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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The Night Watchmen: Hustling in a Time of Coronavirus
In this legendary city of chestnut trees, gabled rooftops, fairy tale bridges and winding canals, the nights belong to the young and the restless.
“Big man, they killed our little brother.”
“Who is, Amanuel?”
“Your friend. They killed him.”
“Who, are you talking about?”
“You mean Little Man? The little light-skinned guy?” I asked now, linking the messenger to a fresh-faced kid I had met at the beginning of the first coronavirus lockdown some nine months ago in March 2020.
“Yes My brother! They killed our little brother. I knew I had to come by here and let you know. You know I always saw he liked to talk to you.”
All of a sudden I felt my heart drop, I didn’t want to accept that he was gone. I didn’t even know his name. All I knew was that he was a really nice guy.
So reading the news report literally broke my heart.
“Between late night Tuesday the 18th and the morning of Wednesday 19th November 2020, a 30-year-old man was severely wounded in a shooting incident on the Krugerplein in Amsterdam’s eastside. The victim was rushed to hospital. His outlook is said to be ‘critical’. ‘He had to be resuscitated before they took him,’ said a witness at the scene.”
I called him “Little Man”.
It had been weeks since I had seen him. Our first meeting was purely by chance. I was doing a job providing security in the heart of Amsterdam’s red light district when our paths crossed.
My task was to position myself in front of the establishment at around 1.40 a.m. and provide a physical deterrent for loiterers, vandals and robbers.
“It’s a breeze, all you got to do is stand here. Make sure no one messes up the place. You don’t have to fight with anyone. All you have to do is let them see you.”
Motivated by an immediate financial need, I agreed to give the job a shot.
To be honest, I just didn’t have the luxury of saying no; the offer was a godsend given we were entering a lockdown. Upon accepting the job, the most wonderful things began to unfold.
He was a “hustler”, a “kid from the streets”, but I didn’t know that at the time, or really what a hustler or kid from the streets really meant. All I knew was that he was a nice guy who confessed to me that his “gangster” persona was just an act.
I had spied him coming down the street. It was already well after 2 a.m. but the streets were still busy with the throngs from the pubs, bars, cafes that were now closing. I heard him shouting as he walked, parting the crowds.
It was during that random encounter that I realised the importance of not condemning the young.
“I’m famous in these streets, nobody messes with me around here, not even the cops. They all know me around here, Opa.”
I wanted to know what he was doing out in the streets knowing we were suffering a pandemic.
“You either play football or you hustle Opa. You know how it is!” he said with a big cheeky grin on his face. I could only manage a forced smile, understanding the struggle to survive.
Thirty-year-old Amanuel Nelson Cornelio was a cheerful young man who grew up in one of Amsterdam’s poorer neighbourhoods.
“Americans say soccer, right Opa? But we here in Dutch, say football. You know, I played in a league for ten years”, he said before adding earnestly, “I call you Opa from respect. You are my elder, I could be your son,” he said, and this unsolicited admission made me feel good.
“I used to be real good, I was fast,” he continued. “Look at my legs, they’re strong,” he said and I had to smile. This exchange between strangers under the lamps on the Plein in the wee hours of the night felt like it was the middle of the day.
“But I messed up Opa. See, I come from these streets, I was born here. These streets raised me”, he said, then he paused, causing me to wonder if his last statement was an excuse or an indictment on society. I suspect it was the latter.
When he first called me Opa I had to laugh not to feel insulted. I am only fifty-five years old. It seemed like only yesterday that I was out there running the streets carefree like he was, filled with fire and wonder for everything new.
I was 28 years old. Back then life was so different. For a while I thought the parties would never end. It was heaven on earth and I was as free as the breeze. Every day was an adventure. Everyone was an artist or a visionary and we all had big, big dreams for the future.
There was no European Union. The Dutch had their own currency. People were happy and connected in what was truly the most tolerant city in the world. It was truly unreal. A mother’s love reigned over the land, a stark contrast to the patriarchal system I had escaped from in America.
I remember when we danced all night in the streets. When peeing in the canals was a rite of passage. You hadn’t really lived until you sent one downstream. Today, it will cost you a 90-euro fine if you’re caught.
When the Dutch became a part of the union, switched to the single currency and opened their borders, life changed. A global economic crisis that left five of the 17 member-nations in need of financial aid and a mass influx of migrants to European shores in 2015 kept jobs and progress at a slow pace.
Coincidentally, that same year I hit two milestones in my personal life. I turned 50 and I was made redundant and seemingly unemployable, forcing me to face the fact that my time had come and gone.
Which is why I was standing out in the night air at 2 a.m., working as a night watchman surrounded by sex workers and the traffic that visits the infamous red light zone.
In this new, unique position as a casual observer I learned that no matter their position, everyone is only trying to be their full complete self. Straight across from the Royal Amsterdam Palace adjacent to the Bijenkhof building on the Damstraat is a quote placed on a street tile that marks the beginning of the red light district. The quote is from John Locke, and it states, “Inside every person, is a part of himself that is only his property and belongs only to him”.
“It’s an easy gig, all you got to do is stand there and watch the place. You don’t have to engage anyone. You are not there for that. if something happens call me. You have the police station right across the Plein but they usually ride by every 15 minutes to check.”
I had to admit I was a little nervous, performing a job that until then I thought was beneath my previous social status.
After leaving a military career spanning over a decade and relocating to Amsterdam in 1993 with a small severance package, I was able to carve out a pretty successful life for myself here in the Netherlands.
Things began to fall into place almost immediately upon my arrival. I had an advantage in the workforce; I was a native English speaker in a new Europe, a more united Europe that was beginning to raise its head. I was able to jump from one opportunity to the next until the economic crisis that swept across the globe in 2008 hit, changing everything as jobs became harder to find.
In the Netherlands, one is employed on a contractual basis that ensures that the rights of the worker are at all times respected. If an employer takes you on, they cannot break the agreement without respecting the law. Now, the downside to this system is that employers are less likely to take on new senior staff whose contracts are more expensive and harder to break than those of younger, inexperienced workers.
This dynamic has left many senior professionals marooned on the island of ageism, forcing them to find new avenues to earn a living.
“No sleeping, eating, drinking or gathering in front of the shop. Don’t engage with them. If they come under the awning just direct them to keep it moving. Don’t argue with them, if something happens, call me but you have the police station right in front of you. You can go just across the Plein.”
Those were the instructions.
“Ok, I’ll try it,” I said with only one thought in my mind: I needed the money.
My shift started at 2 a.m. Travelling across town was surreal. It was as if this legendary city of chestnut trees, gabled rooftops, fairy tale bridges and winding canals belonged to only me. Until I learned who really owns the nights. The nights belong to the young and the restless.
It was just supposed to be me and my thoughts out in the open air when suddenly, from around every corner, every bend, as if an alarm had gone off forcing them from out of their holding places, young people emerged from everywhere I looked, at a time when we had been instructed to maintain social distance. I thought no one else would be out. It was the first weekend of the public restrictions to curb the pandemic.
I was supposed to be the only one on the streets, but when I arrived the scene was a circus. Bars and cafes with outside table service were jam-packed, my work station was right in the middle.
Everyone seemed to have ignored the warning to stay indoors; the young and the old, Black, White, Asians and Browns. Day-trippers, transients and party guests, hustlers and dealers all moving among streetwalkers and foolish hearts looking for a good time. It was a completely different eco-system.
Maantje means Little Moon, but the pronunciation is similar to Mannetje which literally means “Little man”. I gave him that name when we first spoke but what I learned after his death was that he was a street hero. I just hadn’t known it. All I knew was he was a really nice guy.
“Where are you from, I mean, your people?”
“I was born here but my family comes from Curaçao. But they are all here now. I stay not too far from here with my grandma. These are my streets, I’m telling you. You know what? My Uncle used to run these same streets back in the day. He was one of Amsterdam’s original gangsters. He died right there,” the young, talkative kid said, extending his arm out to show the spot where his uncle took his last breath, across the empty square close to Nam King, the iconic Chinese restaurant famous for its oysters.
“That’s sad,” I said. As I stood there searching for what to say next, a darker, older man came cycling around the corner, an apparent acquaintance of Little Man.
Little Man waved him over.
“Tell him who my uncle was. Tell him he was killed right over there,” Little Man said to his friend who I had determined had Afro-Surinamese roots. The darker guy looked closer to my age than to Little Man’s. He greeted me unceremoniously.
“Yes, my brother, he was a serious gangster,” he said, his voice thick.
“Really?” I said, which gave me away.
“Where are you from Big Man?” the darker man asked, but Little Man answered before I could.
“He’s American. Man, I would like to go there, not to live there but to see it, Opa. I listen to a lot of music from America, rappers out of Baltimore. You know Baltimore?”
It just so happened that I did. “I used to live not too far from Baltimore, before moving here,” I said before adding, “Maybe one day, after this coronavirus is over and travelling begins again, you’ll get the chance to go?”
To which he replied, “Nah, Opa, they are never going to let me in. I have a record. I just got out [of prison]. I tell you I’m known in these streets, but I’ve been trying to turn that around. Now this lockdown.”
Listening to him and his story I knew how it felt being stuck, being trapped, your ambitions fading from you and you being unable to do anything about it. But I was pressed to know his age.
“Little Man, how old are you?” I asked. To look at him you would have expected to find him kicking football around the Plein, or sitting under old trees with a pack of other kids, talking loudly at one another, just having fun.
I couldn’t see how a kid like him could have committed a crime that would warrant a prison sentence. Not here in the Netherlands. The Dutch have one of the most civilised judicial systems in the world. When I first got here, you could kill someone and the most you would get behind bars was four years, but even that had changed over the years.
“I want you to know, because I saw you looking at me, what you saw, what I do out here is just an act.”
The entire time we spoke, he wanted me to know he respected me ticking the box in the code of a thinking man, and if “Opa” was another form of that code of brotherly love, I wanted to encourage that because in all aspects he could have been my son. I was his elder and could imagine that all he really wanted, like everyone else, was better.
“I’m thirty.” He said smiling while handling his phone which must have showed an incoming call.
“I got to go now Opa,” Little Man said, jumping on his bike and waving as he rode away into the night, to which I could only offer, “Be careful out there.”
I watched him riding away and I imagined he was off to be with friends. Little did I know.
“To say that he will be missed is an understatement,” began the follow-up headlines. “The 30-year-old victim of the shooting on the Krugerplein in Amsterdam’s eastside has been identified as local street hero ‘Maantje’.”
The article went on to describe how much loved he was. “Maantje was known for his enthusiasm and his spirit. He was also loved on the sporting field having played ten years for an indoor club.” The article went on to say that Maantje had lived a street life which was first immortalised in 2011 when photographer Paul Blanca put him in front of the camera for a series of photos of Amsterdam’s street gangs. Blanca remembers Amanuel quite vividly and recalls one particular photo of a younger 20-year-old Maantje staring deeply into the lens of the camera with the most menacing look on his face. The series of photos was titled, “Mi Mattie,” a phrase borrowed from the Surinamese language which means “My Friends”.
To say he will be missed is a serious understatement. It’s a bloody shame. When I asked what actually happened, I was told that it was due to the many months of lockdown. The two assailants arrested for his killing were young people aged 21 and 24.
Coming of Age Under Moi’s Shadow
I was born on the wrong side, the opposition side. The side that attempted a coup d’état to overthrow President Moi.
We are poor because we are not in government. These words, said by my grandfather, my father, my uncles, and later by my compatriots at various stages of life, have stuck with me. They were simple enough words, but their weight was hidden in the everyday realities of the men and women whose communities were perceived as the opposition, viewed as enemies of the government. That government was one man. President Moi. For 24 years he dominated the national psyche, changing people’s lives the way a hyperactive child switches between television channels.
If you caught Moi’s attention by doing something as mundane as composing a song in his name during the national drama festival, you could become rich overnight. Not being in government was tough. This is because the Kenyan government has been set up to strengthen ethnic dominance, rather than to build national cohesion. I grew up at a time when my community was strongly represented in the opposition. This made us fair game for the government of the day.
Like many Kenyans, I was anxious about joblessness. I was young when my uncle Ben graduated from university in the nineties. His stories of desperation and despair for a job, and his death four years after graduation, were a constant source of anxiety as I studied at Kenyatta University. Like many graduates, Uncle Ben did not have connections in Moi’s government. Our people were not in power. Even the local district officer in my hometown was from the president’s tribe. And the local administration policemen too. The entire police force spoke the dialect of a single tribe. The president’s tribe. The police force was supposed to mirror the face of the nation. That was on paper. In reality, it was the face of ethnic dominance, an expression of the desire of the ruling elite to control power.
The public kept up hope nonetheless, and every year, young men and women across the country would be taken through a grueling marathon of physical exercises in the hot sun, running until they were broken. The few who would make it back to the stadium, sweating, almost fainting, were not guaranteed success. They could still be disqualified because of a missing tooth.
In a country where dental care is difficult to access, replacing a tooth is not something that is within the reach of the poor. Uncle Ben ticked all the boxes. He was an athlete. Six feet and three inches tall. Perfect teeth — except for the nicotine stains from smoking to relieve stress. But he didn’t make the cut. Year after year. My father said it was because we didn’t know anybody important in government. That seemed to be the only pathway to employment in the late 80s and 90s when the economy was shrinking under Moi’s stewardship.
Moi’s twenty-four years at the helm ended in 2002. 2001 had been a pivotal year in Kenyan politics and Moi’s reign was coming to an end as I was coming to the end of my second year at Kenyatta University. The fear that Moi would be president for life was wafting away like a bad smell. We were ecstatic. We were also aware that the late Prof. George Eshiwani, our vice chancellor then, did not share in this excitement. His exit was perfectly aligned with Moi’s. State agents were no longer at Prof. Eshiwani’s disposal and student leaders who had challenged him in the past started showing up on campus. Word was also going around that lecturers who had been thrown off campus like homeless people, were agitating to return. One of them, Prof. Kilemi Mwiria, would later head the education docket in the new government. If Prof. Eshiwani did not leave willingly, we would force him out. We forced him out.
President Kibaki took the reigns of power in 2002. Unlike Moi, he was a closed man. We waited with bated breath to see how he maneuvered. Up to then — and still to this day — only two tribes had ruled over the other forty-plus tribes. And like in many African countries, the elites from these two tribes had been awarded plum positions and government contracts. There was entrenched ethnic dominance. I was born on the wrong side, the opposition side. The side that attempted a coup d’état to overthrow President Moi.
Adhiambo, one of the soldiers involved in the attempted coup, lived less than five miles from my maternal grandfather’s home. He was released after many years in jail. People gossiped that he came back a shadow of his former self, whispered about his inability to have children. And that sometimes he talked to himself. He settled in his father’s shop. I walked by that shop a few times with one of my uncles just to get a glimpse of the man. To see just how much his body had been broken at Kamiti Maximum Prison.
Moi’s daily presence in our house — for a minimum of fifteen minutes during the seven o’clock news and for another fifteen minutes during the nine o’clock news — was a source of tension. When home, my father would demand that we switch off the television. My mother on the other hand would plead with him to allow us to watch Moi. We young ones enjoyed watching the beautiful schoolgirls and their teachers dancing for Moi. They seemed to be in a bubble of security and infectious happiness. We marveled at how privileged these children were that Moi would visit their schools to fundraise for development projects. How lucky they were to be on TV, to take pictures with Moi.
My father hated the obsession with the president, abhorred the spectacle of grown men and women pontificating about Moi being their father and mother. He hated it even more when the local chief came to our family’s tailoring shop, a small business my father had set up to supplement the family’s income. The chief was enforcing an order from the district commissioner. Word was that Moi would drive through our rural town on his way to nearby Rongo, the hometown of one of his new friends from my community. He had risen quickly through the ranks to become a powerful minister of internal security. It was rumored that he was the custodian of a secret.
Moi was on his way to open the massive Seventh Day Adventist Church that his new friend had constructed in Rongo. A gift to his people. And a sign of gratitude to God for his newfound power. Potholes on the Kisumu-Kisii-Migori road were hastily filled with red volcanic soil and a thin layer of tar. There were also security meetings where the local chiefs were instructed to ensure that the local KANU offices had a fresh bright coat of red paint with the party symbol, a red cockerel, clearly visible. The show of loyalty had to be explicit in these opposition zones.
In addition, local businesses, like my father’s tailoring shop, needed to clearly display Moi’s image on their walls. When the chief and his men came, my father was not there. They confiscated the sewing machines and demanded that my father collect them with proof that he had Moi’s framed photograph on the wall of his shop. The local KANU offices were selling framed portraits of Moi at a profit. Who didn’t love the president? Who didn’t want Moi following them with his warm reassuring eyes as they went about their business?
Uncle Ben took a newspaper, cut out Moi’s image, stuck it on a cardboard and framed it. I expected the chief to be furious but he relented. His two sons were in the school where both my parents were teachers and he always needed my father’s help with school fees or a contract to supply maize and beans. Also, why start a fight with my father when there was no chance Moi would see this image of himself plastered onto cardboard? After all, all businesses would be closed when Moi passed through so that people could stand by the roadside and wave to him.
I remember Moi’s convoy driving through my hometown at high speed. I remember the disappointment on people’s faces as the convoy disappeared into the distance. I remember people sighing and trying to console themselves: “I saw his car”. “But which car was he in?” “The one with the flag”. “But there was more than one car with a flag”. “Don’t worry, he will stop on his way back,” our school principal consoled us. He said that Moi had been busy, that he needed to keep time for his next appointment. He reminded us of the need to keep time like Moi. We had waited for Moi for over five hours. The school choir had run out of songs of praise for Moi.
Later that evening, my father bemoaned the time wasted composing and practicing songs for Moi. The time wasted standing in the sun, the school hours lost.
In the early 90s, with the rise of opposition politics, a circular was sent to schools instructing teachers to shave their beards. The government wanted presentable teachers. Also, people with beards had been seen to be sympathetic to the opposition as well as harboring Marxists ideas in parliament. “The six bearded sisters”, a group of opposition members who had mustered the courage to criticise Moi, were under government surveillance. My father was made aware of this circular by the head teacher of the school where he taught. He was instructed to shave. The government was not only controlling freedom of expression. It was controlling freedom of personal appearance. My father protested. Word started spreading around that teachers were getting shaven forcefully by the local administration. The Nyanza provincial commissioner was reported to have supervised one of these forced beard shavings. I didn’t see my father much during those days. He would play cat and mouse with the school administration, teaching his classes before going into hiding in our rural home.
Moi was a good man. He did not drink alcohol. Not like Mobutu Sese Seko. The only beverage that would corrupt his body was coca cola. Which he also drank in moderation. Moi was also in church every Sunday, where the pastor would pray for his good health so that he could continue guiding the country away from the unpredictable hands of the opposition, lest Kenya descend into chaos like our neighbour Uganda. Or Sudan. Or Congo. Or Rwanda. Or Somalia. Or Sudan. And occasionally we would also get free milk at school. We would carry it home, or drink it under a tree during break. With our stomachs full of milk, we knew we were lucky because Moi loved children. Otherwise, why did he work so hard to provide us with milk?
In 1992, when I was ten years old, uncle Ben came home abruptly. Unannounced. Dr Robert Ouko had been killed. He had been very loyal to Moi. Uncle Ben and my father were glued to the television screen as riots engulfed the streets of Nairobi and Kisumu. Many people died in Kisumu, Dr Ouko’s hometown. My father and Uncle Ben seemed defeated. We are poor because we are not in government. And when one of us gets into government, they kill him. It was hard to reconcile the images of Moi the all-loving father of the nation, Moi the God-fearing, humble servant with the Moi accused of heinous human rights abuses. And to reconcile this with the message from my pastor every Saturday that all leaders come from God and that, therefore, God had given us President Moi for twenty-four years.
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.
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