My abdomen clenched like a fist, my bladder tightened, I wretched and recoiled in disgust. I reflexively ducked out of the prison cell toilets.
I have grown up in boarding school, and had lived in the poor areas of Nairobi city, but nothing can prepare you for the three-foot-tall mound hill of human faeces that was slowly decomposing, two walls away from the office of the police officer in charge of Kilimani Police station. How did he survive here? How could he allow this in his police facility?
I fled back to my cell, barely three metres away. I realised how important it was that the cell had only bars where there had probably meant to be windows, otherwise the odour would have driven detainees to insanity.
I had never been incarcerated before; I had only heard about prison from reading and watching popular television shows and movies. But now my real-life journey through the so-called correctional system had begun.
I instinctively hated school all my life. Now in the prison system I knew why. School, like prison, is an instrument designed to break your will, to condition you to surrender. Not just your rights – to food, to dignity, to being treated like a human – but your free will itself, your right to choose.
In school, we were always asked, “Any questions?” But we knew the questions you could ask and the questions you couldn’t ask, even when you were deviously encouraged and prodded with, “Ask any question.” After many years of schooling, we intuitively self-censored. You knew that no teacher could actually entertain any question. When they asked if you had understood, you were supposed to say yes. The school rules, the syllabus, and the textbooks were your truth; they were all that was relevant. The truth was irrelevant.
Prison is kind of like school. I was in jail because I had distributed a leaflet containing thoughts and ideas that were outside “the approved syllabus” to the public. I had asked why young Muslim men were disappearing at the rate of four-a-week in Eastleigh, a predominantly Muslim area, and their tortured bodies turning up the Tsavo National Park. Others lost forever. I had asked why the leaders who purported to speak for Muslims were silent on the spate of state-sponsored killings but loud on pledges of allegiance and calls to voting during elections. I had read speeches endeavouring to wake my fellow citizens, my “school mates” in this school of life, up to the fraud being perpetrated upon us.
I had asked “Why?”
“Why?” to the tyrant is “terrorism”. The tyrant feels terrorised. “Why” isn’t just defiance, “why” is to challenge the basis of his order, the very foundation of his rule.
It is the one question you can never ask, either in school, or outside.
My odyssey was just beginning.
I was shuttled between police station’s cells, as my lawyer endeavoured to have me incarcerated in the Anti-Terror Police Unit’s (ATPU) holding facility, explaining to the magistrate that the devilish intention of the arresting officers to hold me while innocent in police cells was to inflict mental torture, as they knew what a few weeks in their stinking decrepit infrastructure would do to a human being. The magistrate granted our appeal, but how could she follow-up and monitor implementation? Once you are out of the magistrate’s court, the police do as they will.
Back to Kilimani Police Station. The cell I was in had a number of steel rings jutting out from the floor, two thirds of the circumference emerging from the floor, while the other third remained embedded in the cement floor. None of us in the cell could tell what purpose they served. They served no aesthetic or functional purpose we could think of.
Two days later, an apparent veteran of the prison system made his regular visit. He explained to us the rings were from the colonial times. Rebellious natives wouldn’t just be locked in, they would be chained to the floors of the cells they were held in. It was horrifying to imagine. But what struck me the most is that the colonial penal infrastructure is still intact. There wasn’t even a cosmetic makeover. The buildings are the exact same ones, the cells, even the cells doors are the very same ones the British imperialists built. At “independence” no one thought to rip up these degrading rings that held our grandfathers down like animals.
I was told Kilimani Police Station was the preferred holding facility where elites asked to be held when arrested. I was afraid to imagine what the rest were like.
I was transferred to Muthaiga Police Station over the weekend, after a week of interrogations about everything, except a possible crime or misdemeanour. Not once was I asked or told what crime I was being held for.
Three questions were repeated in different order and context: ”Do you believe in jihad?”, “Do you support Kenya Defence Force’s war in Somalia?”, and “Have you ever been to Somalia?”
It was odd, I thought, that they knew I had committed no criminal offence but they were content to persecute me. How did they live with this moral dilemma? How did the police go home everyday to their children and manage to find sleep knowing they had their fellow human beings locked up in inhuman conditions?
John Laurits writes in this insightful article that police training and institutions are designed to completely destroy a human being’s moral agency. Moral agency is the ability to choose between right and wrong. The militaristic chain of command takes away individual officers’ sense of moral responsibility and abstracts it all into the realm of bureaucracy. “The result is that nobody can be held responsible and the officer becomes an inanimate tool in the spooky hand of an unseen and unaccountable bureaucracy — the police officer becomes no more than a vessel for policies, totally devoid of agency and free of its consequences.” To know this from reading, and to experience it first hand, were completely different phenomena. Was this the dissonance Nabii Yusuf suffered as his brothers lowered him into a hole in the wilderness?
I was brought to Muthaiga Police Station on Friday evening. It was dark, dire and strangely very sparsely populated. I sighed with relief, but my comfort was to be short lived. “Ngoja uone,” (wait and see), my cellmate warned ominously.
At approximately ten o’clock that night there was a loud bang, commotion outside, and shouts of, “Ndani!! ndani!!” (Move in!! move in!!). Over a hundred people flooded in and were crammed into the three cells, each about nine square metres. A few were stoned but the rest seemed like anyone you’d pass by on the street on any day of the week. And as it turns out, they were.
It was dark but we could make each other out in the light reflected from the yard outside. When one of them established eye contact I asked, “What is going on? Where are you all from? What are you all doing here?”He explained to me he was netted in an “operation”, while on his way home from work. “How?” I asked incredulously. This world was new to me; his polite tone made me confident enough to ask him.
He explained that every Friday, the police would randomly cordon off different areas of public roads in Mathare, a nearby slum area, and sweep everyone caught in between into waiting police trucks. If it was your unlucky day, c’est la vie.
“What!? No!” This sounded preposterous; in my mind I thought there must be some legitimate reasons for these so-called “operations”. They could not just be mass shakedowns, it was unfathomably malevolent, it was simply unbelievable. But quietly, he told me this happened every Friday.
We fell into silence, with the occasional scuffles and fights as the drunks were disciplined by their sober comrades, who in this space had little patience for shenanigans. It was so cramped that we had to lock into each other’s thighs in squatting positions to settle in for the night and try and get some sleep. But the cramps and the freezing cold wouldn’t let any of us sleep. Why on earth would they do this? Who on earth would do this to his fellow human beings? I knew the police to be inhumane but again, to know and to experience is a world apart.
At Muthaiga Police Station, the outhouse — where one could relieve oneself — was literally outside the cellblock. We had to beg, bribe, grovel, hurl insults and vitriol at the on-duty office to let the desperate visit it. The corridor often ended being the temporary crapper.
At about 2 a.m. there was a loud shouting and banging on the doors. We could hardly see, the lights in the yard had been switched off. The police stormed the cells with torches and ordered everyone who heard their name to cross the floor where they stood armed with rifles and batons. Apparently it was roll call. I felt thankful for the rude interruption, the movement would allow us to walk and relieve the cramps.
Little did I know the open door was a gateway into another trial. As names were called out the police would randomly beat up detainees as they crossed the open space between them, roll call was running a gauntlet, literally.
Nights are long when out in the cold, but in Kenya’s jail cells nights last forever. You become certain that death from cold will find you long before the dawn does. But our will to live is stronger than we often think, and dawn does come, even in hell for a believer. When morning arrives, you are served two slices of bread and hot tea and a chance to visit the lavatory. Then you are locked up again, to begin the wait.
“Wait for what?” you might naturally ask. Not for your sins to be read, not for redemption, not even for damnation — this is the Kenya Police Force, sorry, Police Service, not God. You wait for extortion; you wait for your ransom to be read.
The caricature of an OCS (Officer in Charge of Station) waddled into the yard outside our cellblock at 9 p.m. We were swept out of the cells double time. Everyone could tell by the obsequiousness of the constables that he was the King here; his word was law.
He held out a two-foot-long book like a scroll. He read out the names of about seven of us and we were escorted back to the cells, where we watched the proceedings through the elevated barred windows of our cellblock.
The list of approximately one hundred plus detainees was read out without pause. At the end, in the guttural voice of a terribly unhealthy 100kg+ bully, he announced that every single individual whose name he had called out was charged with being drunk and disorderly and would have to pay Ksh2,000 for their freedom. He cued the police constables to herd them all back into the cellblock.
“Why on earth would they do this?” I had wondered the previous night. Then it hit me; this was why the cells had been empty when I’d arrived, they’d been cleared for the herd that was to be brought in for the night!
The one thing you have plenty of in jail is time. We all got to know each other. I sat next to the polite young man I had talked to the night before and we got talking. Sometimes I intentionally asked probing questions, looking for contradictions that would reveal deceit, but I found none.
John worked as a temporary worker at the Coca Cola bottling plant in Nairobi Industrial area and was on his way home from work, the same route he used everyday. He told me he didn’t take alcohol, and I believed him. He had a homely, mommy’s boy kinda feel to him, he struck me as the kind of guy who left work to go straight home to his wife every day, a decent human being in every sense of the word. He told me it was not the first time he had gotten caught in these “operations”. His wife knew what to do; they had a process. He would call her from the Muthaiga Police Post jail cell — the police availed a cell phone for detainees to use to call their loved ones to come and bail them out. She would go to the drawer where he kept his ATM card, she’d withdraw some money and come and bail him out. Yes, they had kidnap insurance.
But as luck would have it, his wife’s phone had been stolen a few days before and he had lost his ATM card. Therefore even if he could reach her, she had no way to access the emergency fund quickly enough to bail him out in time to go and save his temporary job at the Coca Cola plant. He was going to lose his money for no reason other than extortion, he was also going to lose his job as he was not going to report to work the next day — Saturday — and possibly also on Monday. This absence would be without reason, as far as his employer would know.
During the rest of the Saturday and Sunday, all manner of people were brought in for one, sorry reason, or another. From traffic violations, domestic quarrels, exam cheats, business disputes… the list of problems that brought people in was endless, but the answer that led out was only one: cash. The correctional system was a revolving door with free entry but paid exit.
When I thought about it, it dawned on me, that it everyone was guilty of some offence. If you were driving and in motion, a traffic violation. If stationary, a potential parking violation. If not driving, just walking was potentially loitering. If standing, you were possibly trespassing. If resisting arrest, well, drunk and disorderly. If in business, tax violation, tripwires criss-crossed everywhere around you. Every single action a human being could possibly perform in public was laced with a potential felony or misdemeanour, in a system of menacing laws and by-laws, one that ensured we were always guilty of one crime or another.
All the police needed to do was walk out into the street and arrest anyone or everyone they could. It helps them that everyone has been “educated” to cooperate with the legalised oppressors, it costs less. Therefore ten policemen will easily herd a hundred innocent people like sheep into jail. Once at the station, they can and do charge you with anything.
The police, the judiciary, the prisons…are all one business, a large extraction industry.
The industry’s mine is the country, its minerals are the people. The entire territory is a large prison, with ever increasing tripwires and contracting walls configured as laws, by-laws and boundaries. The population works to earn money to pay taxes that will keep the walls from contracting on them or their family members, and to prevent the tripwires from triggering the leg-lock traps.
Kenya, the entire Westphalian nation-state-capitalist system with all its glitter and promise is just one large mine of slaves, run by over-glorified guards and taskmasters. The slaves work in different parts and different levels of the mine, in order to serve time in specific cells and cell blocks with different levels of comfort and space. It is a panopticon equipped with an intricate system of locks and permission levels, to control movement either horizontally or vertically within the cells and cell blocks.
For instance, the other six “terror suspects” I had been brought in with were Maasai herders from Tanzania. They had been picked up in Narok, a town in the southern part of Kenya, for failing to show ID. They didn’t have passports. How Maasai herding goats in the Rift Valley, something they have done for centuries, had become a “terror offence” was beyond me and beyond them, given they didn’t even know what “terror” or “terror suspect” meant, but here they were.
Fortunately, there is nowhere angels sent cannot reach you, even in the darkest dungeons of Firaun. Mine was sent in the form of my Investigating Officer. The Muthaiga chapter of my odyssey ended early the following Monday morning.
That morning, my name alone was called. It immediately struck me as strange. I stepped out into the yard to find my Investigating Officer waiting for me. He had come to rescue me from my ordeal, I felt an overwhelming surge of fraternal affection for him. Now I understand Stockholm syndrome.
I walked out in slow uncertain steps. I was burdened with mixed feelings. Even as my heart soared in what it saw as my escape, it was weighed down by guilt. My fellow “terror suspect” detainees, the Maasai herdsmen who had suffered with me throughout the weekend, had looked at me with desperately hopeful eyes when my name was called out of the first light. “Wametukujia?” (have they come for us?), they asked desperately, hoping we would all be returned to the Terror Unit holding facility, with its working toilets and urine-free floors. I could hear them calling me, but I couldn’t look back. I still can’t. In hell, no man will care about his fellow man’s plight. You can barely bear heat of your own fires, how can you bear someone else’s?
I do not know if John lost his job at Coca-Cola, let alone if or when he was released.
I was at the Anti-Terror Police Unit holding facility for only a few more days before being promoted to full remand in Kamiti Maximum Security Prison’s Solitary Confinement Block. To await either conviction and release into the general prison population of Kamiti Maximum Security Prison, or acquittal and release into the general prison population of Kenya.
This is Hotel California*, “… you can check in any time you like, but you can never leave!”
*”Hotel California” is the title track from the Eagles’ album of the same name and was released as a single in February 1977.
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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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