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Reflections

Ken Walibora: The Giant on Whose Shoulders I Stood

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A tribute to the legendary Kiswahili literature icon, Ken Walibora

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Ken Walibora: The Giant on Whose Shoulders I Stood
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“This is the power of creative writing – that it gives you the power to imagine beyond the ordinary. You could be writing about Nairobi, but reimagine it – it even could be a Nairobi that is hanging in the clouds!”

This is how Prof. Ken Walibora responded to a question on how writers can apply imagination when creating works of fiction. The year was 2014 and we were at Daystar University’s Valley Road Campus for the opening ceremony of the Creatives Academy, a 13-week creative writing course that Dr. Wandia Njoya and I had conceptualised. Alongside Ken were other writers, including Ng’ang’a Mbugua, Muthoni Likimani and Kap Kirwok.

That was an eye-opening moment for me and for many budding writers in the house. His words then, and many others that he would share with me over the next few years, would help to mould me into the writer and person that I have become. He gave credence to the oft-quoted words, “If I have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Ken is one of the giants on whose shoulders I have stood.

I started my day on April 15th fighting people who were spreading rumours about Ken Walibora’s death. How can he die? And even as I tried reaching him, and my Whatsapp message hung on a single grey tick, I could not stop the cloud of trepidation that loomed large over the day.

Like many others who are my age, I was first introduced to Ken through his work as a writer and newscaster. His time as a newscaster, together with Swaleh Mdoe, revolutionised Kiswahili news reading. He would pause in between sentences, lending gravitas to his every pronouncement.

The first time I met him in person was at the Acacia Publishers offices around 2003. I was an intern there, serving as an editorial assistant. I was poring through a manuscript and, suddenly, there he was, walking towards me in an immaculate shiny grey suit. He smiled and nodded at me, then turned towards publisher Jimmi Makotsi’s office. I was, as you would expect, frozen in the moment, unable to acknowledge his greeting. Still, being in the presence of such a man did wonders for my morale, and my resolve to be a successful writer – if only to afford such a magnificent suit myself.

It ten years before we would meet again. In between, we exchanged emails – mostly from me “shooting my shot” by pitching my novel, The Last Villains of Molo. He was extremely measured in his comments. For instance, I once asked him, in response to his critique of KW Wamitila’s book, whether African writing was apolitical, and he responded:

My conception of politics is very broad. In my view politics is ubiquitous and affects and afflicts everyone and everything. In that sense even romance is political. Think about Romeo and Juliet and how behind the tragic love affair there is a bitter family feud (read politics). So you cannot afford to be apolitical. It is impossible in my conception of politics in terms of power relations. Of course I stand to be corrected.”

The Kenyan literary scene is dominated by two camps. On the one side, we have the old guard who deal with coloniality of power – those who feel that African literature is defined by the works of Ngugi wa Thiong’ó and Chinua Achebe and who have no love for the newcomers. On the other side, we have the Kwani? Generation of contemporary African fiction that came to challenge the status quo. In between lie the rest of us – who do not fit in either of the two camps.

It was in trying to bring together all these groups that my path and Ken’s merged when he came back to Kenya from the USA. We had a chance meeting and I outlined some of my plans. He helped me articulate and refine what I wanted to do, and in 2013, thirteen authors across the literature divide came together at The Junction mall in Nairobi for the first meet-and-greet, dubbed the “Authors Buffet”. Some of the notable participants were the late Binyavanga Wainaina, John Sibi-Okumu, Stanley Gazemba and Muthoni Likimani.

Ken kept me accountable, and kept on asking: “What next? Getting authors together for a day is good, but is it good enough?” He did his prodding in his characteristically soft but very deliberate tone, telling me I had no option but to do better.

In 2014 we teamed up with Daystar University for the Creative Academy. The idea was to build a course designed for writers by writers. Ken’s topics at the class were always insightful and brilliant. He was unapologetic in his fight for the adoption of Kiswahili literature in all classrooms and lecture halls.

His own story gave hope to a lot of budding writers. Like many other writers, he faced rejection – his book, Siku Njema, was rejected twice because publishers did not want to bet resources on an unknown name. It was published after a ten-year wait, and ended up being used in the school curriculum from 1998 to 2003 and later at A-level in Uganda.

This opened the floodgates of success. In the Ugandan curriculum, it was replaced by his other novel, Kufa Kuzikana. His other work that have been included in the curriculum are: Damu Nyeusi na Hadithi Zingine (a collection of short stories co-edited with Said A. Mohamed), and Kidagaa Kimemwozea. If you asked him how many copies of his books he had sold, he would reply with a wry smile and say, “Nyingi” (many).

Yet, to try and limit Ken Walibora’s achievements to Kiswahili literature is to do injustice to the man’s intellect.

It is very hard to box Ken Walibora into a genre – he had mastery in Kiswahili and English writing, and was equally at ease with fiction and non-fiction critical essays. The professor, armed with a first-class Bachelor of Arts degree in Literature and Swahili Studies from the University of Nairobi, dedicated a lot of time in exploring interests as diverse as the Kiswahili language and literature, translation studies, cultural theory and trauma theory.

Ken had a personal investment in the study of narratives of political imprisonment and prison literature. His book, Narrating Prison Experience and Human Rights: Self, Society, and Political Incarceration in Africa, was the product of close to ten years of engagement with narratives of political incarceration, “an engagement that blossomed particularly since my graduate school days at the Ohio State University”.

Some of the lectures he gave included titles such as “The quest for the right to being and becoming human in prison poetry” and “Making a case for the oral prison narrative”.

He examined the interplay between incarceration and the female condition, focusing on Kenyan freedom fighter Wambui Otieno’s narrative in Mau Mau’s Daughter (1998). He studied the prison poetry of Abdilatif Abdalla, who penned his collection of poems, Sauti ya Dhiki, while serving a prison term for sedition during the Jomo Kenyatta regime.

Reflecting on his stint at the state-owned Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, where he could only tell the government’s side of the story and knew better than to attempt to talk about the country’s human rights record, Ken posited that his work in analysing prison literature was in atonement of “earlier sins of omission”.

Ken was passionate about looking out for other writers. Once, I told him about a TV appearance I had made and he asked me if I had referred another writer to the producer. “You cannot appear on TV as a guest writer every day, but the TV station can host a writer every day.” This sentiment carried even more weight, as it was delivered in Ken’s Kiswahili sanifu.

He never missed a book launch or literary event – and whenever he was in attendance, he was fully present, his finger on his chin. His challenge to me is the reason why I appear alongside authors who only write in Kiswahili at the annual Tamasha la Kiswahili (Kiswahili Festival). Our last meeting would have been at Riara School’s Book Week finale, at which we were to be co-chief guests. But I missed it because I was travelling out of the country the next day. I shall always regret that.

Now that he is gone, I am reflecting on how Ken easily morphed from a childhood hero to an acquaintance to a friend – from “Prof” to “Kaka”. He never used our age gap to lord it over me – giving me a great opportunity to reverse-mentor him. He was quick to act on advice and did not shy away from seeking help. For example, when he complained that there wasn’t a central source of information about him and I recommended that he should have a website, we had kenwalibora.co.ke up in a week.

One of the things he insisted on having on the website were the words of Martin Luther King Jr.: “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

His profile on the site describes him perfectly:

First and foremost, I see myself as a creative writer, then a literary and cultural studies scholar and lastly as a Kiswahili media expert. Kiswahili is my language of choice in writing creative works, although some of my critical and academic engagements are necessarily in English. If I had all the time in the world, I would be writing and reading Great Books only, of which the Bible is foremost. I am an avid reader and good keen observer and patient listener.”

Ken was one of the first people I told about my relocation from Kenya, and his response, in addition to “Hongera!”, was, “Go out there, learn all you can, then come back and make us better.”

And once again, the bane of procrastination has come to hit us hard. There were dozens of things that we had planned to do: a literary caravan with Longhorn Publishers, featuring writers and their set books; a Kiswahili Literature podcast; and an online Creatives’ Academy course.

We had talked about translating each other’s work into Kiswahili and English. In the spirit of “wacha tutaongea” (we shall talk more), this will now not come to pass. He had challenged me to match his collection of 40-plus books so that we can be even enough to do the collaborative translations – which was going to be hard because he would not agree to pause his own writing to allow me to catch up!

But it was not all chit chat for Ken. He had a keen interest in translating African literature. “Africa, the world’s second largest continent, speaks over 2,000 languages, but rarely translates itself,” he moaned in the opening statement of his critique of Kahaso and Mbwele’s Swahili translation of Ferdinand Oyono’s Houseboy. Aside from the translation of his award-winning Ndoto ya America, he worked on Kiswahili translations of Rayda Jacob’s Guilt (Hisia za Hatia), Jane Katvivi’s White Hands (Mikono Myeupe) and Stanley Onjezani Kenani’s Retraction (Kughairi Nia).

He was also involved in the Kiswahili translation of annual reports for Nation Media Group and Kenya Airways, and most importantly, the Kiswahili translation of Kenya’s draft constitution serialised in the Taifa Leo in 2003.

The professor leaves us with a massive collection of work. One of his recent pieces is a play, Mbaya Wetu, which is a critical look at society and how we are keen to strongly support people from our own community who we know are evil. As we go into 2022 and the attendant politics, it would be a worthwhile read.

Ken opined about his life and work in a poignant 2018 interview and left us with this simple advice:

“…to any one aspiring to write, I would say write in the language of your heart, the language that flows freely for you.”

We should not let the memory of Prof. Ken Walibora fade away. Talk is ongoing to establish a Ken Walibora Literary Award, which we are willing to support to the best of our ability. I will also challenge my author friends to come together for another edition of the Creatives’ Academy’ in his honour.

Rest easy, Kaka. You came, you saw, you conquered.

From the outpouring of grief that we have seen since his passing, I can tell you, Ken, that you were wrong in the dedication in your book to your “daughter Katila for being the one who will cry when I die”. A lot of us are crying, Kaka.

Like all humans I make mistakes from time to time, I regret them, and I apologize, but most importantly, I learn from them and move on. I strive to attain more humility in all spheres of my life in good times and bad times, and to always avoid being prejudicial and celebrating another person’s crisis or calamity. I want to appreciate people more and not to judge them harshly by relying on one-sided sources.”Ken Walibora

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Kinyanjui Kombani who works in the global office of an international bank, is a past winner of Jomo Kenyatta, Wahome Mutahi and BURT Africa literary prizes.

Reflections

In the Shadow of a Liberation War: Ethiopia, Kenya and the Oromo Quest

The Oromo Liberation Front leadership views Kenya as an important player and believes that peace will come sooner if Kenya steers the talks between the Oromo and Ethiopia.

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In the Shadow of a Liberation War: Ethiopia, Kenya and the Oromo Quest
Photo: Unsplash/Nemuel Sereti
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A Kenyan Journalist was arrested in Addis Ababa in the wake of the assassination of Haacaaluu Hundeessaa, a popular Oromo musician. Yassin Juma was arrested alongside prominent Oromo opposition political figures like Jawar Mohammed, the founder of the Oromo Media Network. Juma was later charged with “incitement and involvement in violence, plotting to create ethnic violence and plotting to kill senior Ethiopian officials”.

A court freed him but the police continued to hold him.

Yassin Juma is perhaps the only Kenyan journalist to show interest in the Oromo liberation movement. In Kenya, both the media and government functionaries view the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) as a security threat, with journalists rehashing half-baked arguments about what the OLF means in the region’s conflict.

It was Yassin Juma who introduced the Oromo cause to a larger Kenyan audience with his TV documentary, Inside Rebel Territory, 10 years ago. In it we follow Yassin as he goes in search of OLF fighters: “It was a journey that finally yielded [the] faces of one of Africa’s longest albeit low-key rebellions . . . the OLF was for decades a mystery”.

Inside Rebel Territory earned him the respect of the Oromo and the ire of Meles Zenawi’s regime. Five months ago he was invited to Finfinnee Radio’s 5nan Show where he spoke about the state of the media and reflected on his coverage of the Oromo movement.

My reason for being here is to make a follow-up documentary to [. . .] Inside Rebel Territory . . . I am doing a documentary about the rebels I met then, their life now, after Dr Abiy took over [as Ethiopia’s prime minister] . . . how they find life and so forth.

We can already guess what the new Ethiopia looks like. Guracho, who featured in Yassin’s documentary, is now in jail. Falimatu, a woman he had interviewed, may have been killed two or three years ago. He was in Addis Ababa when Haacaaluu Hundeessaa was killed and the country erupted into violence. Ethiopia prefers to hide its face from the roving cameras of the likes of Yassin Juma.

On Finfinne Radio Yassin reveals who he is, how the story he had done on the OLF was almost killed. How he was offered $150,000 by the Zenawi regime to kill it. How he had received threats. How the owners of Nation Media Group had not been happy with that coverage. How it had caused a diplomatic row between Kenya and Ethiopia. How it triggered a series of events that eventually led to his leaving NTV. How since then his life and that of his family has not been very secure: “In 2009 I was almost shot dead twice in front of my house . . . In 2016 I had to move to Uganda for three months for helping to organise Oromo protests in Kenya”. He was officially banned from entering Ethiopia.

Yassin Juma had covered the Oromo Liberation Front at a time when the movement badly needed the coverage. Ethiopia’s notorious media laws, stemming from the US-backed antiterrorism law, had forced its outspoken journalists into prison. That coverage was important on many counts; it came out at a time when the Oromo cause was transitioning from armed rebellion to an ideological youth- and artists-led movement at around the same time that Haacaaluu was breaking onto the music scene. A scroll through Yassin Juma’s Facebook page shows how important a player he had become in the Oromo cause; he is seen posing with Jawar and Haacaaluu and appears in most Oromo events held in post-revolution Ethiopia.

Kenya, Ethiopia and the Oromo question

For Kenya, Ethiopia is a landlocked market of 100 million people, a destination for goods from its ports and, more recently, a partner in the LAPSSET (Lamu Port, South Sudan, Ethiopia Transport) corridor project. In this context, complex stories such as Yassin Juma sought to tell were to Kenya an unwelcome initiative, going against sixty years of close cooperation built around keeping Somalia’s aggression in check. For their part, both the OLF and successive Ethiopian regimes have recognised the strategic importance of Kenya.

As an immediate neighbour, Kenya was important for the Oromo cause—as a refuge for thousands of fleeing Oromos and as transit territory for Oromos escaping oppression at home. Kenya’s importance in the Horn’s geo-politics, it’s appeal as a regional “bastion of peace” and as the regional capital for all manner of international media outlets and posh western think tanks, as well as Kenya’s role in Somalia’s pacification efforts and its shuttle diplomacy in South Sudan’s independence, have fuelled the Oromos’ desire to secure Kenya as an important ally. But how Kenya perceived and portrayed the Oromo struggle spoke volumes about the liberation movement’s international image.

In Kenya, the roots of the OLF rebellion were whitewashed and a truncated history was often told, the Oromo liberation struggle being portrayed as a threat to regional peace. The Kenyan media has reduced the OLF in the Kenyan mindset to illegitimate militias out to destabilise the region. Ethiopian ambassadors have reinforced the local political and media narrative that the Oromo cause is a quest to establish an Oromo super-state stretching all the way to Tana River, a narrative intertwined with other stories about the skirmishes between the Gabra and Borana in Marsabit. The OLF thus became the regional insecurity scapegoat, blamed for the October 1998 Bagalla Massacre in which 140 people were killed in Wajir and the July 2005 Turbi Massacre in Marsabit in which almost 90 people perished, and for the proliferation of arms in the north, for banditry, and even for livestock rustling.

Yet, this conclusion glossed over the complexities at play; the Ethiopian army’s harassment of Kenyans at the border was either ignored or the frequent abductions, killings and harassment of Kenyans by the Ethiopian military were dismissed as being the work of locals.

Following the Turbi Massacre, the OLF’s Dr Fido Ebba said that the OLF’s image was wrongly tainted and that the problem in Marsabit is two-fold, some of the raids are purely tribal. They pit civilian communities against each other over scarce resources and cattle. The rest are diversionary tactics by militias engaged by authorities within Ethiopia’s ruling class. They aim at inciting communities on the Kenyan side and possibly the government into fighting the OLF back.

Ethiopia also issued a similar counter-argument, for example in April 2006, when the OLF was blamed for the killing of two herders in Dukana. Ethiopia’s then acting ambassador to Kenya, Mr Ajebe Ligaba Wolde, insisted that it is the OLF that provokes and incites people along the border with Kenya. “They [OLF] put on Ethiopian soldiers’ uniforms to defame Ethiopia . . . OLF is not only a threat to peace in Ethiopia, but also to Kenya and the whole region. They want to destabilise the region”, said Mr Wolde.

Oromo Liberation Front ideologues and leadership view Kenya as an important player to whom they look with hope, believing that peace will come sooner if Kenya steers the talks between the Oromo and Ethiopia. “If Kenyans mediated between the Ethiopian government and the Oromo they would understand the problems better, just like they did with Sudan and Somalia”, said Dr Fido Ebba.

Ethiopia, which contributed to the liberation of Kenya’s struggle for independence (and was gifted an embassy in appreciation), has enjoyed a long, peaceful diplomatic relationship with Kenya, having signed a defense pact and a treaty of friendship and cooperation in the 1980s. Dr Fido Ebba wishes that the OLF could have its administrative base in Kenya, and not in the US (Washington) as is currently the case. “Our push for liberation would then be coordinated from close proximity”, he says.

Incursions into Kenyan territory by the Ethiopian army in search of the OLF are very common. In 2015 the Ethiopian army crossed into Kenya six times, once even taking over a police station in Illeret, Marsabit. Cross-border massacres—like the March 1997 Kokai Massacre in which 80 people including 19 police officers were killed—have been raised with the Ethiopian regime.

The OLF pointed an accusing finger at the Kenyan government and army, claiming that the Kenyan army has supported the Ethiopian army to wage war against the OLF, that Kenya had broken with several international protocols to abduct and repatriate legitimate Oromo refugees and that Oromo activists have been assassinated by Ethiopian security agents on Kenyan soil.

The decades-long struggle and the fraught relationship between Kenya, the OLF and Ethiopia seemed for a brief moment to be water under the bridge when the Oromo Media Network (OMN) was launched in Nairobi in the wake of the Qeerroo revolution. During the launch, Jawar Mohammed said:

I have come to this place many times before. I had to change my name and look. I am happy that we now can reveal our names and faces to each other. We didn’t plead for this . . . We fought for it . . . We threw those who made us hide our faces in a hole and came out . . . It’s not play that brought us here . . . We lost people like Jatani Ali to arrive here . . . I would like to say thank you to the government of Kenya even though they were not open and fully supportive of our struggle . . . There cannot be liberation for Oromos or for Ethiopia without its neighbours.

Mohammed spoke of how the OMN would lead to the establishment of a bridge between the two countries by bringing the Oromos in Kenya together and by connecting the Oromos in Kenya with the Oromos in Ethiopia through listening to the OMN.

In the constructed narrative, this talk could easily be misconstrued as alluding to the establishment of an Oromia republic stretching into Kenya.

The Oromos of northern Kenya

When Dr Abiy Ahmed became the Ethiopian premier, there were celebrations in Nairobi and in the streets of Isiolo, and a commemoration for all the slain Oromo people was held in Marsabit.

The Marsabit County Woman Representative, Safia Sheikh Adan, organised a memorial day for slain Borana heros and waxed lyrical about the Oromo liberation—Bilisumna—weeping as she recited a poem and read the names of leaders slain through political machinations.

But one name was repeated again and again by Governor Mohammed Ali, by Jawar Mohammed and by the Woman Representative. Mebastion Jatani Ali Tandhu, the former Provincial Governor of Borana Province in Southern Oromia who was assassinated by Ethiopian security agents on 2 July 1992 at Tea Zone Hotel in Nairobi. Jatani Ali Tandhu had been in Kenya to seek political asylum from Zenawi’s Ethiopia. Over the past three decades, he has become an Oromo political liberation martyr and cultural icon, his words revisited in songs and Oromo protest poetry. In commemoration, a message was carried in Kenya’s Daily Nation on the 10th anniversary of his death: “Exactly 10 years since you were brutally murdered by the operatives of Tigre Peoples Revolutionary Front (TPLF)/Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary “Democratic” Front (EPRDF). The course for which you died is still alive”. With Abiy in power, his glory was resurrected and an equestrian statue was installed in the centre of his hometown of Yaballo. New songs were composed in his praise. Jatani Ali Tandhu had been buried in Marsabit and when Abiy came to power, his grave at the Marsabit cemetery was repainted.

It was Safia Sheikh Adan who financed the commemoration day. She spoke about Jattani Ali Tandhu’s contributions and mentioned other prisoners like Jatani Kunu who she said was still being held in an underground prison in Ethiopia. “We have lost many brave and strong people . . . Jatani Ali Tandhu, Galo Wolde, Qala Waqo, Sheikh Hassan, Hussein Sora Agole, Mohammed Halakhe Fayo and Hersi Jatani”.

In her overly sentimental tributes, Safia Sheikh Adan mentioned the names of slain former Kenyan parliamentarians like Guyo Halakhe, Philip Galma and Isacko Umuro. Their assassinations, like that of Daudi Dabasso Wabera (the first African Colonial District Commissioner who was assassinated by the Shifta in 1963), were unrelated to anything Oromo.

But the poem Safia Sheikh Adan recited, her tears and her actions were out of sync with the local politics and current feeling. A few understood her but most people watched her and wondered where her emotions were coming from and her efforts were finally without significance or consequence, dismissed as part of the initial euphoric joy that an Oromo was finally the Ethiopian premier.

Marsabit, music and protest poetry

When popular musician Haacaaluu Hundeessaa was killed on 29 June 2020, our hearts were broken and the sense of grief that engulfed us had a familiar weight. As Ethiopia descended into mourning and chaos, in Marsabit I listened to Haacaaluu’s albums anew. My friend and I paused and replayed certain songs to try to decipher what he meant and our sadness was deepened by the raw honesty of the injustice he described. That this was the soundtrack of a now stolen revolution added to the feeling that Ethiopia was a place of great injustice.

I remembered the image of Haacaaluu bursting onto the music scene about 10 years ago, a skinny boy in oversized shirt and trousers. We spoke about his music and his political education, his 5-year jail term when he was just 17 years old. We revisited the words of the Oromo liberation struggle as if we were reminiscing, as if it was about us. And we said aaaayyyiii, expressing the turmoil in our hearts. But at the end of the day, none of the political pathos and calls to action were about us, and nor were they happening on our doorstep. The deep articulation of the injustice that we listened to was in our own language but that struggle was not ours.

The aftermath of Haacaaluu’s death and the blowback in Oromia leads me to thoughts about what the Oromo struggle means to those of us who have come of age under its shadow.

To grow up in a liminal space like Marsabit is to be in an endless interregnum of something not quite yours. The earliest memory of the Oromo liberation struggle for me dates back to when I was six years old in mid-1990s Marsabit. Back then, a tape of a poet would be shared across the town, and we would listen alongside our parents, picking up words that sounded funny and made no sense to us.

It was hard, then, to link those words to concepts like oppression and injustice. But over the years, the OLF became the subject of whispers in Marsabit. OLF stories circulated in the manner of a secret; tales of disappearances were told, of men whose wives were taken in the night, of people whose lips had been cut off for snitching. The whisper was a mix of many fears, of the Kenyan Special Branch, of District Commissioners who had lists of OLF sympathisers, of the OLF itself, of Ethiopian spies. In Marsabit some of the murders in the town were linked to these fears.

In our home, the land of our grandparents’ past, Ethiopia, was the unspoken and unacknowledged thought. But its music was the future we aspired to; our heartbreak, our love, our longing for elusive dreams were in those lyrics.

Once, my dad came home with a small OLF flag, with the tree in the middle and the star above it. He stuck it up one side of our wall. It was the first symbol of the OLF as something good that was forbidden.

Many years later, I asked my Dad what that flag had meant to him and where he got it from. He had been in a car heading to Nairobi when he met a man who had engaged him in talk, telling him how liberation for the Oromo would benefit us all, how my dad in Kenya had to be conscious too, how the war being fought needed him.

My inquiry was short but in my father’s clipped answers I found an explanation I could relate to. I knew what his words meant and I knew what his silences meant. He had, like me, grown up on the poetry of Oromo oppression and on the songs of their hopeful salvation. Yet this long political induction had never called him to any action.

What did the Oromo of Kenya want for Oromia?

Calls for independence have a liberatory romance about them that is inviting to sympathisers. And nowhere is the Oromo call for liberation, and the reason for this call, and the status of this call, as articulated as it is in the music of the Oromo. The Oromo songs we listened to in Moyale, Marsabit, Isiolo and Nairobi arose from the liberation struggle. They were songs and poetry that articulated Oromo suffering and encouraged resistance. Through the songs, the turmoil and suffering of the Oromo was transmitted to us in Kenya. But in Kenya, we seemed to run away from it all, not learning how to speak of the injustice that followed us.

In Marsabit we carried other stories of Ethiopia in our hearts, stories of an unacknowledged past as we forged new Kenyan identities, stories of the Amharas and how the gabbar system had forced our grandparents out of Ethiopia. Stories of slavery and of Abyssinian expansionism into southern Ethiopia.

We followed the Qeerroo protests keenly and vouched for them. But stolen revolutions break the heart even more. Haacaaluu’s murder was testament to a stolen revolution, an encore to the 1974 Derg, when the army through Mengistu stole another revolution. How many of the men in Marsabit escaped conscription in Ethiopia’s many wars with Eritrea and on its own people? How many had had hopes that their suffering would come to an end before the revolution was stolen from them in 1974, in 1991 and again in 2018?

I sit with a local musician in Marsabit and try to understand the influence of Oromo music on the Borana music produced and consumed in Kenya. How devoid of politics the songs in Kenya seem. I ask, “how come Borana musicians from Kenya haven’t contributed to the Oromo protest tradition?”

He says, “birds from different places speak a different tongue”.

It is a common saying about how things that look similar can be unrelated. In his answer, I understood so much. It is the caged bird that sings better of freedom.

A social-cultural state that defied the Westphalia model did exist in a section of northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia. A cultural state called Oromia did exist but, more than political aspirations, it was language, music, traditional political institutions and contiguous populations that marked its boundaries.

Is the Oromo cause over? Is it legitimate? How has their struggle progressed? Which parties speak for the Oromo? Where are they? What’s happening in Ethiopia? Asking Kenyan Borana/Oromo these questions is asking them far too much. None of these questions have been considered before. Yet somehow, a version of the Oromo pain has been inscribed in the psyche of the Kenyan Oromo through the Oromo music and protest tradition. The revolutionary spirit is appealing but there is no substance beneath the thin veneer of solidarity.

It was thus easy to romanticise the struggle itself. To hung posters of Lemma Megersa in khat shops while not knowing which party speaks for who. Yassin Juma had tried to put a story to this romantic idea of a political rebellion.

The Kenyan government’s choice of silence as a strategy and its hush-hush attitude towards the Oromo or the Ethiopian army’s repeated aggression on the border is just a convenient excuse, as is the simplistic idea peddled by security analysts that Kenyan Oromo also desire an Oromia super-state. It is reading too much into a romantic idea.

I know now that sympathy for—or identification with—the Oromo cause became intertwined with local politics as early as the 1990s, and allegations that local politicians had begun enlisting the services of OLF fighters were rife in Marsabit and that that there was some truth to these allegations.

For the states of the East African region there is a need to understand the Oromo cause and what is happening in Ethiopia. The Oromo call and the Ethiopian regime’s response to it should not be considered inconsequential, for the response is an indicator of how oppression, inclusion and participation of the marginalised are viewed in those states.

The old pattern in the region’s attempts at reform has been to gain one kind of political progress and lose another. To allow for the judiciary to be pseudo-independent but to cut it back when it does its work. Extrajudicial killings, mass arrests, clamping down on the freedom of association and freedom of speech, the arbitrary arrest of journalists, torture and detentions without trial, draconian and controversial laws like the social media tax in Uganda, the controversial hate speech law in Ethiopia, Internet shutdowns in Uganda and Ethiopia, declaration of a state of emergency to suppress legal and peaceful protests, all these speak of identical regional infirmities. For activists, pseudo-revolutionaries and politicians there are lessons here on the pitfalls of revolutionary nationalism in mainstream politics.

For the people of northern Kenya, whether viewed as potential citizens of a future “Oromia” or as relatives of disenfranchised, broken OLF fighters, or as the inhabitants of places invoked in Oromo songs, the sooner Ethiopia addresses the Oromo plight the better for the region. But even as Ethiopia sorts out its politics, the region also needs to formulate the ways in which the armed fighters are going to fit back into the community and not become a security threat by being enlisted to serve Marsabit politics.

In August 2017, four days after Ethiopia lifted its 10-month state of emergency, and as Kenya was in the throes of post-electoral violence, I crossed the border into Ethiopia at Moyale. In southern Ethiopia, in towns like Mega, Yaballo and Soyama, I counted a few T-Shirts adorned with the portraits of gubernatorial contestants in Marsabit. My grand-aunt was very worried that Kenya would burn with her daughter in it. After 10 days of drinking copious amounts of Ethiopian bunna in many towns and even in a restaurant at Akaki Kaliti, a sub-city of Addis Ababa, I returned to Kenya. On the way to Yaballo, political campaign songs about Marsabit’s politics played on the matatu’s stereo.

Back to Yassin Juma

It is in this larger context that Yassin Juma found himself in a prison in Ethiopia. He has since been released and is back in Kenya and we are waiting for his documentary about what Ethiopia is doing to its youth.

Parallels can be drawn between the struggles in Ethiopia and the situation in Kenya, how a minority wields economic and political power, keeping out the majority of citizens by means of elaborate political machinations. Keeping Kenyan youth in check with guns is not any different from the Ethiopian government’s incarceration of its youth and its heavy-handed reaction to dissent.

But there is something markedly different in the civil response in Ethiopia; 10-year-olds are active in the streets of Ambo.

It was important to observe Kenya’s reaction to Yassin Juma’s arrest and his release as this could be a signal to northern Kenya of a change in the government’s attitude towards the killings and assassinations that have been perpetrated in the name of the OLF in Kenya, and that the border regions will finally be treated with the seriousness they deserve.

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Reflections

Policing Black Women’s Hair

The policing of black hair often begins at a very young age, in the most subtle and intimate spaces, long before you get to school.

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Policing Black Women’s Hair
Photo: Unsplash/Leighann Blackwood
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The thickness and texture of my black hair was under constant scrutiny when I was a child. My aunt used to call me bossiekop (from the Afrikaans, meaning bushy head). The kids at school would use terms like Goema hare (candyfloss hair) and kroeskop  (fuzzy head). My cousin would joke: “You can’t even put a comb through your hair.”

Black women’s hair has been big news in South Africa over the last several years. In 2016, protests at South African schools across the country saw brave young women stand up against racist policies in the various ‘codes of conduct’ enforced in their places of learning. The demonstrations at middle class, Model C (former whites-only public) schools like Pretoria Girls High, Sans Souci in Cape Town and Lawson Girls High School in Nelson Mandela Bay – all schools where the students are mostly black and the teachers mostly white – were about much much more than hair, but these protests spoke to our roots as a site of struggle, and a route for resistance.

The policing of black hair often begins at a very young age, in the most subtle and intimate spaces, long before you get to school. I hated when my mother “did” my hair. From a young age I knew the hairdryer wasn’t hot enough and the rollers not tight enough to tame my curls. I knew the brush she was using would never leave me with hair straight enough to flick back, or cut a fringe.

My sister and I would sit between my mothers legs. Her on the couch, us taking turns on the pillow at her feet. Armed with a hairdryer and a brush she would pull and tug at our scalps, trying her best to get it “manageable.” My hair would turn out big. Just big. A huge soft afro that was long enough to tie back for school, but nowhere near “tame” enough to delicately shake off the shoulder.

When my mother was done with my hair I would stand in front of the mirror in the room I shared with my older sister, look at my reflection, and cry. I felt so ugly and so helpless with my afro. I knew that my mother could never make me look like the white women in the shampoo adverts. It was only the aunties at the hairdresser who had all the right tools to “fix” my locks.

I have more memories of the hairdresser down the road than I do of nursery school. I must have been as young as five when the women with the dye-stained apron, hair clips gripped to the bottom of her t-shirt, would stack white plastic chairs at the basin so that my head could reach the sink. My neck would ache in the basin dent, the water would always be either too hot, or too cold and the hairdressers’ vigorous shampoo scrubbing would make me dizzy. The rollers were always too tight, the hair pins would be jabbed into my tender, young scalp and the hour sitting under the hot dryer felt like a lifetime.

No one understands the phrase “pain is beauty” like a young black girl who has just been to the hairdresser. And after all that pain I would indeed feel beautiful. I had long, straight hair that I could leave loose, flick and comb through. But it was temporary. My hair would “last” for a mere two days, more specifically, my hair would “last” until school swimming lessons on a Wednesday.

Throughout primary and high school, the code of conduct stated that hair should be “neat,” and is just one example of the many way these institutions, which have their own roots firmly growing from our colonial history, govern not only children but also parents. The outdated and outright racist rules were something our parents tolerated during term time, but over school holidays our curls were left to grow.

Summer holidays would be spent at my cousins house in Atlantis, about an hour from downtown Cape Town. They had a caravan, a massive garden and a huge swimming pool (our favorite). We would swim until our feet and fingers turned rubbery. Our eyes would turn blood red from the chlorine, and we would lie belly-down on the hot bricks to warm our shaking bodies before jumping back in to the freezing cold water. Those were days of Kreol chips, fizzers and two-rand coins pushed into your palm by an adoring aunty or uncle for a Double O soft drink. Bompies (frozen juice) and sugary bunnylicks (ice lollies) would leave your tongue rainbow green, red or orange. But most importantly, they were days of afros, when parents rarely fought the tangles (there was really no point considering we spent most of our time in the pool) and left our hair to it’s natural state because there was no “code of conduct,” no threat of punishment.

The joy of swimming, and bunnylicks and afros was limited to school holidays. During term time swimming would more often than not be followed by tears. I recall my aunt sitting on the edge of the bath and pulling at my cousin’s long, mousy-brown hair as she sat in a tub of amateur alchemy. Everything from whiskey to egg was sworn by to nourish and soften. Half-used jars and tubs of the latest conditioners, oils and moisturizers would line the windowsill above the bath like ammo, a site of battle between mother, and daughter’s curls, all for the sake of looking “neat.”

My white friends hair always looked neat and they didn’t know the amount of time it took, or the pain I had to endure to get my hair looking like theirs. They would plait each others thin, blonde strands while I looked on with envy. After swimming their hair would dry “perfectly” whereas any form of humidity or moisture was my nemesis. Anything from shower steam to a light mist was enough to provide extreme levels of anxiety about whether my hair would “mince” or “go home.”

By that point my curls were long internalized as a mark of shame, and what I was expressing on the outside had much to do with how my hair was managed within the home and at school. A prime example was weekend family gatherings. You see, in my family, Sunday lunch would always be followed by “Sunday hair” in order to get ready for the week ahead.

As the aunties washed the dishes and the uncles read their newspapers waiting for tea at five (I shake my head thinking about the gender norms enforced through mundane family rituals, but that’s for another time), the cousins (all girls), had our own rituals. Relaxer would be followed by curlers, blow drying and a swirlkouse, which would leave the room hot, and smelling like product and burnt hair.

With the money I earned from my first job, for instance, I bought a large hairdryer, rollers and an assortment of round brushes and as a teenager I saw these tools as allies. It was only at university that I threw them all out.

Reuniting with my curls was less a conscious decision to rebel against the system of whiteness that taught me self-hate, and more about being free from the pain of curlers, the dizzying heat from the hairdryer and the hours spent fighting what naturally grew from my head (I would “blow out” my hair almost three times a week, it would take as long as three hours a time).

But of course you’re not free from the arrogance of whiteness once you’ve taken this route. Since going natural I’ve had numerous instances of my hair being touched, patted and pulled at by strangers (mostly white women), who’ve called it “exotic,” have compared it to a pineapple and referred to it as “surprisingly soft.” Hairdressers tell me that they don’t do “ethnic hair” and an Australian tourist once grabbed onto my curls and said “It’s like a sheep” before turning to her husband to say “go on, touch it, she won’t mind.”

To this very day, my grandfather will pass comments before the Rooibos tea has even been poured “Leila, what’s happening to your hair, why don’t you brush your hair?” Why is black hair such a threat?

Thinking back to those Sunday hair sessions, above the hum of the portable hairdryer, we laughed, we shared secrets, we gossiped, we spent time. Isn’t that the real beauty when it comes to black women’s hair? The ritual between sisters, mothers and daughters, spending time and passing down knowledge. Why were we not styling afros and dreads, why not twists and braids, cornrows and locs?

Every black woman has their own stories about their hair, their curls and societies endless need to tame, manage and straighten whether at school, in the home, or both. But the young black women who used their natural hair as a form of protest this month have clearly stated that they will no longer tolerate the racist frameworks, formal and informal, that teach them self-hate.

This post is from a new partnership between Africa Is a Country and The Elephant. We will be publishing a series of posts from their site once a week.

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Reflections

To Be Black in America: One Tuesday Morning With George Floyd

Until America’s Black population is free from the tyranny of a racist and biased system, none of us, in Europe, Asia, Africa, or the Caribbean will ever be free.

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To Be Black in America: One Tuesday Morning With George Floyd
Photo: Unsplash/Cooper Baumgartner
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We were supposed to be dropping seeds. It could have been me instead of George Floyd, trapped, choked, dead and gone. None of it seemed real, much less right.

I thought we’d be out hugging trees by now, but it’s 7 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, months after and we just can’t get it together. It’s like they’re trying to rip your heart out, like they want to destroy that part of you that is divine and God-given. Your ability to love, to feel generosity, kindness, forgiveness and to share it all, loudly, boldly and freely.

But instead, they watch your pain and, not changing, they condemn another generation to the hell you’re living in. It makes you weak, saps your spirit and reeks of pain.

How can they not understand? How can they not see and know what he was feeling or what you’d be feeling?

Pain and more pain.

And the utter horror and grief, because you know, we are better than this. We should be so much further than this, yet here we are.

I thought when I immigrated to the Netherlands, Amsterdam, that it was only white Americans that couldn’t be trusted and I somewhat believed that Europeans were different, that they would move the marker of skin colour from the stratification of human definition. But the reality at present makes me unsure about this world. About them and about us.

I don’t even know about Tuesday mornings anymore because the indifference spreads and I feel the pressure all around me. It is the kind of pressure that brings shame because you know your suffering doesn’t reach them and that brings grief. You know you are at the bottom, at the very rock bottom of love. Your heart amplifies these feelings and the words you hear bring tears to your eyes, welling and then streaming down your cheeks from the never-before-aired footage of the last moment of Mr George Floyd’s life that knocks you to your knees as you try to resolve the purpose of the latest video. And the silence of politicians and world leaders, ignoring a clear public cry for help, burns a hole in your head. Deep is the humiliation and despair triggered by the new reporting, played again and again, ravaging our sensibilities as those who should know better, be better, stand aside unmoved by the sight of Mr Floyd’s demise.

I recall the years given defending the freedom of the Europeans who hold tight to their traditions today and it hurts me to the core.

The Dutch, the French, the Belgians, the Spanish, the Italians, all allies of the United States, have taken a position and their complacency speaks louder than words. My emergency, the Black man’s emergency is just not their concern.

I thought about the past revolutions and wars, and the many concessions that were made so we could at least achieve a semblance of dignity that no government would impose its weight on its own citizens, but nothing was as it should be.

I thought about the early Berlin conference and the scramble for African wealth that would pull apart an entire continent to be exploited and plundered under the guise of colonialism and a new imperialism. I was a fool to believe these same people didn’t know the wickedness of their deeds. They knew.

Imagine a meeting hosted by the Germans, attended by a league of White Europeans, all the nations present, all playing a part. The Dutch, French, Germans, British, Austrians, Belgians, Swedes, Italians, the Portuguese, the Russians, Spanish and the Americans sitting down at the table and agreeing to bring havoc to an entire continent and its people for their own personal interest.

I thought about the thirteen-year-old Jewish girl Ann Frank, hiding from the Nazis with her family in a small room in a house I’ve walked or biked past a million times before. The house today serves as a memorial to the holocaust, a testament to the evil men can do when there is no moral restraint or self-control.

Tourists gather to see the view she had while she waited for someone with a heart to save her and her family. Thank God for the tree she had to look upon while she waited. She waited for months. No one came. She died in a prison camp. Ann Frank’s room and her diary is just something to do, something to talk about over a coffee and a croissant, if it doesn’t move you. It’s only public relations if we keep dying.

I thought about the twenty-seven years I’ve spent in the Netherlands and that surprising turnout (in Amsterdam), in support of George Floyd. On that day, whites and blacks of Amsterdam and the surrounding regions came out in record numbers, risking their health and their safety to stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter Protesters in America. The surprising show of support was inspiring and welcomed.

I was inspired standing with so many of my young sisters and brothers on the Dam square and practically moved to tears in the Bijlmer for it’s always been obvious to me, America doesn’t like Black people. And I’ll say it again, America doesn’t like Black people. But that day I felt their energy, thousands of people, white and black people with fists raised in the air saying with one voice,

‘’Black lives matter’’, and I was deeply moved.

The solidarity at both these protests in Amsterdam was inspiring and for a good moment I was proud of the Europeans, all of them except for the political leadership. Not one leader came out to speak against Trump’s anti-Black sentiment like President Reagan did in 1987, when he took a stand for the human rights of German citizens in Berlin. President Ronald Reagan changed the course of history when he delivered a simple, bold message to Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev that would usher in a new era for the German families separated by a wall.

“Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

Reagan made history on the 12th day of June 1987 at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, speaking directly to Russian President Gorbachev because he could imagine a different kind of world, a world without the Berlin Wall, and I was proud to be an American, and proud to be wearing the army green, and proud to be a democratic military presence among the Europeans, even back then.

As a former military intelligence non-commissioned officer, I wanted to overlook the silence from local leaders as mere protocol but with the weeks of civil unrest in America and President Trump’s highhanded response to the protests, the silence coming from European political leaders was deafening, questionable and telling.

How could you not see the pain?

And already I was seeing people moving away from what mattered, from saving Black Lives to fighting over privilege, over monuments that honour confederate soldiers, men who fought to keep Blacks in chains (men who lost the civil war), to fighting to get economies to reopen (when the science advises against it) and fighting to remain simple-minded and elitist, instead of listening to evolve.

“What do you want? The cops to kneel to you Black guys?”

“They want to destroy our monuments, our businesses, our homes, to rewrite our history.”

People are generally poor listeners, but they would listen if leaders provided moral leadership. Destruction, chaos and anger reign, and the US President’s reluctance to denounce the White supremacist groups along with his repeated denial of the serious threat of the COVID-19 virus while the statistics show that the number of people dying is mind boggling—until you see, until you learn that the virus disproportionately affects the homes of the poor, often African American and Latino, communities.

All this should make you sit up and take notice. We should be in a much better place, far from here, from the senseless violence, killings, racial hatred and economic prejudice. But the disease of indifference is worse than any virus, because indifference gets to the newcomers, the ill-informed incapable of understanding the legacy of slavery and the brazen impropriety which resembles hate. I know this because Europeans talk, and many sound like Trump’s MAGA supporters.

But I also know the Dutch like van Gogh knows hands. I know they think they don’t have a role to play. For one like me, who knows Dutch history and the Dutch way, who knows how the provinces of the low country became a state after the Calvinistic protest that would gain them independence from Spain, setting in place the economic structure and belief that would define the Dutch in this modern era.

Out from under the authority of the church, the Dutch turned the once forbidden practice of money lending into a business, pooling their funds and their knowledge of sailing, which happened to coincide with the technological advances of gunpowder and made them a force to reckon with. With the emergence of a banking system and a stock exchange, they entered the business of trafficking Africans across the Atlantic to work and die on plantations in the Caribbean and in the Americas.

This lucrative venture would usher in a period the Dutch remember as the Golden Age (1575-1675). During this period everybody was making money and the first model of the contemporary middle class society was born. Before then there were only two classes of men; the rich and the poor. Two hundred years later in 1885, the Dutch would meet with other European nations and sign an agreement to go back into Africa, this time not just to capture and enslave the people, but to take their land.

President Reagan claimed his moment in history by speaking in a clear, loud voice, “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall’’.

To see the Berlin Wall fall two years later in 1989, and the oppressed people running towards freedom, has always been a happy memory for me but today it feels like a slap in the face with a brick. For one like me who remembers traveling to Warsaw, Poland in 1999 and visiting the ghettos, the part of the city where the Jewish population was confined by the Nazis before being sent to the death camps, it is incredibly disheartening. It is also really sad, as a former volunteer soldier who served in four top NATO assignments before being sent to war and then going back to America to the Rodney King beating and the famously disappointing verdict that would set America’s inner cities ablaze.

We should have been much further than we are. How are we going to ever recover from this?

My mind is scrambled, and the tears won’t stop flowing. I had hoped to make it to the grocery store before the crowds. A young Muslim cashier greets me every time, with a big smile. Nothing crazy or romantic—she just found out I was an American and her eyes lit up, as is often the case.

In Europe being an American carries a certain sort of notoriety, a certain sort of celebrity. I get that, but today, I am wondering how she is, how we are going to come back from this, after this, without tears from all sides.

No one was listening to Mr Floyd. Now he’s gone. No playback button on this one. You begin to think crazy, insane thoughts, maybe they can’t see us, maybe it’s true and they really think we don’t feel pain or suffer. But we do, every time that we are excluded, pushed aside, ignored or mocked by the government or in the media or the news.

It gets into the heart, suddenly tears floods your face, because you know your cry falls on deaf ears, so you turn to the only help you know, the one that’s always been there for you.

You turn to her and you pray just maybe the mention of her name strengthens and sustains you behind the weight of doom. Mr Floyd cried out for help in handcuffs for eight minutes and 46 seconds for just one someone to save him and no one came.

But now George Floyd is gone. You want to stop the utter horror and grief but you can’t. You want to distance yourself from the graphic image being broadcast around the world but for some reason, you can’t switch channels. You try to convince yourself that maybe you are too emotional. You didn’t even know the man or his momma. So why all the tears?

Because you know how it feels to be powerless, you know how it feels to want your mother in a difficult or bad situation. You know the centuries’ old abuse. You know the European adventures. You know the freedoms of the Dutch. You know the road it took for you to be here. You know Vermeer’s blue skies, and the Dutch Spirit Jenever. But none of it brings you any relief.

Sunday night, and a new video on my social media page showing a Black male, 29-year-old Jacob Blake, in a dispute with a police officer that ends in another shooting of another Black man.

As I watched the video I prayed it was a fake. I wanted more than anyone to learn that the video was a hoax, sent out to further divide the ill-informed.

One could only have hoped that since the death of George Floyd and the weeks and months of protest that happened on a global scale, every police officer would know that when it came to a show of force, pulling out a gun was just not to be done.

Emotions were already too high.

However, soon after watching the video I would learn over mainstream media that the horrific shooting in Wisconsin was real. A police officer had shot a man seven times in front of three little children who witnessed those seven rounds going into Mr Blake’s back.

While listening to the report, I couldn’t help but think of Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s book, “Why We Can’t Wait”. As he wrote from a Birmingham jail cell back in 1963 about the reason he protested despite the threat of violence directed at him and his followers, Dr King knew that it was time.

Just as Dr King believed, I know that today young Blacks all over the world are watching what’s happening in America, they know America is not living up to its creed, and they just aren’t going to take being treated as second-class citizens anymore.

An ordained minister and Reverend of the Baptist faith, Dr King knew that seeing their uncles, fathers, cousins, brothers dying at the hands of those who were employed to protect them would only incite young Blacks to extremes.

If significant visible gains were not seen and felt in the Black community, America could never trust the freedom it boasts of. Dr King believed America could make real the creed of its nation and all men would be treated equal under the constitution, if only we “commit to live together as brothers or perish as fools”.

This latest shooting of another unarmed Black man joins a long list of others killed for being Black in America, and brings us yet again at to new milestone, not only for Blacks but for Whites as well. We must do all that is in our power to rid this world of racism.

We are on the precipice of change, our humanity is in the balance. We can’t romanticize the systemic racism, or the ill-treatment of Blacks by law enforcement agencies or the call for reparations. We can no longer sit on the sidelines. We must commit to overcoming this evil.

We must have the uncomfortable conversations about the underrepresentation of Black leaders on the work floor, in the boardroom and across the board.

We must begin to look one another in the eye as human beings, regardless of race, class or gender.

Beyond imagining an all-inclusive world, we must all become ambassadors ushering in a new era, a new age and a new way of being.

The age of real partnership, where all life is precious and endowed with certain rights that can’t and must not be denied, including the right of any man to rebel against any authority that doesn’t support his interest.

Until America’s Black population is free from the tyranny of a racist and biased system that allows officials to take Black lives so easily, I tell you none of us, in Europe, Asia, Africa, or the Caribbean will ever be free. For as the Rev Dr Martin Luther King so rightly wrote some fifty years ago, “Injustice anywhere in the world directly effects justice everywhere”.

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