For a brief while, I was once a statue on display in a major European city, together with two of my cousins and my sister, all of whom shall remain unnamed.
Unlike the defenders of the statues all over former white spaces, our struggle was not to be kept in place, but to somehow get out of the role.
Allow me to explain.
It was the year I became the Catholic equivalent of a Hajji, and before I managed to escape the mental clutches of that church. Every twenty-five years, the Roman Catholic church holds a “Holy Year”, in which pilgrims can travel to its headquarters at the Vatican inside Rome, and receive special dispensations. This means it was 1975.
The faithful can apply to be included in a scheme to be taken in groups. My parents, being devoted members of the faith, duly signed up. I think applicants could not be more than a party of four, and for reasons I do not know, they chose my younger sister and me to be their fellow pilgrims. I do not think we were the most logical choices: we were not the brightest in school, and I was very far ahead in my career as the designated problem child. Perhaps they felt we needed God’s grace more than any of their other children.
We spent a number of days in Italy, in very large crowds at the Vatican, and visited other holy places in Rome and the south. It was miserably cold, and there was a lot of praying, day and night.
After that, my mother took us on to Geneva, Switzerland, to visit her brother who had left Uganda years earlier to work in some middle-to-upper-level position at the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) headquarters in Rome. I had never really got to know this man. I had always found him quite distant, even when he still worked in Uganda at the Ministry of Agriculture in Entebbe. He is some kind of food economist.
His apartment was not very large, not large enough for five boisterous children plus a toddler, as well as another quite older cousin who had accompanied us from Rome. He was given to leather jackets and dark sunglasses, which I remember got him yanked out of the immigration queue by Swiss airport security, and taken to a back room. Apart from saying they told him his shades made him look “suspicious”, he flatly refused to tell us whatever else may have happened while he was in there. This led to a lot of whispered youthful speculation.
The lack of space did not matter so much during the week, as my cousins had to be in school, and would leave to walk there in the pitch dark of the winter mornings. So, this is how I know it must have been on the weekend we took on the job of being statues.
The adults encouraged us to go for walks in the neighbourhood, and we ended up in this large open city park where we came upon a trio of white Swiss children walking their dog. A large, healthy-looking Alsatian, I think. Upon seeing us, they let the animal off its leash, and it came bounding towards us, barking animatedly. There was no time to work out if it was playing, being aggressive, or after something behind us. We ran.
Being a park, there was only open space, except for one thing. As we had entered that area of the park, I had noticed a tall concrete plinth on which a statue should have stood. However, it was vacant. And one could see from the surface that there had once been a statue there, but it had been removed. This is why I know that white authority has no problem with the removal of statues in principle. They are not sacred idols. The issue is which reasons will be accepted as valid to do so. And having being a slave trader is not one of them.
Now, this was the only place we could see to escape the menacing dog, and we instinctively all scrambled up on top of it.
There was no adult around to rescue us. We were stuck atop this concrete stand, alone in the park with these three white kids and their excited dog. It would have been quite a sight to find four African children perched where a statue of some European of European significance was supposed to be. I thought of this when watching a video of a black British youth dancing on the Bristol plinth where the recently drowned statue of the British slave trader Edward Colston used to stand. Maybe we were replacing Napoleon? Or Charlemagne? Engelbart Humperdinck perhaps?
A war of words ensued. We demanded that the Swiss kids control their dog. Since it was all in French, we, the visitors, played the role of supplying epithets to our French-speaking cousins to translate and hurl at these kids. The Swiss kids were doing that thing I have seen MANY white people do with their dogs in the many parts of the world that I have lived in: insisting that the dog is “fine”, and “means no harm”, and “just wants a sniff”, as it advances towards you.
It is like the recent story of a white American woman who tried to call the cops on an African American bird-watcher in a New York park because he asked her to comply with the park’s regulations of putting dogs on leashes. Instead of obeying the regulation, the woman was forcing the African American to comply with her view of the world as she saw it – even if it was dictated by her pet animal.
Anyway, words were not getting us anywhere. We just wanted to go back home.
It was my sister who solved the problem. The departed statue had left some rubble, now under our feet, some of it quite sharp-edged. She picked up a piece and threw it at the Swiss kids. I still clearly see it arcing the distance between us and them, and with perfect accuracy smacking into the forehead of the tallest boy, who was standing between the other two.
I was a little surprised. Of all of us, this particular sister was viewed as the most mild-mannered. (Mind you, for my parents’ children, this is not saying much. There is a tale of another sister of mine, then a student in Canada, riding all the way to a bus depot because she would not give up a loud argument with the driver over how much change she was owed.)
Years later, my younger brother and I were caught in a confrontation with two London cops who came to the car in which we were sitting at a fuel station, and then began trying to find an excuse for why they were accosting us. Being on a visit from Canada and the one driving, my brother lost his temper quite quickly, and things got physical.
My brother was already an anti-racist activist back in Canada. There was even a photo of him in a Canadian newspaper tussling with a white Canadian campus policeman. At one point, I had to get between him and the cops, pin him against the car, and warn him in Luganda that these British cops were also quite dangerous despite not carrying guns as cops do in Canada, and that they were trying to goad him into a real fight, so that they could call for back-up, and then wrestle us to the ground, which could become a whole other situation.
I told him our best weapon was words. And being our mother’s sons, we had very many. We settled into a nearly hour-long standoff, during which time we rattled their cage by constantly correcting their poor English grammar (guaranteed to thoroughly unsettle any English racist), and their weak knowledge of traffic, immigration and search laws, and laughing very loudly at all their mistakes. The lead cop made an utter fool of himself, and was actually red and stuttering halfway through. In the end, his partner stepped aside in embarrassment and angrily told him to give it up. They left.
Another sister of mine once took hold of a court case. She noticed a small technical flaw in a deportation order, and insisted that it should become the basis of an appeal. No one believed her. Nevertheless, by sheer force of personality and reason, she compelled a law firm to keep lodging appeals all the way up the court system.
By the time it was all over, the case had been heard in the UK House of Lords, which functioned then also as the Supreme Court. She won. The matter is now enshrined as a precedent article of British Law as the case of Regina vs Musisi (1987).
She was not a lawyer. She was then a first-year law student interning at a London-based Ugandan-owned law firm that specialised, naturally one might say, in immigration matters. She then went on to do a science Master’s degree in computer programming, during which time she tried to convince the law community that case precedence could be made more efficient by designing it as a computer programme. Again, no one listened then, but I understand it is now being done with Artificial Intelligence. I will tell you for nothing: My.Family.Is.Mad.
But in the end, these individual victories mean little. What is required is to bring down racism – all of it – as a system of power, and end its detrimental effects on black people. No amount of verbal artillery can remove discrimination in housing, healthcare provision, employment, policing, and the like. ‘
And for every personal victory, there will be a myriad of defeats within the context of the systemic defeat we all still live under at home and abroad, something many continental Africans do not understand as well as their First Diaspora cousins do.
Nevertheless, my sister on the plinth brought that madness, and her aim was perfect that day.
The white boy let out a scream, then turned away from us, crouching over and clutching his face. His two companions also turned to attend to him. They then all turned back to face us. The target now had a bloodied face.
The language remained French, but the tone turned to one of victimhood. “He is bleeding! You have injured him!” we were told they were saying. Which was unnecessary because red on pink-white does make quite a visual impact anyway. We offered back the translated accusation that they were exaggerating the injury, and had deliberately smeared his blood all over his face.
Now subdued, and worried, the trio did finally put their dog on its leash and left. I think they threatened to report us to their parents.
We immediately quit our jobs as statues, got down, and got out of the park.
I guess the only thing Margaret Thatcher, the first and so far last female Prime Minister of the United Kingdom got right was when she said: “If you want something said, send a man. But if you want something done, send a woman.”
By the way, my sister (the only left-handed one among us) now works for the United Nations, inspired, she once told me, by our uncle. I do not know if she still throws things.
For the record: I do like dogs, but I have also never been back to Switzerland.
And, yes, live Black statues’ Lives Matter.
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Stealth Game: The Proverbial Has Hit the Fan
The report of the Oakland Institute is simply saying what I have been saying since 2016. That “Community” Conservancies Devastate Land and Lives in Northern Kenya.
Many of my friends, particularly those from outside the conservation sector have been puzzled by the silence that has followed the release of the Stealth Game report by the Oakland institute.
This, my friends, is because you people mistakenly imagine that conservationists in Kenya are normal, functional human beings. They are NOT, and the rational ones are fewer than five per cent, the scientific threshold for statistical significance. For those of us who know them well, we can read and interpret this silence to a high level of accuracy.
First of all, rest assured that everyone who needs to see the report has seen it, including government officials at both county and national level. I personally forwarded it to an official at the highest levels of government, and the response I received was “thank you”—at least an admission of having seen the report. Interestingly, two senior county government officers also forwarded the report to me, leaving me wondering what exactly they see as their role in the whole scandal, as opposed to mine as an individual. The silence is only in the public sphere. I have direct contacts in a lot of private spaces where the Oakland report is causing a lot of wailing, gnashing of teeth and breaking of wind.
The key point we all need to understand here is that people are in trouble—bringing to mind that uniquely American expression about faecal matter hitting the fan and splattering everyone in its vicinity. Here’s why: A couple of years ago, a few colleagues and I visited the US House of Representatives in Washington DC to present a memorandum on human rights abuses in central Africa committed by the WWF under the guise of conservation, an issue we also brought to the attention of various European legislatures. It has taken time, but the cosh has come down on the WWF, culminating in a Senate hearing earlier this year, which has severely tightened the screws on them. Therefore, the consternation that has greeted the report is disingenuous, because none of this information is new—it is simply saying the same things that a few colleagues and I have been saying since 2016.
The conservation sector in Kenya routinely dismisses any questions from black Africans and the consternation is because the report is coming from an American institution, and cannot be dismissed on racial grounds. An amusing anecdote I’ve heard from one of the conservation groups is, “This is just the usual noise from Mordecai Ogada. . .” But when another member says, “No, it’s from the Oakland institute in the US,” all hell breaks loose with people crying “Oh my God! What are we going to do?” In another forum, a senior participant (who obviously hadn’t read the report) dismissed it as lacking credibility, “Since the only source of such information is Mordecai Ogada (again!!??). When another participant pointed out the report was the result of over two years’ research she changed tack, attacking the author Anuradha Mittal based on her racial and family background. The strange thing is that this woman is also of the same racial background as Mittal! Many people will find this bizarre, but I don’t. Our conservation sector is so steeped in racial and ethnic prejudice that it is shameful. Apart from dealing with people who don’t want to hear me because I am black, I’ve had to deal with indigenous Kenyans who routinely tell me to keep off wildlife issues in northern Kenya because I am a Luo from western Kenya!
The key issue of rights violations is studiously avoided by conservationists to a ridiculous degree. I’ve seen conversations where The Nature Conservancy’s communications director is asking a whole group of conservation professionals how they can “counter Mordecai Ogada’s narrative”. A couple of years ago, the Northern Rangelands Trust hired Dr Elizabeth Leitoro as “Director of Programmes” and one of the key expectations was that she would somehow “control” Mordecai Ogada (yes, again) since over 20 years earlier I had been her intern when she was the warden at the Nairobi National Park. Dr Leitoro asked to meet me, and my son was patient enough to sit with us as we talked. She later launched a racial attack against me and my family on social media in defence of the NRT (she deleted the tweet and blocked me, but I still have a screenshot; the NRT got rid of her). This shows the neurosis bedevilling conservation in Kenya.
These conservationists will scream, shout and make personal attacks and noise about everything EXCEPT the problem at hand. Secondly, they are obsessed with appearances, so you will never hear a word said by any of the foreigners who run the show. It is always the ill-advised, ill-prepared but well paid locals who come out in robust (if somewhat foolish) defence of their captors. Right now the national government, the county governments, and conservation organizations are all tongue-tied because they don’t know how to dismiss criticism from the US, where their lifeblood funding comes from. USAID is the biggest conservation funder in Kenya, and the biggest grantee is the NRT, which confers on them God-like status here. All the other conservation voices like the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association (KWCA) or the Conservation Alliance of Kenya (CAK) that receive small-change grants cannot say a word against their “leader”, the NRT. That is why five days later, the CAK claims to be “still reading the report”. They are waiting to see which way the wind is blowing before they make any noise or break any wind in defence of their fellow Kenyans.
Mark my words, these people have colossal reach; that’s why even the government has said nothing. There was a major press conference in Nairobi on 17th November 2021 about the Oakland report, and all the major media houses in Kenya were present, but the story has been “killed”. They have a huge PR machine, and if anything in the report were untrue, they would have torn it to shreds. Their bogeyman, Mordecai Ogada (frankly I’m a bit flattered!), is not in the picture, so they cannot point fingers at me anymore, and must now address the ISSUES. I am informed that some heads have already rolled. They are big, but not big enough to kill the story in the US public policy space. The WWF learned that the hard way. There shall be wailing, there will be hypertension, some hyperacidity, diarrhoea and other stress-related illnesses, but it looks (and smells) like change is coming.
This silence isn’t of the golden kind, it’s the silence of sick, trembling cowards caught in a big lie. I have nothing to add to the Stealth Game report, but wherever and whenever I will be asked to say something about it, I will not let anyone get away with trying to look shocked. I will always state just how I told them about this injustice five years ago, but it never mattered then. Because I am black, if truth be told.
I Know Why God Created Makeup
I am an economic migrant without the luxury of choice. I am not ready for Kenya yet so I must wake up, put my makeup on and take up my station by the dialysis machines.
It is half past five in the morning and your eyes are heavy with sleep. It is fascinating that they should be this lethargic, yet they would not close for a wink or two in the past eleven or so hours of the night. Lately your body seems to be operating on a paradoxical circadian rhythm– sleep when you shouldn’t and stay awake when you ought to be sleeping. You are a nurse and constantly tired. Translated, it means that you are one patient away from a mortal accident. You slap the alarm clock into silence, eyes half open set another alarm for half past six on your mobile phone, which has permanent residency under your three pillows.
You have been using three pillows for a while now. There does not seem to be one single shop in the world that sells decent pillows. The pillows in this city are as thin as a tongue. The lowlife of pillows. They smell of dying hope and unhappy thoughts. They are the sopranos in the pillow choir. Irritating but necessary. We therefore use three of them to allow them to accord each other some moral support. You miss fluffy pillows. Pillows like the ones you lay on at that posh hotel in Naivasha during your disastrous honeymoon a few years ago. Nostalgically, you go back to Naivasha in your sleepy mind.
There is a hazy recollection of that honeymoon. It was not meant to be because the wedding was not to be either. But they both happened. You know they did because you can hear yourself screaming in agony as another harsh word lands on your soul. But despite the honeymoon’s calamitous ending, you miss the pillows. They took to your torrential tears like a babe to its mother’s breast. They soaked the tears up perfectly and left no traces. He never once stirred. He was so drunk he could have been half dead. You had wished for the latter before you met Jesus. We do not think such thoughts nowadays and if we ever do, we will blame it on these scandalously uncomfortable pillows.
The summer morning’s sun tears precisely through your curtains like a surgeon’s blade. You love summer but you don’t like the glare of the morning sun. It is too bright. Accusatorily bright. Like it came to remind you what a slob you are for snoozing your alarm. It stands there, hovering over you like your mum when you wouldn’t complete your homework but wanted to read a Harry Potter novel instead. Mum would not go away, nor will the sun. Begrudgingly you wake up. Legs dangling onto the side of the bed, you will the rest of the body to join them on the peach-coloured bedroom rug on the floor. You miss the days when peach was just some fruit.
Eyes still closed, you head to the bathroom. You are startled into alertness by the girl staring at you in the mirror. She is as hopelessly worn out as a politician’s promise after campaigns. She looks like a thousand trucks ran over her and a group of snow-white owls perched on her hair. The wild hair tendrils falling on your face are a pasta disaster. My God, the lint from those pillows! You whisper. It is however more than just lint. Your eyes are red and puffed up. Like you hid two baby donuts under the eyelids and now the world can see your secret eating habits.
You are expected to be at work by half past seven, nursing patients. The COVID-19 pandemic rages on and you are not sure how much longer you can keep it together. Take that lovely patient yesterday, for example. She stood out from the first time you met her. She allowed you to needle her dialysis fistula as a new nurse. She was welcoming. Showed you pictures of May, her cat. Always had a joke for everyone. She entertained the unit with great panache. She had perfectly manicured nails which put your grooming routine to shame.
For fifteen years, kidney failure never took her life. But she died yesterday. She contracted COVID-19 and passed away. This is not an isolated case. The story keeps repeating itself. Like a repetitive bad dream, the carrousel of mortality keeps coursing through the hospital. Too many dialysis patients have been lost to the coronavirus.
Nobody acknowledges it but your colleagues are gutted by her death. Their demeanour is typically British though, they are long suffering. They wear resilience on their faces and spot plastic smiles to hide the pain. British nurses are averse to complaining. They take it all in their stride. Either that or quit. What would you not give to be able to quit nursing right now!
On the other hand, you are an economic migrant in the United Kingdom. Your life in the UK is governed by the terms and conditions of your visa. The terms say you are to be a nurse for the remaining period on your visa. You cannot leave. You risk being deported to Kenya if you exit nursing at the moment. You are not ready for Kenya yet. You envy Amy and Moraine. Two highly skilled kidney nurses from Scotland. They recently quit nursing altogether. Amy went back to university to study accounting while Moraine has started a coffee shop. The luxury of choice.
You take a quick shower, scrub your hair so hard as if you were shaking your brain from a lingering nightmare that it half hurts. Six and a half minutes later, you are staring at yourself in the dressing mirror. You have been in this flat for a year now and have never once used the dressing mirror like you want to use it today. To glam up the top half of your face.
Following a YouTube tutorial, you start applying acres of ridiculously expensive products on your exhausted face. Your patients are expecting a buoyed-up nurse; that is what they must get. This is why God created makeup. You pay close attention to your eyes. The windows to the soul. These windows needs some maintenance. The eyebrows are up first.
Your eyebrows are a strange phenomenon. The hairs are few and far between. You can never shape them perfectly to save your life. You scribble and doodle with some eye pencil YouTube influencers swore by and finally manage to draw two diagrams of West African evil spirits chasing after one another. Your signature mismatched eyebrow look. Feeling accomplished, you open your eyes wide and, stroke after stroke, you apply mascara on your eyelashes. The damage is then covered in some dark eye shadow. Only the top half of the face matters. The face masks and visors worn at work have rendered the lower half of the face irrelevant. Who wants lipstick smears on their face mask? Not you, you conclude.
At twenty minutes past seven, you are at work already. You are helping prepare the dialysis machines. Jean, your nurse colleague streams in. She has had her eyes done too. She is wearing some glittering eyeshadow. Her eyebrows look like what yours would be like when they grow up. You can see a hint of foundation on her forehead. You let out a sigh of relief. God created makeup for tired nurses, you surmise.
The Charles Mugane Njonjo I Knew
Much will be said and written about Charles Njonjo. The Charles Njonjo I knew was a steadfast friend and a man of his word without hesitation.
A lot has been written and a lot more will be written about the late Charles Mugane Njonjo who has passed away. I would like to tell my own personal story. I never knew him as a bureaucrat or politician. Indeed, our paths crossed immediately I left high school in 1983. Together with colleagues, we had written a play and planned to perform it for the public. We searched our minds for a public figure who would agree to come as guest of honour on opening night. We sought someone who would attract public attention to what we were doing, but more importantly for us 17-year-olds, someone who would agree to show up. Charles Njonjo’s name was all over the news at the time. His political career had just been truncated amid the prolonged political drama of the “traitor affair”. He was a figure of great public fascination for a variety of colourful reasons. We also had the names of other public figures on our list and I was tasked with reaching out to them.
Frankly, I wrote to Charles Njonjo not expecting to hear from him. He replied immediately, though, and accepted the invitation to be guest of honour at the opening night of our play, The Human Encounter, at Saint Mary’s School in Nairobi. Once he accepted the invitation, we excitedly proceeded with preparations for the opening night. A few days later, however, we were informed that, unfortunately, the authorities had deemed Mr Njonjo’s presence at our event unacceptable and the decision was not negotiable. I informed my colleagues and we decided that since we had worked hard on the production we would obey the orders from above and proceed with our play without Mr Njonjo. There was no need for a fuss. I then had the embarrassing duty of disinviting Mr Njonjo when he had already accepted to be our guest of honour.
I spent a whole night drafting the letter and in the end, my late father told me not to agonise excessively, “Njonjo likes to be told the truth directly.” So I wrote the disinvitation letter as clearly and as respectfully as I could. I asked a friend of his to pass it on to him and did not expect to ever hear from him again. The message I received promptly back surprised me. Njonjo expressed his deepest appreciation for the invitation and explained that he fully understood why it had been withdrawn. He asked that we remain in touch. I was deeply relieved. Over the years, he would reach out to me through family and friends and we would interact jovially, remembering the letter I had written retracting his invitation as guest of honour. “No one has ever done that to me,” he would joke over tea.
In the early 1990s, as political pluralism was returning to Kenya, violence broke out in Nyanza, Western and Rift Valley provinces. At one point, hundreds of thousands of Kenyans were displaced as our elites arm-wrestled for power. I travelled to Laikipia and then to Burnt Forest and was aghast at the state of the internally displaced that had been forced from their homes by the violence. Together with Dr David Ndii and Mutahi Ngunyi we launched the “Kenyans in Need” appeal. The then chief editor of the Daily Nation, Wangethi Mwangi, gave us free advertising space to mobilise resources for the displaced – especially those in Ol Kalou who had been evicted from Ng’arua in Laikipia. The late Archbishop Nicodemus Kirima of the Archdiocese of Nyeri agreed to use the relief infrastructure of Catholic Church to distribute any donations that came our way. Laikipia fell under Kirima’s remit.
The response to the appeal was surprising in its scale. People donated second-hand clothes, books, shoes and cash to the appeal. We received around KSh1 million worth of donations over the following months. We delivered the first batch directly to the philosophical Archbishop Kirima at his official residence in Nyeri, unique because of its specially built library full of the books he clearly loved. Our biggest and most consistent donor throughout the entire enterprise was Charles Njonjo. He was not keen to have his name mentioned but we would sit at his home drinking tea and reflecting on the political situation in the country.
When I joined government in 2003, Njonjo remained one of my steadfast providers of moral support. When news broke that I had been moved from the Office of the President to the Ministry of Justice, the first call I received was from Charles Njonjo. “You’re going to resign immediately, aren’t you?” he asked in his typically direct way. In the end, I didn’t. I sometimes wistfully recall his advice at the time. We kept in close touch.
When my situation in the Kibaki government went belly up in 2005 – as he had predicted to me many times – and I found myself in exile, Charles Njonjo became an even more steadfast friend. He stayed in touch and whenever he called, he would always enquire about my personal circumstances. He was a most interesting person in that way, loyal to his friends to a fault. Once you were his friend, he stood by you no matter how atrocious the circumstances. He would call to tell me he was coming to London and we would spend the day together simply walking the city, chatting and drinking tea. Back home I found out he was in constant touch with my family, offering moral and any other kind of support that might be needed.
When I returned from exile, one of the very first people to invite me for tea and a catch-up was Charles Njonjo and we took up from where we had left off in 2005. His observations on politics and about certain politicians were often wryly hilarious. His capacity to read people accurately was something I learnt. We would sit in his Westlands office and I would seek his opinion on this or that political interlocutor and in typical fashion he was always direct – “solid fellow”; “believe only half so-and-so says”; “take that one seriously”, etc. He was particularly dismissive of ethnic chauvinists and insisted that they held Kenya back in fundamental ways.
Charles Njonjo and I kept our friendship quiet. In part, this was because some of his diehard enemies were also my very good friends – the late legal giant Achhroo Ram Kapila SC among others. So, we didn’t discuss his enemies; he advised me on mine. Much will be written about Charles Njonjo and even though there was much we totally disagreed on politically, the Njonjo I knew since I was a teenager was a man of his word. He was a dear friend in ways I have never been able to share. There is not a personal problem that I raised with Charles Njonjo that he didn’t immediately seek to solve in his no-nonsense style. Njonjo could be a very funny man, full of jokes and insightful observations without a taint of bitterness. To me he was funniest when he joked in Gikuyu, which some people thought he couldn’t speak.
As I have said, much will be said and a lot will be written about Charles Njonjo. The Charles Njonjo I knew was a steadfast friend and a man of his word. I have lost a dear friend and wish his family succour as they mourn him at this time.
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