrainian tapped my shoulder and offered a fist bump.
I say all this to say of the human condition that people appreciate what they understand. And sadly enough, we rarely think about injustice until it is visited upon us.
Whose permission do we now need to talk about racism and the policies that still impact us today? Africa and the African diaspora’s historical issues are and always have been about racism and this is why members of this group, my group, will always hold a contrarian view when the West attempts to compel us to join them in their moment of grief. My grandmother died in 1983, at the young age of 59, in a small southern town next to a river; there was no horse and carriage, no media. The British Empire once covered the whole world, a dominance that was achieved through suppression and oppression. Many atrocities were committed and entire communities decimated under the authority of the Queen. I was raised never to speak ill of the dead because they aren’t here to defend themselves but I will submit this: it is painful to always have to consider the feelings of others while legitimate calls for acknowledgement of racial injustice and reparations are consistently ignored and dismissed. Where is the same fervour and energy for those issues that matter to us?
When we as Black people keep the peace, we empower the presence of the historical lie that we are inferior and thus require control. When we remain silent we allow the systems of the institutions and the prejudices that block our collective growth to thrive. Why should we care about the death of the Queen when the Queen has stood for the oppression of our people? Why should we be guilt-tripped into silence, into not speaking out about the dead, into not pursuing our freedom? When will our emergency, the issues that impact Black and Brown people, become a top concern for the White world? When will I be able speak without fear of being branded just another angry black man, angry for what I don’t have that others do?
Sad as the Queen’s death is to those that survive her, honouring her service is a symbolic gesture that must be contextualized because, for many, and not just in the UK but all over the world, the English monarchy is a symbol of oppression. I recently listened to a podcast in which a Black podcaster scolded an guest who said this of the Queen: “She is the symbol of colonialism and racism for many; however much we want to romanticize the Queen of England’s long reign on the throne as a stabilizing force on earth, she has also allowed many human rights violations on her watch”. The podcaster’s response was a classic putdown, “Why do Black people have to always bring up racism? Someone’s grandmother just died!”
Racism endures because when we identify with its symbols, we will do anything and everything in our power to justify and defend them.
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