The 15 year old teenage girl who was allegedly kicked out of Olympic secondary school in Kibra for having dreadlocks will continue to stay out of school after the court failed to issue orders for her unconditional return to school.
The things we hold onto are the things that will eventually become the things that define us. And when we hold on to definitions like “proper” and “neat” as defined through the colonial lens, then we continue to ensure that the world doesn’t change. That we remain in the past, controlled by the same things that we claim to be leaving behind.
When CS Amina Mohammed asked that the Rastafarian girl be allowed back to school there was a refusal to hang on to things that should not matter.
“The Supreme Court on Thursday, January 24, however, reversed the decision by the Appellate court stating that each school had liberty to determine their students’ dress code. “
“The stranger comes to be faced as a form of recognition: we recognize somebody as a stranger, rather than simply failing to recognize them.”
Recognising Strangers, Ahmed.
I keep going back to this definition of the stranger whenever I think of identity. Ahmed does a great job of breaking down the image of the stranger and further of stranger danger. I like going back to her work because it’s easier to see how this position of stranger can be created as a phenomenon and how no amount of explaining, unmaking and remaking of oneself can turn them from being a stranger.
What’s worse is we are socialized to fear what we don’t understand or, to frame it better, what we recognize as outside our frames of understanding.
“It’s a complicated game to play – who started this war, who threw the first stone and how to stop it. Already giving in to fear, a section of MPs are asking that the terrorists be burnt in public. As if somehow increasing the violence of the situation will help.”
And, in knowing the stranger as well as we do – we know the shape of our fears exactly. Wagalla becomes Mpeketoni becomes Kasarani becomes Garissa becomes El Adde. We cry, one Kenya and ask ourselves how it stops, but do little work to untangle the mess that is created by the idea of a core identity and fringe identities.
Which brings me back to the debate on schools and hair. I find it interesting that the two questions surround identities with complicated history. The dreadlocked rastafari spelled nothing but fear to the colonial administration – ripple of which continue to be seen today. The hijabi, on the other hand, has been used to symbolize islam, which our fear has problematically interlinked with terrorism.
In this way, I’ve been wondering about the value of the heavily Judeo-Christian values that we insist on espousing as a society. Whether it is through Mutua’s consistent banning of films, through our militant and persistent homophobia or just the looks that one gets after admitting they don’t believe in god, how does it help us?
How does it help when the courts have to step in over a debate on how a girl should wear her hair to school? What anarchy will be born of accepting that the choices we make with our bodies are our own? How does it look when we are allowed to grow within our own parameters and towards our own goals, rather than holding ourselves back because who we are might step on the toes of something that we have been afraid of for so long that we only recognize it’s presence through our own fear?
And let’s not act like we don’t know what fear can do. Remember that a pervasive culture of fear in white America contributed largely to the voting in of Trump – a disaster whose results we are yet to fully experience.
“The Garissa Township legislator said Kenyans of all faiths have the right to hold true to their religious edicts and Muslims are no exception.”
Identity runs deep. People are more likely to follow their god than any court ruling and to enforce the court ruling further leads to religious persecution which is not only wrong but continues to perpetuate the same fear that we are working so hard to get past. And in our fear, we lash out and in their pain they retaliate. And yesterday becomes today becomes tomorrow – again.
“Lamu elders are now worried that the county’s cultural heritage and traditions could get extinct if urgent measures are not put in place to preserve them.
Lamu Council of Elders Chairman Shariff Kambaa told the Nation on Sunday that there has been continued proliferation of western cultures into Lamu in recent days, a move which has in turn resulted to various traditions getting lost.”
The things we preserve remind us of who we are. Whether it be a simple flavour in a meal to a song to entire elaborate rituals and ceremonies it is the things that we hold on to that give us a sense of identity. And it is in the way they hold onto us – a heavy tongue, a bad habit, a lens – that we are identified.
The problem is that the most important things often need the gentlest approach. One cannot be forced to treasure a thing (if anything, this might be the most counterproductive thing you could try). This becomes particularly complicated in multicultural spaces, multicultural house holds. And even harder with the all-imposing western narrative that has dominated most areas of our life.
I never learned how to speak my mothertongue. I don’t have a reason. Both my parents speak the same language and I could have easily picked up bits and pieces here and there. But America got to me first. I was more caught up in what the Hardy Boys hard to say than in anything that sounded like ebitabu. To date I listen more fluently than I speak. My words come out in bits and stutters as if my tongue is putting together old parts of a broken engine.
We value the things that we believe will give us value. I will remember this recipe – it will feed me. I will remember this song – it will comfort me. In the places where the things that we have carried overlap we call culture. A tune whispered by common ancestors as they gathered around a fire years ago. And when we discard things their value is questioned and made apparent.
“The materials from Gikuyu, Kikamba, Dholuo and Ekegusii come in handy in the development of language activities, which include listening, speaking, pre-reading and pre-writing which, according to the new curriculum framework, are to be carried out in the language of the catchment area.”
It was not really cool to speak your mothertongue where I went to school. Or even to speak like you had been influenced by the village tongue. The heavy tongue was not only punished in class but on the playground as well. The diet was strictly western – the idea of a school serving ugali only came to me in high school. Even as a reader my search naturally took me to English greats like Poe and Kipling long before I had even heard of Achebe or Thiong’o. And, when I did, they were presented as not holding as much weight. As being just another and not “a great.”
“Except today it is fashionable to scream
of pride and beauty as though it were not known that
‘slaves and dead people have no beauty’ “
- Random Notes to my Son, Keorapetse Kgositsile
Maybe it’s fear, maybe it’s a new generation coming into itself. But the battle against cultural domination has been intensified. We see more women being encouraged to find their beauty within. We see musicians wading through our musical archives to create a sound that we can own. We see videos of Uzoamaka Aduma refusing to compromise her Igbo name for the white tongue and we celebrate.
It’s becoming cool to embrace your Africanness.
But how do you embrace something you never cultivated? How do you return to an Africanness you never actually owned?
We give ourselves reasons to remember. And we make them beautiful that they may stay with us for as long as they can. We bring them back into the syllabus and we hold festivals. We cook and we tell sing songs. We speak of our heroes like the heroes they are and we make room for a future where we won’t need to cling to what we already have.
Or we grow and watch passively as the songs are sung no more.
by April Zhu
“Everybody’s Just Winging It And Other Fly Tales” sounds like the title of a picture book for kids in their twenties and thirties. If there’s a moral to this story, it’s to stop feeling like an imposter. Trust the process. Trust your own hard work. “Blinky” Bill Sellanga’s first solo album is an anthem for the young creative just trying to “do the thing.”
Blinky Bill pulls back the curtain on the performance of celebrity and instead “performs” humility. He goes out of his way to prove that, even when you become a big shot, some things don’t change. The song “Bills to Pay” bypasses the glamour of creative work and instead elevates small and unsexy humiliations like chasing after your own money after you’ve done the job. With a string of sharp puns on PayBill, pay the bills, and “pay Bill to play”—plus that passive-aggressive “my dia”—Blinky Bill drops the ultimata that hustlers want to but can’t always: “Wakati wa kulipa umefika / Toa pesa sasa hivi, sasa hivi.” Louder for the clients in the back, please.
“My dia my dia my dia you do
not know me very well
So let me tell you little something
I am looking for no drama.”
– Blinky Bill, “Bills To Pay,” “Everybody’s Just Winging It And Other Fly Tales”
The whole album toggles between reassurance and desperation. Take “Oh Wah,” which features Nneka and Petite Noir. It’s an internal dialogue, a backdrop to bad news on TV: “Healing is what you need / is what I need is what they need / but my country keeps hurting my soul / I can’t watch the news no more / I can’t watch the news no more.” It’s familiar for any young Kenyan who has witnessed their country fall and sighed, “How now, Kenya.”
Or for any young person, really, who daily processes the rapid reel of the internet, suffering and humor and love and meaninglessness assorted on one feed. Who sees bad things in the world on her screen and feels, at the same time, both incredibly privileged and completely powerless. “Oh Wah” is not pedantic; it’s not even a call to action. It is an honest meditation on injustice that doesn’t shove answers into questions. Running through this album are these kinds of interrogations about where we belong in the world, often with brave uncertainty.
For this reason, the opening track, “Lwanda Magere”—named for the mythical Luo warrior whose invincibility was unraveled by a woman—is at first jarring. A kick drum mimics the forward march of battle-ready hide drums, while bass and talkbox trade off into one another and are all swept into pixelated static: a myth, digitalized. What does it mean that an album that grapples with endless questions—especially the big one, “Where do we come from?”—begins first with some sort of answer? “Lwanda Magere” hangs like a plaque above the door we step inside, a benediction to origin that will frame everything else to follow.
Everyone knows that Blinky Bill has a thing for nostalgia. He trawls up sounds we didn’t know we still remember, like those of the Bata Shoeshine Boys. When asked about his influences, he points backwards: The Mighty Cavaliers, Slim Ali and the Hodi Boys, and many more. Kenyans speak starry-eyed about music of the past—the golden age of immortal zilizopendwa, or genge and kapuka, a time when our sounds were envied. Blinky Bill takes on a quiet resistance to that pessimism. Resistance, because he is deliberate (almost political) about reversing Kenyans’ musical amnesia. Quiet, because he makes it good without having to tell us it’s good. His optimism is stubbornly Nairobi-centric.
“We’re at the most
interesting phase of any art scene, to be honest, in Africa. If you’re looking
at Africa, you’ll take a look at Nairobi. We’re just discovering ourselves and
figuring out how to express ourselves in a way that makes sense to us.”
– Blinky Bill, TED Global Fellows 2014
You won’t find cheap copy-pastes of “traditional” “African” sounds, easy tropes that are vaguely “tribal.” You do, however, get that cold little sparkle of an ongeng’o in “Winner.” Or a thin veil of distant chant in “Oh Wah.” Or the crunchy “chka chka ka chka chka” in “Atenshan” (and his mic tests) you hear in K-South’s “Kapuka This.” In the same way that benga artists, translating nyatiti into guitar, bridged old tunes into a new world, all the while creating something singular, Blinky Bill is certainly a bridge from something to something.
“No one back home considers [The Mighty Cavaliers’] contribution important so, with working with this music, I’m going backwards into Kenyan music history and trying to bring it forth so the new generation that’s listening to Kenyan music—which we’re at the forefront of pushing—are exposed to these musicians and their work.”
– Blinky Bill, TED Global Fellows 2014, referring to Just A Band’s rendition of [The Mighty Cavaliers’ “Dunia Ina Mambo”
But from what to what? “Genre” is deceptively subjective. British artist FKA Twigs described this: “When I first released music and no one knew what I looked like, I would read comments like: ‘I’ve never heard anything like this before, it’s not in a genre. And then my picture came out six months later, now she’s an R&B singer.” The act of “genre”-ing music is intractably political and fraught with questions about gaze.
“One of my least favorite terms is the box of ‘World Music,’ where for years the music from the ‘Other’ places has been lumped together,” Blinky Bill said in an interview with OneBeat. The concept of “world music,” according to journalist Ian Burrell, originated in a north London pub as a means for promoting non-Western artists, but now just puts them in a “ghetto.” Take Nneka, who features in “Oh Wah.” She lives in Berlin and sings in English, says Burrell, “but she hails from Warri, Nigeria, so gets categorised as a world music performer and thus finds it that much harder to get on playlists, get gigs, and get attention.”
This seems to be a conversation that Blinky Bill runs into a lot, especially outside of Africa, where feels he most needs to “explain” himself. (Although maybe this is changing?) As this album rappels down into the rest of the world, it will only become more necessary to “explain” his work in terms of Africanness.
Or not. “I feel sometimes when outsiders look to African music, there’s an expectation of a certain sound,” Blinky Bill said in an interview with OneBeat. “I’d like it to be just music.” He cares about “cooking up” interesting music, and apart from that, people can take it as they will.
Everyone wants to know Blinky Bill’s secret sauce. What’s his process? What “inspires” him? Where does he learn? But there’s no recipe. When interrogated on his process, Blinky Bill gives dry-cut answers with the same few wholesome ingredients: hard work, focus, learning from the masters.
He’s not bluffing. In any art form, intuitive talent can go a long way, but “Everybody’s Just Winging It And Other Fly Tales”—almost all of which Blinky Bill produced himself—demonstrates a grasp of the chemistry and mechanics of sound. Think of how he electrified the gospel number “Mungu Halali” with that groovy, glittering Wurlitzer that slides over the choir. Or how the big brass in “Atenshan” swoon as they crackle on the low notes, dragging a moment behind at the end of a phrase, weighed down by their own wooziness.
Sometimes you can tell when an artist is limited by their lack of control over their own medium. Blinky Bill, especially in this project, has transcended that. He’s mastered the foundations but hasn’t lost his experimental edge.
“What’s inspiring my new
album? Mostly….life. Having that understanding that no one truly has the
answers, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing because the journey is as
interesting as the destiny.”
– Blinky Bill, TED Global Fellows 2014
But the whole point of this album—again, if we can call it a storybook for the young creative—is that, when it comes to making good work, there’s no mystique, kids, no winning juice. When you run out of ideas, DJ for some time. Force yourself to keep making, if only for its own sake. “Winner” is a sort of self-hype-talk, one you can imagine giving yourself in front of the bathroom mirror in the morning: affirmations of untouchability, unstoppability, unshrinkability. That it’s okay to doubt yourself and puff out your chest at the same time. Held at another angle, it’s a prayer.
“Let That Go,” featuring the loose-jawed, syrupy verse of Sampa the Great, offers another angle to confidence: a refuge that comes from another way of knowing. This track follows the contrite “Mungu Halali,” and it embodies an underside of faith in God: faith in oneself. I love this one precisely because it’s a woman saying she doesn’t give a fuck.
“I keep the hate up on the dinner
Play it like a lullaby till all the haters simmer
Throw away the throwaways till I discover
To keep the spirit when all my shit come down to winter.”
– Sampa the Great, “Let That Go,” “Everybody’s Just Winging It And Other Fly Tales”
Blinky Bill picks up these ideas of success and turns them around in his hand. Where does success come from? Why is it so hard to reach? Is it wrought out by hard work? The grace of God? What is it even? What do we tell haters? What do we tell our worst critic, our selves?
And then, just like that, in the last line of the last track, one more question—this one from Asa—lifts us off into a bright blue sky: “Why can’t we be happy?”
A question that, if you sing it, sounds more like an answer.
April Zhu is a writer and artist in Nairobi, Kenya
“Kenya’s ban on plastic bags went into effect on August 28, with offenders subject to serious fines or jail time. The ban covers the use, importation, or manufacture of plastic bags. Although it was passed in February, the new ban didn’t go into effect until this month so that Kenyan consumers would have the chance to adjust to the change. The delay also gave importers a chance to challenge the ban in court, which were ultimately rejected by the country’s High Court.”
If Environment CS Judi Wakhungu had her way the ban on plastic bags in the country would have happened in February rather than August 2017. Speedy action from Okiya Omtatah as well as the Kenya Institute of Manufacturers got in her way, delaying the ban for (a further) 5 months. This time could have been spent researching into plastic alternatives and ways to make the transition as seamless for the consumer as possible.
Instead it was spent hoping Okiya won (or lost) his court case.
“I’m tayad of these f***** copy pasting ideas from elsewhere without an actual ground analysis when they can easily pay for benchmarks”
I’m not sure there is much need to argue for or against the Matatu CBD Ban. Finding a solution to mass transit in the country has been the birthplace of many bad/badly-formulated ideas. Just as the plastic ban floated in and out of public conversation, this was an idea that Mr Sonko had played with for a while. First he wanted to turn Uhuru park into a bus terminus, and then he tried banning matatus from the CBD last year before caving to pressure not to. So that he has ideas around what the problem might be is not up for discussion. This is either a problem he feels strongly about – or a pain point he strongly believes dealing with will gain him political mileage. Neither of these reasons pushes me too hard to judge him.
“Where are the pavements?”
But, just like the ban on plastics, the nature of this ban calls all out our models of governance on all their cow feces. Where was urban planning when this ban was envisioned? We are just going through one of the most aggressive road expansion periods – where are the pavements? Where are the walkways? Where is the plan that is supposed to allow for transition, accommodate for the (unfit?) citizens?
The problem might run deeper than we think.
It was Moi’s government that really enforced the roadside declaration as a form of governmental communication. Ministers were fired on the news, high level government officials found out about changes in their docket at the same as the public and the mighty hand of harambee led us all. With most of his opposition coming from the universities it became difficult for the president to trust anything coming out of the places – which also happen to be the birthplace of research. The absence of this research led to government policies being built off hunches, gut feelings and “commissioned papers” (often skewed to show that the original hypothesis is correct). And it seems we haven’t really made much headway since. Kibaki’s government tried to focus on education but much damage had been done, by the time he was done we had free and primary education and Uhuru already wants to make secondary education free from 2019.
But the government is yet to fully reintegrate itself into the university. Worse still – over the period campus politics have grown to ape the politics we have in the country. SONU is now a conduit for corruption tribalism and greed with SONU leaders playing this same divisive politics and then using that as a platform to make it onto the larger political stage.
A good indicator of this is that there are about 5000 PhD students nationally. Larger societal questions are often answered at this level through rigorous study and data collection. But the truth is that there is little reason for PhD students in any field to believe that the information they collect will be put to good use – or that their conclusions will be implemented (after all, it’s not like we have a great track record implementing any of the reports generated by the government themselves). So they leave.
“And while we might already be on our way there all on our own, one wonders what it means to allow the path to development to follow its own natural winding – perhaps allowing us to create different sustainable models and allows of livability on our own”
As a result the only source for any kind of idea is “I have seen this somwhere maybe it will work at home.” This leads to ideas such as this one, that stem from seeing a (largely) orderly situation and assuming its replication will come from just that – replication. Without really thinking (for example) that Kenya has only 24 cars per 1000 people whereas Israel has 384, USA 910 and South Africa 165 to name a few – how do you replicate an idea in an area where the number of people walking is destined to be significantly more? In Foreign Cities, Local Talent I ask about what it means to develop and implement solutions based on our own realities. Maybe the first step is finding a way to remind the government where the data they are seeking resides – and to demand plans before declarations.
Or we could carry on with this force now, questions later approach and see plastic bags replaced by plastic nets again.
“The European Union, or a body like the World Bank, should build and run cities in Africa in order to boost job creation and development on the continent, Germany’s Minister for Africa, Gunter Nooke, told the BBC in an interview in which he outlined his thinking on how to stem migration to Europe.
This will mean African countries leasing their land to a foreign body to “allow free development for 50 years”, Mr Nooke said.”
Matters land are always sensitive. Being a finite resource and one whose use affects most of the people who have to live with the consequences. A large number of communities are only now coming into leases that were signed in the colonial times, with some having to wait another 90 plus years for leases to run out before they can challenge for pieces of land that were signed over (for whatever reasons) almost a hundred years ago. Earlier in his first term Mr Freedom was giving out title deeds at the coast and then again in his second term (were they fake? No one knows). Then there’s the 50,000 he is set to give out to Eastlands residents.
And this is even without touching the caricature that has been mentioning Ruto and land in the same sentence (ati plane za Ruto hu-arrive ju zikiland zitagrabiwa?)
So when we’re asked to put aside land for foreign cities I’m forced to ask – why?
“‘I just want you to be happy’. How does this speech act direct the narrative? To answer this question, we need to describe the conflict of the film, or the obstacle to the happy ending. The film could be described as being about the generational conflict within a migrant Indian Sikh family living in Hounslow, London. Jess the daughter is good at football. Her idea of happiness would be to bend it like Beckham, which requires that she bends the rules about what Indian girls should do. The generational conflict between parents and daughter is also represented as a conflict between the demands of cultures: as Jess says, ‘anyone can cook Alo Gobi but who can bend the ball like Beckham’. This contrast sets up ‘cooking Alo Gobi’ as common place and customary, against an alternative world of celebrity, individualism and talent.”
- Bend it – Happy Multiculturalism, Sara Ahmed
I’m often challenging our generation’s constructs of happiness, how we build these ideas and what forms our images of success and failure. A friend of mine quips often about how we were “raised for export” and I don’t think they are far from the truth. Our studies, or classes our efforts were all geared towards finding an opportunity – opportunity was often defined through leaving in one form or the other. And this search was amidst the class that could afford school and such pursuits. For most the desire to find happiness would come through finding another way to make it to greener pastures. These ideas become easily apparent when we look at a cross section of top selling African novels. In most of these books we see protagonists leave. It happens in Americanah, in We Need New Names, Behold the Dreamers, and Ghana Must Go – to mention a few contemporary examples.
This, of course, comes from much criticized “west is best” narratives that have not only plagued us for a while but have also been over analysed ad nauseum (decolonize your mind anyone?)
“A sense of irony befalls the non-European observer of this emerging crisis in Europe. That the descendants of persons whose great grandfathers literally carved nations to fuel their economies and provide unparalleled prosperity to minorities given dominion in those colonies, are now debating on what their heritage means moving forward. An acceptance that the tanning of the European visage is an unavertable course of history since colonialization or a fascist return to the nationalism and anti-Semitism that destroyed Europe in the first half of the 20th Century.”
The “but shouldn’t we deserve a stake in lands that we built?” calls into question the ethical issues around immigration, slavery, labour and conquest. Having been pulled across the seas to build cities, fight wars and serve households, what does it mean to say, now that the cities have been built and wars won, that the same people have no claim to the space? Issa tricks.
Perhaps it is with all this in mind that led Mr Paul Romer to argue that “foreign-run cities could be a model of efficient governance and offer a good quality of life, stopping people from migrating for economic reasons.” Because the problem must be that local cities are run by the state – and the Kenyan state is vastly incompetent (this last bit was supposed to be sarcastic, but I suppose it is also true). Still, in the age of Trump and Brexit it becomes increasingly apparent that the king has no clothes – not since we stopped fashioning them and dressing him hundreds of years ago.
Which is what makes me question the logic here. Of course building foreign (west inspired) cities seems to follow the same “west is best” logic. Of course it came following the path that “if they want Europe to come, maybe we should take Europe to them.” But there’s already a lot of evidence that the extractive capitalism that drives Western nations depletes natural resources faster than they can be replenished. And while we might already be on our way there all on our own, one wonders what it means to allow the path to development to follow its own natural winding – perhaps allowing us to create different sustainable models and allows of livability on our own (do we need to exploit our naturally giving environment as hard as they did for example?).
But what happens in the meantime?
I am not sure, but not foreign cities which will “operate under a set of laws separate from the host country” which basically makes them little protectorates. Nor is selling Nairobi to Chinese billionaires an idea (so happy this was thrown out faster than it came in). Perhaps the answer lies in restating the end goal. Rather than seeing New York –like or Amsterdam – like as the result, we understand that the strongest societies work for their citizens, encourage trade and create systems that are not imposed upon but drawn from the societies themselves. And, in realizing this, understanding that the real value lies in the people and finding ways to create dreams for people to thrive here – here dreams.
(Libraries might be a good place to start)
“Fresh produce growers are expected to be the main beneficiaries of trade deals that President Uhuru Kenyatta will sign on his visit to China next month.”
“Juzi mheshimiwa rais ameenda China amefungua soko, sasa tukona mkatgaba maalum ya soko ya kuuza mali yetu China. Na sisis watu wa sehemu hii, itabidi tumejipanga vizuri. Na wale watu wa China hawanunui mahindi, hawanunui miwa. Wanataka kahawa, wanataka chai, wanataka nyama, wanataka mambo hio”
Perhaps one of the consequences of devolution is regional leaders are being held accountable more rigorously. Having been so publicly stated that the resources and power are in the hands of the county government the “big man has refused” excuse has been taken away. Of course devolution hasn’t worked like a charm as expected (ask the folks in the health sector, they’ll tall you a thing or two).
Especially in this second term presidency with campaigning haven started literally the year after elections and Okiya Omtatah calling for the polls to be brought forward by one year, most leaders are under pressure to show how they are best positioned for the reshuffling of the cards come 2021. In the absence of an incumbent for the uthamaki train, Jubilee might have Ruto as a front runner (or he’ll go start his own thing). Whatever happens, the political playing field is more open than it has been in a while – and this has every politician fighting for dominance, a swipe at the throne.
Maybe this is why Mwangi wa Iria turned to put the squeeze on Nairobi for 25% of the revenue from selling water from Ndakiani dam. Under pressure to, at least, show residents of his county that he is pursuing resources for their protection, this was one of the great ideas that came to him.
“The stranger here is not somebody we do not recognize but somebody that we recognize as a stranger, somebody we know as not knowing rather than somebody we do not know.”
Who knows, knowing strangers and strangeness Sara Ahmed
“In essence then, belonging to a nation is simply the sense of connectedness with people one does not know and is unlikely ever to meet. The intellectual problem of the study of nationalism is understanding why and how people develop or fail to develop this belonging. Of note, the fact that this connectedness is not necessarily unproblematic.”
I’m not sure whether nationalism is the answer (because reasons ) but I am fascinated by identities, how they are created and what they mean for the things that we hold onto. And, in holding onto this Kenya, how bringing together of the 44 cultures and identities through a cohesive process. Especially since the borders didn’t naturally evolve through bargaining, conquest, allegiances and disagreements, we find ourselves in a bind fueled by the question “where do my interests lie? To whom does my self belong?”
Devolution, increasingly insists that the answer to this question is “look up, look around.” Which creates the pressure on local leaders to ensure that the county can squeeze the next county for money on water.
But what are the elements of identity other than the things we choose to agree to see as true, as common between us? And, in reaching for the things that are true – what do we find?
“Ni nchi ya kitu kidogo, nchi ya watu wadogo”
Nchi ya kitu kidogo, Eric Wainaina
So maybe a more interesting question begins with the assumption that there are no things that exist to hold us together. Rather looking at the truth and asking, what “Kenyanisms” have we accepted as who we are? And how do these Kenyanisms affect how we interact with the things we hear, the things we understand?
“Nandi Hills MP, Alfred Keter, and his Chereng’ani counterpart, Joshua Kutuny, alleged Ruto was advising farmers to abandon maize farming and start growing avocado and other crops because he wanted to monopolise the local maize market.”
It’s difficult to talk about trust when it comes to the political circus. Who does one trust, how does one trust? But increasingly what I’ve been wondering is how does the lack of trust stifle efforts? And what must be done to fix it?
This is one reason I’m very interested in this return to Michuki rules and the process currently ongoing on the streets. Because currently we trust the government to shake us up for money to pocket. We trust all the cops to be bribed for freedom. We trust that when the state moves to serve personal interests, rather than the common good.
Devolution creates a “common” and an “other.” So when I hear Ruto asking rift farmers to invest in different plants for export to a market in China I desperately want to hear a leader who is looking for opportunities for their people. But then I am taken back by how quickly and easily I believe a story (with no evidence) about a farm somewhere in the Congo. And, in that moment, I can’t help but wonder – how do we create systems we can trust? How is trust cultivated? And, in its absence, how can we build towards a together?
As a Kenyan citizen, only two or three generations removed from independence, the memories of colonialism are far deeper than the pages on history books. The stories of heroes, traitors, the heroes who became traitors and the trauma that the colonizers wantonly imposed on a free people are very much alive in what used to be my idea of a European. I still find it difficult to remove myself from the classical image of a blonde haired frail missionary woman on the one hand and a debonair, yet incredibly violent mustachioed rancher or businessman as the very definitive nature of the European. French, German, British or Belgian it hardly matters, across Africa and in many parts of South America and South-East Asia – this image does ring true almost as the silver thread in the canvas of a vast, diverse and painful history.
I find it strange that this is the image that comes to my mind even though this hasn’t been true of the European existence arguably since the 1950s and certainly not the since the 1970s and 80s. Indeed, Europe, post world war II has been less Christian, more liberal and, on paper, providing the most gallant government efforts in the war on Climate Change.
So why even ask if there is a European identity crisis? As with all things in a Brexit, Trump world it begins with the narrative – particularly with the narrative around immigrants. Currently the narrative on which policies are created a poor blend of cliché stereotypes that started in rural and mid-west America and became a rallying call to the extreme right the world over – They are taking our jobs and they are raping our women.
I would argue that the only reason the European identity crisis comes to the fore front is that the performance of many European economies haven’t rebounded post 2008 recession. In a world with dwindling resources, shifts in geo political power imbalances and the rigidity of the European Union rules set in Brussels, there is little left to point a finger at than the new comers in the neighborhood.
Much like Canada of today, Europe once took pride in welcoming immigrants and refugees. Held in high esteem as a Utopian like kingdom where even the poor and despondent got their chance. It was this dream that lured immigrants, running from unstable political situations or just pursuing their shot.
The one parallel with globalization and music is perhaps best summarized in the line from Dead Prez’s ode to Hip Hop “one thing about good music when it hits, you feel no pain.” Nothing could be truer on the impact of globalization on the changing demographics of the world as we once knew it. Demographics of which, historically, had been synonymous with identity. The effect of globalization on the concentration of capital and eradication of market valued human labor continues to dominate the political conversation the world over.
Europe’s shores had been open and tolerant to immigration well before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It was unnoticed because the economies of these European countries were largely taking off. Shocks in the financial systems were not rare but the spread of capitalism into large swathes of formerly soviet territories occasioned a massive expansion in private purchasing power and a largely prosperous Europe.
A rich neighbor can suffer visitors for so long as there is enough bread and water. Once decisions have to be made between the satisfaction and comfort of the rich man’s family and his visitors, questions are asked.
Why did the visitor really come?
- They could no longer live in their home – it was unsafe, and it would be immoral of me to turn them away (what we now call a refugee)
- Was he looking to live a better life, stay with me until he can find a way to feed himself in my lands (what we now call an immigrant)
- Do we share the same values for our faith, lack thereof, families, education and freedoms? (is he a Muslim?)
That third question only found life in the post 911 world and only comes to bear becomes it has become impossible to separate modern immigration without tying it to persons from Islamic countries.
War has and continues to force millions of refugees from the Middle East (Syria most recently) to seek refuge in Europe. Angela Merkel called for 800,000 refugees and whereas many other European nations declined, refugees made their way through the middle east and into continental Europe on their way to Germany.
In an age of unpredictable political movements, climate change orchestrated droughts and floods, global wealth inequality teetering at the edge of a cliff and automation eroding jobs faster than any economic crisis the world has ever known, immigration will become the new normal. This will mean that the image of the white debonair couple as the face of Europe has and will vanish(the royal wedding anyone?).
A sense of irony befalls the non-European observer of this emerging crisis in Europe. That the descendants of persons whose great grandfathers literally carved nations to fuel their economies and provide unparalleled prosperity to minorities given dominion in those colonies, are now debating on what their heritage means moving forward. An acceptance that the tanning of the European visage is an unavertable course of history since colonialization or a fascist return to the nationalism and anti-Semitism that destroyed Europe in the first half of the 20th Century.
Either choice requires an examination of Europe’s historical choices, we must hope against hope, that the right choice prevails.
Yet globalization has a global face. This is not a European crisis in singularity. What does it look like from the Kenyan perspective?
Our scorecard is low and high. High, historically because Kenya has always been a nation that received neighbors from famine and war-torn nations of Somalia, South Sudan and Ethiopia. This I remember was a matter of pride for our country – the island of peace(at what cost) in a sea of turmoil. This is who we were, and I like to believe who we still are. The concept of borders is a foreign concept designed by the colonizers first above referred. It is natural therefore, if at all there is an “African culture” to welcome and accommodate our neighbors in need.
Yet here again, the Muslim question arises. Kenya’s Islamic population has never been hidden or removed from mainstream society. We have always said that we are a multi-cultural society, albeit under the guise of a predominately Judeo-Christian legal system.
It was us who condemned our brothers and sisters to concentration camps In Kasarani. It was us who called for the police to do random house and in person inspections and arrests. Shamefully, we accepted the fear and chaos from a very tumultuous period between 2013 and 2017 to mask terrorism in the name of Islam and we forgot who we were.
Just like the right-wing European who decries immigrants of Islamic decent, we saw in Kenya, our friends even our families casually make jokes about Somalis and other individuals from Islamic states labelling them by the same terror groups they fled. We distanced ourselves from our neighbors in the name of fear and there hasn’t really been a conversation on what the past 5- 6 years of trauma have meant for these people whom we once cherished.
The same argument too can be made for Chinese immigration. As more and more skilled and semi-skilled labourers come into the Country, small pockets of Chinese individuals are starting to become concentrated across this country. Will we accept them too? Should we as a people look to the West and say that they should accept those of us who migrate to their shores while at the same time reject people from the East who want to work, live and play in Kenya?
These are tough questions. A poor man can only welcome so many neighbors especially if some of those neighbors are perceived to be richer than he. This is true especially because colonialism, comparatively speaking, only just happened. Are we ready to accept another highly capitalized minority to live and work freely in our Country? It didn’t work out well for us last time and all across the developed world, the undertones of rejection and rebellion to the ideals of an open society for Chinese persons are already getting louder and louder.
Perhaps a conversation, locally, nationwide and globally is required, because unlike music, when the pressure on our finite mounts and globalization hits us, truly hits us, there might be some pain.
“In this room I was born. And I knew I was in the wrong place”
Spaces, Arkaye Kierulf
It hit me yesterday that I have been, for a long time, uncomfortable with my identity as a Kikuyu man and what comes with it. Because that identity has been translated to me as an abuser, as competition, not just by other Kikuyu, but by everything.
It’s impossible to dismiss the value of identity in creating cohesion in a space. The words that are used as markers of identity carry perspectives with them that have been shaped over history. To say I am male, black, kisii-suba, is also to say that my body, my knowledge has travelled through these traumas. That the stories that I am likely to tell you are coloured by the experiences of a runaway brother and a journey from Misri. That my perspectives are informed by my position and expectations made of me (and bodies like mine) over the years.
The modern society is inherently multicultural. Whether this is has been achieved by an influx of immigrants looking for better opportunities, or immigrants looking to “fix the world,” most spaces are now a blend of identities – tribal and national. Our perspectives towards immigrants changes wherever you go (bodies are remembered by societies). But, at the end of it all, whether you are in the most remote village or the developed city, you are likely to find those who “are not from” or are considered “foreign” and those who are “local.”
“I, against my brothers. I and my brothers against my cousins. I and my brothers and my cousins against the world.”
I’d like to talk a bit about what it means to be “local”
How the “local” relates to the “foreign” depends on which type of foreign it is. To be local in Kenya is to understand the foreigns around you and how to relate to them. It’s to know to smile “Jambo” at the Caucasians and to keep the Asians at a suspicious distance. It’s to know that “we are one Kenya” but also that it is “our turn to eat.” It is to know to keep your eye on the ever-changing “we” and how that shifts in relation to your “I”
To be local is to be aware of the number of locals that exist, those that have been erased, those that are allowed to occupy space – and how much space is allocated to each. It is to know that, while Kenya has 44 ethnicities, only 3 or four of them matter. It is “kuomba serekali itusaidie” while greasing palms to get your way.
It is to be expected to understand the state of affairs that is “Kenyanness.” To not kick up a fuss, not cause a scene, not fight too much. To be comfortable in knowing, this is Kenya – and this is how things are. It is to see the collective hunger, desperacy and grappling for resources as what it is – a 50 something year old democracy trying to heal and bring together 40 plus ethnicities while playing catch up in a globalized capitalist world.
The problem with multiculturalism is that the idea that “no culture be held superior” begs the question “off which culture do we create our law?” At Kenya’s inception, the latent assumption was white culture was superior, we adapted this assumption into our law system. To date we continue to ask ourselves what kind of systems would exist if we had drawn up the assumptions for ourselves? We see these questions rise to the surface when it comes to marriage (a church wedding and a traditional wedding because all the gods must be pleased). Or with the Community Land Act (is land ownership an individual or collective issue?). Or institutionalized in our police system.
As such, to be local is to know which when and how the law actually applies.
You know that
you carry their history.
But you also know
you don’t carry their scars.
And that, you hope,
will make all the difference.
Given the number of cultures we’re trying to amalgamate into a whole – would a thing such as a “Kenyan culture” exist? How would it apply? (A question that actually stalled the creating of a “national dress”)
Perhaps this is why Owaah’s tweet stuck with me.
We are retold stories of how “we” are the perpetrators of a violence and we reject them. We refuse to see ourselves in these stories because we cannot recognise the version of ourselves that is shown in them. We reject these stories because they do not carry our truths, because they erase what we know about ourselves, what we have been taught to aspire towards. And when we place our narratives against these stories they don’t add up.
And so we try to find the words to grasp at this dissonance. Between living in a space that is yet to be fully ideologically formed and demanding for the right to claim space. Between trying to understand the hunger and battle the corruption. Between trying to understand the betrayals and pursue justice. This never ending dance between looking for ourselves in the past and disentangling the present to create liveable futures.
And The Drums
The Drums guide our feet
In this backwards-forwards dance
This forwards-backwards dance
This Husago Dance
This Misego Dance
The Dance into a Future
That ends in the Past.
– Husago, Kofi Anyidoho
by Sheena M
I arrived about 20 minutes early, and already there was a large gathering waiting to see Rafiki. The moment I walked into the waiting area at Prestige Plaza cinemas, I felt the stares. We were all sizing each other up. Who are you? Do I know you? Are you a threat? Do I have to be concerned about your presence?
It was all nerves, muscles tensed and ready to spring into action. It was like we were all doing something we knew our parents would not approve of. This feeling wasn’t unfounded. I mean, you only need to look at Ezekiel Mutua’s tweets about this movie to how bad it is. So being at the cinema waiting to watch a movie about two Kenyan girls falling in love felt like a risk in itself, whatever your sexual orientation.
The movie’s director Wanuri Kahiu has already given various statements in the media about why she chose to go ahead with Rafiki, despite it not being welcome in its own home. She insisted that she wanted to make a love story and “contribute to that language of softness.” I can confidently say that Wanuri accomplished that desire.
Rafiki is the first Kenyan feature film to be screened at a Cannes Film Festival –it was filmed earlier last year. To have a Kenyan film, about Kenyans, made by Kenyans, showcased at the largest international showcase of cinematic art is a feat to be celebrated. Wanuri is no stranger to the movie scene. Her first feature film, From a Whisper, won awards at the Pan African Film Festival and the African Movie Academy Awards. While that movie was based on the events of the 1998 bombings on the US Embassy in Nairobi, Rafiki’s inspiration was drawn from the 2007 Caine Prize Winning Short Story “Jambula Tree” by Ugandan author Monica Arac de Nyeko.
Watching Rafiki was a reminder that we are really all the same. The 83-minute film was so captivating that I did not want it to end.
Set in a fictional place called Slopes in Kenya, Rafiki tells the story of Kena (played by Samantha Mugatsia), a young tomboy living a regular Kenyan life. As we watch Kena skating along and meeting up with her male friends, it’s clear that she’s been accepted as ‘one of the guys’, even though one of the guys calls her ‘his number one girl’. When Kena’s not hanging out with Blacksta, she’s helping her dad run his shop or making sure her mom’s fed – a good Kenyan girl doing the good Kenyan girl thing.
Then one day, Kena notices a girl noticing her. This girl is obviously different – you can tell from her long, multi-coloured braids and the makeup. Even though this girl is the daughter of Kena’s father’s political opponent, Kena can’t help but be drawn to her. A friendship quickly blossoms between Kena and Ziki (played by Sheila Munyiva) and just as quickly grows into something more.
“The courage that you have when you’re in love is really what I hope resonates.”
~ Wanuri Kahiu
The opening scene of Rafiki is like an ode to all things Kenyan. Kiosks, campaign posters stuck on walls and the noa noa guy sharpening knives at the corner all blend together to paint the picture of a local Kenyan neighbourhood. As soon as the movie started, whatever tension we all had within us began to dissipate. Watching such familiar scenes drew us into a sense of comfort, a feeling of being home, even before we heard anyone speak onscreen.
As an audience, that bound us instantly. Kena may as well have been one of us – going to church with her mother every Sunday, hanging out with her boys at the local spot, eating chapo dondo. It only made the tender moments more tender and the harsh ones more painful, more alive, more real. We laughed as one at the funny parts, held our breaths when we didn’t know what was coming, gasped at the moments that shocked us and cried silently as we watched Kena and Ziki struggle to stay true to themselves.
The music was on point as well. From Kena skating along to the gentle moments between Kena and Ziki, the songs that played throughout the movie matched the mood perfectly. It was no surprise that the artists featured include some of Kenya’s most dynamic musicians. Muthoni the Drummer Queen, Blinky Bill, Mayonde, Chemutai Sage, Mumbi Kasumba, Njoki Karu, Trina Mungai and Jaaz Odongo all lent their musical prowess to the magic of Rafiki.
Wanuri’s directing shines brightest in the use of vivid close ups shots and nothing but facial expressions, showing us a lot of what is said through the unsaid, the sneer, the turn of the check, looking away and so forth. The first time Kena and Ziki share an intense staredown, it lasts long enough to undeniably feel the emotion behind it. It also lasts long enough to deliberately make us uncomfortable.
Not for any other reason other than the guilt of intruding on a moment of intimacy.
The movie tells the story of how Kena and Ziki find love and then face opposition from their family and friends because of it. Wanuri’s creative storytelling and the actors’ in-depth portrayal of their characters pull us in. The mirror image given by Rafiki is such an accurate reflection of our society that it’s impossible not to be moved.
All things 254
The hairstyles, the clothes, the buildings, the boda boda guy with his pimped out ride and even the local neighbourhood gossip were all familiar to anyone who’s lived in Kenya. Seeing all of them in cinema in a high-quality movie was surreal. It made everything seem possible. And the dialogue was so typically Kenyan we couldn’t help but relate. If anything it’s the way we say things that made many of us laugh out loud. Like Ziki saying, “A nurse? You? Why?”
Wanuri was right.
We don’t get to see as many moments of tenderness in cinema as exist in real life. Rafiki removed the veil from things we normally distance from ourselves. It helped us see that we are just as capable of love as we are of everything that is not.
And that is what makes Rafiki a powerful movie.
Sheena M is in love with words and how they shape themselves. That’s why she keeps a blog that’s not as ‘organised’ as most. To see her musings, check out her blog What She Thinks
You cannot see it
but the jacaranda trees are flowering
each blossom an insurgent
against the sameness of life
Soon the streets will be a revolution of colour
suffused with a tangible tenderness
Fight, grandma, fight
It’s worth the struggle
to witness next season’s lilac uprising.
- Phyllis Muthoni
It’s September and the Jacarandas are in bloom. On twitter, #JacarandaPropaganda has already started making its way to the top trends. We own this tree and we hold it close as a testament to the beauty of the country.
Native to Brazil and Argentina, jacaranda is the name of a genus with about 50 different species of trees with a wide range of flower colours. The name Jacaranda comes from a Native American Tupi word “yacarana” or “yacaranda” which which the Portuguese spell with a J. On twitter #JacarandaPropaganda has already started
But what do you see when you look at the Jacaranda?
The spread of the Jacaranda is largely attributed to Allan Cunningham who came across the tree on one of his many travels before reporting its existence to the queen. They were first imported to Zimbabwe(then Rhodesia of sorts) by British settlers after which they found their way around the continent.
Despite pulling in a significant amount of Japanese tourism, there was still a long debate about cutting a number of them down in 2012. The reason was that their root system was too invasive and their high water intake prevented anything else from growing.
You know that
you carry their history.
But you also know
you don’t carry their scars.
And that, you hope,
will make all the difference.
When I was a child (Lol at was – I am still children) I loved trying to catch the Jacaranda flowers before they hit the ground. There was one particular tree where we used to go to church. I spend a lot of time under this tree, waiting for a gust of wind to catch the branches and release a few more flowers, which we would use to wish.
Our wishes never came true, but that didn’t stop us.
“And this common ground is necessary. The political winds of the West are calling them to consolidation of their political power – towards nationalism. From a purely timing perspective, this would not be the time to destroy the marriage that is Kenya. To do that would be to break the power (that we have only just began to understand we have) as a country and leave smaller vulnerable ethnonation. To allow ourselves to be led by and towards our differences it to play right into the idea of divide and conquer.
So instead we find ourselves with decolonisation. Slowly analyzing and comparing pasts, asking for permission – negotiating for ways to keep our identities alive. Does this one work for you? How about you? What if we keep this one, and let that other one go?”
I’ve written here about institutional memory before and how it works in relation to the philosophies that govern the not-so-august house that is the Kenyan parliament. Especially when held in relation to the labour of decolonisation. The work of decolonisation calls for us to go into ourselves work towards erasing internalised racism, sexism et al.
I remember the Jacaranda as the tree that filled my childhood with mystery. I remember Moi’s era as a time with free milk. Those with longer memories remember when Moi over-borrowed in the 80s and the IMF restrictions that followed. Those with even longer memories speak of a Kenya that worked on some level. They speak with nostalgia about working hospitals and not needing to lock their door in the evening. They speak of an education system that all but guaranteed labour and a time when the country’s zeitgeist was full of hope. But they also remember the struggle, the death and pain that came with the strife for this freedom. Memory is vastly unreliable as a way to record history – but it was the only tool available to those not allowed to record their own.
And through this lens – what do we remember?
“It is not forgetfulness, but the state in which it is deemed necessary or at least desirable to go through a process of forgetting.
The kind of forgetting in forgetingness is not a mere slipping away from memory, but rather a process of extraction from being.
Through this process, issues and people are washed clean of their identity and significance.”
I ask because the history I studied reads like a series of tragedies and defeats. Of suppressions and executions, of disappearances and whispers. We move from independence to a coup, from a coup to the struggle for multipartyism to the silencing of Moi to the corruption and scandals that followed.
Where are the stories of my grandfather standing under a jacaranda tree, wishing on a blossom for the love of his life to look his way? Where are the stories of the young and hopeful and how they managed to make their way to establishing a life for themselves and their families? Even as we do the work of looking at our history and taking apart its invasive roots, where are the falling flowers that the child in me might catch one and wish for a better future?