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The Construction of Race: Being African American and Teaching the History of George Floyd in Kenya

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Students in Kenya have not been taught about how the social construction of race has affected them. They do not seem to connect the social construction of race to imperialism, colonialism, labour reserves, the colour bar, and passes in settler colonies in Kenya and throughout Africa.

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The Construction of Race: Being African American and Teaching the History of George Floyd in Kenya
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Like everyone else around the globe, I have been watching and reading about the events that unfolded after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota on 25 May 2020. At this point, I thought that everyone from entertainers to athletes, politicians, journalists, and ordinary citizens from all walks of life from London to Lagos, from Paris to Pretoria, had provided their explanation and analyses of the blatant disregard for human life displayed by the former police officer, Dereck Chauvin and his inexperienced and inept colleagues. I asked myself what, if anything, I could add to the discourse. And then it occurred to me that perhaps I had something to add through my national, transnational, Pan-Africanist, political, academic, and social lenses.

There are several things and observations that have prompted me to write this essay. First, I received a very heartfelt and very profound email from a student I taught a couple of semesters ago at the United States International University-Africa. The course was titled Comparative Political Systems and one theme in the course is liberal democracies that are covered in the text in the usual male and Eurocentric manner where the United States is explained within the context of liberal democracy.

The way I teach it is not in line with this inaccurate portrayal of American exceptionalism. I teach it by providing the historical, social, economic, and political struggles that all racial minorities experienced in their efforts to achieve citizenship rights. I start with African Americans. I provide their experiences from 1619-1965. I then cover Native Americans, Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans and Mexican Americans.

Why do I cover only these groups? It is because by the time large numbers of other groups such as the Vietnamese, Indians, Nigerians, Ethiopians, Ghanaians, Cubans, and Hmong (one of the police officers that was with Derek Chauvin during the murder of George Floyd is a member of this community) began to arrive in the country, their civil rights were already recognised in law. On paper at least, they did not have to depend on the kindness of their adversaries to protect their civil rights.

The course covers public policies and not opinions regarding the social construction of race and how it was codified into law. The effects of these policies are still manifested today. A few examples should suffice: the codification of slavery into law beginning in my home state of Virginia in the 1660s, Slave Codes, the Three-Fifths Compromise, the Fugitive Slave Act, the Civil War, the failure of Reconstruction, Black Codes, the founding of the Ku Klux Klan in 1866 and other white domestic terrorist groups, the decision by the highest court in the land in the Plessy vs. Ferguson case (1896), the Red Summer of 1919, the destruction of the Greenwood District that was dubbed the Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma (1921), redlining, restrictive covenants, and the murders of so many including Emmet Till, Medgar Evers, James Chaney, and members of the Black Panther Party such as Mark Clark and Fred Hampton.

My former student said that he was witnessing the social construction of race carried out live in technicolour in his home. He had finally understood what I had taught him in class and the importance of learning the racial politics of the mighty United States of America.

Second, I am currently teaching Introduction to Political Science and the questions and, on the one hand, the issues raised by my students are not surprising. On the other hand, it is incredulous that some of them are not able to connect George Floyd to the murders of Kenyan youth in particular at the hands of security forces and the police in Kenya. Race is not the issue here, but place of residence, ethnicity, and class certainly are, and citizens are profiled and surveilled accordingly.

One student asked why it was that African Americans had not protested earlier. This question was raised despite the fact that I had made available to the class readings, documentaries, and podcasts that explained the Civil Rights Movement, Black Nationalist struggles and groups such as the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) who protested and demonstrated long before the establishment of Black Lives Matter (BLM). Finally, their inability to connect the history, struggles, oppression, and exploitation of Kenyans, Africans, and people of African descent is frustrating and downright sad. Some of it is not their fault.

The teaching and learning of one’s history and culture should start in the home and continue in schools. No African or African-descended person should ever expect that schools and curricula that were not developed for us and by us will truly educate their children. It is not in the interest of the private schools here in Kenya that pride themselves on offering a British or American curriculum. More sad is the fact that Kenyan public schools do not seem to be interested in teaching their students African and Kenyan history either. If this education is not provided by the home/parents, elementary and high schools, what about the few who are enrolled in tertiary schools? One might think that by this time it is too late. It is never too late, but the fact of the matter is, it is not provided at that level either.

I dare say not a whole lot has changed when it comes to browbeating students into believing that everything that is worth having, including education, cannot and must not be African. There is a passage in Toni Morrison’s novel Paradise that refers to Native American girls in a Catholic boarding school in Oklahoma, but she could have very well been writing about Kenya. She provides the reasoning and the importance of the school from the viewpoint of the Catholic nuns who are desperately trying to keep the school open as most of the boarding schools were Protestant. It is worth quoting:

It was an opportunity to intervene at the heart of the problem: to bring God and language to natives who were assumed to have neither; to alter their diets, their clothes, their minds; to help them despise everything that had once made their lives worthwhile and to offer them instead the privilege of knowing the one and only God and a chance, thereby, for redemption.

By teaching the social construction of race, my intention is not to brainwash them into thinking as I think; that would not be a positive outcome. My goal is to alter their minds. That is what happened to the student I mentioned earlier: an alteration of the mind occurred because the mind was opened to receive new facts, analyses, and worldview. He was made to think and question what he thought he knew. That is the role of education and that is our role as professors; to make our students think. I teach the social construction of race in all of my classes from Refugee Studies to Development Issues in Africa, to African International Relations because it is necessary. None of the topics/themes in these classes would make any sense without it.

The University is closed due to COVID-19 but there are various platforms where faculty can post comments, video clips, and so forth. So I was actually surprised by the lack of discussion following the murder of George Floyd although, I will admit, I myself did not comment initially. I am the only member of the historic African Diaspora on the faculty and I did not want to bear the responsibility of speaking and representing more than forty million people in the United States.

However, a recent posting prompted me to weigh in because it shed light on why students asked the questions that they did. Students have not been taught about how the social construction of race has affected them in Kenya. It is as if those things such as the murder of George Floyd and others are an American problem. They do not seem to connect the social construction of race to imperialism, colonialism, labour reserves, the colour bar, and passes in settler colonies in Kenya and throughout Africa. They do not connect the phenomenon of skin bleaching and the blond-dyed hair to the social construction of race. It is our responsibility as professors to deconstruct the social construction of race in our classrooms, in the readings that we assign, in the discussions that we lead and facilitate, and in our teaching.

However, I learned a long time ago that teaching is not value-free. We enter the Academy and the classroom with our worldviews that have been molded by race, class, gender, religion, location, and family background. In addition, professors cannot and will not teach what they do not know. Moreover, they will not teach what they do not value. If we do not know or value our history and struggles, how can we then teach our students about them? Therefore, when a colleague attempted to dismiss the definition of “Negro” as something that is petty and innocuous, it served as a trigger for this essay.

Words and definitions have meanings and when they are superimposed upon any group, we as academics need to deconstruct them and give explanations to our students that provide an intellectual examination of the social construction of race. It is one thing not to know; one can always educate oneself, but it is another thing altogether when one does not see the value in knowing. When this occurs, it is no wonder that we get the questions and observations that we do from our students concerning racial politics in the United States. Students are here to learn; professors should be here to teach them. We must teach our students here in Kenya why this white police officer thought nothing of putting and then holding his knee on the neck of George Floyd for eight minutes and forty-six seconds.

For anyone who watched the infamous video, it is obvious that the officer did it in a gleeful manner; he was posing for the cameras. It was as if he was saying look at me; I have the power to squeeze out this man’s life in broad daylight while being filmed and no one can stop me and I will get away with it with impunity. How do you teach that without deconstructing the social construction of race? This is easy to do when you know the history behind it and, moreover, you value that history. When a student asked if I thought the looting was justified, I could easily answer it because African Americans are sick and tired of being sick and tired. If COVID-19 has not made this crystal clear, I do not know what will.

Finally, I asked my students if they have relatives and friends who have immigrated to the United States and what sectors employed them. Several answered that they have relatives and friends who are in states that have high levels of infections and deaths caused by the virus. I then asked them what sectors employ their friends and relatives. I did not want to assume that I knew the answers but as it turned out, they were the same sectors that employ large numbers of the historic Diaspora: home care, health care, public sector, and retail.

Simply put, the COVID-19 pandemic and the murder of George Floyd have made it even more important to teach the ramifications of the social construction of race in the United States. Students can understand and examine the similar conditions of African-descended people in the United Kingdom, France, Brazil, Germany, Spain, and other countries that are directly connected to the social construction of race.

Third, the memorial service for George Floyd in Minneapolis and his Homegoing service in Houston also prompted me to write this essay. It was the words of the diehard champion of civil rights, Rev. Al Sharpton, at both events that made me think and reflect on deconstructing the social construction of race and teaching it while Black in Kenya. In particular, it was that part of the Homegoing celebration where he spoke about the knee of white America being on African Americans’ necks for centuries.

That knee was there almost from the beginning through the manifestation of the public policies mentioned above: Slave Codes, Black Codes, and Sundown Towns. Because African Americans were socially constructed as the “other” and the “Negro” was defined as basically sub-human, it was believed in all circles of white America that the white knee had to be placed on the necks of Black Americans or else they would return to their original state of barbarism. How else would you explain the hell-bent efforts by whites in the American south in particular, to “keep the Nigger down” following Reconstruction?

Ida Bell Wells wrote about this in her journal following the lynching of her three friends, Thomas Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Henry Stewart, in Memphis. These three men were upstanding members of the city; they practiced the Protestant Work Ethic; they did as Booker T. Washington implored African Americans to do at this time. They cast down their buckets where they were in the south. They embraced the ownership of private property. Then why were they lynched? They did not whistle at a white woman as Emmet Till was accused of doing. They did not rape a white woman or have consensual sex with one. What crime did they commit that resulted in their extrajudicial killing? They opened the People’s Grocery across the street from a white owned grocery store! African Americans began to patronise the People’s Grocery instead of the white-owned one.

The white owner and others treated this as a major affront and insult. Instead of embracing capitalism, competition, and individual merit, they took it upon themselves to go into the store and intimidate the owners and their customers who were mainly Black men who were armed. When the Black men defended themselves by using their weapons, the white man’s knee had to be firmly placed on their necks. They had to be put back in their place or else the social, political, and economic order would crumble. In sum, all three men were lynched. Whether it is the knee, noose, gun, fists, or whatever, Black men (largely) and Black women, have been murdered, lynched, maimed, and brutalised just because of the colour of their skin.

Rev. Al Sharpton delivered another thought-provoking message during his eulogy of George Floyd; that part of the eulogy where he spoke about his last name being the name of the white master who owned his family in South Carolina. The fact that every time he signs that name he is writing not his name but the name of the white master. With as much education as I have, and as much as I thought I was attuned to my oppression and the oppression of Black people in the US, I had never articulated it in that manner.

I take great pride in the names of my ancestors: Johnson, Streets, Jenkins, and Veney. I love to walk around my neighborhood in Nairobi in my Johnson and Veney family reunion t-shirts proudly displaying my history and my ancestors. I am proud of them for it is upon their shoulders that I stand. It is their great sacrifice, hard work, faith, determination, and perseverance that allowed me to obtain a PhD, teach in the Midwest, the East and West Coast of the United States, and now in Nairobi.

I also proudly wear my two t-shirts to display the name of my MA alma mater —Howard University. The University was named after a white Union officer during the Civil War—Oliver Otis Howard. How many others such as Lincoln University (both in Pennsylvania and Missouri), and Spelman College are named after white people? Wilberforce University, the first private HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) was named after William Wilberforce, a staunch abolitionist. Regardless of whether they are family names or university names, they are the names of white people. I am going to have to figure out how to reconcile the two.

I grew up in the belly of colonial America—Westmoreland County, Virginia. Growing up on George Washington’s Birthplace Road, I was literally surrounded by all the symbols of colonial and revolutionary America. Not too far from where I grew up was the birthplace of the confederate general, Robert E. Lee. All of my known ancestors on all sides were born and raised in this county. An open house would be held on George Washington’s birthday and I remember looking forward to and enjoying the apple cider and ginger bread that were given to all of the visitors. I remember field trips to Stratford Hall, the family home of the confederate general.

The social construction of race ran so deeply in my county that African Americans did not get a high school until 1937! They had been in that county from the 1600s; they had made many families which still reside in the county rich with their labour that produced tobacco, corn, wheat, and from the rivers that were bountiful with fish, crabs, and oysters. Yet, they were not deemed worthy to attend school beyond the elementary level. A.T. Johnson High School was opened in 1937 until 1970 when all public schools in the county were integrated. It is important to note that in the Brown vs. the Board of Education of Topeka, the Kansas Supreme Court decision of 1954 ruled segregated schools to be unconstitutional. Yet, it took Westmoreland almost twenty years to act with all deliberate speed in integrating its schools.

The eulogy by Rev. Al Sharpton during the Floyd Homegoing service made me reflect on not just my name, but the name of the first high school for Blacks in Westmoreland County and the name of the school we could now attend. A.T. Johnson High School was named after an African American. That school was turned into a middle school and African American students who lived in that part of the county were then integrated into Washington and Lee High School.

Rev. Sharpton’s eulogy made me articulate this: our beloved A.T. Johnson High School that my ancestors had worked so hard to establish was now demoted to a middle school. And the pride that was once felt by all who went through its doors was now replaced with a school named for two slave owners, one of whom was a traitor who went to war against the country to maintain slavery! What a price to pay for integration. Even worse, A.T. Johnson High School is no longer open as a school.

The Historyland Highway runs through the county, yet there was rarely any mention of our history and contributions until people who attended A.T. Johnson High School kicked open the door of inclusion. A.T. Johnson High School is now a museum and it has been placed on the list of historic sites in Virginia. This is a manifestation of African Americans knowing and valuing their history; they fought tooth and nail to get that historic recognition and for the former school to operate as a museum.

Rev. Sharpton’s eulogy made me further reflect on how knowingly or unknowingly, wittingly or unwittingly, and consciously or unconsciously we as African Americans have been inculcated into American political culture through various agents of political socialisation. Most of us celebrate Thanksgiving, the 4th of July, and Presidents’ Day which for years was George Washington’s Birthday. Have we really taken the time to reflect on the meaning of these holidays and to ask ourselves why we celebrate them? We celebrate them because we are Americans; they represent American culture and we are part and parcel of American culture. Some would even argue that without the influence of African culture, there would be no American culture.

This provides an explanation for the frustration, pain, anger, sadness, and hurt felt and experienced by African Americans following the murder of George Floyd. Despite serving in every war that the country has engaged in, pulling themselves up without any boots or bootstraps following their emancipation in 1865, establishing their own businesses, newspapers, sororities, fraternities, civil rights organisations, and benevolent organisations—along with the cornerstone that nurtures and undergirds the community to this day, churches—African Americans are still not viewed or treated as American citizens. Yet we continue to keep and pass on these names of the slave masters.

Finally, deconstructing the social construction of race within the context of the murder of George Floyd as an African American teaching in Nairobi at a university that is half Kenyan and half American has been frustrating on the one hand and fulfilling on the other. The frustrating part is that I am the only African American on campus. It is not the same as being the only African American on a predominantly white campus or the only one in a department in the United States. Still, during the last couple of weeks, I have felt like a one-person island out in the Indian Ocean. This has been made worse by the closure of the University as there is not the opportunity to have conversations in the office or in the hallways and to be honest, I am not so sure that my colleagues would even want to have these conversations.

The positive aspect of teaching here is that I am free to openly and honestly discuss the social construction of race and its legacies that are still experienced by African Americans. I am liberated from the accusations that I teach about race too much. I am free from being labelled opinionated when I speak truth to knowledge about racism and discrimination. I am free from white students being intimidated by me because I am Black and a woman. Students may be intimidated by me here, but it’s not because I am Black. I am free because I am included, I am at the table, I am not marginalised. I am not here because of some misguided policy on diversity. I am free because on campus I do not experience micro aggressions. I am not viewed as an affirmative action hire who earned a PhD that will never be valued in the same way as that of a white professor.

Furthermore, the social construction of race and the murder of George Floyd and others by the police and private citizens has made me reflect upon and appreciate my experiences of living here and not having to deal with daily micro aggressions: there is no such thing as driving, dining, shopping, vacationing, birdwatching, swimming, walking, jogging, or hiking while Black. No one knows or cares who you are. People automatically assume you are Kenyan until you open your mouth. And when they discover that you are American, there is a certain amount of respect that you are given in restaurants, hotels, on safari, at the Coast and in salons.

In sum, here your accent trumps everything whereas in the United States your skin colour trumps everything. Observing all the developments surrounding the death of George Floyd while living in Kenya has solidified in my mind that there is a racial tax on many levels in the United States. I do not pay that racial tax here. I am no longer being racially surveilled. I can wake up, go to campus, take walks, go shopping, go on vacation, live my life, and simply breathe without thinking about being Black every single day.

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Prof. Cassandra Veney is Professor of International Relations at the United States International University.

Reflections

Stealth Game: The Proverbial Has Hit the Fan

The report of the Oakland Institute is simply saying what I have been saying since 2016. That “Community” Conservancies Devastate Land and Lives in Northern Kenya.

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Stealth Game: The Proverbial Has Hit the Fan
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Many of my friends, particularly those from outside the conservation sector have been puzzled by the silence that has followed the release of the Stealth Game report by the Oakland institute.

This, my friends, is because you people mistakenly imagine that conservationists in Kenya are normal, functional human beings. They are NOT, and the rational ones are fewer than five per cent, the scientific threshold for statistical significance. For those of us who know them well, we can read and interpret this silence to a high level of accuracy.

First of all, rest assured that everyone who needs to see the report has seen it, including government officials at both county and national level. I personally forwarded it to an official at the highest levels of government, and the response I received was “thank you”—at least an admission of having seen the report. Interestingly, two senior county government officers also forwarded the report to me, leaving me wondering what exactly they see as their role in the whole scandal, as opposed to mine as an individual. The silence is only in the public sphere. I have direct contacts in a lot of private spaces where the Oakland report is causing a lot of wailing, gnashing of teeth and breaking of wind.

The key point we all need to understand here is that people are in trouble—bringing to mind that uniquely American expression about faecal matter hitting the fan and splattering everyone in its vicinity. Here’s why: A couple of years ago, a few colleagues and I visited the US House of Representatives in Washington DC to present a memorandum on human rights abuses in central Africa committed by the WWF under the guise of conservation, an issue we also brought to the attention of various European legislatures. It has taken time, but the cosh has come down on the WWF, culminating in a Senate hearing earlier this year, which has severely tightened the screws on them. Therefore, the consternation that has greeted the report is disingenuous, because none of this information is new—it is simply saying the same things that a few colleagues and I have been saying since 2016.

The conservation sector in Kenya routinely dismisses any questions from black Africans and the consternation is because the report is coming from an American institution, and cannot be dismissed on racial grounds. An amusing anecdote I’ve heard from one of the conservation groups is, “This is just the usual noise from Mordecai Ogada. . .” But when another member says, “No, it’s from the Oakland institute in the US,” all hell breaks loose with people crying “Oh my God! What are we going to do?”  In another forum, a senior participant (who obviously hadn’t read the report) dismissed it as lacking credibility, “Since the only source of such information is Mordecai Ogada (again!!??). When another participant pointed out the report was the result of over two years’ research she changed tack, attacking the author Anuradha Mittal based on her racial and family background. The strange thing is that this woman is also of the same racial background as Mittal! Many people will find this bizarre, but I don’t. Our conservation sector is so steeped in racial and ethnic prejudice that it is shameful. Apart from dealing with people who don’t want to hear me because I am black, I’ve had to deal with indigenous Kenyans who routinely tell me to keep off wildlife issues in northern Kenya because I am a Luo from western Kenya!

The key issue of rights violations is studiously avoided by conservationists to a ridiculous degree. I’ve seen conversations where The Nature Conservancy’s communications director is asking a whole group of conservation professionals how they can “counter Mordecai Ogada’s narrative”. A couple of years ago, the Northern Rangelands Trust hired Dr Elizabeth Leitoro as “Director of Programmes” and one of the key expectations was that she would somehow “control” Mordecai Ogada (yes, again) since over 20 years earlier I had been her intern when she was the warden at the Nairobi National Park. Dr Leitoro asked to meet me, and my son was patient enough to sit with us as we talked. She later launched a racial attack against me and my family on social media in defence of the NRT (she deleted the tweet and blocked me, but I still have a screenshot; the NRT got rid of her). This shows the neurosis bedevilling conservation in Kenya.

These conservationists will scream, shout and make personal attacks and noise about everything EXCEPT the problem at hand. Secondly, they are obsessed with appearances, so you will never hear a word said by any of the foreigners who run the show. It is always the ill-advised, ill-prepared but well paid locals who come out in robust (if somewhat foolish) defence of their captors. Right now the national government, the county governments, and conservation organizations are all tongue-tied because they don’t know how to dismiss criticism from the US, where their lifeblood funding comes from. USAID is the biggest conservation funder in Kenya, and the biggest grantee is the NRT, which confers on them God-like status here. All the other conservation voices like the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association (KWCA) or the Conservation Alliance of Kenya (CAK) that receive small-change grants cannot say a word against their “leader”, the NRT. That is why five days later, the CAK claims to be “still reading the report”. They are waiting to see which way the wind is blowing before they make any noise or break any wind in defence of their fellow Kenyans.

Mark my words, these people have colossal reach; that’s why even the government has said nothing. There was a major press conference in Nairobi on 17th November 2021 about the Oakland report, and all the major media houses in Kenya were present, but the story has been “killed”. They have a huge PR machine, and if anything in the report were untrue, they would have torn it to shreds. Their bogeyman, Mordecai Ogada (frankly I’m a bit flattered!), is not in the picture, so they cannot point fingers at me anymore, and must now address the ISSUES. I am informed that some heads have already rolled. They are big, but not big enough to kill the story in the US public policy space. The WWF learned that the hard way. There shall be wailing, there will be hypertension, some hyperacidity, diarrhoea and other stress-related illnesses, but it looks (and smells) like change is coming.

This silence isn’t of the golden kind, it’s the silence of sick, trembling cowards caught in a big lie. I have nothing to add to the Stealth Game report, but wherever and whenever I will be asked to say something about it, I will not let anyone get away with trying to look shocked. I will always state just how I told them about this injustice five years ago, but it never mattered then. Because I am black, if truth be told.

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Reflections

I Know Why God Created Makeup

I am an economic migrant without the luxury of choice. I am not ready for Kenya yet so I must wake up, put my makeup on and take up my station by the dialysis machines.

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I Know Why God Created Makeup
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It is half past five in the morning and your eyes are heavy with sleep. It is fascinating that they should be this lethargic, yet they would not close for a wink or two in the past eleven or so hours of the night. Lately your body seems to be operating on a paradoxical circadian rhythm– sleep when you shouldn’t and stay awake when you ought to be sleeping. You are a nurse and constantly tired. Translated, it means that you are one patient away from a mortal accident. You slap the alarm clock into silence, eyes half open set another alarm for half past six on your mobile phone, which has permanent residency under your three pillows.

You have been using three pillows for a while now. There does not seem to be one single shop in the world that sells decent pillows. The pillows in this city are as thin as a tongue. The lowlife of pillows. They smell of dying hope and unhappy thoughts. They are the sopranos in the pillow choir. Irritating but necessary. We therefore use three of them to allow them to accord each other some moral support. You miss fluffy pillows. Pillows like the ones you lay on at that posh hotel in Naivasha during your disastrous honeymoon a few years ago. Nostalgically, you go back to Naivasha in your sleepy mind.

There is a hazy recollection of that honeymoon. It was not meant to be because the wedding was not to be either. But they both happened. You know they did because you can hear yourself screaming in agony as another harsh word lands on your soul. But despite the honeymoon’s calamitous ending, you miss the pillows. They took to your torrential tears like a babe to its mother’s breast. They soaked the tears up perfectly and left no traces. He never once stirred. He was so drunk he could have been half dead. You had wished for the latter before you met Jesus. We do not think such thoughts nowadays and if we ever do, we will blame it on these scandalously uncomfortable pillows.

The summer morning’s sun tears precisely through your curtains like a surgeon’s blade. You love summer but you don’t like the glare of the morning sun. It is too bright. Accusatorily bright. Like it came to remind you what a slob you are for snoozing your alarm. It stands there, hovering over you like your mum when you wouldn’t complete your homework but wanted to read a Harry Potter novel instead. Mum would not go away, nor will the sun. Begrudgingly you wake up. Legs dangling onto the side of the bed, you will the rest of the body to join them on the peach-coloured bedroom rug on the floor. You miss the days when peach was just some fruit.

Eyes still closed, you head to the bathroom. You are startled into alertness by the girl staring at you in the mirror. She is as hopelessly worn out as a politician’s promise after campaigns. She looks like a thousand trucks ran over her and a group of snow-white owls perched on her hair. The wild hair tendrils falling on your face are a pasta disaster. My God, the lint from those pillows! You whisper. It is however more than just lint. Your eyes are red and puffed up. Like you hid two baby donuts under the eyelids and now the world can see your secret eating habits.

You are expected to be at work by half past seven, nursing patients. The COVID-19 pandemic rages on and you are not sure how much longer you can keep it together. Take that lovely patient yesterday, for example. She stood out from the first time you met her. She allowed you to needle her dialysis fistula as a new nurse. She was welcoming. Showed you pictures of May, her cat. Always had a joke for everyone. She entertained the unit with great panache. She had perfectly manicured nails which put your grooming routine to shame.

For fifteen years, kidney failure never took her life. But she died yesterday. She contracted COVID-19 and passed away. This is not an isolated case. The story keeps repeating itself. Like a repetitive bad dream, the carrousel of mortality keeps coursing through the hospital.  Too many dialysis patients have been lost to the coronavirus.

Nobody acknowledges it but your colleagues are gutted by her death. Their demeanour is typically British though, they are long suffering. They wear resilience on their faces and spot plastic smiles to hide the pain. British nurses are averse to complaining. They take it all in their stride. Either that or quit. What would you not give to be able to quit nursing right now!

On the other hand, you are an economic migrant in the United Kingdom. Your life in the UK is governed by the terms and conditions of your visa. The terms say you are to be a nurse for the remaining period on your visa. You cannot leave. You risk being deported to Kenya if you exit nursing at the moment. You are not ready for Kenya yet. You envy Amy and Moraine. Two highly skilled kidney nurses from Scotland. They recently quit nursing altogether. Amy went back to university to study accounting while Moraine has started a coffee shop. The luxury of choice.

You take a quick shower, scrub your hair so hard as if you were shaking your brain from a lingering nightmare that it half hurts. Six and a half minutes later, you are staring at yourself in the dressing mirror. You have been in this flat for a year now and have never once used the dressing mirror like you want to use it today. To glam up the top half of your face.

Following a YouTube tutorial, you start applying acres of ridiculously expensive products on your exhausted face. Your patients are expecting a buoyed-up nurse; that is what they must get. This is why God created makeup. You pay close attention to your eyes. The windows to the soul. These windows needs some maintenance. The eyebrows are up first.

Your eyebrows are a strange phenomenon. The hairs are few and far between. You can never shape them perfectly to save your life. You scribble and doodle with some eye pencil YouTube influencers swore by and finally manage to draw two diagrams of West African evil spirits chasing after one another. Your signature mismatched eyebrow look.  Feeling accomplished, you open your eyes wide and, stroke after stroke, you apply mascara on your eyelashes. The damage is then covered in some dark eye shadow. Only the top half of the face matters. The face masks and visors worn at work have rendered the lower half of the face irrelevant. Who wants lipstick smears on their face mask? Not you, you conclude.

At twenty minutes past seven, you are at work already. You are helping prepare the dialysis machines. Jean, your nurse colleague streams in. She has had her eyes done too. She is wearing some glittering eyeshadow. Her eyebrows look like what yours would be like when they grow up. You can see a hint of foundation on her forehead. You let out a sigh of relief. God created makeup for tired nurses, you surmise.

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Reflections

The Charles Mugane Njonjo I Knew

Much will be said and written about Charles Njonjo. The Charles Njonjo I knew was a steadfast friend and a man of his word without hesitation.

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The Charles Mugane Njonjo I Knew
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A lot has been written and a lot more will be written about the late Charles Mugane Njonjo who has passed away. I would like to tell my own personal story. I never knew him as a bureaucrat or politician. Indeed, our paths crossed immediately I left high school in 1983. Together with colleagues, we had written a play and planned to perform it for the public. We searched our minds for a public figure who would agree to come as guest of honour on opening night. We sought someone who would attract public attention to what we were doing, but more importantly for us 17-year-olds, someone who would agree to show up. Charles Njonjo’s name was all over the news at the time. His political career had just been truncated amid the prolonged political drama of the “traitor affair”. He was a figure of great public fascination for a variety of colourful reasons. We also had the names of other public figures on our list and I was tasked with reaching out to them.

Frankly, I wrote to Charles Njonjo not expecting to hear from him. He replied immediately, though, and accepted the invitation to be guest of honour at the opening night of our play, The Human Encounter, at Saint Mary’s School in Nairobi. Once he accepted the invitation, we excitedly proceeded with preparations for the opening night. A few days later, however, we were informed that, unfortunately, the authorities had deemed Mr Njonjo’s presence at our event unacceptable and the decision was not negotiable. I informed my colleagues and we decided that since we had worked hard on the production we would obey the orders from above and proceed with our play without Mr Njonjo. There was no need for a fuss. I then had the embarrassing duty of disinviting Mr Njonjo when he had already accepted to be our guest of honour.

I spent a whole night drafting the letter and in the end, my late father told me not to agonise excessively, “Njonjo likes to be told the truth directly.” So I wrote the disinvitation letter as clearly and as respectfully as I could. I asked a friend of his to pass it on to him and did not expect to ever hear from him again. The message I received promptly back surprised me. Njonjo expressed his deepest appreciation for the invitation and explained that he fully understood why it had been withdrawn. He asked that we remain in touch. I was deeply relieved. Over the years, he would reach out to me through family and friends and we would interact jovially, remembering the letter I had written retracting his invitation as guest of honour. “No one has ever done that to me,” he would joke over tea.

In the early 1990s, as political pluralism was returning to Kenya, violence broke out in Nyanza, Western and Rift Valley provinces. At one point, hundreds of thousands of Kenyans were displaced as our elites arm-wrestled for power. I travelled to Laikipia and then to Burnt Forest and was aghast at the state of the internally displaced that had been forced from their homes by the violence. Together with Dr David Ndii and Mutahi Ngunyi we launched the “Kenyans in Need” appeal. The then chief editor of the Daily Nation, Wangethi Mwangi, gave us free advertising space to mobilise resources for the displaced – especially those in Ol Kalou who had been evicted from Ng’arua in Laikipia. The late Archbishop Nicodemus Kirima of the Archdiocese of Nyeri agreed to use the relief infrastructure of Catholic Church to distribute any donations that came our way. Laikipia fell under Kirima’s remit.

The response to the appeal was surprising in its scale. People donated second-hand clothes, books, shoes and cash to the appeal. We received around KSh1 million worth of donations over the following months. We delivered the first batch directly to the philosophical Archbishop Kirima at his official residence in Nyeri, unique because of its specially built library full of the books he clearly loved. Our biggest and most consistent donor throughout the entire enterprise was Charles Njonjo. He was not keen to have his name mentioned but we would sit at his home drinking tea and reflecting on the political situation in the country.

When I joined government in 2003, Njonjo remained one of my steadfast providers of moral support. When news broke that I had been moved from the Office of the President to the Ministry of Justice, the first call I received was from Charles Njonjo. “You’re going to resign immediately, aren’t you?” he asked in his typically direct way. In the end, I didn’t. I sometimes wistfully recall his advice at the time. We kept in close touch.

When my situation in the Kibaki government went belly up in 2005 – as he had predicted to me many times – and I found myself in exile, Charles Njonjo became an even more steadfast friend. He stayed in touch and whenever he called, he would always enquire about my personal circumstances. He was a most interesting person in that way, loyal to his friends to a fault. Once you were his friend, he stood by you no matter how atrocious the circumstances. He would call to tell me he was coming to London and we would spend the day together simply walking the city, chatting and drinking tea. Back home I found out he was in constant touch with my family, offering moral and any other kind of support that might be needed.

When I returned from exile, one of the very first people to invite me for tea and a catch-up was Charles Njonjo and we took up from where we had left off in 2005. His observations on politics and about certain politicians were often wryly hilarious. His capacity to read people accurately was something I learnt. We would sit in his Westlands office and I would seek his opinion on this or that political interlocutor and in typical fashion he was always direct – “solid fellow”; “believe only half so-and-so says”; “take that one seriously”, etc. He was particularly dismissive of ethnic chauvinists and insisted that they held Kenya back in fundamental ways.

Charles Njonjo and I kept our friendship quiet. In part, this was because some of his diehard enemies were also my very good friends – the late legal giant Achhroo Ram Kapila SC among others. So, we didn’t discuss his enemies; he advised me on mine. Much will be written about Charles Njonjo and even though there was much we totally disagreed on politically, the Njonjo I knew since I was a teenager was a man of his word. He was a dear friend in ways I have never been able to share. There is not a personal problem that I raised with Charles Njonjo that he didn’t immediately seek to solve in his no-nonsense style. Njonjo could be a very funny man, full of jokes and insightful observations without a taint of bitterness. To me he was funniest when he joked in Gikuyu, which some people thought he couldn’t speak.

As I have said, much will be said and a lot will be written about Charles Njonjo. The Charles Njonjo I knew was a steadfast friend and a man of his word. I have lost a dear friend and wish his family succour as they mourn him at this time.

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