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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

Surviving the Hood: A Walk Through Nairobi’s Iconic Neighbourhoods

For us hood folk – no matter where we land – especially if we survive the hood – then it is forever home

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Surviving the Hood: A Walk Through Nairobi’s Iconic Neighbourhoods
Photo: WikiCommons/tropenmuseum
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What you up to I asked.
I’m going back home to take some pictures for my foundation was the answer.

For us hood folk – no matter where we land – especially if we survive the hood – then it is forever home. Because we remember how far we have gone.
And no matter what trauma and hardships we suffered – we remember this time through rose tinted glasses.

What? Going back home, home I said
Yes, won’t be there for long but we can meet after. No way! I am coming with you. I am going home too. And so, we set off.

First stop Kaloleni – Ololo – for a walk and picture taking.
You see for them Americans to give their hard-earned cash – we have to reaffirm our poverty and massage their saviour ego.
But today I am not on that soapbox.

I am 7 years old, visiting a relative in Kaloleni – eating peanuts that Nyaredo (my uncle) has bought us.
I am 7 years old – waiting for the medicine man to bring a variety of roots that need to be boiled and me washed with it. You see at age 7 I have terrible eczema and the many trips to Aga Khan courtesy of the KQ medical cover has not helped.
Dana knows the cure – and so off we go to Kaloleni.

We say hi to Mama. She is shocked to see me. I am happy to see her.
And of course, I come bearing gifts. I know she loves flowers – and these are bright orange. My Mama loved orange.
Mothers are precious and I do miss my own Mama, so I channel that love to any mother I come across – especially my friends Mums.

These houses looked much bigger when I was 7. They seem shrunken – but we have grown. This takes me back to the sights and sounds of our homes growing up.
Wow – it must have been loud – with laughter, joy, tears and hopes.

We walk around the old neighbourhood.
There is a beautiful old building that was the maternity clinic back in the day. A safe place. Walking distance from any home for mothers to welcome new life.
The library is next – open – recently renovated.
The social hall still stands …and there is a handball pitch too.
Hmmm – handball I inquire – yes, it has been here since our childhood.

This estate was planned.
Every common space has a tree.
The wooden shutters – painted green and that city council sky blue are still present. I am 7 years old, eating peanuts as I wait for the medicine man.

Next stop is my hood. Jericho.

Jogoo Road has changed but it is still the same.
Barma market – where we bought live kukus for those special Sundays still stands. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

We exit Jogoo Road as we remember the number 7 and 8B bus routes. Long live Kenya Bus Service!

Bahati estate is still the same. Jennifer would get off here.
She was beautiful – Arab looking Kamba gal – Evelyn Tei’s cousin. Next
Evelyn and Davi would get off at Kimathi.
These were the it houses! 3-bedroom stand-alone homes – yo!

I was then in the bus by myself or with Agnes till Jeri.
Funny – no one lived in Jerusalem or Ofafa Jericho…maybe they did, and we just didn’t take the same bus…

Welcome to Trench Town

The sign greeted me as the bus turned into my road. Then I knew I was home safe!

Oduko so – the big shops – the main shopping centre – our Mall
I ate mtura there and ferried metal birikas of soup from there to neighbours’ homes. I got my shoes mended there at the cobbler outside the bar.
My feet grew like weeds – no new shoes, mended shoes for me.
My Mum’s local – drinking those small Tuskers with my Godmother and various aunties. Laughing.

The field next to the dukas was where the monthly open-air movies were screened. To this day I wonder who was behind that…
Bringing a screen and projector and showing a free movie to the masses.

Then the clinic…
The clinic where you had to buy an empty small bottle for your cough medicine. In the hood, Actifed came in 5 litre jerricans.
The clinic where Starehe Boys volunteered during the holidays.

Them in their very colourful uniforms – ever so smart. Patrick Shaw smart. The clinic that I ran to when I broke my toe…
Which was not set properly – and has given me wahala ever since.
I remember the day clearly because my uncle Cliff was there volunteering that day… The game was tapo…or blada…or cha mkebe
Anyway
I ended up with a broken toe that healed funny.

St. Joseph’s …my nursery and local catholic church. Weird place, looking back.
Lots of light skinned kids …pointies…running around. The only white jamaas were the…. yeap! ‘nuff said!
We drive to the parking lot and I am 12. I loved a boy from that house.

He smelled sooo good – Old Spice I remember.
First place I ever heard Tracy Chapman.
His brother was playing his guitar to ‘Fast car’. But alas, he was smelling good for someone else…

Celestine’s house.
Her mother told her not to talk to me because ‘I knew too much’. Celestine got pregnant in Standard 8…
Clearly, I knew nothing!

Wiki’s house – Wycliff – his full name was too long for us kids. First boy and last male who ever slapped me.
Heard my brother defended me by giving him a thorough beating! The joys of big bros in the hood.

Hilary’s house.
Now that was an anomaly…
Hilary lived there with his Mum. The end.
Just him and his Mum…in that huge 2 bedroomed house! My family of 5 kids was the smallest…the average was 8 kids We had a cousin and house help living with us…
We slept in one room.
So, you see the thought of just Hilary – alone – in the room – solo…that was mind boggling!

Owanjo so…the big field Looks so small now.

Walking to church along the bougainvillea fence…
Wondering why the boys are allowed to watch football whilst I have to go to church.

Oti Papa – towering tall. The coach. Superstar Someone scores, the crowd goes wild…
I walk to church…

I am 10.
Walking across the field after school to the far far corner to buy deep fried mhogo… Laughing with my two mates – Pauline and Mamie
Pure bliss
Them Mushrooms are having a jam/rehearsal session. The drums sound good, I fall in love with the guitar We eat and listen…

Thoma’s house.
First real rejection. I am 15 going on 16
Standing in the kitchen – the gally kitchens of Jeri… Gathered courage to go in for a kiss.
Dude jumped back as if I was about to stab him…
Note to self – do not make any sudden movements towards the male species. They are somewhat fragile when not in control.
Years later – we are back in the kitchen. Him from Sweden, me from my new hood. He has lost his Dad; I am saying pole.
And I remind him …ai ai ai…wacha hiyo story Posh (my hood nickname). We laugh and he goes – lakini you are free ku jaribu tena.

The car park.
With the Maasai watchie wrapped in his Raymond’s blanket, armed with his bow and arrow. It must have been a good year for Peugeot…everyone seemed to own one…or so it seemed. There was the occasional Datsun, Nissan and my Mama’s VW – KGG 908.

My street. Our house.
Laughter – it is a Saturday and Mama is having her bura – she is laughing, my aunties are laughing, gossiping, listening, helping, soothing, accounting for the monthly contributions. They are drinking and laughing, and Franco plays in the background.
Sisterhood – this is what it looks like.
Joy – Earth, Wind and Fire – blasts from the record player. I am mesmerised by the sparkly cover.
Fear – people running, horses…what? horses in Jericho? Screams… the 82 coup has arrived. Tears – loud wailing – my Uncle’s death – HIV – early days…he makes it into Newsweek… Violence mwizi comes the rallying call. We all pour out of our homes…
Nyerere with a panga, blood everywhere, leta mafuta…
Later on I wonder how witnessing that affected us kids…
Domes – the wall shook…my neighbour battering his wife. Her head made contact with the wall.
The late-night knocks, the crying, black eye, broken bone – letting in a weeping female who needs to make it to hospital…
Clear thought goes through my child mind – never marry a Kisii or a Luo for that matter…

The big easy – remembering the lazy Sunday afternoons, the footballers walking home, Leonard Mambo Mbotela asking us je, huu ni ungwana.
The only time I think Luo men my Dad’s age attempted to understand Swahili.

The Bus Stop
My stop – 3 steps and I am home.
The bus stop where Mwangi gathered courage and gave me a love letter via Freddie.
In their Martini uniform. Martini which I later realised was Martin Luther King Primary School. Go figure!
Mwangi from Ziwani.
As I got off the 8B – he got on. At times he didn’t.
He sat there with a clear view of our kitchen and veranda. Young love.
I turned him down gently…he swore to love me fore

The Obembo tree.
Weeping Willow – I discovered years later in my adulthood.
Dhi kel kedi – go bring a stick. God help you if you got a dry one!
It had to be flexible…so as it came down on you, you were dead just from the swishing sound it made.

I am 9.
In standard 3…
I have a toothache.
I take a nap after lunch and I miss my afternoon classes. The maid reports me to my Dad with glee!
Dhi om kedi. I die a thousand deaths. I am sick, in pain, my tooth!
All my Dad hears is that I skipped school…like that is my fucking nature!
I pick a nice flexible one because even in my misery, I want to be good and obedient and get a good kedi.
I have seen this guy cane my brother.
Watched my brother cry – my defender, my hero against the hood boys… I can’t imagine that wrath reigning down on me.
My Dad is speaking… I can’t hear him…
I am dying – can’t he see? I am crying – I am the good one. I am screaming – I am not lying! He raises his arm…
I pee…right there where I stand. He looks at me in shock…
I look at him in shock… He tells me to go shower.
He never raised his hands again…to me. But everyone else got it…sadly.
That is why only one boy has ever slapped me. One. Once. The end.

The hood.
We connected at a basic level
No pretence. No explaining. No pity. No judgement Just simple memories…
The medicine man The bus ride Sunday football Them Mushrooms
The Weeping Willow – which caused a lot of weeping Love – young unrequited love
Friends – rest in peace Mamie Tracy Chapman
Old Spice.

I am 45.
Standing in an empty car park Facing owanjo so
The bougainvillea is long gone
There is a stone wall instead – protecting the space from land grabbers…Kenya! The grass and red soil are now gone…
It is astro turf
Kids play in their bright yellow jerseys…dreaming… Oti Papa would be proud.
I wonder about Celestine, Wiki and Hillary…

Me at 45
Standing in the car park Old spice in my memory
But now not quite Old Spice but an expensive scent Tracy in my memory…
Nvirri the Storyteller on my mind
Football in the background
And in front of me… Home.

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Reflections

Die Kijana Die: The Crime of Being a Young Poor Man in Kenya

Growing up in Mathare, we all start out with beautiful dreams. A dream of becoming a doctor, police, engineer, professor, pilot, and so many more. Teachers used to tell us these dreams will only become true if you work hard. Maybe that’s why Motiso worked so hard to achieve his dream—to be a dancer.

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Die Kijana Die: The Crime of Being a Young Poor Man in Kenya
Photo: Julian Myles on Unsplash
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If you want to see colonialism alive and well in 2021, one of the first places you should look is Mathare, or any of Nairobi’s informal settlements. These are places where people are still not treated as full citizens, but rather, as sources of cheap labor. Citizens deserve publicly provided or accessible water, electricity, healthcare, education, roads, etc. But the people of Mathare are not treated as citizens. They are treated as disposable.

One of the ways that disposability is made most clear are police killings. In August, there was one week when police gunned down seven uncharged, unconvicted young men. But, while criminal suspects in other parts of the city are arrested and jailed, police kills the “disposable” young men of the ghetto because society, in its complicit silence, has agreed that it is more efficient this way.

We know that Kenyan civil society has long spoken up against police killings. The recent murders of Benson Njiru Ndwiga and Emmanuel Mutura Ndwiga while in police custody in Embu have rightfully incited public outrage. But what about the seven young men who were shot dead by police in Mathare within that one bloody week in August?

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On 9 August, 2021, a young man called Ian Motiso sat down to take a late lunch at a kibanda in Mlango Kubwa, Mathare when a killer cop called Blacky passed by. Blacky took out his gun and shot Motiso down then and there. Just like that, Motiso is no longer with us. He was 21 years old.

Another extrajudicial execution. Another life cut short.

Even though police killings continue throughout Kenya, people are speaking up about it now more than ever. A couple weeks ago, the Ndwiga brothers were detained in Embu by police. While in police custody, police beat them to death. The public responded with anger. National news covered it widely. Lawyers have taken up the brothers’ cases.

But what about Motiso? What about the other six young men killed in Mathare within that week? Almost silence.

People say that the young men police kill in the ghetto are “thugs.” People say that those who speak out against police killings simply do not understand what it is like to be a victim of crime in informal settlements. I was born and raised in Mathare. I have been a victim of crime. I know the pain of being robbed of valuable property. I know the pain of beatings from heartless young men. I know the pain of losing loved ones to “boys” who stab with knives.

Motiso committed crimes. Motiso personally attacked me. And Motiso did not deserve to be extrajudicially executed. I believe this, even though I still have a wound behind my right ear from when he bashed my head.

Two months ago, Smater Zagadat and I had just arrived at the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) to lead rehearsals for the MSJC Kids Club as usual. MSJC Kids Club is an initiative that uses dance and community theatre to advocate for social justice. Smater and I are the coordinators. That afternoon, I was wearing a black T-shirt with the logo “Dance with Zagadat”—Smater’s brand—so Smater took our her phone to take a picture of it. Within seconds, three teenagers swooped in and snatched the phone. We ran after them down towards the river and managed to catch the guy who grabbed the phone. Some kids from MSJC Kids Club followed behind.

We grabbed the thief and dragged him back up to the office so he could return Smater’s phone. But, suddenly, a group of young men came out of nowhere and attacked me. I only remember feeling their punches coming from all directions. Their fingers were covered with heavy coated rings. My teeth almost came out. I could not see what was happening, but I could see blood coming out of my mouth. All of this happened in the early evening on Mau Mau Road, between the bridge that connects Kambi Safi Road to Kosovo Hospital Ward, a very busy area—yet no one came to my rescue, except for the MSJC kids who shouted and cursed the attackers.

I recognized one of the attackers. Even though he recognized me back, he didn’t stop beating me. He felt no shame attacking someone he knew. He was Motiso.

Let me take you back, because I want you to understand something important. Motiso was born and raised in Mathare. He knew all six wards of Mathare very well, from the elderly to children. By the time he was 16 years old, he was already a very talented dancer and was a part of the Billian Music Family (BMF), together with Smater herself.  The community loved these dance groups, and in return, the groups inspired many kids in Mathare, including myself.

The first time I saw BMF’s Dance group, I was just out of primary school. The dancers were performing “Vigelegele” by Willy Paul along Mau Mau Road. That was the first time I heard the name Motiso. The kids, yelling above the booming speakers, cheered for him as he danced.

“Umecheki vile Motiso amedo hiyo Stingo?!”

“Atakua dancer mgori!”

He was just that good, and I guess that’s why he easily became famous.

Growing up in Mathare, we all start out with beautiful dreams. A dream of becoming a doctor, police, engineer, professor, pilot, and so many more. Teachers used to tell us these dreams will only become true if you work hard. Maybe that’s why Motiso worked so hard to achieve his dream—to be a dancer.

Maybe if he wasn’t born into a poor family, his hard work would have turned his dream true. But Motiso was born into a place that reeks of all sorts of human rights violations, of poverty, of ecological injustice. His dream was shut down because of the environment he was brought up in. So, did he give up? Yes, Motiso gave up.

Imagine the struggle he passed through. First, he was unemployed. Motiso, like many of us in Mathare, was trapped in a cycle of wage slavery. You wake up, go to job, get a salary, barely make food and rent, sleep, repeat until you die. But your work never turns into a dignified life. You’re just trapped.

Second, Motiso was in the danger zone of being a man in his twenties living in the ghetto. As young men in Mathare, when we reach this age, we automatically become an enemy of the state. The ghetto is a place where a child grows up innocent, then later on becomes a victim of predators who target, hunt, and prey on them.

So Motiso went ahead and jumped on a bad bandwagon. He left dancing and got involved in crime like petty theft. The reason why he chose crime over a path of straightness is simple: He needed to survive.

Some people criticize his decision, asking why he should commit crime when the government has offered plenty of job opportunities to the youth, like one program called Kazi Mtaani. But, if those people understood that Mutiso was a victim of structural violence created by the system that we are born into, they would understand that they are demanding a young man to make “good” decisions while he chokes inside a system that has never treated him as a human.

Mutiso did try to join Kazi Mtaani, actually. A few months ago in Mathare, a group of young men went to the administration to register for Kazi Mtaani. But they were surprised to find that, in order to participate, they would first have to bribe the Area Chief 1,000 KES ($10). How can you look a young unemployed man in the eye, when you know he has no job, and ask him for money? Maybe the thieves who snatched Smater’s phone wanted to sell it in order to bribe the Chief and get a job.

Motiso will always be remembered as a thief. He robbed many. Many are still crying because of what he did.

But remember—he was also a friend. He was a family member.

He never deserved to be born into a system that does not care for poor people.

He never deserved to live in a world that kept poor people powerless in order to exploit them and, when they did what they wanted to survive, killed them off.

He did not deserve to be killed by the people whom we expect to protect us.

He never deserved that.

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Reflections

This Season Is Heavy – Yaani, COVID Has Shown Us Things

Yet, even with this heaviness, the digital world has offered many families unable to mourn physically with their loved ones the opportunity to be inclusive.

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This Season Is Heavy – Yaani, COVID Has Shown Us Things
Photo: Ovinuchi Ejiohuo on Unsplash
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This 2020.1 version is dealing a heavy hand. Heavy! That’s what it feels like. Heavy. I thought rough would be a better word, but in my head, that rough comes with some gruffiness. There is nothing gruff here. This season is heavy.

Heavy. Laden. It feels like we are riding a storm in the high seas being pounced upon from above and below. The port and starboard are defenceless. Yet, the periods of calm and when the sun does manage to break the clouds, the relief though appreciated, leave one edgy. That’s how I feel right now, and I know that I’m not alone.

Many of my friends have been telling me to write. Write what I’m feeling and share. But neither the soul nor the fingers have been willing. I have tried, but I don’t get beyond two paragraphs. This is more than I’ve done in a while and so maybe you might get to read a completed piece. So far, so good. I’ve shared my feelings with some folks. I know that if I keep on holding what I’ve been feeling, it will come out in the most unlikely way and probably be rather embarrassing. Like throwing a tantrum at a Naivas shop attendant and demanding to know why they don’t have whole-wheat-bread, yet they should know white bread bloats me. So, I need to speak. As they say, a burden shared…

Twenty-twenty plus one, up to now, has been one hell of a rollercoaster. I want to get off, but I’ve got the happy hour special, where I seem to have gotten a free ride that I had not paid for.

I lost my dear friend, correction, our dear friend, Lorna Irungu, aka Kui. This was in March, my birthday month. The same month I’d moved house and was yet again taught to appreciate Kilifi and the sea with new eyes. It was in March that I tested positive for COVID. That was scary, and I don’t want to wish the disease on my worst enemy. I mourned Lorna within the confines of my home, alone. Grief is even more painful when you are denied human touch. I wanted a hug and to be held. I wanted my tears to fall not just into my pillow or run down my cheeks but to be also comforted tactilely because I was in pain.

Many other friends who knew Lorna (Kui) were hurting. Still are. That was March. A birthday month that will not be forgotten. It was a month when I learnt yet again to surrender to the inevitable. Acceptance. I recognised my humanness, frailty and the fragility of life. COVID left me humble and terribly grateful, and I’ve shared that experience with friends and other COVID survivors.

Whenever I hear that someone has tested positive, I pray that the virus is kind to their body and, hopefully, they get well. Recovery, as we’re seeing, is not always guaranteed.

I’m learning to celebrate the victors and honour the fallen. This heavy season is, in essence, about the cycle of life. Only that the death aspect of it has been ratcheted up. A friend told me the other day, as we consoled one another over our respective losses, that the thing that makes this period heavy is that there is hardly any time to mourn or reflect. Because in almost rapid-fire speed, there have been several RIPs on Facebook or Instagram or staff emails with the words, ‘It is With Sadness…’ or getting invited to yet another Whatsapp group that is, ‘In Honour of…’

It’s heavy! We have been introduced to Zoom, Google Meets or Teams, and virtual memorials and burials. We not only work and socialise remotely but also mourn remotely! Yet, even with this heaviness, the digital world has offered many families unable to mourn physically with their loved ones the opportunity to be inclusive. Yaani, Covid has shown us things.

The month of April rolled in. I said farewell to Lynn, a former colleague turned friend. Then there was Frank, whom we joked about eating Kanyama (roast meat) together once we recovered from ‘The Vid’. One of my doctors fell ill at the same time as his elderly mother. He was recovering at home while she was recovering in the hospital where he worked. I said goodbye to a woman who took me into her bosom even though neither of us could speak either’s language. I had to trust that my virtual support and financial contributions meant more than just the obligatory expectation. Adieu, Adel.

And then, there was Baba. My dad. Who passed on, just like that. ‘The Vid’ didn’t get him, a stroke did. A reminder that there are still other things out there claiming lives. May was double the intensity of March. Within days of losing my dad, one of my close friends lost his dad too. I learnt how skin becomes thin, and I would become irritable at the slightest thing.

I learnt how loss also brings in a flood of care and love from unexpected corners. Even though the world felt rather shenzi, there was a battery of angels who just showed up. Kindness and comfort do balm pain. But my word doesn’t death sting! Others who’ve gone through similar loss were on hand with realness and not hollow words. Maybe my skin is still thin? During that period, there were phrases and words I never want to hear again. But I know, I will.

Anyway, who knows what to say during these times and who is consoling who? Sometimes just silence and presence are enough. And I learnt that even in the depths of grief, there is still space to laugh and smile. I remember telling one of my relatives that I didn’t know how to be strong. How could I be at that time? I was in pain. And grief brings along a pain that if you don’t let out, it will surely find its way out, where you like it or not. So, to those who encouraged me to cry and let me cry, thank you. I’m in a better place right now. My family and I, like many others, are navigating yet another new normal.

I’m in a place of more learning and unlearning. And trying to steady myself through this season of heaviness. I’ve also learnt that this is also a season of grace, and I’m dishing it out royally. We are still living in a pandemic. These are unheralded times, and people do and will continue to do shitty and baffling things. My life coach, Cece, keeps reminding me to think of the lessons I’m being taught — the takeaways.

I’ve gone back to embracing the moments so that I can get through the day. There’s a lot more gratitude within me, a lot more. On some mornings, I step into the day gingerly, and on others, I step into the day and let life happen, hoping I have the strength to deal with what life throws my way.

My word, what a season we are in! Yet, this is life. So, here’s wishing you grace for all sorts of days, be they sunny, blustery, or torrential. And, the strength to see you and me through this season.

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