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Reflections

When Your Genes Betray You

7 min read.

A force was rooted in our bloodline, passing from generation to generation unseen, creeping up and snatching a life as it bloomed.

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When Your Genes Betray You
Photo: Angiola Harry on Unsplash
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My grandmother died of ovarian cancer after a series of misdiagnoses two years before the new millennium. There was hardly any public awareness then and little was known of the disease.

I was named after my grandmother, I barely remember her as she passed on when I was seven. But there was more than just a name that linked us and it was the BRCA 1 mutation we shared. I had known she was sick; in the hazy manner children know things. She was a retired primary school teacher though her true passion was farming. My grandmother had kind hands and a beautiful voice, always humming hymns as she tended to her kitchen garden. But hardly got the time to live out her retirement. From the memories my late mom shared of her through storytelling, cancer first came for my grandmother’s ovaries and then for the rest of her, a fate that befell my mother years later, beginning with her breasts.

This bleak history had haunted two successive generations of my family, creeping up and snatching a life as it bloomed, before we realised it was an inside force rooted in our bloodline that passed from generation to generation unseen. My mother was diagnosed at the age of 40, a tragedy as the cancer was already at an advanced stage. The oncologist advised us to look into palliative care as there was little else to be done; at least she would be comfortable for the six months she had left to live. We resisted this truth. How can another human being know with certainty how long someone has to live? Isn’t that a truth only known to God? This denial set us on a desperate course and after six months, the heartbreak that befell us left us lost. How can someone deteriorate that fast? Her hair thinned, she lost weight, her skin burnt.

The night my mother passed away, I woke up in the hush of the night with an ache in my heart. It felt as if something had broken off. I had visited her three days earlier and she had seemed better. We had even had a conversation, unlike the other times when her responses were just fading sounds. The glimmer in her eyes was back. In our culture we believe that you know when death has come for you; it lingers first, leaving clues for those left behind to pick over as they grieve. The glimmer in her eyes was to help us remember her as full of life and hope even to the end. Death sometimes announces itself. For us it was through the oncologist but our refusal to believe in science made death seem like it had arrived in the cold of night cloaked in darkness. My mother passed on in her sleep. In the days that followed we felt like we had been uprooted. Even the sun shone differently; we could see the light yet we didn’t feel the heat. The colour had seeped out our canvas, we had been ripped apart, everyone on their own. We didn’t know how to be together in sorrow.

After my mother’s demise, there were murmurs that the disease was a curse, with some implying that our family needed to do something to expunge it. Could it be true? For there was a clear pattern of ill health. My grandmother had been pious, one of the many characteristics my mother mirrored. After the seven days of mourning that followed my mother’s burial, we held a prayer ceremony after which we the bereaved stepped back into society. The fact that my maternal grandmother had also died of cancer was not lost on us and I vividly remember the pastor who was presiding over the ceremony quoting a verse from the bible that spoke of generational curses. It says that God visits the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. I was the third generation. Did God hold me liable for something someone else had done? There was hope, according to the pastor; prayer and fasting would lift dark pall that hung over us.

I was now partly an orphan and that is how, with my good grades, I qualified for a scholarship in the United Kingdom. But I was not sure that the void I would leave behind would be felt, that I would be missed when left for London. Moving away helped though; it made me more detached. I read somewhere that the weight of a death is assessed by its aftershocks, and mine did pile up. I went through my undergraduate studies in a haze, focusing only on what was important — keeping my scholarship. I finished my degree in statistics and operations research and went to graduate school as I worked part-time and this is when I met Anna, a molecular biology graduate student.

I dreaded talking about the thing that had killed my mother, but Anna got me to open up about it, only for me to realise how raw my buried emotions still were 11 years after she had left us. As I explained to Anna my family’s history of cancer, she suggested that I get tested for the BRCA mutation, but I was not ill, not yet. If cancer was a curse, there was hope. But a faulty gene? That was beyond my ken. A year later, I was ready for the test that would give me a chance to get ahead of the defective gene if it was in my body.

I had to book an appointment for a risk assessment before I could qualify for the test on the National Health Service. My risk assessment suggested a BRCA mutation; I had a family history of ovarian and breast cancer, and both my mother and grandmother had been diagnosed before the age of 50. I went back for the blood work the following day. You are too young, the genetic counselor said, and she was right. I was 28. The results came back two weeks later and they returned positive. BRCA 1. A gene that produces tumor-suppressing proteins that stop cells in the breasts and ovaries from growing and dividing too rapidly thus preventing the growth of tumors. BRCA 1-positive; a person with a mutation to his or her BRCA 1 gene, meaning either that the gene is altered or broken, impairing its ability to suppress tumors.

I was that person.

Genes work in pairs and we inherit a copy from each of our parents. One copy of my BRCA 1 genes was faulty, most probably the pair I got from my mother. And that was not all; this meant that I was at increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer. This information was paralysing. And even though going into the test I knew I had a 50 per cent chance of being a carrier of the defective gene, I hadn’t thought through what I was going to do if the test came back positive. I preferred to take it one step at a time. With a family history that clearly indicated that my mother might have had the mutated gene, I was working with 1:2 risk ratio yet I still felt the universe owed me some good news. It was disheartening. I felt forlorn. The results gave me a glimpse of what awaited me, my possible future as I reflected on my mother’s death. For the next few months, as I tried to understand what this meant for me, it felt like I was walking into a void engulfed and knotted by uncertainty. Having the BRCA 1 mutation redefined who I was, my old self peeling away. I didn’t just have a mutated gene; I had a 75 per cent risk of developing breast cancer. How do you go through life with this hanging over your head?

The test was a mark of privilege, a possibly altered fate, a choice both my mother and grandmother had not had. I was lucky, yet I still needed to do more.

Having a double mastectomy, the surgical removal of all breast tissue, is draconian to say the least. But cancer is a word too loaded for me to unpack; memories of my mother before the cancer, and what was left of her after, had me on edge. I needed to talk to someone who made me feel at home, my maternal aunt. But whatever had bound us together untill then broke when I mentioned the surgery. For my aunt, to go ahead with the surgery would be to mock God, my faith, her faith and my mother’s, and she wanted nothing to do with it. No one in my family wanted anything to do with it. They thought I had been brainwashed.

The most effective precautionary measure is to remove the organs that are at risk at a young age as the risk peaks in your thirties. In my case, it was my breasts. Self-preservation, removing some parts to save others, that is what kept echoing in my mind as I lay on that surgical table before I drifted off. Post-surgery was brutal and my impatience to get quickly back to normal did not help. For ten weeks it felt like time had slowed, the earth had lost its form. I had done the right thing, I knew that. So why did it hurt this much? Anna got me post-surgery bras and lots of teas. I was a foreigner in a foreign country. Having a mastectomy because of a faulty gene made it worse. There was no support group for me; I had to walk this perilous journey alone. I am glad I qualified to have the test and the surgery on the UK’s National Health Service — their version of Kenya’s National Hospital Insurance Fund; the costs would have floored me.

Do I sleep a little bit more soundly? Yes, although a lot has changed for me. The test and the surgery did not remove the mutated gene; it will always be a part of me and so will the consequences of my proactiveness. I lost my breasts, and my body aches for that loss. Before I could afford reconstructive surgery to regain a semblance of what I had lost, I needed to adjust to not having a part of what so greatly defines being a woman. The first time that I tried to get intimate with someone after surgery and before reconstruction did not go well; the look on his face made me feel like I was an imitation of my old self, that I had duped him. That night I mourned the loss of my breasts, sobs racking my body until I couldn’t breathe. I must have passed out; when I woke up it was morning. After that day, things began to change; I had not gone through all that to sulk and take pity on myself. I wanted to live; I was not willing to die for my breasts. I had reconstructive surgery and this time round I had more support — from the man who would later become the father of my child. I had had the surgery for myself; it lowered the risk to 5 per cent. I have made a few lifestyle changes: I am vegan; I don’t take alcohol and have a fitness routine. Awareness is power, although that power can be overwhelming.

As for the fourth generation, my daughter, I think of my 5-year-old who may have inherited the gene. A child of a BRCA 1-positive person has a 50 per cent chance of inheriting the mutated gene. When the time comes, I will definitely talk with her about it and urge her to go for the test even as I remain hopeful that by then non-surgical preventive measures will be available. The test was not just for me. It was for my daughter as well, my way of breaking the curse, freeing the generations to follow. Our first step out of the darkness.

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Nelly Madegwa is a graduate of the University of Nairobi (BSc. Applied Biology). She is currently volunteering at the Kakamega Forest Heritage Foundation, and is a trainer on sexual and reproductive health rights.

Reflections

Benjamin Ayimba: The Making of a Rugby Great

Not even the privilege of the national honour of the Order of the Golden Warrior of Kenya (OGW) and his personal acquaintance with the country’s top leadership could save Benja from this fate. A man who handled his public and personal failures gracefully, would become a victim of state failure.

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Benjamin Ayimba: The Making of a Rugby Great
Photo: Facebook/Benjamin Ayimba
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On April 17th 2016, the Kenyan rugby fraternity was ecstatic. It felt good to be Kenyan. We had finally arrived. The impossible had been achieved. Kenya 7s had won the main Cup at HSBC finals at the Singapore Sevens, against the formidable Fiji, the most successful rugby sevens playing nation in the world.

In the iconic picture, now a part of the annals of great Kenyan sporting moments, is the entire team in dominant red colour of the national flag, their fists raised and joy painted on their faces. In the centre, stands team captain Andrew Amonde holding the trophy high above his head flanked by former captain Humphrey Kayange.

On the extreme right of the picture, standing at the back, partly hidden by the jubilant frame of team physio Lameck Bogonko, is the man responsible for that victory, coach Benjamin Otieno Ayimba better known as Benja. Head coach of Kenya Sevens and the first and only Kenya Sevens coach to lift the World Sevens Series. The position was typical of Ayimba’s graciousness. Every member of his team would have a spot on the podium, no matter how fringe their contribution may have been. The road to Singapore was 20 years in the making. Singapore was Benja’s first international assignment in 1996. It was a dismal outing for Kenya. His coach then, Mike Tank Otieno described him as focused, intense, disciplined and a quick study. Those traits would come to epitomise his career both as player and coach.

Benja was a master of iterations and applied the principle of continuous improvement.

Andrew ‘Ndiri’ Ondiek, one of Kenya’s most outstanding No.8s and the man whose position Benja inherited in the national team recalls an incident during a Kenya Cup game. Impala had suffered a bruising loss to a well oiled Mean Machine. Benja who played for Impala sought out the Machine backrow player and asked why it was so difficult to tackle him during the game whilst taking mental notes. By the following season, Impala marshalled by Benja, was handing out regular upsets, on the road to becoming genuine title contenders.

In 2008, assailed by sceptics who believed he would face eminent failure as coach, a sports journalist asked what he would do differently. His response was accountability. He would take responsibility for any loss the team suffered and Kenya suffered some humiliating losses before the grand moment in Singapore. All through the dark episodes, Benja shielded his boys from criticism from the fans and the rugby union administration.

Benjamin Ayimba’s contribution to the advancement of Kenyan rugby and sport is enormous. He gave his life to rugby when fell in love with the game 30 years ago as a student in Maseno high school. At every juncture, he pushed his team forward. Maseno high school had no rugby pedigree before Benja appeared. He left them as national champs who lost a final narrowly to Nakuru High in 1993. Impala Rugby Club, was playing in second division Eric Shirley Shield when Benja arrived and as a 20 year old captain, he brought Impala to the Kenya Cup where they went on to sweep every trophy on offer.

Sevens glory is usually the domain of the backs but Benja was part of the new generation of forwards, with ball handling skills of backline players, extremely agile and mobile, modelling himself after New Zealand and All Black legend, Zinzan Brooke.

Benjamin Ayimba was part of the winning squad at the Safari Sevens in 1997. He was a member of every Kenya Sevens team between 1996 and 2011 and represented Kenya at four consecutive Commonwealth games in 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010. He was a member of the inaugural team to the Rugby World Cup in 2001 in Argentina where he scored Kenya’s first try against South Korea. He represented Kenya at two more World Cups and was head coach at our high points when Kenya made its first IRB Sevens Series Main Cup Final in Adelaide, Australia in 2009 and earned the third place finish at Rugby World Cup in 2009 in Dubai and eventually a main Cup trophy in 2016 in Singapore. He played 38 times for Kenya leading them 21 times.

Benja surpassed any other player and coach in terms of honours, straddling three generations. He was part of the second wave of sevens rugby that put Kenya on the international map taking over from the pioneering Watembezi generation who morphed into Kenya Sevens during 1986 Hong Kong Sevens.

He was a permanent fixture during Kenya’s return to the international sevens rugby scene. He was a Kenya Shujaa veteran when the new generation comprising the likes of Collin Injera, Humphrey Kayange, Lavin Asego and Andrew Amonde emerged. After his coaching stints, his proteges from Impala and Kenya, Mitch Ocholla and Innocent ‘Namcos’ Simiyu would also make their mark as Kenyan Sevens national coaches. During my brief spell as an editor of Kenya lifestyle magazine, Adam, Benjamin became one of the only two sports personalities to unanimously make the cover profile. Paul Tergat was the other. The theme of the June issue of 2008 was fatherhood. At the time, we positioned Ayimba as a young father who had made a career out of rugby and transitioned from player to coach in an exemplary manner.

Now in hindsight, I ponder on his role as a big brother and leader to the generation that he played alongside and a father figure to the hundreds who thrived under his tutelage as coach.

Benja should not have died. Not this way, not this young. It is difficult to put in words how devastating this loss is, not just to his immediate family, the rugby and sports fraternity but to the country. We are a nation badly in need of father figures with a measure of integrity. In a country at war with its best, intentionally extinguishing its brightest lights, there are not enough heroes in the public domain to inspire the masses to see beyond the state of despondency and cynical disillusion that has come to define the lives of the young in modern Kenya.

Benjamin Ayimba’s death is a consequence of systemic failure culminating in a dysfunctional health system brought about by our adopted neo-liberal culture of greed. The public performance of the political class, jostling to send their messages of condolences after his death announcement as his hospital bill remained unpaid illustrated the tragedy of national heroism.
Sports professionals for all their glory are subject to the same highly unsafe and exploitative work conditions affecting all workers under the conditions of capitalism.

Why would a beloved Kenyan, who attracts the personal attention of the head of state become saddled with a medical debt running into the millions? It is sobering that the gallant rugby dynamo would succumb to disease that was as commonplace as malaria.

Not even the privilege of the national honour of the Order of the Golden Warrior of Kenya(OGW) and his personal acquaintance with the country’s top leadership could save Benja from this fate. A man who handled his public and personal failures gracefully, would become a victim of state failure.

It is the recurring epilogue of our sports men and women, devoting the best years of their lives, making sacrifices for national honours, for something larger than themselves and from a place of love.

What does one do, when a country does not love you back?

In the wake of his death, at the young age of 44, I have been left reminiscing on his legacy. As streams of tributes are read in the wake of his tragic passing, the focus has been on his successes. It is a stellar career by any measure and one that I would dare say, deserves to be the impetus for the establishment of Kenya’s Rugby Hall of Fame, that is long overdue.

However, Benja’s other enviable quality, was how he handled failure. Both privately and in his public life, Benja was the comeback king and this perhaps is why his death left the fraternity reeling in disbelief. Most people assumed that Benja would pull through, as he always does.

Of the many accounts I have come across, this particular one struck me as an apt depiction of the selflessness that Benjamin Ayimba embodied.

The account was told by former Impala hooker, Willy Ombisi.

During pre-season training, a talented rookie player joined Impala with zeal, displaying dazzling skills and embarrassing some of the senior players. The players were divided into opposing teams of potentials in competition for the first team jersey where a plot was hatched by the Impala veterans playing on the opposing side to introduce the young buck to the truth of club rugby.

In the run of play, Sammy Migz, playing at fly half, received the ball off the back of a scrum. As the opposing fly half rushed at him and he easily evaded the tackle with a sidestep off his right foot into the space, where veteran winger Oscar Osir was approaching for a cover tackle and the young flyhalf repeated the same sidestep off his right foot dodging the winger and landing into what in rugby speak is known as the pseudo-gap putting him the inevitable path of collision with a loose forward. It was precisely where they wanted him.

Lurking on the wings, waiting to demolish this flamboyant run of play was a bone crushing flanker, the late Samson ‘Chum Reru’ Opondo.

Benja, who was playing on the rookie’s side running off his shoulder in support, caught a glimpse of Chum Reru moving at top speed closing the false gap headed straight for an oblivious flyhalf. It was a split second decision. He stretched out his hand, grabbed the edge of the fly half’s jersey, pulling him into his body and cradling him at the precise moment that Chum Reru made contact.

Benja’s body absorbed the impact of the devastating tackle. Both players were left stunned on the ground for a few moments after the collision but the young fly half had just survived a tackle that would have probably put him out for a season and dented his confidence. Benja had put his body on the line for the rookie and this was an act he repeated over and over again in more ways than one.

In arena of sports, games fade away but how those fleeting moments made us feel, stay with us long after our champions are gone.

It is why we mourn Benja deeply but with profound gratitude for the generosity of his spirit, his repeated acts of selflessness and the enrichment he brought to our lives.

Journey well Wuod Alego.

Rest in Power, Sir Benja.

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Reflections

George Floyd and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Seeking escape in the art of Chadwick Boseman and the writings of Obama and Ta-Nehisi Coates in a time of trauma.

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George Floyd and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
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I watched Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom for the second time while waiting for the verdict in Derek Chauvin’s trial for George Floyd’s murder. The film focuses on Ma Rainey, an influential blues singer, and dramatises a turbulent recording session in 1920s Chicago. I was looking for escape.

The trial of Derek Chauvin was emotionally draining. It was also scary because of the very real possibility that Chauvin might walk free. And George Floyd would become just another statistic. Just another black man losing his life to a mix of police brutality and racism. We waited for the twelve jurors to do the right thing. To look beyond the skin colour of the executioner and the executed and give us a reason to believe again in the promise of justice for all. The jurors chose the right side of history.

I was looking for a good film with a strong black cast, and for literature by leading contemporary black intellectuals to provide me with perspective, a sense of reality, and hope during the trial.  So I settled on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, on Barrack Obama’s Dreams From My Father and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World And Me.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was an opportunity to witness black excellence on the screen, characters navigating America by their wit, pain, industry and love. I did not know much about Ma Rainey the artist before watching the film although I had heard about her pioneering work as a blues artist. And so I was looking forward to rediscovering her, and to once again paying homage to Chadwick Boseman, thanking him again, bidding him farewell a second time. My stomach was a knot of emotions, churning with excitement. But there was also a tightening in my chest. To look for closure for George Floyd in the beauty, the finesse, the artistry of Chadwick Boseman was quite an emotional trip.

The film turned into something else for me. It turned into an institution of higher learning. A thesis presentation by Levee, Chadwick Boseman in the character of a virtuoso trumpet player, who shows us how the anger and helplessness, the rage of young black men and women, robbed of their industry and creativity by white men, consumes them, sending them into self-destruction and to the destruction of those around them. Through Levee’s reflections on his life and the conflicts with the other members of Ma Rainey’s band, the film brings to life in a very dramatic and tragic fashion the destruction wrought by generational trauma. It calls us to be acutely aware of the trauma brought on by the murders of black men and women, the murders of men such as George Floyd. The film warns us to protect ourselves, to guard from descending into a murderous rage like Levee, where we end up killing our fellow blacks while those who profit by the actions of white supremacists continue to enjoy the fruits of our industry. We need to creatively self-preserve even as we relive the trauma of George Floyd’s murder during the trial of his murderer.

Obama’s elusive hope

Reading Obama’s Dreams From My Father, which permeates with hope for an equal America, reduced the anxiety that came with this trial. Revisiting the path of Obama’s early life and his ascent to the White House was refreshing, a reminder of the convergence of goodwill from the entire fabric of this great nation that propelled the young Obama, raised without a father, to the highest office in the land, provided a break from the intensity of the trial. I was very hopeful of a conviction. But I was also alive to the reality of Michael Brown in 2014. And the strangulation of Eric Garner. And Alton Sterling. And the execution of Breonna Taylor in her bed. The black bodies riddled with bullets kept piling up. The police kept walking free, unaccountable for their actions. A litany of deaths until the graphic murder of George Floyd shocked the world back into the reality of the systematic elimination of black men in America.

Donald Trump’s presidency, and the blossoming of white supremacy, might cause the hope expressed in Obama’s book to seem distant but it was a welcome break from the intensity of the Chauvin trial. We needed hope to cling to. Hope that justice might yet prevail, a life jacket in the tumultuous waters that are America for its black people. All our hope was in the twelve jurors. Did they share our hope for a better America. Could we trust them to do the right thing? Who were the jurors? What were their politics? Did they believe that black lives really do matter?

Ta-Nehisi’s electric shocker

Reading Ta-Nehisi Coates after Obama felt like being sucker-punched into reality. I had to compose myself. How could these two black scholars have such distinct and diverse experiences of America? How could Ta-Nehisi Coates walk under such a heavy yoke of historical trauma and Obama with so much optimism? Where was the magic switch to turn the darkness into the bright dawn of promise? Where did Obama find this switch? And what realities and historical traumas accompanied Ta-Nehisi in his daily living as a black man in America, reminding him that this optimism only existed as a hopeful comfort in our imagination?

Obama’s book, I would later conclude, was one that was hopeful for a perfect union. Just as his body was a beautiful union of an elegant African man and an elegant white woman. Both blessed with a great education and a superior understanding of the world. But could America let Obama be the embodiment of this perfection? It would not. He could only be black. The prescription of race was waiting for him at birth. This prescription was meant to place him in a world that America treated differently. A world where he could not enjoy the privileges that his mother was born into, even though he was hers, the product of her womb.

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the other hand embraces the reality that things are broken. The way Ta-Nehisi Coates relives the trauma of what happened to his friend and compatriot, Prince Carmen Jones, is as painful as when Darnella Frazier, the teenage girl who witnessed the murder of George Floyd, relived the trauma and her helplessness at the scene. All Darnella could be was a witness. With a cellphone. Incapable of providing any help because the force that was on George Floyd’s neck was the force of hate. Of white supremacy. A force that had taken so many black bodies. And was emboldened by the justice system to take many more.

Ta-Nehisi  Coates writes that Prince Jones was stalked by a policeman across multiple jurisdictions and state lines before he was shot. Prince Carmen was educated, God-fearing and successful. When the man the killer police had allegedly mistaken Prince Carmen for was arrested, he did not look anything like Prince Carmen. The only plausible explanation for Prince Carmen’s killing was that the black policeman who killed him was only aware that he carried the authority of the land that did not value the life of the innocent black man that he had tracked like wild game. He was aware that being a policeman was the licence that would get him his job back without having to account for his actions.

On the other side, within the black community, the policeman’s actions left a colossal loss. The loss of years of investment in Prince Carmen. The loss of a brilliant future. The loss of the only son. A lifetime of trauma for his parents’ generation. His friends’ generation. Trauma in the many generations of blacks to come. And a chilling reminder that black lives are dispensable. Ta-Nehisi Coates was reliving this historical trauma for his son. Reminding him of the space he occupies as a black man in America. This was the reality of black America. For many generations to come, fathers and mothers would relive for their children the trauma of watching George Floyd begging for his life under Derek Chauvin’s knee. As long as these killings continued, the trauma associated with them would never leave the black communities. I realised that I couldn’t escape it either. It was deeply embedded in art. In literature. In film. A reminder that hope was just but temporary relief, a mirage before the next execution of a black man.

Does trauma heal by itself?

Obama’s book promises hope as a pathway to healing, reminds us to give hope a chance and continue believing in the collective goodwill of humanity. But Ta-Nehisi Coates reminds us that no one, regardless of their social standing, is safe from police brutality or the miscarriage of justice that follows in the wake of the brutality. And that the trauma of witnessing these repeated acts of brutality against black people stays with us forever, no matter how well educated or successful we are.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is a warning about the destructive impact of the generational trauma suffered by black people in America from past encounters with white supremacy and the miscarriage of justice that soon follows. It is also a warning about what seeing George Floyd laying there, pleading for his life, could do to our collective psyche as black people. And a reminder of how the loss of black industry and art at the hands of white people in positions of power has a lasting negative impact on everyone.

Derek Chauvin is appealing his conviction and we are waiting to see if there will be another trial. But his conviction has brought some hope that the wheels of justice may have received a tiny drop of oil and will continue turning, moving inexorably towards justice and towards a more perfect America at last freed of the generational trauma of witnessing police brutality against black people.

Black Lives Matter.

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Reflections

Of Chapati, Identity and Migrant Politics in Europe

The common narrative is that imperialism, colonialism and Western staples have influenced the non-Western world. But the Global South too is impacting the West, one plate at a time.

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Of Chapati, Identity and Migrant Politics in Europe
Photo: Anshu A on Unsplash
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In the mid-90s, my mother paid a visit to an aunt who had emigrated to Scandinavia and settled in Stockholm, Sweden, for over two decades. Of the many memories she held on to from that trip abroad, her most notable was the culture shock she suffered at a lunch that my aunt’s neighbour had hosted in honour of the guest from Africa.

Swedish staples were laid out: cinnamon buns, pancakes, pea soup, mashed potatoes, pickled cucumbers, cheese and lots of bread. After sampling foods that did not appeal to her palate, my mother turned to my aunt and whispered in Dholuo, a touch of concern in her voice, “Gikelo chiemo saa adi?” What time are they bringing out the food?

We are what we eat and food is a social identifier; being thousands of kilometres from home, my mother was simply looking for the familiar in a foreign place. The food choices that one makes are a significant indicator of one’s cultural identity in a foreign country. When significant numbers of Kenyans started seeking economic and educational opportunities in the West in the early 80s and 90s, the essential items that they would request to receive from home were largely food items.

Some of the most popular choices were maize flour, chapatis, Farmer’s Choice sausages, local flavours such as the Royco brand of food seasoning and indigenous green vegetables. Things have of course drastically changed. Foods from Asian, Mediterranean and African cultures that were once considered exotic are now readily available in the supermarkets of many European capitals.

Nothing says home like the taste of food. In fact, finding authentic African food becomes a way of finding one’s grounding and establishing social solidarity. When I moved from Kenya to a Dutch suburb just outside Amsterdam, one of the first things I went out in search of was our food.

Family members would call from home and ask with great concern whether I was able to find food. On one occasion, I turned on the video on my cell phone to show them the boiled corn I was chomping on that I had bought in an African market in Amsterdam; they were duly reassured.

The villager in Europe

My first Kenyan contacts in the Netherlands spent a great deal of time pointing out to me where in Amsterdam I could get “our food”. I was shown the Kenyan-owned restaurant where I could get a taste of home. I discovered the Biljmermeer neighbourhood in Zuidoost, the South-East of Amsterdam, known for its African presence drawn from Suriname, the former Dutch colony in South America, and the significant constituency of West African immigrants.

I was pointed to the Moroccan neighbourhoods in Nieuw-West for authentic shawarma, and for rotis and chapatis, to the Asian supermarkets dotting the Amstelveen suburbs that cater to a growing South-Asian expatriate community.

As a conscious pan-Africanist raising young children in a European capital, my food choices have become something of a political statement. I am reminded of assassinated Burkinabé revolutionary leader Thomas Sankara’s enduring statement:

“Where is imperialism? Look at your plates when you eat. These imported grains of rice, corn and millet — that is imperialism’’.

The common narrative is how, largely through imperialism, colonialism and the now dominant neo-liberal agricultural policies, and Western staples, particularly wheat, have influenced the non-Western world. What is not talked about enough is how the Global South is impacting the West, one plate at a time.

In a sense, Europe’s multicultural dynamics are best illustrated by the food on your plate. Besides the politics of identity that has set me off in search of flavourful sweet potatoes, cassava, indigenous vegetables, plantains and tilapia in pop-up African markets in Amsterdam, food has also become a big pointer of my multicultural influences. As an East African, my food choices are heavily influenced by South Asian and Middle-Eastern cuisines.

I remember the first Asian supermarket I spotted in the upmarket Amstelveen suburb of Amsterdam. When I walked in, I struck an immediate rapport with the storekeeper, establishing his country of origin, greeting him in Hindi and asking about the varieties of dhaal, dengu, beans, basmati rice, spices and, of course, chapati available. When I crossed over to a Middle-Eastern grocery store, I switched to an Arabic salutation to express the joy of finding familiar foods. An Ethiopian woman I met at a pop-up market remarked about Kenyan love of Indian food and my response turned into a historical lesson on the centuries of exchange between the East Coast of Africa and the Indian sub-continent via the Indian Ocean.

While African food is still limited to African hubs, with the occasional sighting of an Ethiopian or Eritrean restaurant, Asian-inspired cuisine is widespread. I can find chapatis in many places in Amsterdam and this points to how the humble chapati and pishori or basmati rice are perhaps the herald of the Asian century. Every European city now has a sampling of Asian fine dining restaurants, from Japanese, to Chinese, Indian, Korean, Indonesian and Thai cuisine.

Chapo lives matter

It is almost impossible to talk about culinary influences without encountering imperialism and resistance and the chapati movement serves as a great illustration of culinary globalisation. I have been thinking about the rapid rise of the chapati and the socio-political history of this popular South-Asian flat bread.

About a century ago, way before the arrival of British imperialism in Kenya, a curious incident occurred in India in 1857. Mark Thornhill, a British magistrate serving in the town of Muttra, now Mathura, discovered after some investigations that chapatis were travelling up to 300 kilometres across India. This bizarre distribution of chapatis set off the panic buttons in the British ranks.

The rapid movement of chapatis from hand to hand, village to village had all the markings of a conspiracy and a rebellion. Police runners would bake and hand over the chapatis to their colleagues who in turn would keep the chain going. The chapatis were unmarked and those who accepted the offering would make more batches and pass them along, sometimes moving them up to 300 kilometres in one night.

The chapati moved from village to village with the sort of efficiency that would today be described as viral. It did not help matters that the police were the conduits of this underground chapati railroad and a deep sense of unease spread across the British ranks. A revolt did eventually break out later that year and the movement of chapati was seen as part of the campaign of mobilisation.

While a century ago the chapati served as a symbol of agitation, and was the inspiration for a mutiny against British occupation, in the East African colony where the South-Asian labourers brought in to construct a railway from Mombasa in Kenya to Uganda had stayed on and built an influential minority community, the chapati would a century later emerge as a social leveller in Kenya.

In my formative years in the 70s and 80s, chapati was an exotic dish and a status food. Maize, the Kenyan staple, had been demoted to common fare and those wives who demonstrated the ability to make chapatis improved their social standing. Chapatis were a delicacy, only served during important feasts like Christmas and at highbrow weddings. In Nairobi today, the chapati is about the easiest food to find and consistent in its production across the board.

From the highbrow restaurants to the simple street food stalls, the chapati is the one common denominator. In a cash-strapped economy, chapati flour offers more value for money because of its versatility. It is easy to store, transport and can be consumed with a variety of accompaniments or on its own. Ugali, the dominant by-product of maize flour, lacks that kind of culinary diversity. Chapati is adaptable where ugali is not.

The great corn game

From the 1880s to the dawn of independence in the 60s, maize was the status food introduced by the British as a cheap food source for African farm labourers. With urbanisation and the introduction of wage labour and, later, mechanised mills, maize overtook millet and sorghum as the preferred food of the emerging elite who found it finer and more aspirational. It was considered sweeter, and it also doubled up as a cash crop.

In my home county of Siaya, celebrated historian E.S. Atieno Odhiambo argues in his book Siaya: The Historical Anthropology of an African landscape, that the introduction of maize into the texture of Siaya life was a mode of westernisation. Maize meal was known as kuon ongere, the white man’s ugali, eaten by those who had acquired a Western education. In the last 20 years or so, the chapati movement has grown. Presently, it is Kenya’s preferred fast food, more readily available than fried potato chips, and it has overtaken bread as a breakfast staple.

Chapati is made with wheat flour, and if we follow the logic of Yuval Noah Harari’s persuasive argument, in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, that the wheat plant manipulated and domesticated Homo Sapiens to its advantage to become the global staple leading to the westernisation of our diet, we could say that Asia is manipulating the global palate. South-East Asian nations are now the world’s largest wheat-importing regions and consequently we are witnessing an Asianisation of our diets, the most telling sign yet that the future is Asian. 

The story of the chapati’s movement across Africa and Europe is also the story of the power of multiculturalism and how the Asian and African diasporas use food to assert their identities and influence the foreign cultures they integrate into. The Japanese took sushi global. Chinese takeaway is a popular cultural marker of the North American fast food culture.

What we cook and eat is more than symbolism. My desire to preserve my culture is manifested through my food choices and culinary practices and this is a trait common to all migrants who find themselves negotiating minority positions in dominant cultures.

Asia and Europe have a long history of trade and the modern Silk Road continues to assert its influence on European culture. The largest supermarket chain in the Netherlands, Albert Heijn, sells a range of products aimed at marking Ramadhan in a country where a far right populist figure and leader of the third largest political party, PVV, Geert Wilders is infamous for his anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant sentiments.

These new flavours from Asia and now Africa challenge dominant narratives in subtle ways. From the street corners of the colonies, they are now to be found on the high streets of Europe. Asia’s population and material prosperity has gained traction in Europe and its cuisine is no longer the stereotypical cheap fast food but is now part of an expanding repertoire of fine dining.

Europe as a globalized pantry

The influx of African foods in the Netherlands, for example, is directly linked to its growing African diaspora. It greatly surprises my mother, living in Kenya and worried that I may be subsisting on bread, ham and cheese, that I eat pretty much the same food I would eat in Kenya.

It might be logistically harder to source coarse maize flour than it is to find chapatis but I no longer have to have a contact in the airlines in order to get a taste of home abroad. The proliferation of other foods in Europe shows the varied pathways of culinary globalisation and the inevitability of change brought about by migration.

In some pockets of Europe, the growing influence of minority food cultures has become a political issue. In 2016, Denmark’s Ministry of Cultural Affairs carried out a poll seeking to identify core Danish values. One revealing pointer from this survey was the prominence of eating consumption in the responses, elevated as a symbol of Danish identity and interpreted as part of a culture war and a stance over migration.

In the Netherlands, the influence of the former Dutch colonies — notably Indonesia and Suriname — on the national cuisine is well established. Nasi Goreng, a rice-based meal introduced by Indo-Dutch people, fries with satay or peanut sauce, Suriname sandwiches locally known as Surinaamse broodjes, now count as national dishes.

Spices from the Dutch East Indies penetrated local cuisines and the Dutch embraced these new flavours from abroad in much the same way that the British love curry and favourite English food choices are South-Asian in character.

With the changing food supply chains in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, the questions of food politics and identity are emerging more prominently. There is a growing sentiment of European food nationalism, where eating local is associated with patriotism. European consumers, particularly those from the South, are increasingly interested in where their food comes from in order to support local farmers and preserve their cultures from foreign influences.

Since food is a cultural identifier, Europe’s politics of identity and belonging is bound to continue playing out on your dinner table. The revolution you might be looking for might just start on your plate.

This article is part of The Elephant Food Edition Series done in collaboration with Route to Food Initiative (RTFI). Views expressed in the article are not necessarily those of the RTFI.

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