On the thirtieth anniversary of the massive pro-democracy Saba Saba day ( 7th July) demonstrations in Kenya, Tuesday’s People’s March began in the very places where state violence is still laid bare: Mathare, Kayole, Dandora, Kibera, and other informal settlements in Nairobi. From as early as 7AM that grey cold-season morning, human rights defenders at the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC) and allies from the community began preparing for their march. They lined posters and banners along the front of the centre. They raised up large flags, one in each hand, and spun, watching the fabric billow. They tested loudspeakers. They sang and danced to protest music together.
Thirty years ago, hundreds of demonstrators flooded the city centre, led by a coalition of pro-democracy political leaders, to demand multi-party democracy and the end of authoritarian rule under President Daniel arap Moi. On Tuesday, grassroots human rights defenders organised a People’s March—a leaderless event that was, on principle, neither branded and sponsored by any organisation, nor “approved” beforehand by authorities—to demand a set of basic human rights necessary to live a dignified life.
Ironically, in 1990, the first Saba Saba demonstration under Moi’s dictatorship was able to at least get within the vicinity of the Kamukunji grounds, though it was eventually met with lethal police force. This time in 2020, before demonstrators were able to even leave Mathare, Dandora, Kibera, Kayole, and other meeting places, clots of police officers had already begun blocking their passage and arresting leading organisers. Only minutes after demonstrators at the Mathare Social Justice Centre began singing, police shot tear gas at them.
After the inaugural plumes of tear gas cleared from the front of MSJC, Mama Victor walked up to me, gave me a long embrace, looked to where the police were gathered, and abruptly said, “I’m going there to take tea.”
Mama Victor has a face like calm waters, smooth and serene like one of Picasso’s monumental women. Like the other members of the Network of Mothers and Widows of Victims and Survivors who had gathered at MSJC to participate in the march, she wore a white gown over her clothes, like those for baptisms. Written on the front of all of the gowns were the names of loved ones killed by police. She clenched in her hand the poster she had intended to march with: a large photograph of a young man, with the words “Victor Okoth Obondo. 1994-2017.”
Three years ago, Mama Victor lost both of her sons on the same day. It was August 9, 2017, when post-election unrest led to violent police crackdowns in informal settlements across the country. Victor, 22, and Bernard, 25—the son of her deceased sister, whom she raised as her own—were on their way home to Mathare when they were caught up in protests contesting election results. Police shot live bullets. Bernard was shot in the head and died instantly; Victor was shot in the stomach and died before he reached the hospital.
At the time, Mama Victor’s shock and grief was forced into the confines of a politically charged election. Victor and Bernard’s burials had to be rushed, but, in her account to journalist Isaac Otidi Amuke, she says she was “fortunate” to even have that. Other mothers, grandmothers, widows, and relatives, are often denied the “privilege to mourn,” as people can be arrested for even holding vigil for those killed by police.
“In the beginning, I would just wake up, see the photo of my sons, and cry,” she says. But as the once-searing pain subsided with time, she realized that it was only people like her who could sit with other mothers of victims and “share the pain we feel.” So she and a few other core members formed the Network of Mothers and Widows of Victims and Survivors.
The word “activist,” and the cynicism around it, often obscures the fact that some like Mama Victor never chose to be activists. Rather, it was the decision of some police officers sent to control “riots” on August 9, 2017 to pull the trigger—and Mama Victor’s refusal to accept impunity as an answer—that has landed her here. Taking tea in front of police officers on Saba Saba day.
Right off of the main road where over a dozen police officers were gathered, behind a kiosk selling medicinal herbs, was a breakfast kibanda. Mama Victor sat down on the mbao-bench to take chai and chapati. On the bench next to her, she set down the poster of Victor and another poster of Yassin Moyo, the 13-year-old boy who was shot in Kiamaiko on March 30 by police enforcing curfew, while he stood on the balcony of his family’s house.
Almost immediately, two policeman approach Mama Victor. They ask her what she is doing, and she says drily that she is taking tea. One orders her to get up and leave. “I can’t,” she says, “because I am taking tea.” They say no “gatherings” are allowed here—referring to the protest songs that had just been silenced by tear gas—and once again she says she is not gathering anything, she is just taking tea.
The humiliating interrogation continues. One officer asks her why she is wearing white, to which she responds that those are her clothes. He sees her facemask, draped loose on her neck, and with his wooden baton, prods at the human rights logo printed on it: “What is this?” Even with his stick pointed at her neck, Mama Victor didn’t let her chin drop. She raises her voice and reaffirms that she is not doing anything wrong by wearing her own clothes and drinking tea. She takes two cups and pours the hot, milky tea from one cup into the other, in a long, white cascade, to cool it.
Mama Victor is not naive about dealing with the police. As a human rights defender at MSJC, she collects evidence to document police brutality in Mathare, which means that, like other grassroots organizers unprotected by international institutions, in the past, she has received threats from anonymous callers and been followed for days by strange men. If she talks back to police, it is not because she believes she is untouchable.
One police officer orders Mama Victor to remove the white robe and throw away the posters of Victor and Yassin. A crowd gathers around this image of a thousand words: a policeman with his stick, standing above a woman seated on a wooden bench, trying to take her breakfast. Mama Victor refuses to throw away the posters and, her shouts reaching a fever pitch, she points to the poster of Victor on the bench next to her and asks the wrenching, simple question: “Can I not even take tea here with my child?”
Despite the fact that the state has already heaped layers of violence on this woman—murdering her sons, denying her justice, leaving her to solve her own children’s murders, plus the baseline systemic neglect that Mathare and other informal settlements suffer—the state has denied Mama Victor the dignity of even appearing before the Kenyan public by choking the Saba Saba day demonstration before it started.
They cannot, however, strip away the eternal truth that she is—and always will be—Mama Victor. Victor Okoth Obondo, frozen forever in that crouch, his arm resting on his knee, with a cool, easy smile. Her baby.
Mama Victor grabs the poster and, breaking into a flow of Dholuo, speaks straight to Victor. “Victor, you were so handsome, everyone said. You were kind, hard-working. We shouldn’t have come to Nairobi. Perhaps if we were home….” Another woman in the back begins to wail, and the police slink away.
In The Appearance of Black Lives Matter, visual activist Nicholas Mirzoeff writes that for Black people in 2014’s BLM protests to show up in the way they did was for them to “appear as Black in a way that is not codified by white supremacy.” To “appear,” he writes, is to confront state power that says, “Move along, nothing to see here,” and to demand to be seen. To “appear” is to be grievable, worth grieving, and to force others to look.
All of the grassroots human rights defenders and allies who weren’t already arrested by 10AM and furtively hopped onto matatus into town, knowing that scores of police would be waiting for them there too, understood this. They rejected the idea that a demonstration could possibly be first approved by the government, and they claimed—as victims of structural violence themselves—their right to “appear.”
Human rights defenders on Tuesday’s Saba Saba day, knew that Kenya’s comfortable class is not ignorant of plight of the poor but, rather, chooses to ignore it. Like Black civil rights activists of the U.S. in the 1960s, they knew that the most powerful message would have to be communicated through the medium of their own bodies: kneeling together, unfazed and fists up, within a storm of tear gas, or proclaiming “Whatever happens, I am not afraid” while being dragged by officers into the boot of a car.
It worked. Photographs and videos from Tuesday show the full, militarized force of the state concentrated onto the unarmed, vulnerable bodies of the city’s poorest, bodies which already bear the violence of living in districts with no water, going to bed hungry, loving people who were murdered by serial killer cops.
Mama Victor says that, when she reached the city centre, she was followed closely by several police officers—so closely that other organizers arranged for a cab to take her directly home. That is how much the state fears a middle-aged woman wearing white and holding a poster of her son, whose smile can never fade anymore. Even though the state had stripped Mama Victor of every other opportunity to express her grief and demand justice, the one they could not take away—her own self, the mother of two men they killed—is indeed the most powerful.
At first, this particular kind of protest seems like a paradox: how can leaning into one’s vulnerability possibly be an expression of power? But if you think about it a bit more, it makes intuitive sense. In a widely shared video from Tuesday afternoon, MSJC co-founder Juliet Wanjiru Wanjira is cornered between two parked cars, surrounded by several armed police officers attempting to arrest her. Without flinching, she says she will not cooperate and asks them, “Why are you arresting me?”
One officer asks back, “Why are you protesting?”
“Because you’re killing us!”
“Who is killing you?”
“You! Police!” The officer begins to walk away, and she continues: “You are killing us in our communities! Poor communities!” Both Wanjira and Mama Victor display no fear, and they lean into her identity as the victims of police violence in the face of police themselves.
The police leave Wanjira alone. She turns to those around her, throws her fist in the air, and shouts, “When we lose our fear, they lose their power!” Her courage doesn’t come from the security of privilege, but rather defiance even in the face of her own vulnerability, as someone who faces the real risk of being disappeared or executed, a tragic fate that has met many other Kenyan human rights defenders.
Those with a lived experience of state violence have the most powerful things to say to the government. Indeed, even if they marched silently in town, their bodies would speak volumes. Perhaps that is what the state fears most—people who see not only their own scars but also see clearly who inflicted them. Perhaps that is why police coordinated so thoroughly to block demonstrators from even stepping foot on the road to the city centre.
This completely counters how certain newspapers reported the day’s events: that the Saba Saba demonstrations were shut down, somehow failed, or didn’t happen at all. Ultimately, the entire country witnessed the physical violence that police officers inflicted on peaceful protestors. But, more than that, they witnessed how this violence was doled out on people who already bore state violence within their own bodies.
People like Mama Victor, a living testament to the bloodied hands of the state. Her survival is resistance. Her dogged commitment to documenting extrajudicial killings is resistance. Her sitting down to take tea with her son in front of those who killed him—that, above all, is resistance.
The Day That Shook Nairobi
A former Indian diplomat recalls the terrifying moments after the terrorist attack on the US embassy in Kenya’s capital city.
August 7, 1998.
This date remains etched in my memory. Professionally and personally, it is one of the most significant and terrifying experiences of my life as a diplomat. At the time, I was in Nairobi, Kenya, serving as the Deputy High Commissioner and Head of Chancery at the Indian embassy in Nairobi, Kenya.
The day started out normally. Nairobi’s cool August breeze made for a salubrious day. As usual, in the morning, I went to the Indian High Commission on Harambee Avenue in Nairobi’s city centre. I took a quick look at the schedule, and I knew it was going to be a busy day. We were organising roadshows to promote the Resurgent India Bonds seeking Non-Resident Indian (NRI) funds, which were launched on 5 August 1998. India’s Independence Day celebrations were a week away. Furthermore, we had significantly increased our diplomatic outreach as India had conducted nuclear tests
in May 1998.
At about 10:35 a.m., I got a call on my landline. I left my computer, which was by the window, and picked up the phone at my desk. (It was the pre-mobile phone time though dialup internet and email were in use.) The call was from an old army colleague, with whom I had worked in Colombo.
A few minutes into the call, I heard a loud bang. I paused for a few seconds and said: “It sounds like a bomb.” My colleague joked that I had not gotten over my Sri Lankan memories. Even before he finished his sentence, there was another huge explosion. This time, the sound was deafening. The whole building shook.
The reverberation from the explosion was so severe that it shattered all the 16 window panes in my office. The impact of the blast ripped the partition between the rooms, which fell on my head. Fortunately, I was on the phone and not at the computer terminal by the window. I told my colleague that this was certainly a bomb and hung up.
My mind started racing with questions. Why would someone plant a bomb of such intensity in Nairobi? And, that too, two of them? Who could have orchestrated such a blast? The bank workers and teachers were on strike. The teachers had demonstrated for a few days behind the commercial buildings, in which our High Commission had several floors. I could not imagine that the bank clerks or teachers could do such a thing. The market street below us witnessed the occasional lynching of suspected thieves, but this was nothing like that.
Within minutes, many staff members came rushing into my room, horrified and alarmed about what had happened. Some of them thought it was an earthquake. Having lived through earthquakes in Japan and bombings in Sri Lanka, I was certain that this was no earthquake. In Nairobi, we never expected an earthquake or a bombing.
Our first reaction was to secure the embassy and evacuate everyone else, excluding the guards. All embassies have crises management plans and we had, fortunately, revised ours two years earlier, before the 1997 general elections in Kenya. We knew what to do. Before leaving my room, I called my wife’s office at the United Nations complex and asked her to ensure children of all mission personnel were brought home from schools.
Amidst the chaos, my staff and I made our way down the stairs. When we reached the street, we witnessed utter devastation. The street was covered in the wreckage; pieces of glass strewn all over the street. Hundreds of people were bleeding, their faces lacerated. Amidst the chaos, we decided to help wounded people. Using our embassy cars, we transported some wounded people to the Aga Khan Hospital, which was on the way to the Indian embassy’s residential complex.
Meanwhile, though the phones went dead in the city centre, we managed to establish contact with the High Commissioner through his car phone. When we informed him of the blast, he went directly from his UN meetings to India House and took charge of crisis management.
This was Al Qaeda’s first attack on American assets in Africa, with simultaneous bombings at Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. In Nairobi, the first explosion was a grenade attack. The second more powerful explosion was the detonation of a truck bomb. 214 people died, over 500 injured. Of them, 13 were US citizens. Most were Kenyans who happened to be at the crowded city centre when the bomb went off.
The five-storied Ufundi house building behind us came crashing down, burying most people beneath the rubble. Most were staff and students of a secretarial institute there. The rescue missions managed to extricate about 120 people from that rubble over two days. Some survived longer, but could not be rescued. The US embassy, barely 60 metres from our building, was damaged. The car park, where the truck bomb detonated, was wrecked.
That day, Kenya was grievously hurt. The nation had no idea why it was the victim. The story, from the US point of view, is well documented. Let me recount the unsung part of our story.
My team at the High Commission and all the families who lived at the Highridge estate rose to the occasion with great responsibility. In a few hours, we had set up dialup internet connectivity, opened an office and a crisis centre and established contact with Indian diaspora organisations. We also set up a meal ferry to the guards at the High Commission.
The Asian community, as the people of Indian origin are known in Kenya, reacted swiftly and generously. Many community organisations coordinated their responses and set up evacuation and rescue teams to support the administrative machinery that was struggling to understand the situation as well. Before noon, they managed to bring in heavy machinery from construction companies and set up functional kitchens
at the periphery of the damaged area, serving people who were part of rescue reams.
The Kenyan Asian community stood shoulder to shoulder and provided the much-needed support to all people at those critical times. They provided ambulances and many volunteers supported Kenyan efforts. But unfortunately, their role has not been fully documented or acknowledged.
By the time the full impact of the explosion came to light, after a day or so later, we were relieved that some of our friends in the US embassy, including Ambassador Bushnell, though injured, were safe. However, their Consul General, Julian Bartley, whose children went to school with ours, perished. A US diplomat of India origin, Prabhi Kavaler, who joined her husband in Nairobi on a couple posting a week earlier, was a casualty that unfortunate day.
The glass shards from the blast caused irreparable damage to hundreds of people. Several children from the Shree Cutchi Leva Parel Samaj School sustained severe eye injuries. Hundreds of people, who rushed to their office windows when they heard the sounds, were wounded by broken glass.
Many Asian doctors provided round the clock trauma and ophthalmic services for several days. The Aga Khan Hospital provided splendid services at that time. They refused financial support, which many hospitals obtained from the United States. The Asian Foundation led many initiatives, the Kenya Society for the Blind trained many affected people for computer literacy. The US embassy gave way to a memorial garden.
Kenya realised it was now in the crosshairs of international terrorism. It was the victim of terrorist attacks again in 2013 in Nairobi, and in 2015 in Garissa.
The Indian High Commission is still in the same commercial building. It has, of course, undergone many renovations. But the lacerations in our hearts have not healed.
Twenty-two years later, as I saw the horrific explosion in Beirut, I was reminded of the bomb blast in Nairobi. It remains fresh in my mind and I pray for the souls of all those innocent people who fell prey to terrorism that day.
This article was first published in the Madras Courier.
Head Teacher’s COVID-Induced Headache or When the Government Abdicates Its Responsibilities
The coronavirus has laid bare the government’s failings in the education sector over the last 60 years. Even now, faced with the challenges brought by COVID-19, it has opted to place the responsibility of ensuring that students can safely return to school squarely in the hands of school managements.
The head teacher of our local primary school reminds me of Mr. Musili, who ran the primary school I attended in downtown Nairobi back when Kenya was newly independent. He was greatly respected, little feared, and much loved by the pupils, as is the head teacher of our local primary school.
The school is old, built in 1947 by the colonial administration and, up until very recently, had pit latrines that were prone to flooding every time it rained. Kids barely out of their nappies would chase after Head Teacher across the quadrangle, “Teacher! Teacher! Choo zimejaa!”, and off he would go to call the exhauster, throwing 52,000 shillings down the toilet with each exhauster visit.
Head Teacher’s budget for running the school is meager; he receives each year – in three tranches – the grand sum of 335 shillings for each of the 846 pupils that are enrolled at the school. With that sum, Head Teacher must pay the electricity and water bills, buy firewood for the kitchen, maintain the school in a proper state of repair and generally keep everything ticking nicely. Luckily, his financial management skills are peerless; each of the 335 shillings is milked for all its worth and, somehow, the 11 shillings per year that the government deems sufficient for the purchase of sanitary towels for each pubescent girl suffice.
The fees paid by the parents of the 297 pupils that board at the school (26,500 shillings per student per year) are crucial to Head Teacher’s budget, bridging the gap between the government’s disbursements and paying the salary of the groundsman (who also takes care of the two cows that provide the milk for the morning tea), as well as the salaries of nine other support staff. That money also covers the cost of all meals and the sorghum, millet and maize flour uji the boarding pupils enjoy during the mid-morning break.
Head Teacher is a true educator; his is a calling driven by a passion to mould young minds and bring the best out of each of his charges. And so, despite the challenges and the lack of resources, our local primary school has built itself a reputation, drawing pupils from as far away as Nairobi, and attracting pupils away from local private schools.
Now the coronavirus has come to put a spanner in the smooth workings of Head Teacher’s finely calibrated budget, with the government placing squarely in his lap the responsibility of ensuring that the school is COVID-prepared when pupils return next year. Head Teacher has been advised by the education ministry that he will have to find ways to ensure that handwashing facilities are placed outside each classroom and office, outside the dorms and the kitchen, by the door of the school hall, in the toilets, at the gate and in the playing fields. Liquid hand soap must be provided, and a thermo gun foreseen, as well as hand and surface sanitisers.
A sick bay must also be established and a qualified nurse engaged. The non-teaching staff will need to be equipped with personal protective gear and the cooks in the kitchen will require food-handling certificates. The government doesn’t say where the money for all this is to come from, or indeed how adequate water supplies will be maintained come the dry season when water is prone to rationing.
To adhere to the one-metre social distancing rule, the school would need 48 classrooms. But a sudden increase in classroom space is unlikely to happen in an institution where the number of classrooms has risen from one, when the school was established in 1947, to 24 today. The Education Cabinet Secretary, George Magoha, has proposed the installation of temporary tents and the use of teleconferencing by teachers to ease congestion.
Well, as far as computer technology is concerned, Head Teacher is in possession of exactly one projector (without a screen) which was supplied by the government, together with the tablets that now lie gathering dust in their purpose-built strongroom for want of material that is suited to the recently introduced competency-based curriculum. In any case, the school only has five teachers who have received basic two-day computer-skills training as part of the government’s now collapsed Digital Literacy Programme. So CS Magoha’s proposal is moot.
The government also says that pupils found sharing textbooks shall be considered to have committed an offence. Well, at our local primary school, a textbook is, of necessity, shared between two pupils and so, based on that threat alone, the school will not be able to reopen. It used to be that the government would allocate a budget for books according to the size of the school population. With his usual careful use of resources, and zero tolerance for loss or damage of learning materials—and by organising book harvesting events—Head Teacher had managed to bring the number of pupils sharing a textbook down from one book for every ten pupils in 2013 to one book for every two pupils within five years. Then in 2018 the government decided to take over the supply of books to schools, but even today, in half the classes, one textbook is still shared between two pupils.
It is also highly unlikely that the boarding facilities will be expanded in time to meet the social distancing requirements and so, either the number of boarding students will have to be drastically reduced or the section will have to be closed down altogether; in either case, Head Teacher’s finely tuned budget will take a direct hit.
And as if the headache of ensuring that the school will be COVID-ready when classes recommence is not bad enough, Head Teacher has also been given the responsibility of “ensuring access to education [through] guidance and counseling” for those pupils who have fallen pregnant or have been caught up in drugs and alcohol abuse during the long COVID-induced break. Needless to say, even if Head Teacher were in a position to discover which among his pupils have been whiling away the time indulging in alcohol and drugs, there is not one trained counsellor on his staff to deal with the problem, even though the education ministry’s directive asks Head Teacher to “strengthen the guidance and counselling departments to help pupils and staff deal with the psychosocial issues in the wake of corona pandemic [and] prevent stigmatisation and hysteria in case of a detected case”.
The coronavirus has laid bare the government’s failings in the education sector over the last 60 years. That a school established over 70 years ago only recently managed to raise enough funds to build modern eco-friendly, wheelchair-friendly toilets is a clear indicator of the government’s neglect. It took the inventiveness of Head Teacher and his management board, the collaboration of parents and the support of the old students’ network to come up with a solution to save the 160,000 shillings lost annually to pit latrine exhaust services. And so, the toilet ratio of one urinal for every 30 boys and one toilet for every 25 girls is the one requirement that the school will be able to respect when schools reopen.
Still, something good for Kenya’s pupils might yet come out of this coronavirus pandemic; the government is reportedly considering moving the preference to day-schooling, with boarding schools reserved for pupils who must of necessity travel long distances to get to a school. This, in my view, is as it should be. Head Teacher should not have to confront an irate parent, fed up with having to deal with a troubled youth at home, or the complaint that the food budget has gone through the roof because the school holidays have been too long.
We Kenyans have long abdicated our responsibilities towards our youth, abandoning even the raising of our children to teachers, thus unwittingly widening the emotional gulf between children and parents and creating intergenerational alienation even as the government criminalises the youth, and issues edicts laced with threats each time it is confronted with a problem affecting them.
As Wandia Njoya says, “We have to grow up and think maturely about solutions such as restructuring our education system, revisiting the question of boarding schools, and treating adults who abuse the children they are supposed to take care of as criminals. Portraying youth as cheats and criminals, while failing to provide the education and social institutions they need to be functional adults, is irresponsible and an abdication of our responsibility as adults to care for the young. And we must care, not just as individual parents of nuclear families, as the evangelical narratives driven by the churches tell us to do. Instead, we must demand, collectively as voters, better political decisions that nurture our youth.”
A George Floyd Moment and the Reality of Being African in China
To a smaller but yet equally profound extent, Eric Jackson became our George Floyd, not dying under the knee of a racist cop, but under the crushing weight of a deeply racist and complacent system that denied him a duty of care.
I was at a trendy French salon in the heart of Beijing’s popular Sanlitun neighbourhood organising a photoshoot for the magazine I work for. The model on the shoot was a young Russian woman, our photographer Chinese and the owner of the salon was from France. As we went about prepping for the shoot, I noticed a little girl cowering behind one of the stylists. She appeared anxious. I was concerned, so I tried to get closer to find out what the matter was only for her to jump back and let out a shriek.
She told one of the Chinese stylists that a scary, ugly black man was looking at her. It took me a moment to realise it was me she was talking about. I am not sure whether the child and the stylist both assumed I didn’t understand Chinese, but the stylist proceeded to extol my virtues to the inconsolable child, saying how nice I was, how cool my hair looked, and telling her that she had no reason to be afraid of me. But the child repeated the same thing over and over again. I was black, ugly and scary. That coloured the rest of the day. I picked a corner in the waiting area where I had little chance of bumping into the little girl and stayed away from the styling area where the model was having her hair and makeup done until it was necessary for me to be there.
In Kenya, I had become used to the crippling ethnic profiling that was part of my life because of my last name, and the comments made about my appearance, my skin tone, or my facial features which were deemed undesirable or not conforming to those of the people from my ethnic group. I had learned to navigate the stereotypes, working to dismantle those that worked against me, while embracing the positive ones as a rudder towards growth. In this clash of numerous cultures, I had an identity. I could find my bearings easily, and remain grounded. But leaving Kenya confronted me with a whole new identity. I was no longer a Kikuyu guy from Nairobi’s Eastlands with all the baggage that came with that. I was black.
I have come to learn that being black has nothing to do with my culture, and very little indeed to do with my skin colour. It is a global metric by which my worth as a human being is measured.
China is not the easiest place to be black. It is a country with a long history of colourism amongst its own people and against outsiders, and a tendency to push towards homogenisation. Therefore, being black creates a visceral reaction among many locals which results in xenophobic and racist sentiments. Being proudly African, in whichever way that exuded from me, was quickly met with incomprehension at best and absolute disgust at worst. Why would anyone wish to be black, African and proud of it? I encountered a broad definition for people who looked like me, an extensive catalogue of black, ranging from the mildly acceptable, to the tolerable, to the unacceptable.
I have been told that I am not as dark as “real” Africans. And I have seen relief sweep across people’s faces when they realise that I am not from Nigeria. To be dark and Nigerian is to embody a negative stereotype both within and outside the black community. People tend to cling to those of their nationality, forming chat groups on WeChat, China’s version of WhatsApp, where they share their stories of racism and offer support to each other. For the chosen few who are welcomed into African American circles, the situation is no better as conversations and sentiments almost exclusively centre around the Black American experience in China and around the world. Many African Americans I have encountered in China, though proud to be affiliated with Africa, are often ignorant of its peoples and its cultures. It comes then as no surprise that when the Black Lives Matter movement started getting traction globally, Africans were expected to show solidarity, yet the conversation about what it means to be black and African in a country like China is not a single story.
As an African who identifies as Kenyan in China, my cultural and national identity are subsumed by a greater racial-cultural one. In North America in particular, being black represents an entire culture of Afro-descendants. Such broad identities leave no room for ethnic, regional and national identities from Africa. I have often been engaged in conversations with African Americans in China who automatically assume our lived experiences are to a large extent similar if not entirely identical. They refuse to engage with the notion that, as someone from a majority “black” country, my experiences of systemic oppression are not within the context of race. The man at the top consolidating power for himself and his cronies isn’t white but black. The face of oppression in my experience is my own.
And this subsuming of my cultural and national identity is adopted by the Chinese community, where the parent identity of people who look like me is African American, and so it is my job to align myself with that identity as much as possible if I hope to survive. China acts as a petri dish for how the world is stratified, not only along racial lines but along national identities as well. Towards the tail end of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in China, Chinese landlords in Guangzhou province systematically targeted African tenants, making unfounded claims that it was they who had and were spreading the virus. This was despite ample evidence to the contrary. The fear had been sparked by the growing number of cases imported into China before the borders were closed indefinitely. A negligible number of the imported cases were attributed to foreigners returning to China, and fewer still were attributed to Africans. This however didn’t stop the evictions, leading to a public outcry both in China and in the rest of the world.
However, to a large extent, African Americans were not singled out. This is because, according to popular belief in Chinese society, “blacks” from America and Europe are better. They can be trusted more. The hierarchy of races in China is ordered from the top in this way: white English speakers, white Western Europeans, white Eastern Europeans, white South Africans followed by Black Americans, South Americans, black South Africans, East Asians, Middle Easterners, Southeast Asians, Pacific Islanders, blacks from the Caribbean and, at the very bottom, the African, the generic term for sub-Saharan Africans. There is a premium placed on being from countries classified by the Chinese government as Native English speaking countries. These are The UK, the US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, and South Africa. It narrows the pool of potential candidates for the highly sort after English teaching jobs in the country. Since there is little else in the way of jobs for foreigners in China, anyone who has passable English jostles for the few opportunities. Often, African nationals from English speaking countries are passed over for these types of jobs, even when the employer is willing to hire illegally. Some Africans resort to claiming American or South African nationality, a fact which angers Americans and South Africans in China, as they claim such individuals soil their national reputations.
A recent revision of the Chinese Greencard application process, which sought to make it easier for highly skilled professionals to gain permanent residence in China, laid bare the fear of the African. Chinese netizens took to Weibo (Chinese Twitter) and other Chinese platforms to express their displeasure at the possibility of an influx of foreigners into their land. The outcry took a decidedly dark turn as Chinese nationals expressed their displeasure at a possibly blacker, more Africanised China in future. Africans are already stereotyped as unhygienic, disease-infested layabouts, and the possibility of their being granted permanent leave to remain in China was more than many could contemplate.
China’s perception of people of colour is largely informed by the media. Stereotypes played out in TV shows and reinforced by sports are held as gospel truths. All African Americans are therefore either gun-toting gangsters, or tall pro basketball players, while Africans, especially Kenyans, are incredible marathon runners motivated by the need to run away from lions since we all come from the Maasai Mara. The African is an alien other in the Chinese consciousness. I have had to resort to showing photos of Kenya, of Nairobi, videos of the hustle and bustle to prove that I come from a city just like any other in the world. That phenomenon is not unique to the Chinese. I was once in an argument with an African American friend of mine about where Kenya was located in Africa. He insisted that Kenya bordered Nigeria and could not be dissuaded. Not until I showed him a map but even then, he fell back on his “American innocence”.
The stereotype of Africa as a disease-ridden, famine and war-ravaged continent is still taken as the gospel truth by many in China. There is an unwillingness to engage with the “masses of African people” who populate Chinese cities and study in Chinese schools. This misconception that all Africans are poor has spawned the belief that all Africans are economic migrants to China, constantly taking advantage of the Chinese government’s generosity in the way of the scholarships extended to seemingly undeserving African students, while Chinese students allegedly continue to go without. But these are the same scholarships extended to other Asian, European and South American countries, with the key link being the bilateral agreements forged between China and countries far and wide. Oftentimes, the students on these scholarships only receive them on the condition that they return to their countries of origin upon graduation, because Chinese-educated Africans are a greater asset to the Chinese government back in Africa. In actual fact, investing in African students is investing in China’s future. But your average Chinese citizen will be oblivious to this fact, instead choosing to vilify African students and the merchants who are a direct source of capital for Chinese businesses.
To exist as African is to exist in a state of apology. The proximity to whiteness that African Americans and Black South Africans have spares them the inconvenience of negative stereotypes. Africa sends some of its best and most brilliant to represent them in Europe and Asia. The African who does not fit into the negative stereotype becomes an exception to the rule rather than an example of what Africa has to offer. It means that in a society as stratified along racial and national lines as this one, the few opportunities available to foreigners in terms of work and education are measured out in relation to one’s proximity to whiteness. The African remains at the bottom, a position from which he is still expected to be gracious and grateful.
This ignorance is exhibited not only by the Chinese against Africans in China but also by African Americans and Europeans, who display a lack of interest in fully engaging with my story of blackness. This is particularly ironical considering the overwhelming support which Chinese netizens have shown the Black Lives Matter movement in America, with the protests in America and across the world receiving massive airplay on national Chinese news outlets.
When tenant evictions started happening in Guangzhou, however, it was through friends and families abroad that most found out what was happening. The horrific racism against Africans did not receive any news coverage beyond the government’s denial after international news outlets started reporting about it. The same government that called racism in America a social ill remained silent as its own citizens shared racist, xenophobic sentiments against Africans evictees in Guangzhou.
Anyone, regardless of race or nationality, can display a geographical ignorance of the world and the peoples that inhabit it. But this classification of nationalities and races by Chinese society has ensured that certain groups achieve and maintain superiority over others. The “Native English Speakers”, whether black or white, possess that thing so desired by China’s nouveau riche; to become an English speaker and thus attain the ultimate status of upward social mobility and be welcomed into the Anglophone world, portrayed as the world of the accomplished.
Africa is a massive continent with a population of 1.4 billion people. We come from 55 countries that are as distinct in their populations as they are in their cultural compositions and heritages. To some extent, one might describe African nations more as confederacies of distinct ethnic groups under various national flags rather than a united body of Africans.
Every crisis presents an opportunity. As African Americans confront systemic racism, Kenyans are also turning their attention to our own political history. In various WeChat groups, Kenyans in China are engaged in fervent discussions, expressing their political hopes for the future. It is to these groups that Kenyans turned when their situation was dire in places like Guangzhou and Shenzhen, receiving help from fellow Kenyans when the Kenyan embassy was slow to act. And it was to these same groups that those stranded in China—unable to afford the Sh80,000 airfare for repatriation—turned for donations when they were told in no uncertain terms that ndege sio matatu, you shouldn’t expect to catch a flight as you would a minibus taxi. In Kenyan WeChat groups, members are spoiling for a revolution of some kind. We all want change, but it falls apart at the seams when mention is made of tribe or political party affiliation. Yet we know that our silence and our refusal to engage with issues of social justice, equality and corrupt systems will not save us.
A disturbing event recently took place that fully encapsulates the terror of being black and African in China. In Kenyan and African groups across the country, people began sharing the photos and videos of Eric Jackson, a Ghanaian man who was turned away from four hospitals due to fears that he had COVID-19. A hospital eventually took him in but it was too late. Jackson died while undergoing treatment. He died of cardiac arrest. Videos of Jackson’s agonising last moments, and of his corpse on a gurney at what I speculate to be the entrance to a morgue, were a stark reminder of our place in this country. It was a terrifying manifestation of the Chinese rejection of our colour and our race. In one of the videos, his friend is heard pleading to be let into the hospital in fluent Chinese but the guard at the gate refuses and sends them away. He is heard asking, “Is this not a hospital? Do you not treat sick people here?”, and getting no response.
This incident knocked the air out of my lungs. To a smaller but yet equally profound extent, Jackson became our George Floyd, not dying under the knee of a racist cop, but under the crushing weight of a deeply racist and complacent system denying him a duty of care. In the Kenyan WeChat group, an outpouring of grief was followed by an important question; even if Jackson was dying of COVID-19, did he not deserve to be treated? Had he been a Chinese national, or even white, would he have been turned away? COVID-19 was the pretext for medical professionals to not only shirk their responsibility, but for individuals to go against that very human instinct of preserving a human life under threat. Jackson was denied medical help because to them his black skin and his origin meant his life wasn’t worth saving. Jackson wasn’t worth fretting over, and his death was not a loss. His friend’s desperate pleas, in their own language, did nothing to weaken their resolve.
We all recognised in that moment that Jackson was us and we were him. That could have been my dead body on a gurney somewhere in the south of China. Those could have been my final moments captured on short WeChat video clips for the world to see. That could have been my life devalued and ultimately lost because I was born black and African.
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