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.
Confronting Racism in the Shackles of a Miseducation
I cannot claim to have been a victim of the odious, brutal racism of the kind daily suffered by – predominantly – African American men in the United States. The racism I encountered during my time abroad was of the insidious kind, the kind that lets you in through the door and feigns to accept you as an equal while reminding you that “the hand that receives is always beneath the hand that gives.”
Paysage avec homme nu dans la neige.
That was the title of the book and the subject of the exam.
Landscape with a naked man in the snow.
I cannot now remember the title of the course but I have kept the book and clearly remember the lecturer who taught it; a small, pasty-faced man with a balding pate and shifty black eyes. There we were, in his office on the second floor of the Faculty of Letters, Monsieur le Professeur behind his desk and me on the opposite side facing him, nervously ready to sit this oral exam. It started off well enough, my confidence growing as I responded to the lecturer’s questions.
Then out of nowhere, like a violent slap across the face, his beady eyes boring into mine, came this: “Tell me Mademoiselle, naked white men fascinate you, don’t they? Do you like the title of the book? What does it make you think of? You black people are really fascinated by us whites, aren’t you?” I sat there utterly gobsmacked, unable to conjure up any sort of response, in outrage or even in pretense at a smart literary comeback. Then Monsieur le Professeur seemed to snap out of it, dismissing me with a peremptory Vous pouvez disposer!
I left his office and stopped to stare out through the large bay windows that overlooked the square below, too stunned to immediately leave the building and join the throngs of students lazing about in the summer sunshine. I felt sad, mad, sullied, impotent. I knew I could lodge a complaint but how would I frame it? With what words? There had only been the two of us in that office so it would be his word against mine. Also, I was the only black female student in my faculty that year so I had no one to compare notes with. And besides, I knew I had passed the exam; otherwise, as was the custom, Monsieur le Professeur would have informed me that I would be taking a re-sit come September. Why then would I start a fight I wasn’t sure I could win?
Yet now I believe that this acquiescence, this doubting of self, this not fighting back, had been inculcated in me, and that I had internalised it well. I remember being in secondary school and the Mother Superior informing us that Africans were required to attend national celebrations at Uhuru Park. Africans. Not the Asians or the Europeans that were in class with me, many of whom were, at least from a citizenship point of view, as Kenyan as I am. Africans. Black. Everyone else stayed behind as we Black Africans made our way to Uhuru Park that day. We did not complain. I did not complain.
An Irish nun given to long digressions into her distant childhood in County Cork taught us African history. Apartheid and Bantustans came up, a map showing the various desolate locations to which black South Africans had been relegated pinned to the classroom wall. Yet I do not remember any sense of outrage on the part of the teacher. Or on the part of us students. Kenya’s colonial history, with its native reserves, its racism and its violence, was certainly not taught. It was a time to forgive but never forget, we were constantly reminded, the not forgetting bit invoked as an after-thought, sotto voce.
And nor was Kenya’s painful history invoked at home; we were not a political family by any measure. The parents worked and the children went to school and did what was expected of them. Only much later did it occur to me to wonder what it might mean for my family that my grandfather had been a chief in colonial times.
We learned to recite Shakespeare, and became intimate with the Mayor of Casterbridge; the English classics held no secrets for us. I fell in love with the language of love, taught to me by one Mrs Kiprono (why on earth would anyone study Swahili?) and flew off to take a degree in Romance Languages the minute I could. And thus did I come face to face with my miseducation.
I had been on campus a year, struggling to dominate the language of Molière, when the time came to renew my student residency permit, having done well enough to progress to second year. Of I went to the immigration desk of our local authority one October morning, joining a line of foreigners there for the same reason when, suddenly, up at the top of the queue, a young black man lost it. “What?! I am exploiting the Belgian taxpayer?! Do you know how long we Congolese suffered under your rule? Do you know that we built this country? Do you know what King Leopold did to us? Do you? Well, if you think I’m profiting from you I haven’t even started yet Madame! I have come to repatriate what you took from me!”. Apparently, the prim madam attending to the queue had questioned his motivation to remain in Belgium since he had failed his year but the young Congolese man was having none of it; he threw a monumental, show-stopping fit and got his residency renewed there and then. I had never witnessed anything of the sort before. I realised there was another whole history out there I knew nothing about.
That young man made me feel emboldened and when, some time later, a couple of cops jumped dramatically out of their patrol car in that neighbourhood of Brussels known as Matongé—on account of its numerous Congolese businesses—and barked, “papiers!”, at Jean and I, clearly hoping that we were undocumented illegals, we laughed in their faces as we handed over our student IDs. A young female lecturer of African descent recently arrived at the department of history had me transfixed when she took on a white professor at an international students event. In his cravat, floppy hat and carefully cultivated air of the worldly dandy, the prof had been waxing lyrical about his time at the Université Lovanium in Congo-Kinshasa, practically working himself into a state of ecstasy at the recall of the beauty of Congolese women dancers during faculty parties. Her “je danse, donc je suis?”, I dance, therefore I am?, abruptly put paid to that self-indulgent, paternalistic, walk down memory lane.
The scales had fallen from my eyes and I had come to the painful realisation that I had been lied to and that things were not as they seemed. I started reading properly, discovering the works of Cheikh Anta Diop and promoting them with the zeal of a recent convert, once eliciting the comment of a white friend that he would henceforth have to regard me in a totally different light, now that he was having to contemplate the notion that Africans had entire civilisations behind them. I was astounded.
A first full-time job after graduation brought me into the world of trade unions, a world where I expected that the rallying call—“Workers of the world, unite!”—excluded racists from the ranks of its diverse membership. That is until I found myself sitting between two Italian delegates to whom I was providing consecutive interpretation when a white speaker, referring to Namibians, ejaculated: “But these people are animals! You can’t do anything with them!”. (The man had a contract to undertake trade union education among the said “animals”.) I could not translate that statement, did not know what to do with it even as the two Italians kept asking me, “What did he say? What did he say?”. The meeting broke up in pandemonium.
I moved jobs a while later and found myself working under a Belgian director who liked to advance his reputation as a friend of Africa and Africans, holding court in his office through the doors of which hopeful African immigrés would flow, many met in the African nightclubs Monsieur le Directeur liked to frequent. Which did not dissuade him from treating very ill a young man to whom he had offered a job as his PR man, holding him by the contractual balls and giving them a squeeze every so often, just because he could. That young man eventually lost his job. And his mind. He was Congolese.
I cannot claim to have been a victim of the odious, brutal racism of the kind daily suffered by – predominantly – African American men in the United States. The racism I encountered during my time abroad was of the insidious kind, the kind that lets you in through the door and feigns to accept you as an equal while reminding you that “the hand that receives is always beneath the hand that gives”, as one senior manager, a Frenchman, put it to staff to justify why African beneficiaries of international development cooperation largesse needn’t expect to have their views taken into serious consideration in the execution of a project.
In the meantime, other books were published. Like King Leopold’s Ghost, a quick primer on the brutality of the agents of King Leopold II in the Congo Free State. My heart went out to the Congolese after that one. Or the horrifyingly detailed Britain’s Gulag, which at first I was unable to read to the end; the torture casually perpetrated in the Kenyan concentration camps by the colonists and their local collaborators was beyond anything I could bear to know. It took ten years for me to go back to that book, and to start asking questions about that time. I was shocked to learn from an aunt now in her early 70s that she knew of women who never did get married, could find no one to marry them, because they were daughters of known Ngati, the Kikuyu Home Guards that did the colonial government’s dirty work.
There was still the question of my grandfather who had been a chief in those times. I loved and revered that man, and did not want to have to contemplate that he might have been a party to the suffering visited upon Kenyans by the colonial government and its craven collaborators. And so I did not probe. Then, quite by chance, I fell upon The Swords of Kĩrĩnyaga: the fight for land and freedom, a book written by H.K. Wachanga, a former freedom fighter and, in those pages, I learnt something about my grandfather that freed me from the fear that my family had been on the wrong side of Kenya’s history.
[W]e met the Muhĩto Location Chief, Jeremiah Kĩnyua s/o Kĩru. He was a most unusual chief, because he had taken the second Mau Mau oath. He warned us that the government was searching for Kĩmathi, Mathenge and myself. He said Kimathĩ and Mathenge were to be tried for murder and that I was to be detained. He implored me to escape to Nairobi and hide there.
I learnt very recently from a contemporary of my grandfather’s that his chieftaincy was short-lived. Jeremiah Kĩnyua son of Kiru would not commit exactions against his people, and eschewed violence and corruption. And so he was quietly removed, never again to hold public office, living a dignified life and dying an honourable death four years shy of his 100th birthday.
Covid Organics: Towards an African Renaissance
Following the outbreak of a pandemic in the city of Wuhan during a Chinese winter that will forever remain etched in the annals of history, Madagascar has been dramatically thrust to the fore on the international stage with its announcement of the development of a herbal remedy for COVID-19.
Unlike other former French colonies in Africa such as Benin, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Senegal and Mali that have been acclaimed for placing the continent on the world map musically, Madagascar is not known for its musical prowess. The country pales in comparison to Cape Verde, that tiny island in the Atlantic Ocean that produced the gifted voice of Cesária Évora, and gave birth to Amilcar Cabral, the anti-colonial revolutionary and theoretician. But with the outbreak of a pandemic in the city of Wuhan during a Chinese winter that will forever remain etched in the annals of history, Madagascar has been dramatically thrust to the fore on the international stage.
Madagascar caught the world’s attention in April 2020 after announcing that it had made an extraordinary breakthrough in the field of (indigenous African) medicine. The Madagascar Institute of Applied Research (IMRA), which describes itself as “dedicated to biodiversity conservation and the discovery of drugs from natural products”, announced the development of Covid Organics (CVO) from the artemisia plant. Promoted as an herbal remedy that prevents and cures those who have tested positive for COVID-19, the drug has caused a sensation in a continent that has been marginalised by an international scientific community that views Africa as a spectator rather than as a player. But let me put a few things into perspective.
Long before CVO, the island nation’s flourishing plant life had been used for medicinal purposes, a tradition dating back to its pre-colonial days. The colonial epoch, however, disrupted this practice in order to introduce conventional medicine just like in other colonised African countries. In Madagascar, the practice was revived through the establishment of IMRA and deliberate emphasis was placed on the “value of plants in healing”, confirmed by the scientific tradition of investigating their chemical compounds to improve their efficacy. Remarkably, this revival began in the late 1950s when most African countries were on the cusp of independence and self-rule, with Ghana taking the lead (in 1957), and Madagascar and others following from 1960 onwards.
Political independence and self-rule coincided with the need to reclaim old practices and traditions that had been suppressed in the colonial era. The COVID-19 herbal remedy which continues to elicit excitement is, therefore, part of a long and rich African tradition that has resisted erasure.
Covid Organics comes against the backdrop of other encouraging and bold African interventions to combat various diseases that have plagued the world in recent decades. Before COVID-19, another viral disease stalked parts of West and Central Africa, resulting in more than 10,000 deaths. First reported in the DRC and in present-day South Sudan in 1976, the fight against Ebola has over the decades underscored the importance of the active involvement of local populations in deploying indigenous knowledge and remedies. Not many Africans are aware of the indescribable bravery of Sheik Umar Khan, a Sierra Leonean virologist who helped scores of Ebola patients before succumbing to the virus. Very few have heard of Dr Matthew Lukwiya, a Ugandan doctor who generated a substantial body of knowledge in the fight against Ebola before falling victim to the disease.
These few examples arguably contest the pervasive idea that conventional medicine and, to a large extent, western intervention are the only antidotes to African problems. The paradox in all this is the economic impoverishment of Madagascar, Sierra Leone and Uganda where a majority of citizens still live below the poverty line as compared to, say, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya and Egypt. There are, of course, other factors that explain the economic differences, but the most important point here is that innovation tends to occur where the need is greatest.
No one epitomises this innovative spirit more than IMRA founder, Prof Albert Rakoto, whose earlier studies on the artemisia plant have contributed immensely to the development of Covid Organics. (The research on Covid Organics has been falsely credited to Jérôme Munyangi, a Congolese researcher.) Rakoto’s insistence on blending indigenous and conventional medicine is vital because it is likely to solve two problems with a single solution, retaining traditional medicine practices that are readily available within most African communities while adapting modern scientific trends to improve the effectiveness of plants such as artemisia in order to complement the strained healthcare infrastructure.
It is safe to say that so far Madagascar is reaping the benefits of its discovery if the coronavirus figures in the island nation are anything to go by. At the time of writing this article, the country had recorded 1,724 confirmed positive cases with only 15 deaths, and 732 recovered and discharged. The figures nearly mirror those of other former French colonies like Guinea Bissau and Equatorial Guinea which have reported under 20 deaths each so far, and are also the beneficiaries of the Covid Organics. Therefore, as the global pandemic continues to evolve, it will become increasingly foolhardy for the international scientific community to ignore this very interesting trend.
Recently, there have been thinly veiled attempts—mainly by western mainstream media outlets—to cast aspersions on the drug. Reuters described the herbal remedy as a “cure” , the quotation marks serving to cast doubts on the claims made by Madagascar about Covid Organics, while FRANCE24 brazenly and without batting an eyelid went ahead to call it “The president’s controversial ‘miracle cure’” in one of their news stories. Some of these problematic media framings go beyond the often false premise that nothing good can come out of Africa. Instead, they are part of a deliberate, but subtle ideological battle that persistently discredits anything African that might be of benefit to the world.
The use of the word “miracle” by FRANCE24 captures this vividly because it implies superstition – some irrational belief in the healing powers of the drug – instead of the deployment of homegrown science and logic in responding to a virus that has ravaged western countries more than any other part of the world. Some Africans have joined the fray in ridiculing the wonder drug, provoking a déjà vu moment reminiscent of Ocol’s infamous lamentations to Lawino:
We will round up
All these priests
[…] And herbalists,
[…] Dealers in poisons
Extracted from plants
The leading proponent of the drug is Andry Rajoelina, the wiry-looking Malagasy president with his signature toothy smile. Before he ascended to power, the 46-year old was an event organiser. He has progressively become the poster boy for the drug, and more importantly, for the shaping and reimagining the course of the African Renaissance. Through various interviews granted to media platforms, Rajoelina continues to insist that nothing will stop the continent from devising homegrown solutions to respond to local and even global problems. His memorable rallying cry was expressed during a television session with FRANCE24 when he asked: “What if this remedy had been discovered by a European country, instead of Madagascar? Would people doubt it so much?”
Rajoelina is not the first African to challenge the institutionalised racism that has plagued people of colour the world over since the advent of European imperialism. Pioneer pan-African thinkers and philosophers like Marcus Garvey, W.E.B Dubois, Malcolm X and Frantz Fanon dedicated their lives to fighting racism in a world that had been designed to minimise the contributions of non-white peoples. Accordingly, how did one reconcile with the nightmare that Dubois called “double consciousness”? The “sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” that currently informs the discourse on Covid Organics? Lately, Julius Malema, who leads South Africa’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) party, has been at the forefront in challenging and questioning inherited ideas of self-doubt and inferiority complex that Rajoelina also now contends with. Malema, like Rajoelina today, has been a fierce proponent of Africa and has even called for the dismantling of colonial borders that prevent ease of movement and trade among Africans.
Despite not being geographically located on the African continent, Madagascar identifies as African, not just because of its significant Bantu population, but because of a growing continental pride, especially among the younger generation. In the last few years, the rise and rise of African music like afrobeats (West Africa), kizomba music (in lusophone countries), rumba (in Central Africa), bongo (in Tanzania) and gqom and amapiano (in South Africa) has galvanized young Africans to new forms of negotiating and asserting their racial and geographical identities within a globalised world.
Madagascar’s development of a herbal remedy for COVID-19 has become an extension of this ongoing negotiation with identity that constantly invokes the slogans Africa Unite and I am proud to be African. Therefore, its location several kilometres further into the Indian Ocean has not dissuaded the Malagasy people from identifying with the pan-African goal of a strong, unified continent ready to determine her own destiny.
There are, of course, those who may voice criticism that Rajoelina’s COVID-19 remedy is not enough to catalyse the important conversation of the African Renaissance, and that it is a passing fad that will soon be forgotten as long as COVID-19 continues to mutate. While this argument is valid, the critics fail to acknowledge that indigenous strategies of confronting diseases, particularly those that are viral, including HIV/AIDS, remain instrumental in instilling optimism and hope in a continent that has been battered by persistent narratives of despair and Afro-pessimism. Madagascar essentially provides the continent with a new incentive to sustain, for example, the debate around patents and intellectual property rights that have received scant attention from African governments. The island nation further acts as a symbolic incubation centre for creative, radical and innovative ideas that are not afraid to confront mainstream thinking (on matters medicine) in the 21st century.
Madagascar’s story has just begun and it will continue to follow the same trajectory as long as the beneficiaries of the herbal remedy recover from COVID-19. Western media stations will have to rethink their reporting on African issues because the old ways will no longer work. African sounds, not just music in the sonic sense, but the capacity to speak and be heard will increasingly become the norm rather than the exception. A deepening African consciousness, that in the past was considered an anathema, will progressively influence new ways of engagement between fellow Africans within and outside the continent and between Africans and non-Africans. It is highly probable that the engagement—time is on Africa’s side (considering the youthful population)—will always be of equals and not that of a master and subordinate. With Rajoelina and Malema and Bobi Wine and many countless others accelerating these pan-African conversations through music, art, speeches, and most importantly, home-grown science, Africa’s voice is set to soar.
This Place I Cannot Call Home
There is adrenaline rushing through my veins. Too much cortisol is pouring into my system. Every time I hear a police car. To one group, the sound of a police siren is comforting. A sense of guaranteed protection of life and property. For others, it portends death.
In Memory of The Charleston Nine.
Tomorrow the sun will rise at nine,
And nine thin blades of grass will sprout straight,
Each single blade,
Tall and erect, green heads, sharp edges held straight,
Listening to the crickets at dawn,
Cracking their wings nine times,
Tomorrow at nine,
When the sun is warm and the earth is happy,
Standing at the cliffs of Charles-Stone,
With the winds at their command,
What if each bullet had a name?
What if you could call each bullet back?
Soon, when it leaves the barrel,
From cracking the air with the sounds of broken bones,
Of men, silent forever,
And each bullet was put to bed, to sleep,
Would that bring back life?
I came to this land in September of 2014. Just when Ferguson, Missouri was happening. I watched most of the rioting on television. I was not very disturbed that Michael Brown Jr. had been shot dead. I was stressed that Darren Wilson had fired at Brown twelve times. And hit him six times. I have watched people hunt lions in Africa. And warthogs. And other wild animals. There is hardly enough time to fire twelve times at a charging buffalo. Let alone an unarmed human. I was shocked at the hate and fear that would push a man, a police officer, to execute a fellow unarmed man in this heinous fashion. It all looked like a bad hunting trip. Something out of a horror movie.
I settled in front of the television. The communal loss and mourning flowed from the television, in clear crystal images. Into my veins. I watched it on repeat. Seeking meaning for it all. One of the people visiting my house wondered out loud what was wrong with these people. Why were they burning and looting? And fighting the police? She had made no comment about Brown’s death before this. She was only concerned about the loss of property.
It occurred to me right there and then that I was alone. Like many black people who go to parties with their white friends. And only learn they are alone when the police appear. Or when they get pulled over. And their skin colour suddenly makes them fair game. To be prodded. Inspected. Violated. Knelt on. The people who were bearing the pain of this murder, and the travesty of justice that would follow, were not dining with me at the same table, or dancing with me in the hipster bars that I go to. No. They were the ones out there in the streets. They were the prey. I was learning quickly. That not even a law education from Harvard can save you from the hunters of black bodies in this land.
I am folding into myself. Like a flower that has sensed a warning in the environment. A change in temperature. The coming of a storm. Of death. I am folding into myself to protect my seed. And the future generation. America has been good to me. Yet I am hesitant to freely enjoy its fullness. There is a tightness in my chest. There is adrenaline rushing through my veins. Too much cortisol is pouring into my system. Every time I hear a police car. To one group, the sound of a police siren is comforting. A sense of guaranteed protection of life and property. For others, it portends death.
Let me tell you a story. One day I was visiting a friend of mine. In front of his house, I met this man who looked like me. He was black. Of medium height. No visible body markings. He fit the description. Like in the emails I get at work. There has been a case of suspected robbery. The suspect is a black male. Of medium height. If you see a person of that description, please call 911. That is me. I fit the description.
This man approached me with measured caution. He called me brother. I came into town today, he said. I came to look for my cousin who cuts hair around the corner. I have learned that he left town. I am asking you for ten dollars to buy dinner. As I figure my way around. I did not feel threatened in anyway. He looked like me. Black man. Of medium height. I shook his hand. I gave him a twenty. And wished him well.
I stepped into my friend’s house. Before us was expensive whisky. And overpriced education. And imagined success. And sports. I told them about the man I had just encountered. The white men were unanimous that I should have called the cops on the guy. Let the police deal with it. They wanted the police to get on with their duty to the society—to remove the bad guys from our neighbourhoods. Men like the one who stole ten minutes from me. They were not welcome to wander around these neighbourhoods. This man I had encountered fit the description. I suddenly feared for him. Wondering where his night would end.
I am more aware of my surroundings. You are wondering how this feels? How freedom and equality feel in the land of the free? Sit down. Let me tell you. You remember what grandfather would say? That when the hairs on your neck stand stiff, when you step out at night. It is because there is a leopard watching you. Run back inside. Yell for help. Every able-bodied man must then get their spears. Leave the warmth of their wives. To hunt the leopard. Kill it. And its spirits. Before it kills a child. For nothing tastes as good as freedom. There is no gift more precious than freedom that a man can give to his son and daughter. Not here. My father. The freedom is only guaranteed to the offspring of certain peoples. The others can’t breathe. These people have found a way to extend the fear of the slave master, legally, into the heart of the black community. The police are their vehicle of delivery. The justice system reinforces it. In this way, the law has been used to bend the black man into shapes that work for America. Society is happy to spend funds on heavily policing the poor rather than on initiatives aimed at reaching out and integrating the black communities. Communities that have raised heroes in sports and the arts and have contributed to American culture. My father. I hope I do not sound regretful. Or Resentful. Or defeated.
It is June of 2015. It is almost a year since Ferguson, Missouri. It is almost six months since three Muslim students were massacred in a housing complex near my house, over a parking space dispute. On that day, the darkness in this white man’s heart, engulfed the whole community in a black blanket of sorrow and sadness. It would remind this sleepy community that the leopard is out there. Crouching. Ready to pounce from behind historical lines of racial tensions. And eat the minority. I was quickly learning about the fault lines of this country. The volcano beneath the smiling faces. The coded words. “You speak English so well”. “You should thank God you are here”. “It is very hard to be American, be thankful”. “We thank God for you”. “This place can’t be worse than your home”. I was also learning that it is harder to grow up black in Chicago than it is to grow up in Jericho, Nairobi. That America was created along racial lines. And morality also flowed like an electric current, along the boundaries of these lines. That it is so hard for the church to be one. That a compromise had to be reached, where Jesus was sliced in two, along racial lines. The one in black churches was shouted at. Implored. Yelled at. In spirit. Into action. Jesus save our black men, from death, from the police. From gun violence. The one in white churches, was thanked for the good life. For the good neighbourhood. For one country. Under God. For the gift of police. Blue lives matter.
Following the shooting in Charleston, I found myself in a black church, mourning. The preacher was white. I was disappointed because I wanted the rage in the sermon to flow to me through black lips. Black voice. Black anger. The voice that had trembled, while explaining to a police officer, why she was sorry for driving two miles over the speed limit. A voice filled with scorn. Twisted. Yelling. Fuck the system. Broken. By the loss of another brother. The sermon was meek. Organised. I wanted chaos. I wanted to question God. Why. The loss was palpable. I started folding into myself. I cried. I wrote poetry. I had been here hardly a year. And all the safe spaces were crowded with violence.
There are things we should not tell children. Me, I have started talking to Theo. Explaining to him, that though the police remove the bad guys, like they do in the movies, they also kill a lot of innocent people. Black people. People like me. That is why we have been marching. And that’s why I have not been able to sleep since George Floyd died. And Ahmaud Arbery. I am permanently suspended in this dream where I am riding my bike down a road. And a pick-up truck sneaks up behind me. They yell something. And everything descends into black beautiful petals. I wake up scared. Unable to sleep again. I think I am having nightmares about Ahmaud Arbery. They did not want him jogging in their neighbourhood. So, they chased him down, run him over and shot him in the chest. His running was making them so mad. So hateful. That they chose death, as the rightful punishment for him.
You know about Floyd. You called me. And talked to me. You don’t know about Breonna Taylor. You didn’t know about Trayvon Martin. You don’t know about this pain. You know about Dr King. You know about Malcolm. You bought his autobiography so that Kevin and I could read it. When we were 14. You don’t know about Emmet Till. How death can come to a black child falsely accused of whistling at a white woman. Who can kill a child for whistling? And walk free. And Philando Castile. And Tamir Rice. And Sandra Bland. And Eric Garner. And Freddie Gray. The list is longer than the length of the Nile. My father. I am folding into myself.
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