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An Encounter With Blackness in Amsterdam

6 min read.

Observing the largest gathering of black people I had ever seen in Amsterdam, I realised that their pain was familiar, yet we knew so little of each other, separated not just by geography and language, but also by a suppression of our stories.

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An Encounter With Blackness in Amsterdam
Photo: Flickr/Karen Eliot
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The Dam square, a major tourist trap in Amsterdam, is one of its busiest locations, often teeming with visitors flowing from the streets of Kalverstraat, Damstraat and Nieuwendijk in the heart of the Amsterdam canal zone.

Dam Square is within walking distance of the Red-Light district and the Amsterdam Central Station. On the east side of the tram tracks is the Amsterdam national monument, a prominent obelisk erected in 1956 in memory of the World War II soldiers, that I hardly noticed when I arrived in Amsterdam in September 2019 from Nairobi, Kenya.

Dutch historian, Leo Balai, author of the book Slave Ship De Leusden, noted that there are two stories of the Amsterdam canal zone. Amsterdam’s Golden Age in the 17th Century, is a story of pride and prestige but also one of astonishment shrouded in shame.

The Dam square is an architectural marvel that is of great historical significance to the makeup of the city. Built as a dam in the 13th century at the mouth of the Amstel river to hold back the sea, the city grew around it and the modern metropolis of Amsterdam would emerge from these origins. This square was considered the birthplace of capitalism when the 1st Stock Exchange in the world opened in 1611.

These were to be my impressions of Amsterdam’s history were it not for two significant events that happened in 2020. The first was the coronavirus pandemic and the second was the murder of George Floyd. The Dam square morphed into an intriguing site of conflated memories, depending on who you asked.

At the height of the coronavirus health restrictions in early June, I broke protocol to join a massive crowd that filled every inch of the square in solidarity with the BLM protests in America following the lynching of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Despite stringent public gathering restrictions, residents of Amsterdam showed up in full force. The gathering was in violation of the 1.5m distance rule and despite the pragmatic Dutch sense, it was impossible to observe the social distancing demanded by the organisers.

The protest, galvanised by a collective of anti-racism activists in Netherlands, attracted a multicultural crowd. Young Dutch nationals of all extractions gathered to listen to fiery speeches from a group of select speakers, the most prominent being the organisers of the KOZP (Kick Out Zwarte Piet, Black Pete) campaign in the Netherlands. All of the speakers were black. Activist after activist, reiterated the same message, Black Lives Matter in America and in the Netherlands too. An African American man who had lived in Amsterdam for 27 years, said this kind of black agency was unprecedented in the Netherlands.

Out of the many stories of the black experience in this country, it is the story by Jennifer Tosch, a Dutch cultural historian and the founder of the Black Heritage Amsterdam Tour, that enlightened me the most, being one of the few English speakers. I did not know that slavery was a central part of Amsterdam’s legacy. The city hall that overlooks the Dam square was built in 1648 and became the home of the Society of Suriname, established in 1683, when the city of Amsterdam became a share holder in the colony of Suriname.

A month earlier, another unprecedented event occurred in this same square. On the 4th of May, the king of Netherlands, Willem-Alexander, walked into an empty Dam square, to lay a wreath. (The 4th of May is a day of remembrance of fallen war heroes in the second World War.)

King Willem-Alexander asked for an apology pointing out that the profiling of the Jews started with a sign in the famous Vondelpark that said ‘No Jews Allowed Here’.

My Afro Dutch friends pointedly maintain that the black people of the Netherlands are still waiting for their apology. Presently many Dutch people like to say they do not see race and express great pride for being a society that espouses high social principles.

As an African categorised as a black person, it is easy to recognise racial undertones in a series of cultural mannerisms that define relations with non-white Dutch citizens. Perhaps none more jarring than the Dutch cultural phenomenon of Zwarte Piet, the helper of Sinterklaas, where white people traditionally appear in black face being the highlight of the festivities. This tradition is so deeply embedded in the Dutch cultural psyche that I have met several Afro Dutch citizens who grew up loving Zwarte Piet as a benign folk festival character, being none the wiser to the racial stereotypes it reinforced. In 2020, Prime Minister Mark Rutte stated that the government had no role in banning Zwarte Piet, which was described as a folk tradition, even as he empathised with the sentiments of those opposed to it.

As an African from Kenya, examining the demographics of the city, one can recognise institutional racism, based on where the black immigrants stay and how they slot into society as labour, basically essential workers on the lower tier. Europe’s black presence is tolerated as long as black people do not challenge the established status quo or as James Baldwin famously put it, “As long as you are good”.

Observing the largest gathering of black people I had ever seen in Amsterdam, I realised, their pain was familiar, yet we knew so little of each other, separated not just by geography and language but also a suppression of our stories.

In Africa, we identify with ancestry and nationality and typically develop race consciousness when we travel abroad and discover we are ‘black’. In the Netherlands, I was confronted with the politics of color and belonging. In my regular commute, I often ask black Uber drivers, if they are Dutch. Typically, the reply would be: “I am born and raised in Netherlands but my parents are from Morocco (Suriname, Aruba, Curacao or Ghana)”.

One generally identifies with where one truly belongs, all others just become labels, necessary for navigation in an unequal world. I see a generation of young Dutch who hail from immigrant backgrounds, grappling with nationalism of the country they were born. Where the notion of belonging is beholden to whiteness as the singular representative of authentic Dutch nationality.

In July, one month later, I returned to the Dam square, this time as a participant in a tour organised by Jennifer Tosch. She organises tours presenting the reality of Black experience in Amsterdam hiding in plain sight, in the built architecture as a testament to a memory from another time, a past hauntingly never really vacating the city.

It is fascinating to discover that just a little above eye level are symbols to the city’s past held in time. The tour starts at the Obelisk in Dam square where Jennifer points out that black contribution to the struggle against Nazi-occupation is notably minimised. The history of the Dam square is a tale of two peoples, one held glorious in time and another forgotten and erased.

Jennifer’s tours are borne out of her search for belonging, as a child of Surinamese parents who immigrated to America, and a desire to reconnect with her Dutch heritage. She was soon to discover that memories accorded to Black people of the Netherlands are sparse and only recently getting mainstreamed.

The tour involves an interrogation of Amsterdam’s architecture from the Golden Age and how the city remembers its black presence revealing how racial superiority can be built into architecture. Coming from Kenya, where colonial records were expunged and burnt, Amsterdam’s slavery heritage seems treasured as valued memory, representing an age of prosperity.

As Jennifer poses, what does one do with this knowledge? What does one do when one becomes aware of what these symbols mean and represent? In Dutch schools, like in Kenyan schools, the critical colonial history is scantly taught. It is more the reason why we need new stories to help us bridge these gaps in knowledge.

The aim of a story is to give root to cultural foundations but stories have to be true even when they are painful to recollect. Institutionalised racist systems are still a challenge given the various ways they manifest around the globe.

Our duty should be to challenge stories that have been weaponised against people of colour. The goal of solidarity is enhanced by access to stories that open up avenues for cross cultural perspectives on shared histories. As novelist Arundhati Roy noted, “There’s really no such thing as the ‘voiceless’. There are only the deliberately silenced or the preferably the unheard”.

The Black Heritage tour ends at Rokin street, a few metres from the Dam square. Here we are confronted with the tableau of a black figure on the gable of a city house facing the street. Jennifer tells us that it is the figure of a black moor owned by Bartholemeus Moor, who was a slave trader and original owner of the property. This is about all the information she has managed to gather on this individual so far.

I stare at this unknown figure and in it, I see a waking reminder of why we have to look back into our past with critical eyes. In the spirit of the Twi-Ghanaian tradition of Sankofa, look back for that which is forgotten to gain the wisdom and power needed to craft a new future.

This article was first published by ZAM Magazine.

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Reflections

Marseille 2021: The 2nd Scramble for Africa

I come back home a worried man, even more perturbed than I was before, about the march of colonialism under the guise of conservation.

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Marseille 2021: The 2nd Scramble for Africa
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Dear Natives, do you know any conservationist who was in Marseille, France, in the last couple of weeks? If you’re a conscious African citizen, you need to ask them exactly what they were doing there and what they discussed at the IUCN World Conservation Congress. Personally, I was there as part of a group organizing resistance against the relentless advance of colonialism throughout the global south under the guise of conservation. Like most conservation conferences today, this meeting was full of backslapping and self-congratulatory nonsense exchanged between celebrities, politicians and business people. This is the ultimate irony because this is the group of people most responsible for the consumption patterns that have landed the world in the climate predicament we’re in today.

They created the most effective filter to keep out people from the global south (where most biodiversity exists), the students who may be learning new scientific lessons on conservation, and the independent-minded practitioners who would be there to share their views, rather than show their faces, flaunt their status and prostitute their credentials for the benefit of their benefactors. This filter was the registration fee. The cheapest rate was the “special members fee” which was 780 Euros (slightly over KShs100,000).

While most of the Kenyan conservationists are now back from Marseille gushing about the beauty of the South of France (which is true), I come back home a worried man, even more perturbed than I was before, about the march of colonialism under the guise of conservation.

For any African proud of their heritage, this worry is heightened by the unending queue of Home Guards and Uncle Toms lining up to sing for the crumbs and leftovers from Massa’s table, the small jobs, big cars and trips to conferences where the only thing prominent about them is their dark complexion and not the intellectual content of their contributions. These heritage salesmen and saleswomen give themselves all sorts of fancy titles, but their brains are of no consequence to the European colonizers. They are as much props as the obviously (physically, mentally, both?) uncomfortable woman unfortunate (or foolish?) enough to have her ridiculous image carrying a pangolin used on the blueprint for the new scramble for Africa.

The biggest thing out of Marseille was the European Union’s grand plan to capture Africa’s natural heritage through a programme called NaturAfrica. Since they know that they have selected partners in Africa to whom prostitution comes easily, they drowned the announcement in noise about doubling of funding for conservation on Twitter.

Marseille 2021: The 2nd Scramble for Africa

EU’s Philippe Mayaux presenting the NaturAfrica initiative.

In the first photo above, you can see the EU’s Philippe Mayaux presenting the audacious grand plan. He expressly stated that they are going to use the “Northern Rangelands Trust model” which has served them well thus far. I’ve been saying for the last 5 years that NRT is a model for colonialism and some invertebrates here have been breaking wind in consternation at my disrespect for their cult. The financiers have now said that it is a pilot for their planned acquisition of Africa’s natural heritage. What say you now? Who’s in charge of the plantation? Do the naïve majority now understand the violence in northern Kenya? Do the naïve majority now understand why foreign special forces are training armed personnel (outside our state security organs) to guard the so-called conservancies?

Following this extravagant declaration by Mayaux, the CEO of the NRT, Tom Lalampaa, barely containing his joy, took to the podium and gushed that “NaturAfrica will be welcomed by all Africans.” Only the irrational excitement brought on by Massa’s praises can cause a mere NGO director to purport to speak for the 1.3 billion inhabitants of the world’s second largest continent. Kwenda huko! Get out of here! We can see through the scheme!

Tom Lalampaa, CEO of the NRT

Tom Lalampaa, CEO of the NRT

On the map presented by Mayeux, you can see the takeover plan (the dark green areas); Tsavo, Amboseli and Mkomazi in northern Tanzania is a colony of the WWF “Unganisha” programme. To the west is The Nature Conservancy colony consisting of the Maasai Mara Wildlife Conservancies Association in Kenya, and the Northern Tanzania Rangelands Initiative. The rest are the NRT colony (including the Rift Valley, which is clearly marked) and the oil fields in northern Kenya. East Africa’s entire Indian Ocean seascape is marked for acquisition; spare a thought for the Island nations therein, because they have been swallowed whole. The plan has already been implemented around the Seychelles and documented.

I will repeat this as often as necessary: the biggest threat to the rights and sovereignty of African peoples in the 21st century is not military conflict, terrorism, disease, hunger, etc. It is conservation organizations and governments that seek to dominate us through conservation. They will bring their expatriates, their militaries, and their policies. If you look at the map, the relatively “free” countries—like Nigeria, Congo, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, etc.—are those where international conservation NGOs haven’t been able to get a foothold. Here in Kenya, our state agency, the Kenya Wildlife Services, is busy counting animals, not knowing that it is well on the way to becoming an irrelevant spectator in our conservation arena. If you think this is far-fetched, ask someone there why there are radioactive materials dumped by the Naro Moru gate to Mt. Kenya National Park. Or why the Kenya Forest Service is standing by without any policy position while the Rhino Ark goes about fencing Mt. Kenya Forest, a UNESCO world heritage site.

Has anyone asked the EU why this grand plan isn’t global, but only focused on Africa? Are there no conservation concerns in Europe, Asia, or the Americas? Ours is the land of opportunity and this is why they want it. The funding will facilitate immigration and pay to employ the expatriates that will look after their interests in our homelands. Their militias will keep us out of our lands which they need for “carbon credits” so their industries can continue to produce and pollute unabated. Lastly, they need our land for export dumping of their household rubbish, toxic waste and, most of all, radioactive material. This is obviously a continental initiative, but addressing my compatriots (Kenyans), can you now see what I have been talking about for years, even as the European colonists tell Maasais, Samburus and other pastoralist communities that they shouldn’t listen to me because I am Luo? Can you now see how miniscule that school of thought is, how easily your attention has been diverted to discussing irrelevant minutiae in the face of the scale of their grand scheme?

As I said in the beginning, my mission, together with colleagues in Survival International, is the de-colonization of conservation in Africa and the global south. The routine violation of indigenous people’s rights, and the violence constantly meted against them, is the most visible symptom that brought this problem to our notice, but we must understand that the violence isn’t just for sport, as much as these organizations revel in it. Like 18th and 19th century colonialism, it is a commercial venture where political interests follow in its wake because it is too big to remain private. When Leopold’s Belgians massacred people in Congo, it wasn’t just for sport (although at some point it looked like that)—they were there to collect rubber and other resources. The conservation militias don’t just kill indigenous Africans for sport. They are here to protect colonies on behalf of capital interests. It is not about the wildlife—that is just the window dressing. After all, the people and the wildlife were here for thousands of years before their militias came.

This is why we cannot afford to give up. It’s not just about biodiversity. It’s also about our identity, our resources and our children. This is why we must fight intellectually to develop our own conservation philosophy and reject this violent and elitist Tarzanesque Western model. In order to restore the rights of indigenous peoples, we must tackle the reason why they are being oppressed, tortured and sometimes killed. It is commerce. Conservation is just the attire in which it is clothed.

Find an African who was in Marseille and ask him or her what they were doing there. If they cannot demonstrate that they spoke against this colonial project, they had better show you a lot of photos of them shopping and spending a wonderful holiday in the south of France. If they can do neither, then be sure they were in France selling or facilitating the sale of our heritage to corporate pirates.

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Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next stop is my hood. Jericho.

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

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

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

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

Welcome to Trench Town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Owanjo so…the big field Looks so small now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

Another extrajudicial execution. Another life cut short.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Umecheki vile Motiso amedo hiyo Stingo?!”

“Atakua dancer mgori!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He never deserved that.

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