In the early noughties, I was working on a project to publish a lifestyle magazine that my team called Miro. “Miro”, deriving from “Amero” or African American, is a word that urban Nairobians of yore used to describe black people. We were hoping to come up with the first urban lifestyle magazine in which Nairobians would see themselves represented as they did in the Ebony and Essence Magazines published in the US.
During that period, I met a guy named Peter Achayo who had a clothing label and believed in what we were doing. He also knew some other guys doing something similar but their focus was mainly literary. He offered to make the introduction and in early 2005, I met the leader of that group, Binyavanga Wainaina, at the Java Coffee House on Mama Ngina Street, a dreadlocked, dark-skinned, heavyset fellow of medium height, sitting in the company of several people. We sat at a booth where I explained to him what my team and I were doing and trying to achieve. He listened keenly, offering several suggestions which I noted. Binyavanga told me that Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah, who wrote The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, was in town at his invitation and wondered if an interview with him would be useful. I jumped at the opportunity as I had read the book as a teenager and rated the writer highly.
On the day of the interview, I made my way to Lillian Towers, aka the Nairobi Safari Club, where Binyavanga had me sit at the lobby and wait to meet the great writer. At the time, our magazine Miro hadn’t seen the light of day but he was willing to accord me the same respect that I had seen accorded to journalists who had been around for a while. That respect was something that I carried with me into a career as someone who catalogued the lives of those whom I met. For Armah it was probably just another interview but it forever changed my perception of what being African was.While our efforts at creating a publication failed only months later, I cherished the meetings I had had with this guy with a weird name and with the famous writer from Ghana.
A year later, I founded a new website/blog called NairobiLiving.com (since discontinued) to catalogue a city that was evolving in multiple ways. Some of the hottest gigs at the time were the monthly Kwani Open Mics, an even which was first hosted at the Yaya Centre and later at Club Soundd on Kaunda Street. My reviews of the Kwani Open Mic events got me an invitation to the East African Writers Summit at Lukenya in 2006 organised by Kwani Trust because I was cataloguing the literary revolution that was taking place.
My life was a mess when I received that invitation. My mother had invested a huge sum of money to ensure that I received the best private university education. I had left the country for a year and a half and returned floundering. I was a thirty-one-year old man with no income who had moved back to live with his parents. The magazine project that I had initiated had failed spectacularly and I was desperately looking for something to fill that void both as a career and for income.
I attended the Lukenya writers’ summit and adopted a sort of mute position, one that I would adopt for many years to follow where Binyavanga was concerned. I sat and listened in on the panel discussions by day and, in the evenings, on the conversations that took place by the campfire over copious amounts of alcohol. Listening to Binyavanga, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and others discussing the challenges and the opportunities in their writing careers had a marked influence on my life. Binyavanga spoke about the need to write back to the European canon, challenging the writing that defined Africa from the likes of Ernest Hemmingway and Joseph Conrad. It was an amazing opportunity for someone seeking purpose in life. That weekend was a turning point for me and I committed to this writing world fully in the months and years that followed.
In making this commitment, I got to know more about this dude who went by the name Binyavanga—or The Binj, or Binya to the many who knew him in the African creative community—and who was central to my making such a life-altering decision. Over the years of a glittering career, his work was featured in many of the world’s most famous publications. Starting with G21, the magazine which had featured his award-winning short story Discovering Home, his work could be read in Chimurenga, Virginia Quarterly Review, Granta, The East African, National Geographic, New York Times, Transition, Bidoun, Harper’s Magazine, The Guardian, Africa is A Country, Jalada, Bomb, etc. At one point he had a regular column in the South African newspaper Mail & Guardian.
The year I met him, Binyavanga’s essay How To Write About Africa, satirising how European writers talk about our continent, was published in Granta. That essay reminded me of sitting around a campfire listening to him railing against those who brought Africa and Africans to disrepute with their writing. It became one of the most shared pieces of writing in that respected literary journal and brought him worldwide fame.
His 2011 memoir One Day I Will Write About This Place was his personal contribution to the canon. It was a memoir of his middle class childhood in his Nakuru hometown, his time as a student in South Africa and, after he return home, his travels across the world. The book, which was favourably reviewed, made it onto Oprah’s 2011 Summer Reading List . It was The Binj at his best, showing what English could become in the ownership of a writer with his singular talents.
Also memorable was I’m A Homosexual Mum which was published in Africa Is A Country in 2014 when Binyavanga came out as gay. At the time, several African countries including Nigeria and Uganda were either drafting or passing new laws that would make it very difficult for gay people to be who they were. Outing himself in this “lost chapter of his memoir” and following it up with a series of videos that outlined his views on what was happening to the social fabric of the continent was a revolutionary act.
While his own writing career was significant, his biggest contributions came from his ability to influence others with his larger-than-life personality, his compassion and his sheer determination. It started with the winnings from the Caine Prize, part of which he used to set up the Kwani Trust, jolting the literary establishment in Kenya and across the continent. Before he showed up, there was no Kenyan literature in the true sense of the word as, for a quarter of a century, the industry had been hobbled by anti-intellectual dictator Daniel Arap Moi. At the time the publishers association was a text book lobby that focused mainly on selling books to school children while onn the continent, there was a lull in African writing after the glory years of the Heinemann African Writers Series in the 1960s and 70s.
The appearance of Binyavanga Wainaina signified a shift not only in Kenya but across the continent. After many years of inactivity, the “literary desert” got a new lease of life with the publishing of the literary journal Kwani? (which in Kenyan slang means “so what?”). That journal gave us the next winner of the Caine Prize, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. In the years that followed, the journal introduced many writers to the African literary community like the aforementioned Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Parselelo Kantai, Muthoni Garland, Dayo Forster, Billy Kahora, Andia Kisia, and many more that became the foundation of the literary community that we all look up to today.
With Binyavanga editing Kwani?, he challenged the idea of what literature looked like, what it sounded like or even in what language it was expressed. Experimentation was the name of the game and nothing demonstrated this as well as his association with Ukoo Flani Mau Mau which many considered the biggest hip hop group to come out of Kenya. Led by the inspirational Kama (Kamau Ngigi), young artists who came mainly from Dandora could be spotted at the Kwani? offices huddled around an office assistant who was typing their poetry and other musings. These musings, written in Sheng—a constantly evolving urban language made up of Kiswahili, English and many other Kenyan languages—ended up in the journal much to the consternation and fury of those in academia who considered themselves the arbiters of good literature.
When not ensuring that their work was immortalised in his preferred literary medium, Binyavanga also influenced the young artists as the executive producer of the 2016 Dandora Burning album. He raised money for studio time as well as for living expenses for the artists who featured on the album like Juliani, Kitu Sewer, and a whole host of others.
It wasn’t just experimenting with language that became a trademark of the journal under The Binj. Stories refused to follow any familiar patterns, with fiction, nonfiction and poetry mixed in with everything one could imagine, being published in the smaller version Kwanini when the journal wasn’t in publication. For a long time, there had been a yearning for something new and exciting and the breath of fresh air that was Kwani? was welcomed by those who had been rejected elsewhere. There was now a new space in which to showcase their talent. The new methods were however not as welcomed by those in publishing and academia, with one commentator famously calling the Kwani? writers “literary gangsters”.
One of the methods that the Kwani?, team employed to share their work with the Nairobi audience was the Kwani Open Mic. At the beginning, the events were hosted away from the Central Business District at the Yaya Centre Café Crème and at Kengeles in Lavington. Writers would read from their current or forthcoming entries to the Kwani? Journal, the readings interspersed with poetry and music including from the aforementioned hip hop artists who were part of Ukoo Flani Mau Mau. The open mic events were a occasions where some of the city’s well-heeled residents met some of the least well off, continuing on a theme that had been prevalent in the wake of the 2002 “revolution” where everything was possible without Dictator Moi; even the rich could sit with the Dandora boys.
The open mic events eventually moved to Club Soundd which was located in the Central Business District. People coming to Club Soundd had convenient access to public transport until the late hours and so more people attended and stayed longer. The events became a spectacle, with the person on stage having to be extremely compelling with whatever poetry, prose, or rap they were presenting or else the audience would switch off and turn to conversation with whoever they were with. Showtime at the Apollo had the Sandman; Kwani Open Mic had a crowd that became easily bored and tuned out.
As the years went by, it became the stage on which many of the poets of the last decade and a half cut their teeth. It was an important space for the community of the arts to get together and meet every first Tuesday of the month. From these events, many relationships, both professional and personal, were forged that endure to this day. That open mic spawned what became Nairobi’s vibrant poetry scene.
Eventually, Binyavanga had to leave the day-to-day running of the organisation to other people as he took up writing gigs “in the abroad”. He was the writer-in-residence at Union College in Schenectady, New York, in 2007 and in 2008, at Williams College, in Massachusetts. He then became director of the Chinua Achebe Centre for African Writers and Artists at Bard College, New York state. While not physically present at the organisation, Binyavanga sat on the board, giving valuable energy and input.
The organisation he once led came up with the Kwani Manuscript Project in 2011 to identify the next big writing stars from the continent and it delivered the motherload. The shortlist from the hundreds submitted included the manuscripts of Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay with Me, Ayesha Harruna Attah’s Saturday’s People, Toni Kan’s The Carnivorous City, Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi’s The Kintu Saga, and Saah Millimono’s One Day I Will Write About This War. The Kwani? Manuscript Prize was ultimately won by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, arguably the biggest starin Ugandan writing today.
Binyavanga was involved in other projects with varying degrees of success. In 2010, he led a team of writers in the Pilgrimages project where 14 African writers travelled to 13 African cities and to one city in Brazil to explore the complexities of disparate urban landscapes. From this experience, the writers were to create 14 works of non-fiction about their trips, capturing each city against the backdrop of Africa’s first World Cup. In the list of writers were Chris Abani, Doreen Baingana, Uzodinma Iweala, Alain Mabanckou, and Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. The much-hyped works never saw the light of day; even the charismatic Kenyan couldn’t always deliver on the hype.
The Binj did deliver on many other occasions though. One of these was the Hay Festival/World Book Capital Africa39 list, a project to identify the writers, under 40 years of age, most likely to influence African writing in the future. That project, for which Binyavanga did most of the initial research, gave us a list of writers who would theoretically influence African writing in the future. Many on that list like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Lola Shoneyin, Abubakar Adam Ibrahim, Shadreck Chikoti, Novuyo Rosa Tshuma, and Zukiswa Wanner continue to live up to its premise. Binyavanga was also the biggest supporter of the 24 Nairobi book project which showcased Nairobi as a modern African city through the eyes of its own photographers.
Away from his hits and misses, Binyavanga was plagued by illness in the last few years of his life, suffering a major stroke in 2015 from which he never truly recovered. He announced that he was HIV positive in 2016 and battled with his body until it all ended on the evening of May 21, 2019.
There were two Binyavanga Wainainas; the man before and the man after the 2015 stroke. After he recovered, Binya as I knew him, was not the the same force of nature that he had been. The man who was clumsy in an endearing sort of way was now having that clumsiness seep into all of his life, and it showed. He spent many hours on social media sharing whatever he was thinking and doing while getting into unnecessary virtual battles with perceived or real enemies.
The Binyavanga I wanted to remember was The Binj of before 2015 who showed up one day and changed the game by sheer force of will. I remember meeting him two weeks after being hired as an editor at the Star newspaper in Nairobi in 2011 and was invited to his birthday party where we chatted and he encouraged me, reminding me just how important the work that I did was. This coming from him was a boost that drove me for a long time. I knew that, being in an influential space, I had to ensure that the literary arts occupied their place of honour in Kenya.
We met on and off over the next few years until he was hospitalised by illness. His last words to me were, “You’ve grown a beard”. I laughed and said, “Yes”. They were the last words we shared.
The last time he was at my house, he took a nap in my living room then woke up and dominated the conversation at the smoking area at the backyard. I could tell that he could be a bit frustrated with his speech but he still held his own on in a wide variety of topics. That night showed me the best and the not-so-great of the great man. Being down because of a physical challenge but still coming to the conversation, opening with his signature, “you knowwwww…”
Thank you Binya. You saved me, and many like me.
Rest in Peace Binya. Rest in Power.
You can find a gallery of Binyavanga Wainaina’s writing at PlanetBinya.org.
Living on the Edge: From the Favelas of Rio to Life in Mathare
Both Mathare and Alemão are full of human endeavour and misfortune in equal measure, and in both places young men, specifically, are at high risk of coming to a violent end.
Lethal violence is fact in Mathare. On the day I first visit the community, tweets hashtagged #CopRashidCorruptDeals appear on my Twitter feed. I already knew of Rashid, having watched the BBC documentary about him and his team. I follow the hashtag and find this tweet from a local journalist: “Rashid has wiped all thugs around Eastleigh, Mathare and Huruma. To us residents he is a nice guy.” The journalist in question has twenty-three thousand followers.
I’ve only been in Mathare a matter of minutes when an invisible hand runs gently over the dome of my head. It’s a familiar, yet strange, feeling. I quickly realise that this is because it is neither my own hand, nor that of Inés, my wife. The hand actually belongs to a man standing behind me. Feeling vulnerable, I move away quickly, saying “COVID” in justification for my abruptness. “19”, he responds, completing my words. It’s a funny moment and I relax.
My new acquaintance is one of the many addicts who share a rubbish dump with a large number of highly energetic and boisterous children. The children have transformed a corner of the tip into a gymnasium. The gym includes a climbing frame/assault course (improvised from an abandoned wooden structure) and a springboard — a large black tyre — from which the tiny gymnasts gracefully launch themselves. The kids are well organised. They stand in a nice queue. There are fast ones, skilful ones and learners. After a quick sprint they hit the tyre with both feet. It projects them and they spin defiantly, airborne above the garbage for a split second, before landing on the piece of carpet that serves as a crash mat. Fans gathered to watch the spectacle make approving sounds for the best leaps and twists. The contrast between the shiny-eyed bounce of the children and the glazed stagger of the addicts is stark and saddening.
I’m in Mathare to visit members of the Mathare Empire collective. The enterprising young members of this group have recently occupied and redecorated an abandoned building at one end of the trash pile. Their porch provides front-row seats from which to watch the young athletes practice their somersaults. It is fittingly decorated with a painting of a child with huge boxing gloves and a stop-corona mask. This is one of several large and handsome murals depicting faces that gaze patiently over the dump.
Despite the distracting vivacity of the young gymnasts, the garbage heap is treacherous. It almost swallowed up a little girl recently. The piles and layers of trash hide pools of rainwater, transforming the junk into something akin to a deadly swamp. The girl, running to greet her father, sunk into one such concealed crevice and began to go under. Quick-witted bystanders saved the day, plucking her out before she disappeared.
The purpose of my visit is to present and discuss projects in Rio de Janeiro, where I lived until recently. In Rio I first worked for Amnesty International, documenting and campaigning against human rights violations in some of the city’s 1000+ world-famous and, sadly, ultra-violent favelas. I later became involved in grassroots cultural and youth initiatives aiming to empower and raise the self-esteem of Rio’s young people and communities. This work is documented in a book titled Culture is Our Weapon and included a project by JR — a TED prize-winning French artist — called Women are Heroes. Most recently, in 2019, I helped to organise the construction of a skatepark in Maré, a neighbourhood made up of sixteen favelas originally constructed on swampland.
We have lots to talk about. While sharing ideas and stories with the group, I discover they have recently taken part in a video call with Raull Santiago, a prominent human rights defender from the Alemão (German) complex, one of Rio’s most violence-hit communities. The issues faced by the residents of Mathare and Alemão are similar yet different. Both are very big, but Mathare is much more densely populated and much poorer. While both places suffer violence, Alemão is a war zone. Both are built in a valley and are full of human endeavour and misfortune in equal measure. In both places young men, specifically, are at high risk of coming to a violent end.
We go for a walkabout. My guides show me how and where they have staked out green spaces, planted trees and painted structures with bright murals, (part of their work for the Mathare Green Movement). These actions bring levity and freshness into the often airless and monochromatic environment. I’m struck by their colourful imaginings of other universes on the walls of public toilets. Just one of these strong-smelling units can cater for the needs of five thousand Mathare residents. I also learn that the toilets are centres of socialisation — children’s friendship networks in Mathare are built around who shares the facility nearest your house. Kids playing in front of several of the vibrantly decorated loos that we visit demonstrate this. The pictures on the walls imagine other possibilities — outer space or lush tropical forests — while others remind users of their current terrestrial responsibilities: don’t forget your mask!
I suffer from sensory overload walking around Mathare. As in Rio, there are myriad sights, sounds and smells to take in all at once. Because of COVID-19, school is out when I visit. Children are everywhere. The community is spread across a gentle valley, not the steep escarpments of many favelas in Rio. Corrugated iron shacks — so close together that visually they form a vast iron sheet of rusted red, grey and brown — cover the slopes. The poverty is grinding. Narrow paths zigzag between lean-tos and rank smelling drains. Most of the shacks are low and many look as if they might fall down should you push them.
In contrast, residents are mostly well dressed and clean. Commerce, licit and illicit, crowds the pathways and thoroughfares. Cheap, ripe fruit and vegetables abound. I taste sweet pineapple and see watermelon, avocados, tomatoes, garlic, peppers and onions. Vendors hawk pastries, eggs and sausages. Cooks stir delicious smelling dishes over wood fires. In Rio, obesity in low-income communities is a serious issue. Here I’m impressed — most people in Mathare look healthy and strong.
We pass a wealth of legal, illegal, social, spiritual and commercial activities — khat stalls, illicit hooch making stills, drug dealing areas, NGOs, schools, churches, mosques and markets. Public soap dispensers and water for handwashing remind us that COVID-19 is ever-present, even though social distancing is impossible. Besides the sale of food there is plentiful commerce—mobile phone businesses, hardware shops, beauty salons, charcoal vendors, boda boda riders and stalls selling new and second-hand clothes. Authentic second-hand garments are considered infinitely more stylish than bogus new ones, I am informed. Fake clothes in Mathare = a serious fashion crime! It’s the same in Rio, where favela residents take pride in their appearance. However, Brazil does not have such an abundance of second-hand imports. And so in Rio, the emphasis is more often on an item’s newness, not necessarily its authenticity.
Yet despite the trading, hustle and bustle and a resilient-looking population, the overwhelming sensation I have in Mathare is that of risky living. I can only try and imagine the heat inside the shanties in high summer or what happens during the rains, when sewers flood and the metal shanties become dangerous because of electric shocks from exposed wiring. But although Mathare is economically poorer and less developed than similar communities in Rio, I do not feel suffocated by the inescapable threat of violence. In Rio’s battle-scarred favelas, gun-toting teenagers patrol the alleyways. Bullet holes in the masonry all around inform you that the weapons are not just for show. Violence is real and present and you are constantly reminded of this.
When I ask my guides about the tweet concerning Rashid they tell a very different story from that of the journalist who described him as “hero”. For young men in Mathare, Rashid is the grim reaper in human form and something of a shape shifter, known for his ability to camouflage himself and merge with the surroundings. He carries pictures of targets on his phone. Businesses pay him to go after miscreants. However, innocents, friends, associates or just the unlucky often end up dead.
The guys I am with are mostly in their early twenties. Statistically, they are the group most at risk from police violence. The presence of killer cops does not make them safer or protect them from crime. Local thieves, they tell me, refer to after dark as “office hours” and can even rob someone they know because those are “the rules and young thieves will take everything you have—even your girlfriend. They take drugs that make them fearless and immune to pain.” These include pills called “cosmos”, sold by local dealers. Cosmos pills come in different colours according to strength and stain the user’s lips. The tablets are apparently prescription medicine for mental illness, stolen from the public health system.
Law-abiding young men in Mathare live between a rock and a very hard place. When they talk about problems, conversation revolves around work and danger. While dignified employment is scarce, even for the well-educated, the threat of violence is permanent. Rashid — seen as something of an executioner-in-chief — exercises the power of life and death through his actions and their multiplication in the public imagination.
The youth in the favelas of Rio favela suffer from precisely the same issue. Police killings (extrajudicial executions by any other name) in the city are among the highest — if not the highest — in the world. The slaughter takes place in the context of a so-called drug war whereby society overlooks illegal police action in return for perceived security. Young men in favelas are also at risk from gangs inside their communities who also kill without pity. Fierce and chaotic gun battles between police and lawbreakers very often leave behind victims of stray bullets. By the end of 2019, Rio’s police force had shot and killed 1,810 alleged suspects in supposed confrontations, the highest annual number on record and almost twice the 1,003 victims of police violence for the entire US that year. In 2020 lethal police violence and operations in favelas in Rio continue at full steam; they did not abate even under COVID-19 lockdown.
As in Nairobi, where some locals describe Rashid as a hero, the Brazilian media and public have long tolerated and encouraged extrajudicial executions as purported crime fighting. Typical practice is to execute a victim in a fake shoot-out. In just a few hours in February 2019, during a single operation in a favela, Rio police shot and killed 13 suspects. These included nine young men in a house, who, according to witnesses, were trying to give themselves up. However, sometimes they don’t even try to pretend — as was the case in a Rio suburb in 2005, when off-duty police in cars shot and killed 29 civilians in a single evening.
Widespread public consent for criminal state violence in Brazil is encapsulated in the popular saying “a good thug is a dead thug”, first adopted by police death squads operating in the 1960s at the beginning of the country’s 20-year military dictatorship. In 2018, future president Bolsonaro took the dictum to extremes by pledging to unleash waves of violence across the country when elected, saying, “if a policeman kills 10, 15 or 20 with 30 bullets each he must be decorated, not charged”. Other politicians followed suit, campaigning on explicit platforms of lethal violence. Despite the extremely high numbers of police killings, individual cases of which are rarely scrutinised, Bolsonaro committed to the introduction of new legal mechanisms to further protect killer police from investigation.
In Brazil, killer cops, drug traffickers and death squads have long terrorised low-income communities across the nation. In rural areas, local police and hired gunmen provide such a service. In cities and their peripheries, the absence of the state and lack of regulation in poor neighbourhoods and favelas offer a wealth of illicit opportunity. Whoever provides security in these areas can step in to control the local economy, provision of services and crucially, access to the electorate. Paramilitary groups, known in Rio de Janeiro as militia, have lately appropriated this model — a fusion of traditional politics, organised crime and territorial control. Usually linked to police, prison and fire services, today the militia operate in more than half of the city’s neighbourhoods.
Cameroonian political scientist Achille Mbembe has identified this process — the political management of vulnerable populations through their exposure to death — as “necropolitics”. Necropolitics clearly regulates life in Mathare as much as it governs Rio’s favelas. Police like Rashid are not there to fight crime. They defend a status quo.
When I am about to leave Mathare after my first visit, I have an indication of what the maintenance of this status quo entails. Two very burly policemen brandishing enormous sticks barge their way along the street and disappear behind some huts. People double their speed to get far away from them. Doors close and the street empties. Twilight falls. A palpable tension replaces the relaxed late Saturday afternoon coming and going. Onlookers inform me that the police are there to extort payment from vendors who sell glue and “jet fuel” — ultra-cheap ethanol for inhaling — to the crushed adults who converge on the garbage dump.
Thankfully, the next time I visit, there is a much more pleasant atmosphere in this corner of Mathare. The area outside the bungalow, as the Mathare Empire members call their HQ, is swept clean. Local and guest artists perform on a brightly coloured stage, made from pallets painted purple, red, yellow and green, to a hyped crowd who occupy the kids’ gymnasium at the edge of the dump. They talk, sing and rap about police violence and issues of the day, like COVID-19. But the event is not a political lecture and nor is it gloomy. The group had spontaneously decided that what was originally going to be a concert would instead be the first ever “Mathare Futurism Day” – a gathering of local painters, artists and musicians to celebrate community, address current issues and reimagine Mathare. “Moments like this”, Wyban Mwangi says, “remind people about the beauty of self-dignity and the constant need to struggle for a better, healthier and safer place to live”. In communities governed by necropolitics, such resistance provides vital hope, freedom and breathing space.
I’m Black, I’m Proud. Still
You can’t feed into the darkness. You can’t demand anyone to know what you know, to understand what you understand. People come to truth when they come to it and not a second before.
Growing up down south in the aftermath of the 1960s Negro Revolution in America was truly the best. During that period, three out of every four Black children in America were born in a two-parent home. By the 80s, that number would drop to one in every four.
Education and opportunity were becoming more accessible to black and brown communities everywhere. It would be the force that would get us out of the hole history had placed us in.
We were moving forward and everybody could feel it, but as much as I liked going to school and learning new things, my favourite memories are of when, after school, I got to spend time with my brothers and cousins. There was just something magical that happened when we were together.
We would meet over at grandma’s house in that part of the city we called the village. The village was a straight, two-block walk from school, down King Street, past the Piggly Wiggly store parking lot and then to the stoplight where you take a right turn onto Rommey Street, and another right on to what looks like a parking lot on the side of the church, and just at the bridge, before you crossed the old train track or you would have missed it, the entrance to the court. Thirty or so homes behind the old Methodist Church on a road invisible from the street laid out in the form of a horseshoe.
I cannot talk about the village without talking about the city and the state. Charleston, South Carolina is a peninsula city located on the South Carolina coastline. It was one of the thirteen original colonies and the very first state to break away from the Union, and one of the founding states of the Confederacy.
The village was a housing initiative following the 1964 Civil Rights Act aimed at breaking the cycle of poverty by moving Black families out of the old housing slums and projects and into new affordable homes.
The difference between the projects in the South and the projects up north is the space and design. In most cases, southern projects were designed to be communal properties, different from the stacked high-rises up north or in the Midwest.
The projects down south were simple properties where people learned to share. They shared the backyard when the sun got too high and the front when people just wanted to be outside and catch a breeze. Everybody knew one another and called each other by name. Family arguments, celebrations and losses spilled into neighbouring apartments causing people to act like one big extended family. And even though everybody was poor, they would have been hard-pressed to admit it. Poverty was a state of mind. The community spirit emphasised generosity and everything was shared. If you were hungry and didn’t have food, you could always ask next door.
Having lived in the projects for decades, my grandparents were one of the very first people to be offered a house in the village. I can remember the move like it was yesterday, everyone was so excited.
The year was 1973, I was eight years old. For the first time Black families in Charleston would have the chance of a normal life.
My grandparents, long into retirement, coupled with our large, extended family of cousins, uncles, aunts and three brothers – two older and one younger – were a great source of pride and joy until I learned that the American egalitarian beliefs which I thought were as perfect a foundation as there could be, were but an illusion, a well thought out scheme. We weren’t freed, we were just moving boxes.
Although everyone got their own private home, some did build fences around theirs but others opted against this, allowing for yards to overlap, creating a more open and vibrant community.
My grandparents had a high chain-linked fence, but there was still this sense of togetherness. When something went wrong in the village, the elders would be the first out to deal with it.
My exploration of the real workings of America would begin from within this village in 1976, the year that America celebrated its 200th anniversary of independence from British rule.
That year, I began to see that the ideals that gave birth to the idea of “We the People,” did not include people like me.
I remember a young militant uncle, oozing Black pride, spilling the beans and pointing out to me that neither he nor I, nor any of the millions of other Blacks had reason to celebrate America’s success.
As my White and Black classmates and a nation prepared for the grand July 4th spectacle that would include a freedom train, a scheduled stop in our city, marching bands, hotdogs, cotton candy and fireworks, I began my own re-education, reading keenly to understand the origins and the construct of the first Americans.
In the 200 years since the Protestant Christians invaded America they’ve enslaved millions, massacred the Indians, and everything we’ve suffered – the chains, the church bombings, our leaders assassinated, brothers lynched – all of it has been part of an elaborate scheme to keep Blacks subjugated.
In June 1740, the British Parliament passed the Naturalization Act of 1740 – the “Plantation Act” – into law.
In this decree, any White European Protestant alien who had been living in any of the thirteen colonies for seven years without being absent from that colony for more than two months, was deemed to be a natural-born citizen of the United Kingdom.
The Plantation Act of 1740 was a direct response to the September 1739 Stono River Slave Rebellion in South Carolina. The Stono Rebellion was the largest slave insurrection in British North America that culminated in the deaths of 25 colonists and about 50 Africans. It was led by an Angolan known as Jemmy and a band of about twenty slaves, who broke into a store, armed themselves and demanded their freedom. They marshalled a group of 60 slaves in an attempt to reach St Augustine in Florida, where the Spanish guaranteed freedom and land to any fugitive slave. The rebellion was crushed at Edisto River, 80 kms away from where the rebellion had started.
The 1740 law criminalised the Black experience itself, restricting the right of free movement, the right to free assembly, and the right to be educated or to earn money. These punitive and discriminatory laws created by men who claimed to be good Christians, legislated the right of plantations owners to even kill rebellious slaves.
Most colonialists considered themselves British until the year 1776 when resentment began to fester among the settlers. Frustrated by taxation and a lack of representation in the British Parliament, these new Americans declared war on their own government demanding independence.
That same year, the British-born political activist, pamphleteer and immigrant to the colonies, Thomas Paine, published a pamphlet titled Common Sense in which he argued the case for a new “America”.
“Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America. This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe.”
The American War of Independence was fought from 1776 to 1783. Seven years later, the Naturalization Act of 1790, the first naturalization law of the new republic legislating who could be granted United States citizenship, was passed into law.
All Free White Persons of “good character” who had been residing in the United States for two years or longer could apply for US citizenship. In effect, the law’s use of the phrase, “free white person” excluded blacks and immigrants of other races from being eligible for citizenship, and most importantly, for protection under the laws of the court.
As a child I had drank the Kool-Aid and believed that it was peaceful cooperation between the pilgrims and the native Indians that had established the widely practiced Thanksgiving holiday tradition.
I recall summers spent playing cowboys and Indians with my brothers. We took turns at who got to play the Indian. I felt no shame striking the Indians down with my rifle. They were always the bad guys, raiding the poor settlers’ forts, attacking their caravans. But I was baffled by the contradictions. Why would the Indians save the pilgrims who were dying from the cold and hunger only to try to escape from them later? It just didn’t make much sense.
Then it came to me: the Native Americans were fighting to protect their land. We weren’t playing a game; what we were doing was re-enacting a massacre. Over five million Native Americans were killed before the West was conquered.
Regardless the age at which one arrives at truth and understanding, it is always disorienting and disheartening. I’ve found that whether one accepts it or not, the only thing we can be certain of in this world of uncertainty is change.
I spoke with many people after the first 2020 Presidential Debate between President Trump and the Democratic nominee former Vice President Joe Biden that took place in the midst of heightened racial tensions and the COVID-19 pandemic. I got many mixed views regarding the outcome of the debate; some were shocked by the childish display while others dug in, taking sides and displaying party loyalty like it was a football game. Of the many reactions I got, one zoom call from home with my older brother really got me thinking.
“Can you believe that man?”
My older brother is now 60.
I had noticed him wiping his eyes.
I asked, “What ‘s wrong?”
At first he didn’t (want to) speak, he just kept brushing the tears away, then he began,
“Little brother, we grew up together,” he said.
“We pretty much had the same childhood, but I’ll tell you, I have never had any white person call me a nigger or spit on me like these guys up here in Philadelphia tell me they have. I have had White teachers down south who were some of the nicest people you’d want to meet. But, looking at that debate last night and the President of the United States refusing to denounce white supremacy as racist, I just never, you know, thought White people hated us that much.”
I empathised with him because I knew the pain of sacrifice, service, abandonment, rejection and betrayal.
I joined the US Military at seventeen to prove my allegiance to the ideals that made America great in my mind, but war in a foreign land far away from the ones I loved taught me the truth about service and the value of my life.
My brother and I grew up five years apart in a changing post-civil rights America. We were kids of the Kool-Aid generation, the first of our kind. We had opportunities our parents could only have dreamt of. We were the hope of a brighter future, a brighter America. A post-civil rights America.
In the 1960s, the far right party was a party bent on preserving the privileges of natural-born Whites in America, Jim Crow’s America. However, during the 1960s a new consciousness emerged as young White Americans took to the streets to say that they had seen the attack dogs set on peaceful protesters and wanted a better America. In January 1961, a young President-elect of Irish descent and a wealthy practicing Catholic would become the embodiment of the American dream and challenge the good American Christians to look into their hearts and minds and begin anew to create a better nation where the rights of every American, White and non-White, were protected under the laws of the land.
With a rousing inauguration day speech, JFK inspired Americans to think better of themselves, to think higher of themselves: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but ask what you can do for your country.” He had spoken and the people spoke back. My parents gave me his middle name because they believed life for Blacks in America would be different.
But, in November of 1963, the 46-year-old president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy, was gunned down by a lone gunmen while out in Texas promoting his ideas of equality to the American people.
This is America
My brother was crying because it was hard for him to accept people could be so calculating and one so naive. He, like so many others, wanted badly to believe in a land blessed by God.
I was twelve years old when my big brother left home. He moved up north straight out of high school, where he built a career and retired as a professional chef. He found love, family and set up a home up north. But in the Trump years, the scales fell from his eyes.
“I never had a racist moment down south, not like the kind of racist moments these guys tell me they’ve encountered here in Philly. I mean I just never believed White people hated us that much.”
I knew the anguish, the shock. We Blacks down south don’t complain, we see but at the same time we’ve learnt not to see.
My grandma in the village used to say, “You can’t feed into the darkness. You can’t demand anyone to know what you know, to understand what you understand. People see what they want to see. People come to truth when they come to it and not a second before.”
But what you don’t do is stop living.
Gold and Gemstone Policy in Kenya: The Devil Is in the Detail
Small-scale artisanal gold and gemstone mining is decades-old but lack of knowledge and expertise, and limited support from the government have hampered the sector’s development.
The evergreen town of Kakamega is a picture of the hustle and bustle typical of any Kenyan town, with many hundreds of folks going about their daily business. But as you leave the town behind, the environment changes, a lush countryside of cultivated fields and densely planted trees giving no hint of the gold mining taking place in the nearby locality of Ikolomani.
Across the country, 432 miles to the southeast of Kakamega is the beautiful transit town of Voi, the largest town in Taita Taveta County which lies at the foothills of the Sagalla massif. But the much smaller town of Mwatate is the county capital, and the source of gemstones that Kenyans from other parts of the country know little about. Mwatate has rubies, red garnet, emeralds, moonstones, tsavorite, okenorite, and many more.
Small-scale artisanal gold and gemstone mining has been going on for decades in both Kakamega and Taita Taveta counties, undertaken mainly by local artisanal miners and by a few non-locals and foreign nationals.
The Mining Act 2016 recognises three levels of mining rights: artisanal mining permits, small-scale mining permits and large-scale mining licences. The small-scale permits and large-scale mining licences are issued at the national level through the Kenya Mineral Rights Board (MRB), while the artisanal mining permits are issued through the county artisanal mining committees. The Mineral Rights Board and the county Artisanal Mining Committees are administratively governed by the State Department of Mining under the Ministry of Petroleum and Mining. The Director of Mines and his representatives in the various counties are in charge of overseeing the implementation of the ministry’s policy frameworks. The Ministry of Petroleum and Mining has key mining regulations in place to govern this process.
But even though the Mineral Rights Board is in place, the process of setting up the county Artisanal Mining Committees (AMCs) has been long drawn out and there seems to be no hurry to implement the mining regulations that were commissioned in 2017. Kakamega County’s AMC was gazetted on 27 March 2020 and the team commissioned on 20 July 2020. However, the AMC has yet to begin its work as the key governmental mechanisms necessary to run the committee are still pending and so no mining permits have been issued to artisanal miners in Kakamega County since the gazettement.
Artisanal miners in Taita Taveta County are in a different situation altogether. The list of members of the county AMC constituted through their appointing authorities has been forwarded to the Ministry of Petroleum and Mining but the AMC has yet to be gazetted. When contacted on this issue, one of the reasons cited by the ministry officials was that factions within the mining fraternity have disputed the list of people proposed to be part of the AMC.
Applications for small-scale mining permits are submitted to the Mineral Rights Board through the Mining Cadastre Portal. The platform is meant to bring these services close to the miners but they complain of the slow response from the Ministry of Mining. They must travel to the ministry to submit the paperwork even after uploading it onto the portal. Access to a stable internet connection is also a challenge in the remote areas of Taita Taveta and Kakamega while some of the small-scale miners lack the capacity to use the online system. Most have to travel to the Ministry’s offices for assistance or else hire someone with the skills to undertake the work for them, rendering the application process both tedious and time-consuming.
The ministry has not undertaken any capacity building and shows a lack of commitment to make the system more efficient and user-friendly. The biggest hindrance, however, is the low budgetary allocation made to the Ministry of Mining, which leaves the staff with limited options in their efforts to serve small-scale miners.
The stated goal of the Mining Cadastre Portal is “to provide an electronic platform for all stakeholders in the mining sector in Kenya to engage directly with the Ministry of Mining.” Existing mineral rights holders (those with mining permits and licenses for mining) or those with pending applications can download, complete and upload the requisite documents. Prospective mineral rights holders can also submit their particulars and other supporting documents through the portal.
The portal is also a one-stop shop for information on mining activities in Kenya. It has a cadastre map of the key areas with mineral resources, as well as details of licence holders, and on-going applications; a click on any part of the map automatically displays the existing information about that specific geographical location.
For artisanal and small-scale miners (ASMs) in Kakamega and Taita Taveta, the portal has had a significant impact on access to public information on mining in Kenya. But the portal also has its limitations. Mining is a highly skilled sector that requires high levels of expert knowledge. Some of the requirements on the portal are beyond the scope of knowledge of most gold and gemstone miners in Kakamega and Taita Taveta. For instance, the portal requires a miner to take the coordinates of the area for which they are applying for a permit. This requires equipment that is typically used by geologists and land surveyors and that is expensive to hire or purchase. A sketch of the area or locality where the miner intends to undertake extraction is another requirement, a very sophisticated process that miners in general cannot undertake on their own.
Lack of knowledge and expertise coupled with lack of access to the internet, or even computers, therefore leaves the small-scale gold and gemstone miners unable to fully exploit the portal.
Aside from these limitations, however, the Kenya Mining Cadastre Portal has been a game changer when it comes to eliminating brokers from the mining sector and it has proven to be a more efficient system than the manual issuing of permits and licences
For instance, unlike the manual system that had no clear guidelines regarding payments, all fees due to the ministry are clearly indicated on the portal and paid directly to the ministry through a cashless system. Moreover, as the portal has centralised all the country’s mining information, cases of loss or manipulation of files or documents have reduced significantly.
The gold and gemstones that are mined in Kakamega and Taita Taveta are exported out of the country with or without any value addition under the provisions of the Mining Act of 2016 which require an export permit from the Cabinet Secretary the application for which is made on the Mining Cadastre Portal.
But while the law on the issuance of mineral export permits is sufficiently detailed, its implementation is the biggest challenge and I have no doubt at all that gold and gemstones are imported into and exported out of Kenya without any form of declaration. There are many routes along the porous Kenyan boarders through which the minerals can slip in or out of the country.
For instance, most of the gold that is mined in Kakamega is taken to Uganda by road undeclared. How can this be remedied, especially for gold and gemstone miners who want to run a clean business? Also, the process of implementing the gold refinery centre in Kakamega and the gemstone value addition centre in Voi remains pending. If the sector is streamlined, then the issue of traceability of gold and gemstones will be resolved and the mineral export licence will be of value to the artisanal and small-scale miners in the sector.
The article is done with support from Diakonia Kenya Country Office under the Madini Yetu Wajibu Wetu (Our Minerals, Our Responsibility) Project. Views expressed in the article are those of the author.
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