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Mathare: Urban Bastion of the Struggle Against Oppression in Kenya

10 min read.

Many only know it as the slum located next to the country’s largest mental health facility, but Mathare has a rich history of resistance against oppression by the state dating back to colonial times.

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Mathare: Urban Bastion of the Struggle Against Oppression in Kenya
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I have lived in Mathare since I was four years old and I have seen it grow from a slum with a medium population density to become Kenya’s most densely populated area with over 68,000 people per square kilometre.

I began my schooling in the early 2000s at Action Child Mobilization Centre, a local private school that was nothing more than a shack built of iron sheets where we were taught by form four school leavers. In this part of Nairobi, qualifications did not matter and anybody could be  a teacher as long as they had an average command of English. This was the best we could get. The different classes were scattered all over the neighbourhood, as it was not possible to find space for all the classrooms to be in one place. We became accustomed to learning while listening to loud music from neighbours’ houses and we sometimes did our exams while a couple was quarrelling and fighting next door. That was the environment we learned in.

As a resident since childhood, I can attest that despite the sad, depressing stories that come out of my Mathare, it is also a place of beautiful stories. Some of our best footballers and sports people honed their talents while training on our soil, people like football international Dennis Oliech and famed female boxer Conjestina Achieng. Mathare has also produced great musicians like Bahati, Willy Paul and Eko Dydda.

But the world does not get to hear about our success stories, knowing only about our struggles and the challenges we go through. When you mention Mathare to a random Kenyan, what comes to their mind is the Mathari Mental Hospital, Kenya’s only national and public psychiatric referral hospital that was established in 1901. Due to its close proximity to Mathare Valley, some people even have the audacity to ask why we live with “mad people”; they believe Mathare is for the mentally challenged and escapees from the hospital. I once tried to explain to a friend in high school that, just like anywhere else, only a few people in Mathare are mentally challenged. But he said, “Yes, every market has its own mad man, but Mathare is a market where all are mad.”  I stopped talking to him. I was very angry and bitter about the picture painted of my home, the place that has nurtured me since I was four.

The stigma of coming from Mathare was so acute that, while in high school, I stopped telling other students where I grew up to avoid ridicule. Any wrong or “weird” answer would be attributed to my so-called upbringing with “mentally challenged people”. Most of them would back their highly opinionated statements with references to the violence witnessed during any general election, where Mathare youths are hired by rogue politicians to die for them on the streets.

Today I am writing the story of Mathare, the untold story that is unknown to many. Not out of anger or bitterness, but as a counter-narrative about the place I call home from a proud insider’s perspective. It is the beautiful story of a former quarry that became an urban bastion against oppression by the colonial government, and by the four regimes we have had in Kenya since independence.

I am writing this piece because only we can tell our story to the outside world. “The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” as Comrade Gacheke Gachihi of Mathare Social Justice Centre puts it.

Mathare did not start as a settlement for mental hospital escapees as some claim. Mathare emerged from what had been a stone quarry during the early years of colonial rule in the Pre-World War 1 (WW1) period. Most of the building stones and ballast used in the construction of the Eastleigh and Muthaiga residential areas and the Nairobi Central Business District were extracted from this big quarry. It is only after the First World War, in the early 1920s, that people started settling in Mathare. Some of the early settlers were from the areas around today’s City Park and Muthaiga that were then part of the larger Karura Forest, from where they were evicted by the colonial government. These prime areas were reserved for the white colonial elite and the former inhabitants were rounded up and concentrated in the low-laying areas, leading to the birth of Mathare and the mushrooming of the many slums in Nairobi’s Eastlands area.

The first evictees settled in the lower Pangani area that is separated from Mathari Hospital by River Mathare. This area that is today part of Mlango Kubwa and Lower Pangani was known as Kiamutisya. The different sections of Mathare were named after the headmen or leaders controlling them, like Kiamutisya and Kwa Kariuki. From there, the slum began to spread eastwards to Bondeni, then known as Kiandururu. Other areas such as Gitathuru, Mashimoni and Mathare 4A emerged gradually as the population burgeoned.

Mathare is now one of the most congested slums in Nairobi with over 500,000 residents concentrated in a mere 7.25 square kilometres. It is home to diverse ethnicities from all over the country, from as far away as Turkana in northern Kenya, and to foreign nationals from Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania.

Mathare is 8km from Nairobi CBD. This proximity, and its closeness to Eastleigh to the southwest and Muthaiga and Karura to the West, attracted Kenyans, particularly those from eastern and central Kenya, who came in search of jobs and settled in the area. This rural-urban migration created a cheap labour pool for the upmarket areas occupied by the settlers, as well as for the Asian community that resided in Eastleigh and Pangani. By the late 1920s, Mathare was home to several thousand Africans living in temporary makeshift houses made of wood, mud and other materials and working in the surrounding areas.

As the struggle against colonial rule began, Mathare emerged as the hub of anti-colonial organizing because of its strategic location. It slowly became the urban vanguard against the colonial government. Meetings to strategize how to disrupt the peaceful stay of the settlers in the country were planned in Mathare.

The agitation was amplified by the presence in their midst of radical elements who had fought alongside whites in both world wars. Residents started protesting against the punitive measures imposed on Africans, such as the hut tax, the kipande (identity document) and unfair urban zoning. The British felt threatened by the continued agitation and in 1952, at the start of the State of Emergency which was declared by the then Governor Sir Evelyn Baring, the colonial government razed down many houses in Mathare. Baring was reacting to intelligence that Mathare residents were supporting the Mau Mau, the nationalist movement fighting for Kenya’s independence. This did not deter Mathare residents; it only emboldened them to push further and Mathare continued to be the planning ground for Mau Mau activities.

It is during the active years of the Mau Mau (The Kenya Land and Freedom Army) struggle that Mathare became the crucible of anti-colonial action with the help of people like Pio Gama Pinto, who played a key role in uniting the different factions agitating for independence. Pinto was a Kenyan-born Goan who had studied in both Kenya and in Goa in India. After completing his studies in India, Pinto joined movements against Portuguese rule in Goa, which placed his life in danger and so he fled back to Kenya for his safety. In Kenya, he was the link between trade unions, the Mau Mau, lawyers and others involved in the fight against British rule in Kenya.

Workers from Karura and other areas would steal arms and other supplies from their white employers, which would be gathered and smuggled to the Aberdare and Mt. Kenya forests from where Mau Mau guerrillas were waging their war against the British.

After Kenya gained independence in 1963, the population of Mathare grew exponentially as more people flocked to the city. The first government of Jomo Kenyatta did not undertake any measures to improve the dire living conditions of the people of Mathare. The residents continued to live under the poor conditions that had existed since the colonial period. As the slum expanded, the residents were abandoned to their fate, despite the active and largely undocumented role they had played towards the attainment of Kenya’s independence.

This neglect of the people of Mathare continued under the Moi regime. During his 24 years in power, nothing was done to ensure planning, access to water and other basic services. In 1982, the residents of Mathare bore the brunt of the failed Kenya Air Force coup. The Moi government turned its anger on helpless and defenceless citizens, the majority of whom had no idea what was happening in the country. The military were unleashed on the residents like bloodthirsty dogs and houses were ransacked under the guise of searching for soldiers who had participated in the failed coup and whom it was alleged were being harboured in Mathare. The crackdown that followed in the wake of the failed coup left more than 200 civilians dead, the majority from Mathare, which is just across the road from Moi Air Base, the epicentre of the aborted coup attempt. Bodies were left lying in the streets and hundreds were maimed and injured. The damage was enormous, and the trauma would last peoples’ lifetimes.

The oppression has continued, but has never broken the resilience of the residents of Mathare, forged from a legacy of resistance. The neglect continued unabated under the Kibaki regime, and together with it, oppression from law enforcement agencies. An example that stands out is the infamous crackdown on Mungiki in Kosovo and other parts of Mathare between 6 and 9 June 2007. Those were tension-filled days as officers of the feared General Service Unit unleashed violence, rounded up citizens and demolished tens of shacks. The crackdown came after two police officers were killed and their guns stolen on the night of 4 June 2007. It was a terrible time to be a young man in the valley. Wearing dreadlocks only made things worse as they would use that to profile members of the banned Mungiki Sect. Young men were rounded up, made to lie on the streets, beaten and then forced to wade in the filthy and murky Mathare River in search of the arms that were supposedly dumped there. As though the demolitions and brutality meted on them was not enough, the police then executed more than 30 young men, some in broad daylight. The executions were carried out under the orders of the former Minister of Interior Security John Michuki and the former Inspector General of Police Gen. Muhammed Ali. 

One day during that terrible week, shortly after our mid-morning break, the sound of gunshots reverberated around us. The police were firing tear gas grenades and our school was soon engulfed in smoke. With no water available, we washed our faces with the porridge in our mugs and as panic spread, some of my class six classmates tore through the iron sheets and scampered to the safety of their homes.

It is during this time that I witnessed a scene that has never left my mind. It is still as vivid as though it happened yesterday. A man was lying face down on the ground with some officers poking his back with their bayonets, those sharp knives fixed to the muzzles of their guns. The man was crying and pleading with the police and after a few minutes, gunshots rung through the air scattering the crowd that was watching from afar. I went back to the scene late in the afternoon and what I found was only blood-soaked soil. I have lived with that memory my whole life.

That same afternoon, I saw the Inspector General of Police criss-crossing the alleys and open trenches in the valley. It was very unusual to find a high-ranking government official in the deepest parts of Mathare. He was escorted by a contingent of heavily armed officers. Even at my young age, I knew that the next few days were going to be hell, and they were. The people of Mathare endured nights of violence at the hands of state agents and more people died. My two cousins, who had come to the city in search of jobs after finishing high school, had to be sneaked out before the door-to-door search that started with the start of the dusk to dawn curfew that had been imposed. The operation left more than 30 people dead, hundreds injured, demolished shanties, displaced people, and trauma. This kind of reaction by so-called law enforcers has also been witnessed during election times, where police officers act without regard for the sanctity and dignity of human life.

Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee government has exacerbated the already precarious situation in Mathare. As poor youth, we have been criminalised by the same system that oppressed our grandfathers and our fathers. Young men spotting dreadlocks like those worn by Kenya’s freedom fighters are targeted for arbitrary arrest, extortion, killings and, as is the trend nowadays, enforced disappearances. According to Missing Voices, an organization that documents cases of arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, 105 people were killed or disappeared by police between January and July 2021. The majority of these killings and disappearances occurred in the low income neighbourhoods of Nairobi such as Mathare. It is quite common for a youth to be framed and accused of being in possession of marijuana – it is planted in their pockets during arrest – and end up disappearing at the hands of the police, only for their lifeless bodies to be found in the city morgue or dumped somewhere else.

I see the youth being terrorized every day in this valley. I have also been a victim of arbitrary arrest several times by the same officers who swore to protect us and uphold the constitution. I have lost classmates and friends to police bullets; the trend of extra-judicial executions continues unabated.

It is this injustice that led me to join the Ruaraka Social Justice Centre immediately after graduating from college instead of looking for an internship or finding a job.

A systematic approach is needed to deal with this systematic oppression of generations of Kenyans, first by the colonial government and the African Home Guards, and by their allies in the four post-independence regimes. One of the founders of the Mathare Social Justice Centre, Gacheke Gachihi saw this need and collaboratively established this community justice centre in the heart of Mathare, on the same grounds where the anti-colonial struggle was planned. As a visionary leader, Gachihi saw the need to form a network of social justice centres in the country that would coalesce around issues of social justice. The reactionary approach of one-day demonstrations has been replaced with a systematic approach: that of organizing the community, educating it and allowing the same community to liberate itself from the shackles of exploitation and oppression. Through this community organizing, of which I have been a part since 2019, the residents of Mathare are now cognizant of the power of a united people with a common goal.

With my pen and paper, I shall live to protect Mathare and its rich history and heritage that derives from the critical role it has played in organizing the masses and as a revolutionary bulwark against oppression in the colonial era and during successive regimes. The onus is now on my generation not to betray the struggle but to bring it to fruition.

Mathare is now home to various progressive groups such as the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA), Mathare Roots, Mathare Green Movement and the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC), the mother centre of the social justice centres movement in Kenya. Mathare is once again leading the struggle against oppression and it continues to play this role faithfully. The blood of our freedom fighters that was shed on our soil will continue to water the seeds of our freedom. Every time I walk along Mau Mau Road, from Mabatini to Mlango Kubwa in Mathare, I walk with my head held high knowing that I am walking on fertile ground, the home of past, current and future revolutionaries. The name Mathare is no longer a source of shame for me but a beacon of hope for the future for I now know that it means resilience. From Mathare to the world, the social justice movement is born. May the sacred torch of freedom fighters never dim but light the way to a socially just nation.

Appreciation

This article would not have been complete without contributions from Comrade Kimani Antony of Kiamaiko Community Social Justice Centre, Comrade Samuel Kiriro of Ghetto Foundation, Mr Zaangi of Muungano wa Wanavijiji and Comrade Gacheke Gachihi of Mathare Social Justice Centre

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Gathanga Ndung’u is a community organiser with Ruaraka Social Justice Centre which is under the Social Justice Centres’ Working Group. He is also part of Revolutionary Social League brigade that organizes political education in different political cells in the respective centres in Nairobi. Away from this, he is a biotechnologist with great enthusiasm for ecological justice, food sovereignty and security. Above all, Gathanga is a Pan-Africanist and a socialist.

Reflections

Nairobi, Nairobae, Nairoberry

Cacophonous, labyrinthine, gluttonous, angry, envious, charming, paradoxical, mysterious, confusing, alluring.

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Nairobi, Nairobae, Nairoberry
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Nairobi. A cacophony of matatu hoots and booming bongs from church bells. All in inexplicable harmony. Like a Beethoven piece. A muezzin’s melody moves the ummah from a minaret here, a bus conductor — shouting from the most pimped out mathree — moves umati there. A hawker here. An ambulance there. But there’s also a silent monotone. The sound of hope dying. Of someone stealing two billion every day, of the clock going tick-tock from your 9 to 5. There’s that saying: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? But what if it’s in the middle of Waiyaki Way? Just because someone thinks giving us an expressway will absolve him of war crimes. While in reality, all it does is leave all the marabou storks homeless.

Nairobi. A labyrinth of lipstick-stained shot glasses and semi-filled ashtrays. Where a party starts regardless of where the limbs of the clock point. And only ends when everyone is browned out and on the brink of calling the one that got away. Nairobi is looking for coins during traffic because you want to help the beggar, who is patient enough to receive the donation before snatching your phone. It is being stagnant in that same traffic for long enough to buy crisps made with transformer oil and served in compact disk wrapping. And like clockwork, you put the window back up because Nairobbery isn’t just a play on words. But the ones that hurt the most are the conmen, because nigga I trusted you!

Nairobi. Where gluttony is second nature. A kaleidoscope of too much gold tequila and too many smokie pasuas. Of good pasta and wine in overpriced restaurants. Of ramen noodles and pre-cooked meat. Where nothing is ever enough. We drink and eat to our fill because life sucks. Why wouldn’t it? Our last president’s advisor was the bottom of a Jameson bottle and our current one’s advisor is Jesus. The spirit guides the nation either way, I guess. But still, Nairobi tastes like chances and do-overs. It tastes like anxieties and aspirations and I know it doesn’t feel like it but today you omoka na 3-piecer then one day you omoka, for real.

Nairobi. Reeks of piss and thrifted clothes. Fresh bakeries and Subway. Old currency and that one cologne every man in their early 20s wears. Smells like fighting your titans and sending a million job applications. Nairobi. Where you can go weeks without a lover’s touch but only days without a cop grabbing you by the wedgie into a mariamu because you shouldn’t be idle as you wait for your Uber outside Alchemist. Because of course in that time you should take up a sport, play an instrument, solve world peace, et cetera.

There are few occasions when pride will linger. Like when Kipchoge finishes a marathon in under two hours. When Lupita wins an Oscar. The hubris you feel when your copy makes it to the billboard on UN Avenue. Or when your lame joke gets five retweets because Kenyans on Twitter will massacre you if you think you’re the next Churchill. Orrrr that one time we were all watching Money Heist and so gassed that Nairobi was one of the characters.

Sadly, Nairobi pride also comes in with its individualism. Everyone is out here on their own trying to get some bread whether they’re in the upper class getting baguettes and rye bread or in the lower class getting Supaloaf. I get it though, the city doesn’t let anyone rest from the grind and the hustle and the drudgery. And the wealth gap is bigger than Vera Sidika’s bunda. But ironically, the city is a paradox. An optical illusion. Sometimes the people are so ready to convene in community that it kinda revives the fickle hope you have in humanity. From safe spaces to fundraisers to a simple hearty conversation with your Uber driver.

And there’s obviously that murky feeling of greed that comes from 90 per cent of our politicians. When you’re at the bottom of the food chain it’s called hunger, but the higher you climb the more you want and it becomes indulgence. Greed makes them say and do all kinds of things. Like apologising to Arab countries that are exploiting Kenyans because they don’t want to be cut off. Y’all know any juakali guys we can commission for guillotines? – Heads gotta roll. Because how will I steal cooking oil and flour and end up in a cold cell but they’ll steal billions and end up with a second five-year term?

I think wrath is the most Nairobi-esque of the cardinal sins. We’re angry at the police. At the government, at global warming, at nduthis, at KPLC, at Zuku, at Safaricom, at KCB, at each other. Agonizingly though, our anger fizzles out as fast as it blazes up. I don’t think we’re ever angry enough.

And then there’s the envy. You know you’ll get there eventually but that gets lost in translation when you see someone with better because that sparks something in you even though we are all on different paths at different paces. Whether it’s a BMW or an airfryer, the question stays: Why not me? And also I’m personally jealous of the people who’ve managed to move out of Nairobi to Naivasha, Watamu or wherever. It feels like they’ve figured their way out the maze while I’m still at a dead end wondering whether I can just hop out the sides. Doesn’t matter what it is, our eyes are as green as the parks and spaces we so desperately need in this godforsaken city.

Nairobi. The city of miniskirts and cheers baba jackets. Lust dripping down the sides of our mouths because we can’t seem to contain it under our tongues. I don’t even know why people bother to go to Vasha for WRC when they live in the city of sexual debauchery where the only thing that’s on heat more than the sun is whatever’s between people’s legs. Where even Christian Grey would pause and do a double-take. Where ropes aren’t just for skipping and leashes aren’t just for dogs. If you find ordered love in the city, you must have saved refugees and orphans in your past life. This is the city where the flesh is truly willing.

You know that intense sloth-like feeling when you wanna wake up for Sunday brunch at Brew Bistro or K1 and then later watch Hamilton race at around 4 when all the mimosas have hit your head and you’re surprised that your wig is still intact? Or the next day when you’re trying to get out of your covers and you’re thinking about that beastly Nairobi traffic you’re about to face and all you can do is tweet “Nimewacha pombe mimi”. Truthfully though, other than that and a few other instances, the pace is too fast for me. I just wanna be in a dera next to the beach drinking a passion caipiroska and eating viazi karai cause why are y’all always running?

And y’all are way too fast when coming up with new words too. There’s like a million words for currency, ass, sex, sherehe, et cetera. Truly, there is a certain linguistic je ne sais quoi when it comes to the Nairobian’s language. It stops being a transaction of random syllables and begins to become an understanding of feelings, emotions and behaviour. I, especially, like how we knead it into our art. We sneak it into our music and get phenomena like gengetone.

We compress it into our films and get Nairobi Half Life. We squeeze it into our visual pieces and get Michael Soi. One thing about Nairobians is we do not cower in silence, we have words to say and we shall say them. Even if that means running a president out of Twitter. That’s why our writers are as staggeringly sensational as they are. Ngartia. Sookie. Grey. Muthaka. Laria. Abu. And those are just my friends, dawg.

But it’s not just the writing. The fashion. Rosemary Wangari. Nicole Wendo. Samantha Nyakoe. The music. Mau from Nowhere, Vallerie Muthoni, Karun, Maya Amolo, XPRSO. Just a Band. The films. The painting. Muthoni Matu. Zolesa. The architecture. The cinema. The theatre. Too Early for Birds is back! et cetera. Man, I gotta tell ya, when God was cooking up the cauldron of this city, he went hard on the talent. Quote me on this: a lot of exceptional creatives from this city are gonna hit the world with a head-splitting bang in a couple of years.

Nairobi. Despite the crowds, the queues and the poor drainage, it still has a charm. Mysterious. Confusing. Alluring. Despite the fact that you can only truly enjoy the Nairobi experience if you’re a bird or an expat, me I love it still.

Nairobians, keep sinning, keep winning!

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Reflections

The Enemy Within

Death hangs heavily over people with cancer – it is always there, reminding you of your mortality.

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The Enemy Within
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So, this is what happens when a doctor tells you that you have cancer. The first response is disbelief (how can this be true?), followed by anger (I don’t deserve this, I never hurt anyone), and then a deep sense of grief and loss (what will I miss when I die, and how will my loved ones cope without me?)

They say cancer is the result of pent-up anger and resentment. Apparently, years of holding on to these emotions make your cells misbehave and become toxic. Cancer cells end up eating up healthy cells, leaving the body so full of poison that it collapses from lack of vitality. The jury is still out on whether lifestyle choices generate cancer in the body because people who lead healthy lives seem to be as prone to cancer as those who don’t. Nonetheless, when you find out you have cancer, your first reaction is to blame yourself. It is sort of like being told you have HIV. (Was I responsible for this? Was I reckless? Should I have used a condom?)

Friends and relatives will tell you that breast cancer is beatable, that they know so many women who had breast cancer and lived healthy lives years after treatment. What they don’t tell you is that all the literature points to a short life expectancy after the discovery of cancer. The chances of recurrence are high, even with chemotherapy, mastectomy or radiation, the traditional methods to “cure” breast cancer. I have read studies where women who had chemotherapy had an equal chance of recurrence as those who didn’t. So, death hangs heavily over people with cancer – it is always there, constantly reminding you of your mortality.

Most people are so afraid of cancer that they can’t even say the word. The receptionist at an oncologist’s office actually asked me what kind of “C” I had – never used the word cancer. Yet she deals with cancer patients every day.  Another oncologist I consulted couldn’t even make eye contact with me and rushed me through a diagnosis I couldn’t understand, perhaps believing that my cancer was contagious?

The thing is that cancer is not like any other disease that can be cured through surgery or drugs. It requires months of treatment and constant monitoring. It’s not like having malaria or a broken bone. It is like having an enemy residing in your body, hostile, predatory, waiting to pounce at any moment.

It seems a positive frame of mind is critical in recovering from cancer. I got calls from women who told me they bounced right back into their lives after months of treatment as if nothing had happened, that I mustn’t believe all the literature, that I should get all the treatments done and go back to living a normal life. They didn’t explain to me why they have been working from home since their treatment started and since their so-called “recovery”. Others are more honest about their experiences. A South African women called to tell me that her experience with chemotherapy had damaged her heart, and she is on life-long medication that makes her urinate every few minutes, which means she can no longer work in an office. Instead of destroying the cancer, the chemo destroyed healthy cells in her heart. She is cancer-free but now disabled in other ways. Another friend told me her aunt died not from the cancer, but from the chemo.

What the doctors and the optimists don’t tell you is that both chemotherapy and radiation have debilitating impacts on your body. They literally are poisons injected into your body to kill another poison. Sort of like a vaccine but not quite because they do not boost your immunity. Both chemotherapy and radiation therapies involve weeks of hospital visits that cost an arm and leg. Nausea, burns on your body, fatigue are common side effects.

A friend from Boston who has studied alternative ways of healing from cancer (including not getting any treatment at all) tells me that each woman with breast cancer has to make an individual choice about what kind of treatment she should get. Doctors trained in Western medicine will be quick to put you on chemotherapy and the other treatments without giving you other options. Desperate and eager to cling onto life, the patient with cancer readily accepts any treatment, not realising that not only is it a very long process, but very costly as well. Mental preparation and psychological support are also necessary before embarking on the long and arduous journey called cancer treatment. People become life-long patients; some recover well, others not so well. Some women opt for no treatment, preferring to lead a good quality of life before the disease ravages the body.

I am looking at alternative methods of healing, including Pranic healing that works on your energy fields and chakras. So far it seems to be helping me, but only time will tell if I will be a success story. I have certainly started eating more, and those dizzy spells in the morning seem to be getting rarer.

The biopsy results are not yet out, so I am still not sure what the oncologist will prescribe, but in Kenya, the modus operandi seems to follow the same script: mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy or radiation and some kind of hormone treatment. Am I ready to go there? Not sure. Women who lose their breasts speak of feeling like an amputee; the loss of an organ that defines their femininity impacts their identity and self-esteem. Others are more casual about losing their breasts, (“It’s just fat,” one woman told me). `

The other thing about cancer is that when you have it, you think of nothing else. Everything is a blur. Someone wants to make small talk, and all you want to do is look the other way or scream. (Can’t you see I have cancer? Do you really want to discuss the weather?) You think about your life in vivid film shots. Your past suddenly comes into sharp focus, both the happy and sad days. You begin questioning the meaning of life in ways you never did before. Cancer prepares you for death the way a fatal car accident doesn’t. Is sudden death preferable to dying slowly because you can’t see it coming? Not sure.

But let me not be the purveyor of doom and gloom. The reason I am writing this article is that I have learned wonderful things about myself and other people. One of the things I have learned is that people can be kind and generous when they know you are in pain. People I don’t even know and have never met have sent me good wishes, prayers and even money for my treatment. Friends and family have sent food and offered accommodation. An Indian friend called to say that if I opted to go to India for treatment, I could stay in his home for as long as I needed. These generous and kind offers have literally brought tears to my eyes.

What I also learned is that my life’s work has not been a waste, and that my readers love and admire me for my writing. I didn’t realise I had inspired so many people, not just in Kenya but around the world, through words I have penned. That is a really important things for me to know and hold onto right now – to realise that I had a gift that I used well, and which helped others. And to know that when I go, my writing will live on.

I also learned that life is very, very short. So, we must not postpone the things we need to do. If your job makes you unhappy, quit. If a relationship is toxic, leave it. If people around you are making you feel bad about yourself, walk away. Surround yourself with people who love and cherish you. Love is very important for human survival, so distribute it freely. Be kind and generous. This thing called life is temporary, so enjoy every moment and live it as if every day is your last.

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Reflections

Someone’s Grandmother Just Died!

It is painful to always have to consider the feelings of others while legitimate calls for acknowledgement of racial injustice and reparations are consistently ignored and dismissed.

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Someone's Grandmother Just Died!
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Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II, I watched the televised service at St. Giles’ Cathedral in Edinburgh attended by the royals and various Scottish dignitaries, as well as the many hundreds who came out to pay their respects or to be a part of this historical event.

As I watched the outpouring of public emotion, I couldn’t help but wonder what emotions the queen’s death would invoke in those whose lives have been blighted because of the British colonial policies that killed millions and left a legacy of misery and disenfranchisement in countries far too many to name.  

At first I was saddened by the news. But then came the reactions of global figures the world over, with some proclaiming outright that Queen Elizabeth had been a guiding light, a symbol of hope and stability in the world. One broadcaster went so far as to say “She was everybody’s grandmother.” My problem was that she wasn’t mine.

My grandmother, born in 1923, was just three years old when the Queen was born, my 81-year-old mother told me when I called to get her reaction to the news that the Queen had died. “She would’ve been 99 years old today if she had she lived,” my mom said. I could hear the emotion in her voice as she remembered her mother. My grandmother died in 1983; she was 59 years old. I was then just 18 years old.  I said, “Mom with all the things we know about the racist systems that have kept Black and Brown people oppressed, I really don’t know how I want to feel about the death of the British Queen.” Never one to mince her words, my mom replied, “She was a human being, and we, well you know, we mourn the loss of any life.”

Yes. She may have been a grandmother to many but to me she was a symbol of institutionalized racism in its clearest form. Images of British dynasty have been present in the education of every American who has gone through the public school system since the Second World War during which the United States allied with Britain in their quest for global power and dominance. Yet here was the evil of the Crown being portrayed in the media—as it’s always been portrayed—as providence, something divine. As I listened to a special broadcast by the popular British talk show host James Corden talking to an American audience about the Queen’s passing, his tone struck me as odd: “She will be missed, she was everybody’s grandmother,” he said, going on to tell us how well she had served the country and the world.

As I was listening to Corden and wondering why I was so irritated by his outpouring of emotion, it dawned on me that racism moves from generation to generation, falling back on the old practices of how to colonize a nation:  You teach them to love you more than they love themselves. Racism survives because the symbols of racism never die. We carry the symbols in our hearts and in our minds and once we have identified with them, we seek to justify their existence. While I could empathise with those that felt a special connection to the Crown, what I realized and felt most immediately, was the insensitivity I received as an African American who bears the scars of the legacy of slavery that has made the British Empire one of the richest and most powerful nations in the world today.

The next day I watched the funeral procession move through the streets of Edinburgh, the commentators conveying the solemn mood of the people who came out to pay tribute to their Queen.  All the while I couldn’t see past the 1989 image of Princess Diana hugging a child suffering from HIV/AIDS. On her first unaccompanied trip overseas, Princess Diana spontaneously broke with protocol and showed compassion towards a suffering Black child with all the world watching, at a time when the stigma of HIV/AIDS was as bad as the disease, and  Blacks were being impacted the most and no one else seemed to care. Diana’s humanity helped solidify her reputation as the “People’s Princess” and it radically changed the way AIDS sufferers were perceived.

While the news played on I thought about two recent exchanges I had had in Amsterdam, just outside my front door.  The first exchange took place in a cafe.

I was sitting at the bar having a coffee. Another Black male of Surinamese origin was sitting a couple of tables away. It was midmorning and we were the only ones there. In an attempt to start a conversation, as men do, he asked my opinion on the war in Ukraine. I told him I thought it was crazy, all too unreal. The white Dutchman behind the counter leaned over and candidly shared, “I don’t give a shit about the war in Ukraine.”  I didn’t speak again and left the bar so abruptly the young brother asked, “You leaving?”  I was in no mood to have that conversation so early in the day, having experienced the backlash of the “Black Lives Matter” protest with the counter-narrative that All Lives Matter; I’ve learned that sometimes it’s better to just hold one’s peace and walk away. (It literally is your peace.)

Shortly after that incident, a couple of days later, I had another encounter that made me realize that we simply can’t afford not to care. I had wandered into a tool shop  on the corner of my street that looks more like a men’s gift shop inside than a hardware store selling nails, drills and plywood. Behind me walked in a man who apparently knew what he wanted because we reached the cash register at the same time, he with a power drill in his hand. I moved aside to let him be the first in line, not sure if I was done.

The Dutchman behind the counter seemed not to have noticed that the man with the drill wasn’t Dutch and didn’t speak the language. But to his credit, he did know what he wanted: the drill and a bag in which to put the canisters of spray paint he had already placed on the counter. Being familiar with Eastern Europeans, I assumed the man was Polish and asked “Polske?” “No! Ukraine!” he said, then, smiling, added, “Close.”

Hij wil een tas.” He wants a bag, I said to the clerk; bags are not automatically handed out after a purchase these days.  The clerk then understood and reached under the counter. I was pleased I could help and the Ukrainian was happy as well. To my surprise, as I placed my items on the counter, the Ukrainian tapped my shoulder and offered a fist bump.

I say all this to say of the human condition that people appreciate what they understand.  And sadly enough, we rarely think about injustice until it is visited upon us.

Whose permission do we now need to talk about racism and the policies that still impact us today? Africa and the African diaspora’s historical issues are and always have been about racism and this is why members of this group, my group, will always hold a contrarian view when the West attempts to compel us to join them in their moment of grief.  My grandmother died in 1983, at the young age of 59, in a small southern town next to a river; there was no horse and carriage, no media. The British Empire once covered the whole world, a dominance that was achieved through suppression and oppression. Many atrocities were committed and entire communities decimated under the authority of the Queen.  I was raised never to speak ill of the dead because they aren’t here to defend themselves but I will submit this:  it is painful to always have to consider the feelings of others while legitimate calls for acknowledgement of racial injustice and reparations are consistently ignored and dismissed.  Where is the same fervour and energy for those issues that matter to us? 

When we as Black people keep the peace, we empower the presence of the historical lie that we are inferior and thus require control. When we remain silent we allow the systems of the institutions and the prejudices that block our collective growth to thrive. Why should we care about the death of the Queen when the Queen has stood for the oppression of our people? Why should we be guilt-tripped into silence, into not speaking out about the dead, into not pursuing our freedom? When will our emergency, the issues that impact Black and Brown people, become a top concern for the White world? When will I be able speak without fear of being branded just another angry black man, angry for what I don’t have that others do?

Sad as the Queen’s death is to those that survive her, honouring her service is a symbolic gesture that must be contextualized because, for many, and not just in the UK but all over the world, the English monarchy is a symbol of oppression. I recently listened to a podcast in which a Black podcaster scolded an guest who said this of the Queen: “She is the symbol of colonialism and racism for many; however much we want to romanticize the Queen of England’s long reign on the throne as a stabilizing force on earth, she has also allowed many human rights violations on her watch”. The podcaster’s response was a classic putdown, “Why do Black people have to always bring up racism? Someone’s grandmother just died!”

Racism endures because when we identify with its symbols, we will do anything and everything in our power to justify and defend them.

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