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Reflections

Government Money, Artistic Freedom and Integrity in the Time of Coronavirus

6 min read.

The stimulus package targeting artists recently announced by the government is clearly driven by a Machiavellian policy rather than humanitarian considerations. The government’s intention is not to cushion the artists financially but to stifle critical narratives while using their talents to trumpet the directives of the ministry of health in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Government Money, Artistic Freedom and Integrity in the Time of Coronavirus
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The government’s ban on public events following confirmation of the first COVID-19 case in Kenya more than two months ago has put a strain on artists’ livelihoods. Visual and performing artists are struggling to earn a living. Kenya’s art scene has taken a hit with emerging artists suffering more than established performance artists, some of who have had the wherewithal to give live shows online.

In response to the economic crisis that has hit the creative industry, the Cabinet Secretary for Sports, Culture and Heritage, Amina Mohammed, released a stimulus package for artists following a presidential directive issued in early April to allocate KSh100 million from the Sports Fund to artists, actors and musicians during the period of the COVID-19 pandemic. From the President’s carefully worded speech, it was not clear whether the main intention of the allocation was to cushion the artists against the economic impact of the government restrictions or to make use of the artists’ talents in shaping its messages about the pandemic; in his speech, the President alluded to both intentions. Subsequent statements and press releases from the Cabinet Secretary and relevant dockets under the Ministry of Sports, Culture and Heritage revealed that artists would have to earn the right to the stimulus package and that it would not be a gravy train for “freeloaders”.

But who exactly could be viewed as a freeloader in these hard times when performing artists’ revenues have diminished as a result of the ban on public events since the social restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 were put in place in April? Many Kenyan musicians were already struggling financially before the COVID-19 outbreak and with the government-imposed restrictions you can imagine what such artists have had to go through over the past three months. With bills to pay and barely any revenue coming in but a meager trickle of royalties whose amounts have been questioned, most Kenyan musicians are stretched to the limit.

As a recording and performing artist, I cannot recall a day when my landlord gave me a rent waiver or a free meal at any of the recently reopened restaurants merely because I might have released a great song. Not that I am entitled to such privileges; the point I’m trying to make is that the payment of bills is never in kind and this begs the question how and where a musician can now earn their keep after more than two months out in the cold. In my case, class privilege clearly supports my art. Also, I have a couple of side-hustles – my writing and the social science research gigs that I do. And when all else fails, I can fall back on a support system of family and friends, most of whom also come from a relatively privileged background.

My side-hustles and support system are a clear case of class at work; the university degrees I have, the friends I made in those universities or in other spaces that were accessible to me because of my networks are also a product of my class. This standing places me in a more favourable position than many other artists and yet living off my art is something that I still struggle to achieve. But what of those who may not enjoy the class privilege that I do? Where will they get the money to give them the much-needed stability – food and shelter – to be in a position to write and record the music that could give them access to the stimulus package?

Much as the offer by the Permanent Presidential Music Commission to give free studio time to artists is laudable, their survival in this period is a more pressing concern especially now that some not only have to put food on the table for themselves and their families but as tenants, may also have to contend with pressure from their landlords.

But if we are to overlook the artists’ plight and argue that the government can only meet the artists halfway, one can only imagine the desperation that could push a musician to make music merely in order to receive the financial support. In addition to the time and energy expended to make a song, a more insidious cost would have to be incurred by the artist in order to be considered for the so-called stimulus package – their artistic integrity, independence and imagination.

Granted, it would be somewhat crass and borderline tone-deaf for an artist to produce content that does not speak to the challenge of the season – the COVID-19 pandemic. That would be the use of artistic freedom as an end in and of itself, art for art’s sake, a concept I find selfishly liberal as it ignores the obligations that an artist has toward society, particularly at a time when our society’s well-being is not only threatened by the pandemic but also by the government’s response to the pandemic. What should be challenged, however, is the interest of the Sports, Culture and Heritage ministry, representing the government, in providing a questionable content-template to serve as a guide for the issues that artists should speak to in order for them to be eligible for government patronage. The artists’ creations will further have to be subjected to a vetting process by a panel of government appointees.

The tenor of the Sports Ministry’s press release calling for works of art as well as the Cabinet Secretary’s words in an interview with a local Television Station indicated that, in making their music, musicians are to convey messages of hope and, more significantly, trumpet the directives of the ministry of health in response to the pandemic. But what of the other issues that are germane to the pandemic and that deserve the public’s attention? Will the ministry compensate artists who compose songs about the inhumanity of the police-supervised demolitions of the homes of Kariobangi North residents that were carried out in defiance of a court order in the middle of the longs rains and during a pandemic? What of the Ruai demolitions undertaken in the thick of night by the same government or the killings of citizens during the enforcement of the curfew imposed to curb the spread of the coronavirus? How about the loans taken out by the government which Kenyans will eventually have to pay? Will it provide financial relief for artists whose works would portray the inhumane conditions some households have had to endure during this period due to the inequality caused by historical injustices of which the president’s family is a beneficiary?

Are songs of hope and ministerial directives the only way to move a society forward in times of crisis? What of blunt, sobering truths? When the Cabinet Secretary calls on artists to make songs that convey messages of hope, messages that would increase the artists’ chances of securing financial support from the government, it is implied that the songs will be silent on those messages that do not inspire hope. It is implicit, from the words of the Cabinet Secretary, that these silences are necessary in securing the promise of a better tomorrow for Kenyans. But what do we know of silences? Ernest Patrick Monte’s 2017 article “Romancing the nation, effacing history: reading Kenya through patriotic choral music”, says:

Patriotic choral music can therefore be read not only reflecting the culture of sycophancy but also contributing towards it. Consequently, not only what songs say, but what they leave out – the very silences in the songs – frame the music to serve purposes of propaganda.

The stimulus package is clearly driven by a Machiavellian policy rather than humanitarian considerations. The government would rather have artists vomit sunshine than share harsh, inconvenient truths about some of its excesses during this period. The government’s intention is not to cushion the artists but to stifle critical narratives while using their talents to drive the government narrative. The government’s use of state resources to bolster its message presents many desperate artists with a Hobson’s choice – either produce music that toes the government line or forgo the government’s largesse. Given the desperation of many of our artists, the former will be a more appealing alternative – a compromise that even politically progressive artists may have to make to put food on the table and maintain a roof over their heads.

In Kimeru, we say Nkea iti maruru ii metho aki ituniakaia, a poor person has no pain, they can only strain their eyes. Artists will have to accept the “deal” in spite of themselves. With their livelihoods threatened in this season of coronavirus, many artists are likely to jump at the “opportunity” that the government has provided, an opportunity that will not only come at a cost to them but also at a cost to the public. The public’s attention will have been diverted from such harsh realities as police brutality and demolitions but which at some point it will still have to reckon with because they will continue to occur.

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Mwongela Kamencu is a historian, performing and recording artist based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Reflections

Confronting Racism in the Shackles of a Miseducation

I cannot claim to have been a victim of the odious, brutal racism of the kind daily suffered by – predominantly – African American men in the United States. The racism I encountered during my time abroad was of the insidious kind, the kind that lets you in through the door and feigns to accept you as an equal while reminding you that “the hand that receives is always beneath the hand that gives.”

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Confronting Racism in the Shackles of a Miseducation
Photo: Unsplash/Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona
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Paysage avec homme nu dans la neige.

That was the title of the book and the subject of the exam.

Landscape with a naked man in the snow.

I cannot now remember the title of the course but I have kept the book and clearly remember the lecturer who taught it; a small, pasty-faced man with a balding pate and shifty black eyes. There we were, in his office on the second floor of the Faculty of Letters, Monsieur le Professeur behind his desk and me on the opposite side facing him, nervously ready to sit this oral exam. It started off well enough, my confidence growing as I responded to the lecturer’s questions.

Then out of nowhere, like a violent slap across the face, his beady eyes boring into mine, came this: “Tell me Mademoiselle, naked white men fascinate you, don’t they? Do you like the title of the book? What does it make you think of? You black people are really fascinated by us whites, aren’t you?” I sat there utterly gobsmacked, unable to conjure up any sort of response, in outrage or even in pretense at a smart literary comeback. Then Monsieur le Professeur seemed to snap out of it, dismissing me with a peremptory Vous pouvez disposer!

I left his office and stopped to stare out through the large bay windows that overlooked the square below, too stunned to immediately leave the building and join the throngs of students lazing about in the summer sunshine. I felt sad, mad, sullied, impotent. I knew I could lodge a complaint but how would I frame it? With what words? There had only been the two of us in that office so it would be his word against mine. Also, I was the only black female student in my faculty that year so I had no one to compare notes with. And besides, I knew I had passed the exam; otherwise, as was the custom, Monsieur le Professeur would have informed me that I would be taking a re-sit come September. Why then would I start a fight I wasn’t sure I could win?

Yet now I believe that this acquiescence, this doubting of self, this not fighting back, had been inculcated in me, and that I had internalised it well. I remember being in secondary school and the Mother Superior informing us that Africans were required to attend national celebrations at Uhuru Park. Africans. Not the Asians or the Europeans that were in class with me, many of whom were, at least from a citizenship point of view, as Kenyan as I am. Africans. Black. Everyone else stayed behind as we Black Africans made our way to Uhuru Park that day. We did not complain. I did not complain.

An Irish nun given to long digressions into her distant childhood in County Cork taught us African history. Apartheid and Bantustans came up, a map showing the various desolate locations to which black South Africans had been relegated pinned to the classroom wall. Yet I do not remember any sense of outrage on the part of the teacher. Or on the part of us students. Kenya’s colonial history, with its native reserves, its racism and its violence, was certainly not taught. It was a time to forgive but never forget, we were constantly reminded, the not forgetting bit invoked as an after-thought, sotto voce.

And nor was Kenya’s painful history invoked at home; we were not a political family by any measure. The parents worked and the children went to school and did what was expected of them. Only much later did it occur to me to wonder what it might mean for my family that my grandfather had been a chief in colonial times.

We learned to recite Shakespeare, and became intimate with the Mayor of Casterbridge; the English classics held no secrets for us. I fell in love with the language of love, taught to me by one Mrs Kiprono (why on earth would anyone study Swahili?) and flew off to take a degree in Romance Languages the minute I could. And thus did I come face to face with my miseducation.

I had been on campus a year, struggling to dominate the language of Molière, when the time came to renew my student residency permit, having done well enough to progress to second year. Of I went to the immigration desk of our local authority one October morning, joining a line of foreigners there for the same reason when, suddenly, up at the top of the queue, a young black man lost it. “What?! I am exploiting the Belgian taxpayer?! Do you know how long we Congolese suffered under your rule? Do you know that we built this country? Do you know what King Leopold did to us? Do you? Well, if you think I’m profiting from you I haven’t even started yet Madame! I have come to repatriate what you took from me!”. Apparently, the prim madam attending to the queue had questioned his motivation to remain in Belgium since he had failed his year but the young Congolese man was having none of it; he threw a monumental, show-stopping fit and got his residency renewed there and then. I had never witnessed anything of the sort before. I realised there was another whole history out there I knew nothing about.

That young man made me feel emboldened and when, some time later, a couple of cops jumped dramatically out of their patrol car in that neighbourhood of Brussels known as Matongé—on account of its numerous Congolese businesses—and barked, “papiers!”, at Jean and I, clearly hoping that we were undocumented illegals, we laughed in their faces as we handed over our student IDs. A young female lecturer of African descent recently arrived at the department of history had me transfixed when she took on a white professor at an international students event. In his cravat, floppy hat and carefully cultivated air of the worldly dandy, the prof had been waxing lyrical about his time at the Université Lovanium in Congo-Kinshasa, practically working himself into a state of ecstasy at the recall of the beauty of Congolese women dancers during faculty parties. Her “je danse, donc je suis?”, I dance, therefore I am?, abruptly put paid to that self-indulgent, paternalistic, walk down memory lane.

The scales had fallen from my eyes and I had come to the painful realisation that I had been lied to and that things were not as they seemed. I started reading properly, discovering the works of Cheikh Anta Diop and promoting them with the zeal of a recent convert, once eliciting the comment of a white friend that he would henceforth have to regard me in a totally different light, now that he was having to contemplate the notion that Africans had entire civilisations behind them. I was astounded.

A first full-time job after graduation brought me into the world of trade unions, a world where I expected that the rallying call—“Workers of the world, unite!”—excluded racists from the ranks of its diverse membership. That is until I found myself sitting between two Italian delegates to whom I was providing consecutive interpretation when a white speaker, referring to Namibians, ejaculated: “But these people are animals! You can’t do anything with them!”. (The man had a contract to undertake trade union education among the said “animals”.) I could not translate that statement, did not know what to do with it even as the two Italians kept asking me, “What did he say? What did he say?”. The meeting broke up in pandemonium.

I moved jobs a while later and found myself working under a Belgian director who liked to advance his reputation as a friend of Africa and Africans, holding court in his office through the doors of which hopeful African immigrés would flow, many met in the African nightclubs Monsieur le Directeur liked to frequent. Which did not dissuade him from treating very ill a young man to whom he had offered a job as his PR man, holding him by the contractual balls and giving them a squeeze every so often, just because he could. That young man eventually lost his job. And his mind. He was Congolese.

I cannot claim to have been a victim of the odious, brutal racism of the kind daily suffered by – predominantly – African American men in the United States. The racism I encountered during my time abroad was of the insidious kind, the kind that lets you in through the door and feigns to accept you as an equal while reminding you that “the hand that receives is always beneath the hand that gives”, as one senior manager, a Frenchman, put it to staff to justify why African beneficiaries of international development cooperation largesse needn’t expect to have their views taken into serious consideration in the execution of a project.

In the meantime, other books were published. Like King Leopold’s Ghost, a quick primer on the brutality of the agents of King Leopold II in the Congo Free State. My heart went out to the Congolese after that one. Or the horrifyingly detailed Britain’s Gulag, which at first I was unable to read to the end; the torture casually perpetrated in the Kenyan concentration camps by the colonists and their local collaborators was beyond anything I could bear to know. It took ten years for me to go back to that book, and to start asking questions about that time. I was shocked to learn from an aunt now in her early 70s that she knew of women who never did get married, could find no one to marry them, because they were daughters of known Ngati, the Kikuyu Home Guards that did the colonial government’s dirty work.

There was still the question of my grandfather who had been a chief in those times. I loved and revered that man, and did not want to have to contemplate that he might have been a party to the suffering visited upon Kenyans by the colonial government and its craven collaborators. And so I did not probe. Then, quite by chance, I fell upon The Swords of Kĩrĩnyaga: the fight for land and freedom, a book written by H.K. Wachanga, a former freedom fighter and, in those pages, I learnt something about my grandfather that freed me from the fear that my family had been on the wrong side of Kenya’s history.

[W]e met the Muhĩto Location Chief, Jeremiah Kĩnyua s/o Kĩru. He was a most unusual chief, because he had taken the second Mau Mau oath. He warned us that the government was searching for Kĩmathi, Mathenge and myself. He said Kimathĩ and Mathenge were to be tried for murder and that I was to be detained. He implored me to escape to Nairobi and hide there.

I learnt very recently from a contemporary of my grandfather’s that his chieftaincy was short-lived. Jeremiah Kĩnyua son of Kiru would not commit exactions against his people, and eschewed violence and corruption. And so he was quietly removed, never again to hold public office, living a dignified life and dying an honourable death four years shy of his 100th birthday.

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Reflections

Covid Organics: Towards an African Renaissance

Following the outbreak of a pandemic in the city of Wuhan during a Chinese winter that will forever remain etched in the annals of history, Madagascar has been dramatically thrust to the fore on the international stage with its announcement of the development of a herbal remedy for COVID-19.

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Covid Organics: Towards an African Renaissance
Photo: Gov. of Madagascar
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Unlike other former French colonies in Africa such as Benin, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Senegal and Mali that have been acclaimed for placing the continent on the world map musically, Madagascar is not known for its musical prowess. The country pales in comparison to Cape Verde, that tiny island in the Atlantic Ocean that produced the gifted voice of Cesária Évora, and gave birth to Amilcar Cabral, the anti-colonial revolutionary and theoretician. But with the outbreak of a pandemic in the city of Wuhan during a Chinese winter that will forever remain etched in the annals of history, Madagascar has been dramatically thrust to the fore on the international stage.

Madagascar caught the world’s attention in April 2020 after announcing that it had made an extraordinary breakthrough in the field of (indigenous African) medicine. The Madagascar Institute of Applied Research (IMRA), which describes itself as “dedicated to biodiversity conservation and the discovery of drugs from natural products”, announced the development of Covid Organics (CVO) from the artemisia plant. Promoted as an herbal remedy that prevents and cures those who have tested positive for COVID-19, the drug has caused a sensation in a continent that has been marginalised by an international scientific community that views Africa as a spectator rather than as a player. But let me put a few things into perspective.

Long before CVO, the island nation’s flourishing plant life had been used for medicinal purposes, a tradition dating back to its pre-colonial days. The colonial epoch, however, disrupted this practice in order to introduce conventional medicine just like in other colonised African countries. In Madagascar, the practice was revived through the establishment of IMRA and deliberate emphasis was placed on the “value of plants in healing”, confirmed by the scientific tradition of investigating their chemical compounds to improve their efficacy. Remarkably, this revival began in the late 1950s when most African countries were on the cusp of independence and self-rule, with Ghana taking the lead (in 1957), and Madagascar and others following from 1960 onwards.

Political independence and self-rule coincided with the need to reclaim old practices and traditions that had been suppressed in the colonial era. The COVID-19 herbal remedy which continues to elicit excitement is, therefore, part of a long and rich African tradition that has resisted erasure.

Covid Organics comes against the backdrop of other encouraging and bold African interventions to combat various diseases that have plagued the world in recent decades. Before COVID-19, another viral disease stalked parts of West and Central Africa, resulting in more than 10,000 deaths. First reported in the DRC and in present-day South Sudan in 1976, the fight against Ebola has over the decades underscored the importance of the active involvement of local populations in deploying indigenous knowledge and remedies. Not many Africans are aware of the indescribable bravery of Sheik Umar Khan, a Sierra Leonean virologist who helped scores of Ebola patients before succumbing to the virus. Very few have heard of Dr Matthew Lukwiya, a Ugandan doctor who generated a substantial body of knowledge in the fight against Ebola before falling victim to the disease.

These few examples arguably contest the pervasive idea that conventional medicine and, to a large extent, western intervention are the only antidotes to African problems. The paradox in all this is the economic impoverishment of Madagascar, Sierra Leone and Uganda where a majority of citizens still live below the poverty line as compared to, say, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Egypt. There are, of course, other factors that explain the economic differences, but the most important point here is that innovation tends to occur where the need is greatest.

No one epitomises this innovative spirit more than IMRA founder, Prof Albert Rakoto, whose earlier studies on the artemisia plant have contributed immensely to the development of Covid Organics. (The research on Covid Organics has been falsely credited to Jérôme Munyangi, a Congolese researcher.) Rakoto’s insistence on blending indigenous and conventional medicine is vital because it is likely to solve two problems with a single solution, retaining traditional medicine practices that are readily available within most African communities while adapting modern scientific trends to improve the effectiveness of plants such as artemisia in order to complement the strained healthcare infrastructure.

It is safe to say that so far Madagascar is reaping the benefits of its discovery if the coronavirus figures in the island nation are anything to go by. At the time of writing this article, the country had recorded 1,724 confirmed positive cases with only 15 deaths, and 732 recovered and discharged. The figures nearly mirror those of other former French colonies like Guinea Bissau and Equatorial Guinea which have reported under 20 deaths each so far, and are also the beneficiaries of the Covid Organics. Therefore, as the global pandemic continues to evolve, it will become increasingly foolhardy for the international scientific community to ignore this very interesting trend.

Recently, there have been thinly veiled attempts—mainly by western mainstream media outlets—to cast aspersions on the drug. Reuters described the herbal remedy as a “cure” , the quotation marks serving to cast doubts on the claims made by Madagascar about Covid Organics, while FRANCE24 brazenly and without batting an eyelid went ahead to call it “The president’s controversial ‘miracle cure’” in one of their news stories. Some of these problematic media framings go beyond the often false premise that nothing good can come out of Africa. Instead, they are part of a deliberate, but subtle ideological battle that persistently discredits anything African that might be of benefit to the world.

The use of the word “miracle” by FRANCE24 captures this vividly because it implies superstition – some irrational belief in the healing powers of the drug – instead of the deployment of homegrown science and logic in responding to a virus that has ravaged western countries more than any other part of the world. Some Africans have joined the fray in ridiculing the wonder drug, provoking a déjà vu moment reminiscent of Ocol’s infamous lamentations to Lawino:

We will round up
All these priests
[…] And herbalists,
[…] Dealers in poisons
Extracted from plants

The leading proponent of the drug is Andry Rajoelina, the wiry-looking Malagasy president with his signature toothy smile. Before he ascended to power, the 46-year old was an event organiser. He has progressively become the poster boy for the drug, and more importantly, for the shaping and reimagining the course of the African Renaissance. Through various interviews granted to media platforms, Rajoelina continues to insist that nothing will stop the continent from devising homegrown solutions to respond to local and even global problems. His memorable rallying cry was expressed during a television session with FRANCE24 when he asked: “What if this remedy had been discovered by a European country, instead of Madagascar? Would people doubt it so much?”

Rajoelina is not the first African to challenge the institutionalised racism that has plagued people of colour the world over since the advent of European imperialism. Pioneer pan-African thinkers and philosophers like Marcus Garvey, W.E.B Dubois, Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon dedicated their lives to fighting racism in a world that had been designed to minimise the contributions of non-white peoples. Accordingly, how did one reconcile with the nightmare that Dubois called “double consciousness”? The “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” that currently informs the discourse on Covid Organics? Lately, Julius Malema, who leads South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, has been at the forefront in challenging and questioning inherited ideas of self-doubt and inferiority complex that Rajoelina also now contends with. Malema, like Rajoelina today, has been a fierce proponent of Africa and has even called for the dismantling of colonial borders that prevent ease of movement and trade among Africans.

Despite not being geographically located on the African continent, Madagascar identifies as African, not just because of its significant Bantu population, but because of a growing continental pride, especially among the younger generation. In the last few years, the rise and rise of African music like afrobeats (West Africa), kizomba music (in lusophone countries), rumba (in Central Africa), bongo (in Tanzania) and gqom and amapiano (in South Africa) has galvanized young Africans to new forms of negotiating and asserting their racial and geographical identities within a globalised world.

Madagascar’s development of a herbal remedy for COVID-19 has become an extension of this ongoing negotiation with identity that constantly invokes the slogans Africa Unite and I am proud to be African. Therefore, its location several kilometres further into the Indian Ocean has not dissuaded the Malagasy people from identifying with the pan-African goal of a strong, unified continent ready to determine her own destiny.

There are, of course, those who may voice criticism that Rajoelina’s COVID-19 remedy is not enough to catalyse the important conversation of the African Renaissance, and that it is a passing fad that will soon be forgotten as long as COVID-19 continues to mutate. While this argument is valid, the critics fail to acknowledge that indigenous strategies of confronting diseases, particularly those that are viral, including HIV/AIDS, remain instrumental in instilling optimism and hope in a continent that has been battered by persistent narratives of despair and Afro-pessimism. Madagascar essentially provides the continent with a new incentive to sustain, for example, the debate around patents and intellectual property rights that have received scant attention from African governments. The island nation further acts as a symbolic incubation centre for creative, radical and innovative ideas that are not afraid to confront mainstream thinking (on matters medicine) in the 21st century.

Madagascar’s story has just begun and it will continue to follow the same trajectory as long as the beneficiaries of the herbal remedy recover from COVID-19. Western media stations will have to rethink their reporting on African issues because the old ways will no longer work. African sounds, not just music in the sonic sense, but the capacity to speak and be heard will increasingly become the norm rather than the exception. A deepening African consciousness, that in the past was considered an anathema, will progressively influence new ways of engagement between fellow Africans within and outside the continent and between Africans and non-Africans. It is highly probable that the engagement—time is on Africa’s side (considering the youthful population)—will always be of equals and not that of a master and subordinate. With Rajoelina and Malema and Bobi Wine and many countless others accelerating these pan-African conversations through music, art, speeches, and most importantly, home-grown science, Africa’s voice is set to soar.

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Reflections

This Place I Cannot Call Home

There is adrenaline rushing through my veins. Too much cortisol is pouring into my system. Every time I hear a police car. To one group, the sound of a police siren is comforting. A sense of guaranteed protection of life and property. For others, it portends death.

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This Place I Cannot Call Home
Photo: Unsplash/Mattia Faloretti
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In Memory of The Charleston Nine.

Tomorrow the sun will rise at nine,
And nine thin blades of grass will sprout straight,
Each single blade,
Tall and erect, green heads, sharp edges held straight,
Listening to the crickets at dawn,
Cracking their wings nine times,
Salute!
Tomorrow at nine,
When the sun is warm and the earth is happy,
Standing at the cliffs of Charles-Stone,
With the winds at their command,
Beautiful butterflies,
Ready!
But wait,
What if each bullet had a name?
What if you could call each bullet back?
Soon, when it leaves the barrel,
Silence it,
From cracking the air with the sounds of broken bones,
Of hate,
Of men, silent forever,
And each bullet was put to bed, to sleep,
Would that bring back life?
Nine times?

My father.

I came to this land in September of 2014. Just when Ferguson, Missouri was happening. I watched most of the rioting on television. I was not very disturbed that Michael Brown Jr. had been shot dead. I was stressed that Darren Wilson had fired at Brown twelve times. And hit him six times. I have watched people hunt lions in Africa. And warthogs. And other wild animals. There is hardly enough time to fire twelve times at a charging buffalo. Let alone an unarmed human. I was shocked at the hate and fear that would push a man, a police officer, to execute a fellow unarmed man in this heinous fashion. It all looked like a bad hunting trip. Something out of a horror movie.

I settled in front of the television. The communal loss and mourning flowed from the television, in clear crystal images. Into my veins. I watched it on repeat. Seeking meaning for it all. One of the people visiting my house wondered out loud what was wrong with these people. Why were they burning and looting? And fighting the police? She had made no comment about Brown’s death before this. She was only concerned about the loss of property.

It occurred to me right there and then that I was alone. Like many black people who go to parties with their white friends. And only learn they are alone when the police appear. Or when they get pulled over. And their skin colour suddenly makes them fair game. To be prodded. Inspected. Violated. Knelt on. The people who were bearing the pain of this murder, and the travesty of justice that would follow, were not dining with me at the same table, or dancing with me in the hipster bars that I go to. No. They were the ones out there in the streets. They were the prey. I was learning quickly. That not even a law education from Harvard can save you from the hunters of black bodies in this land.

My father.

I am folding into myself. Like a flower that has sensed a warning in the environment. A change in temperature. The coming of a storm. Of death. I am folding into myself to protect my seed. And the future generation. America has been good to me. Yet I am hesitant to freely enjoy its fullness. There is a tightness in my chest. There is adrenaline rushing through my veins. Too much cortisol is pouring into my system. Every time I hear a police car. To one group, the sound of a police siren is comforting. A sense of guaranteed protection of life and property. For others, it portends death.

Let me tell you a story. One day I was visiting a friend of mine. In front of his house, I met this man who looked like me. He was black. Of medium height. No visible body markings. He fit the description. Like in the emails I get at work. There has been a case of suspected robbery. The suspect is a black male. Of medium height. If you see a person of that description, please call 911. That is me. I fit the description.

This man approached me with measured caution. He called me brother. I came into town today, he said. I came to look for my cousin who cuts hair around the corner. I have learned that he left town. I am asking you for ten dollars to buy dinner. As I figure my way around. I did not feel threatened in anyway. He looked like me. Black man. Of medium height. I shook his hand. I gave him a twenty. And wished him well.

I stepped into my friend’s house. Before us was expensive whisky. And overpriced education. And imagined success. And sports. I told them about the man I had just encountered. The white men were unanimous that I should have called the cops on the guy. Let the police deal with it. They wanted the police to get on with their duty to the society—to remove the bad guys from our neighbourhoods. Men like the one who stole ten minutes from me. They were not welcome to wander around these neighbourhoods. This man I had encountered fit the description. I suddenly feared for him. Wondering where his night would end.

My father.

I am more aware of my surroundings. You are wondering how this feels? How freedom and equality feel in the land of the free? Sit down. Let me tell you. You remember what grandfather would say? That when the hairs on your neck stand stiff, when you step out at night. It is because there is a leopard watching you. Run back inside. Yell for help. Every able-bodied man must then get their spears. Leave the warmth of their wives. To hunt the leopard. Kill it. And its spirits. Before it kills a child. For nothing tastes as good as freedom. There is no gift more precious than freedom that a man can give to his son and daughter. Not here. My father. The freedom is only guaranteed to the offspring of certain peoples. The others can’t breathe. These people have found a way to extend the fear of the slave master, legally, into the heart of the black community. The police are their vehicle of delivery. The justice system reinforces it. In this way, the law has been used to bend the black man into shapes that work for America. Society is happy to spend funds on heavily policing the poor rather than on initiatives aimed at reaching out and integrating the black communities. Communities that have raised heroes in sports and the arts and have contributed to American culture. My father. I hope I do not sound regretful. Or Resentful. Or defeated.

My father.

It is June of 2015. It is almost a year since Ferguson, Missouri. It is almost six months since three Muslim students were massacred in a housing complex near my house, over a parking space dispute. On that day, the darkness in this white man’s heart, engulfed the whole community in a black blanket of sorrow and sadness. It would remind this sleepy community that the leopard is out there. Crouching. Ready to pounce from behind historical lines of racial tensions. And eat the minority. I was quickly learning about the fault lines of this country. The volcano beneath the smiling faces. The coded words. “You speak English so well”. “You should thank God you are here”. “It is very hard to be American, be thankful”. “We thank God for you”. “This place can’t be worse than your home”. I was also learning that it is harder to grow up black in Chicago than it is to grow up in Jericho, Nairobi. That America was created along racial lines. And morality also flowed like an electric current, along the boundaries of these lines. That it is so hard for the church to be one. That a compromise had to be reached, where Jesus was sliced in two, along racial lines. The one in black churches was shouted at. Implored. Yelled at. In spirit. Into action. Jesus save our black men, from death, from the police. From gun violence. The one in white churches, was thanked for the good life. For the good neighbourhood. For one country. Under God. For the gift of police. Blue lives matter.

Following the shooting in Charleston, I found myself in a black church, mourning. The preacher was white. I was disappointed because I wanted the rage in the sermon to flow to me through black lips. Black voice. Black anger. The voice that had trembled, while explaining to a police officer, why she was sorry for driving two miles over the speed limit. A voice filled with scorn. Twisted. Yelling. Fuck the system. Broken. By the loss of another brother. The sermon was meek. Organised. I wanted chaos. I wanted to question God. Why. The loss was palpable. I started folding into myself. I cried. I wrote poetry. I had been here hardly a year. And all the safe spaces were crowded with violence.

My father.

There are things we should not tell children. Me, I have started talking to Theo. Explaining to him, that though the police remove the bad guys, like they do in the movies, they also kill a lot of innocent people. Black people. People like me. That is why we have been marching. And that’s why I have not been able to sleep since George Floyd died. And Ahmaud Arbery. I am permanently suspended in this dream where I am riding my bike down a road. And a pick-up truck sneaks up behind me. They yell something. And everything descends into black beautiful petals. I wake up scared. Unable to sleep again. I think I am having nightmares about Ahmaud Arbery. They did not want him jogging in their neighbourhood. So, they chased him down, run him over and shot him in the chest. His running was making them so mad. So hateful. That they chose death, as the rightful punishment for him.

My father.

You know about Floyd. You called me. And talked to me. You don’t know about Breonna Taylor. You didn’t know about Trayvon Martin. You don’t know about this pain. You know about Dr King. You know about Malcolm. You bought his autobiography so that Kevin and I could read it. When we were 14. You don’t know about Emmet Till. How death can come to a black child falsely accused of whistling at a white woman. Who can kill a child for whistling? And walk free. And Philando Castile. And Tamir Rice. And Sandra Bland. And Eric Garner. And Freddie Gray. The list is longer than the length of the Nile. My father. I am folding into myself.

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