Aint nothing but a hair thing

Michael Onsando
29 January ,2019


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.

High Court Declines to Order Dreadlocked girl back 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. “

Supreme court reverses order allowing muslim girls to wear hijabis to school

“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.”

How does it end?

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.”

Duale trashes Supreme Court ruling on hijabs

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.  

Trusting that Kenya will Kenya

Michael Onsando
20 November ,2018

“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.” 

Farmers set to reap big from China trade deals

 “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”

 William Ruto

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.” 

Kenya is a cruel marriage, it’s time we talked divorce David Ndii

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.”

Rebel Jubilee MPs claim Ruto is growing 500,000 acres of maize in Congo, Tuko news

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?

Immigration and Identity: Comparing the Kenyan and European Mindset

Guest Writer
13 November ,2018

by anonymous

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?

  1. 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)
  2. 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)
  3. 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.

And we continue to Kenya

Michael Onsando
6 November ,2018

“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.

Owaaah 

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.”

Arab Proverb

 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.

Burns

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

Creating hope (or, when rage becomes the norm)

Michael Onsando
9 October ,2018

“You will begin to forgive when you understand the many ways in which the world has killed those who try to survive it.”

“We’re not evolving emotional filters fast enough to deal with the efficiency with which bad news now reaches us”

It’s easy to lose hope these days. Especially when one gets themselves sucked into the cycle of rage and the restorative labour necessary in nation building. When looking around yields nothing but stories of stolen money, unnecessary projects, rises in taxes and a debt problem we are yet to solve it hard to start calculating positive outcomes.

It becomes even easier when you begin to notice that the people who are supposed to be fixing those problems are often the major cause of the problems, and those who stand up to “fight the good fight” turn on the people in the end.

Eventually, we get tired of throwing ourselves at the windmill over and over again. And the pain that we carry from the numerous battles we fight carry on into the next one. In this state of rage fatigue, it’s easy to lose sight of the cause and begin to lash out.

“Part of the privilege of a privileged identity is being insulated from things that people who don’t have it often face. A shadow of that is immediately checking their tone when they express their truth.”

When dealing with intersectionality it is important that we are able to organize bodies into groups. The way a body is perceived will often define the experience the body is allowed to have. To go against this experience is to have your body act in ways that people do not expect from bodies like yours. To have a large intimidating body is to work extra towards not being seen as aggressive. To have a smaller, frailer frame is to work extra towards being seen as capable of aggression, and so forth.

I use the word body very particularly because it speaks to something that one largely has no jurisdiction over. Modern science allows us to change our bodies to fit our perception of ourselves rather than the ever moving shadows of how other’s perceive us. This is particularly helpful for those who are most affected by this discrepancy in identity but these operations are still far outside the financial and imaginative reach of the general population.

And bodies speak in many ways, most of which are involuntary – or at least impulsive. They fold, they turn away, they swell, they shiver and so forth and so forth. Tongues fail to form letters properly, shaping language that points to a history. A history that tells a story of class, of tribe, of upbringing. Faces show echoes of who your people are.

“Babiness signals a beingness in place. To call oneself a babi in Kenya is to declare one untouchable. To ask, “Mta’do?”  Without the arrogance of Kenya’s political class. Without the violence of a country at war with its own. It is to say, “I am telling you this, and I am aware of the risk I take with an articulation of this kind but I am not afraid. Because I have no reason to be afraid”. It is to say, in many ways that even within one’s vulnerability (because there’s an ever-present vulnerability embodied in queerness) one’s body is not available to the violence it attracts if unbabied. Also, it is to say, “You might not like what I am telling you about me right now but you are going to have to listen to me because babiness is listened to in this country”.

In this way there is no running away. What this means is that, no matter how much you do, your body will be recognized as your body. And whatever memory your body evokes will be how you are seen, which will affect how people relate to you, depending on their own relationship with that memory. And how you relate to that perception will create the image that people have of you (perhaps this is what we mean when we say step into your power – navigate your perception with knowledge of that landscape).

Those who do the work of remembering take notes on bodies. These bodies carry violence. These bodies carry deceit. These have a tendency towards shame. These ones are not to be trusted.

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.

The rise of identity politics brings more significance to this. In order for identity to exist there must be a body to be identified. Bodies are the markers of identity. And of course we remember. And, in a time like this, it’s easy to lose hope. For the bodies themselves to become the enemy, to lash out in the name of calling out. To forget the collective labour of undoing, unearthing and pursuing to better each other and focus on the destruction.

But the truth is indifferent.

The truth just is. It bears no ill will, it carries nothing with it other than itself. And in knowing this, we know what to listen to when trying to hear the truth and know how much of ourselves is between what we are trying to say and what the truth is.

“We need stories of belonging that move us towards each other, not from each other; ways of being human that open up the possibilities of being alive together; ways of navigating our differences that deepen our curiosity, that deepen our friendship, that deepen our capacity to disagree, that deepen the argument of being alive. This is what we need. This is what will save us. This is the work of peace. This is the work of imagination.”

Perhaps in seeing how far away we are from each other, buried by whatever blindnesses surviving in our bodies lived experience imposed upon us, we can begin the work of moving together, towards unburdening, untangling and rebuilding the systems of perception that oppress us all, creating new truths and, possibly, hope.

 

Staying Soft

Michael Onsando
7 March ,2017

“In effect, this means that speaking one’s truth becomes an action of laying one bare. An action of putting the self on the line. Putting the self in the line of possible violence.”

Something about vulnerability and safe spaces keeps coming back to me. What kind of thinking is produced by and within safe spaces? What does this means for the concept? Do we know how to be vulnerable? What does vulnerability look like when it comes out? Are we equipped to handle it? And what does a lack of tools mean for vulnerability itself?

Particularly when you think about the fact that people have their histories.

Which is to say that everyone comes to every interaction with every other interaction they’ve had. Because we only learn how to be with/around each other by being with/around each other – we all know what we know at a certain time. Many words to ask – how many ways do we break each other because we don’t know how to handle a situation?

“I am listening. Trying to learn how to (un)be. To figure out the abrading social, the threat I am: the threatened I am.”

When and where is who allowed to be safe?

Particularly, I’d like to think about safety from the perspective of “ability to express.” This, I’d hope, will take away the conditional nature of the safety that social circles give us. Like when we tell women to dress in certain ways, or even when we tell a child not to draw at the back of his exercise book.

I ask this particularly now with semi public spaces (semi public as physical gatherings and as online spaces) blowing apart the ways in which we allowed ourselves to be vulnerable. The “safe space” now has tonnes of people who don’t have the context to understand why things are being said. Opening up, then, becomes a demand to expose oneself to violence. The kind of violence that is oblivious of its violent nature – and so will continue along the path. And this is not new. But when is a space deemed “safe?” and how do the ways in which we are perceived make us a danger to their safety? Even as we protect the spaces we have made space, the question becomes – how many have we destroyed?

“the true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us, and which knows only the oppressors tactics, the oppressors’ relationships.”

Foucault has interesting formulations here:

“  My aim will be to show you how social practices may engender domains of knowledge that not only bring new objects, new concepts, and new techniques to light, but also give rise to totally new forms of subjects and subjects of knowledge. The subject of knowledge itself has a history; the relation of the subject to the object; or, more clearly, truth itself has a history.”

And, if truth itself has a history – what happens when such histories collide? When the subject, rooted in their own truth and own history, meets another subject rooted in the same? How do we handle these situations? Does the way we do this further aggravate or does it create space for these histories to co-exist?

I write about truths and history but I’m trying to say something about vulnerability.

And because acting students who have watched footage of the dying learn how to die beautifully, flinging limbs this way and that, decapitating their heads this way and that, spilling blood this way and that, those who watch them learn that dying is an art, begin to evaluate when dying is real, proclaim, with confidence, that some forms of dying do not look real, that some dying looks fake.”

 

What does vulnerability look like? Have we gone out expecting the face of vulnerability to be the face that we have seen? A face that we know? And how do we know? Given that people (and their truths) have histories – what is a historically correct depiction of vulnerability?

I ask this because, if we don’t know what this thing looks like – then how can we claim to have the tools to handle it? And, in a society without tools to handle this vulnerability, what questions lie in this demand? How many moments of bitten tongues and suppressed pain exist to ensure that the spaces that are kept safe for you, remain safe?

At whose expense are you vulnerable?

But even this is a reductive argument – it assumes that there is only one face of vulnerability – one who. But the subject that matters is often a thing of time and circumstance. And because of the ways privilege blinds one person’s vulnerable moment can be opening another’s pain (“I bathe in _____ tears” comes to mind).

And this becomes more complicated when you factor in that intersectionality is about how one is perceived. And there is little that you can do to change how you are perceived, which means that even the ways in which you might think you are communicating properly – you aren’t. Your body itself is a wall that obscures your words, actions and intent.

A meandering to remind us to be aware of the ways we are seen, the ways we see each other – and how that navigation allows for people to be whole.

Stay soft.

Some Dance to Forget

Michael Onsando
17 November ,2015

Last week I found myself in of a conversation where a friend talked about how artists failed the country post the 2002 election (not that everything was perfect before that though). Gidi gidi maji maji had just released their song unbwogable and it had captured the emotion of a nation fighting to put an ugly dictatorial past behind it. Whether or not that was achieved is an entire essay on its own. However, the song became a sort of mantra. If this one thing could be done then surely anything could be. If this one thing could be done then we, as a nation would be unbwogable.

It is no secret that the work of art is primarily memory work. In fact, the term memory work is often used to refer, in a larger scale, to the work of documenting, transcribing and presenting both pasts, presents and several versions of the future to the world.

To give this a little context we also need to think about the flood of articles in mainstream papers, that I’d rather not quote talking about how Kenyan writers are useless and tearing them apart. (Here’s one of particular bile if you really are curious)

“The task of preserving memory is difficult when it comes to art, because there will inevitably be tension between an object invented by a subjective mind and the objective fact or event it is meant to depict. Even a map can be inaccurate when drawn from just one perspective. Knowing this, many artists use art to tell stories about personal and cultural memory that are open to interpretation, that reframe the past not as a fixed narrative but as a multiplicity of voices from diverse points of view.”

Even as I write this I’m trying to tread the line between explaining something about the work of memory and “telling artists what to do.” Given the fact that experience, and thus the documentation of this experience, is subjective and we all have to choose what parts of ourselves we show, then all I can ask for is consideration.

“The fact that more often (official) history is based on written rather than oral evidence has meant that women, peasants, the under classes, the ‘silent majority’ have been left out. In addition, traditional forms of upbringing have generally encouraged those who have been left out to remain obedient; until relatively recently during the Moi years questioning the nature of things hasn’t been a crucial part of Kenya’s culture.”

Further I’m reminded that the artists who do this work are largely ignored for the  above reasons. Shailja Patel’s migritude, for example, is still largely seen as a non Kenyan book. More recently Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor is still trying to gain traction. Ukoo Flani Mau Mau paid their dues, but one wonders where they went, which is as much our fault for lack of consumption as it is anyone else’s.

But it is upon the people creating to consider the impact of their creations. I write this again for clarity, it is very important for the people creating to consider the work that they’d like their creations to do. And, in thinking about this, then it is also important to think about what kind of thinking goes into the work that is being created. What histories are we telling? What are we trying to propagate? Whose stories are we telling? These are just a few of the many questions we must ask ourselves before we even begin.

Beyond the rhetoric we have now about telling our own stories, I’m more concerned in how we frame them. While the importance of telling our own stories can’t be diminished the framing of these stories, if ignored, goes to perpetuate further misinformation.

The real question then becomes: through what channels do we receive our history? Do we challenge these channels? Do we find ways to go outside what has been taught to us by the official channels Caplan spoke about? Do we listen to stories that come from outside accepted modes of historical data collection? I ask this particularly of artists because art has room for the imagination and is not bound by the rigour of citation as is other forms of memory work like academic research (while still not keeping other forms of this work completely exempt from these questions). How many times have we paid attention to the silent majority? Or do we just continue complicit in the sanitization of history designed to make legends of “big men” and completely erase the human experience?

The same conversation meandered, as conversations do, to the every day experience of colonialism. One that tried to imagine the everyday nature of the struggle and not just something that happened as pin points in history as we have been led to imagine. The fact that something that seems so fundamental now (of course independence had to happen) was actually a series of longer debates about method, people and, very much, life or death leads me to heavily consider what was said. What is the challenge? How is it framed? And, who is doing the framing? And, if these are the questions, then how many artists have asked themselves that?

Having been in conversations with many artists I know that there are artists actively working towards this goal. It’s a thing of delight every time I find someone else. But – and I insist on this – they seem to be more the exception than the norm. That bothers me.  And, if art is as important to the formation of identity as we tell ourselves, then why do more young people identify with the work of J Cole or, (worse?) 2 chainz, than they do to the work that is being produced here? What histories are not being captured? What aren’t we demanding? Where, exactly, did we fail as artists and what can we do to fix that? How do we create art that forms unbwogable identities? Or will we continue to tell ourselves that, somehow, the work of memory will do itself?

Repersoning

Michael Onsando
4 November ,2014

“The burden of identity is upon the identified”

– Chuma Nwokolo

“I say ‘I am a God’ and you go around saying ‘who the hell does that guy think he is?’ I just told you – I am a god”

– Kanye West

“If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”

― Audre Lorde

People have histories.

Histories create our uniqueness. No single person’s history is linear. It’s a blend. It’s a thing from here, a dinner there, an argument there – this forms us. I’ve been fascinated by the idea of the beginning. Where do things/people start? A more interesting variation of this question is: how far forward can our histories take us?

Sara Ahmed writes:

“Words are hard. There is no doubt; words are hard. We know the troubling history of race. We know how race came into being as way of making a hierarchy out of being.

The words are reminders of this history. Some of us don’t need reminders. The words can be directed. They are directed.”

George Gathara was arrested. His charge was filming without a license. Uhuru lied to Kenyans. JKUAT is on strike, closed indefinitely. These are pieces of history.

Victor Wanyama scored a great goal. Okwiri Oduor won the Caine Prize. Fena Gitu is making music. These are pieces of history.

These things weave, mix, create, grow and trade to end up being what we know as Kenya. In conversation with a friend, he reminds me to be realistic with my claims – all this can’t just change overnight. I’m bothered by the constant claims to be realistic.

I wonder who “reality” protects.

Again I ask: Who is allowed to be?

When Moi turned 90 in September, his history was sanitized. I’m worried for the children who will grow up reading about our “benevolent” statesman. I’m worried for myself, for the lies I’ve been fed. I’m worried for the writer who will argue 50 years from now and be told to be realistic. Moi’s time wasn’t that bad. Kenya is ‘not as bad as…’

I’m worried about what pieces of history we are using to define ourselves.

What does it mean to have a whispering state?

One begins to imagine how Wahome Mutahi ended up calling his column “Whispers” – and what this says about Kenya. This is another documented part of Moi’s Kenya. The whispering state. Where gossip ruled the land. And even that was controlled. Where an identity was constantly being constructed.

Identity is impossible

– Nduta Gathoni

In “Not Yet Kenyan” Aleya Kassam writes:

“I have always wondered what happened to make my grandmother so frightened. But we don’t talk about it. We don’t talk about the inherent fear so many women in my grandmother’s generation feel towards black men. This prejudice they then pass on to their daughters, and the daughters after that. It is ok to be friends with black women, but not ok to be friends with black men. Because you never know. The demonization of all black men. The fear of which, the basis we ourselves don’t understand, but we so often blindly adopt.”

Identity is impossible…. to shake off?

Diary of a mad Kenyan woman writes

“You are not really, real, actual human beings.  You are maybe-terrorists.

You are the threat.  We shall throw you off your own balcony.  You are the threat.

Un-persons.”

Who do we erase? How many times do we erase them?

“an eight-year old is an eight-year old is an eight-year old

Wagalla is Waziristan is Westgate

 

a pregnant woman is a pregnant woman is a pregnant woman

Garissa is Kismayo is Nairobi”

– Shailja Patel

“I wanna live, I wanna live, I wanna live.”

– Dela

 

Those words stay with me. The song War in my Heart is a powerful social commentary. It reiterates thoughts of black disposability that have long been heard by black artists across the globe. To want to live, we must already be unliving. We must have already been removed from the narrative of liveable lives. We must have been removed from the identity, removed from our history.

If two non persons have children, are they non children? If we do not write ourselves into history will we ever be? Or will we always be the legislated against, the displaced, the disappeared, the disposables?

‘If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.’

– Zora Neale Hurston

Silencing is an important part of perpetuating the current power structures. When a woman says “Men oppress!” it is important to remind her of “not all men.” When homes are destroyed in Kibera, it is important to remind everyone of how “these people were warned.” When a poet is harassed,it is important that the internet puts her on trial.

But you can’t silence art, can you? Art has a persistence. Slips of poetry will be passed under desks. People will gather in basements to listen to spoken word or music. Blogs will be opened; Instagram pages and Twitter feeds. We know because we read Mwakenya. We know because we listened to Ochieng Kabaselle.

‘later that night i held an atlas in my lap ran my fingers across the whole world and whispered where does it hurt? it answered. everywhere. everywhere.’

– Warsan Shire

I’ve been tired. It can be tiring.

Recognising the pain of the earth means realising this pain.

Creating art that challenges means facing challenges created by that art.

And it is tiring.

And we get tired.

But we won’t stop.

We can’t stop.

We want our histories back. Like Dela, we want to live.

That’s So Gay!

Michael Onsando
5 August ,2014

“Oh,” the man said. “Oh, yeah— starry-eyed coon with way, way too much money, who thinks there ain’t nothin’ more important than the lives of some crazy black faggots.” He grunted.

Though he was surprised, Eric laughed. “If you are one— a black faggot, I mean— that can seem pretty

important to you, actually.”

Black Gay Livability

Recently I’ve been wondering about the ways in which we let words travel. In a conversation I hear casual warnings like “Don’t be gay” being thrown around. An accusation that, even in its ‘innocence’ is a strong disincentive. When gaming a friend says “Dude, you play like a girl.” Again, I can’t swallow the meaning. After pointing it out it becomes “Well, I didn’t mean it like that but everyone knows that girls can’t game.” In yet another conversation someone says “But that’s bitches. A bitch will always call another bitch a bitch.” I find this one particularly ironic. Even within itself the statement realizes that the word bitch is an insult. Yet, casually, it is used to refer to any person who is female.

These are things we experience every day.

Gukira writes about banal misogyny:

Banal means dull, boring, uninteresting, unremarkable. What passes without comment. At once background and foundation. What can be taken for granted. I am interested in how misogyny backgrounds banal—how it becomes banal, expected, unsurprising, the thing that need not be named. Indeed, the ground on which choices about, for, and by women can be made. Misogyny is dull.

How did misogyny become dull?

I’m reminded about conversations we have with our mothers and fathers about our place in society. I’m reminded that, as a man, I’m a disruptive force. How uncomfortable it becomes for me when I walk into a room and things reshuffle to accommodate me. The things we do without thinking, speaking. I’m reminded of going to family gatherings (mine, theirs, ours, yours) and sitting with the men around the television while women slave in the kitchen. I’m trying to imagine how these roles are so easily absorbed by us. How they weave themselves into the fabric of our society. And, in thinking about this, I find myself paying close attention to how we use words and how quickly we speak away possibilities.

“You’re a man. You must be able to provide.”

“You’re a man. You must not cry.”

“You’re a man. You are a rock.”

These are the lessons we are taught.

I’m trying to find a way around these words that we use every day. Words of identity that we use to insult, to hurt. Thinking about what these words mean. And, even as I think about this, it is important to remember that because they are so deeply woven inside ourselves, it is hard to unravel them. Taking such problems apart involve re-thinking a lot of presumptions we have about ourselves. Think about having a male house help. Or how we are still shocked at seeing a female pilot. There are presumptions we have made about life because someone said something.

Which brings me all the way back to the beginning.

Ever thought about what you mean when you stand and say “Oh my god, that’s so gay!” What warnings are being given? What lives are being erased? What lives are being asked to remain silent? With a little modification this statement slowly becomes “That’s so gay.” Then “Don’t do that, it’s gay.” Then “Gay things shouldn’t be done.” And, eventually “ Don’t be gay.”

There is no such thing as an innocent statement.

Sara Ahmed reminds us of the problem of perception:

“…exposing a problem is to become a problem then the problem you expose is not revealed. For example, when you make an observation in public that all the speakers for an event are all white men, or all but one, or all the citations in an academic paper are to all white men, or all but a few, these observations are often treated as the problem with how you are perceiving things (you must be perceiving things!).”

I come back to the problem to perception, because now I’m thinking about how we take such criticism. I’m thinking about how conversations continue.

“That’s so gay.”

“Hey, don’t say that – it’s offensive”

“Why? Are you gay?”

“Umm no. I’m not but I’m trying to…”

“If you’re not gay why do you care? You must be gay gay gay.”

As in the conversation above, the problem has been shifted from the offender to the offended. This casual shift in frame is seen every single day. Eventually it becomes a stereotype “Anyone who is offended by X must be X” and on and on it continues. Again, words are used to break bodies. Again, broken bodies are used to pave the path for the patriarchy.

“Make it because you still have hands”

Shailja Patel

I’d like to modify that to: make it because you still have a tongue. It’s impossible to analyse how words have been used to destroy people without thinking about what kind of world they have been used to build. Yes, a broken world – but a world. One where we live and, sometimes, thrive. And, in knowing that words contain the capacity to build, to grow, to stretch and to imagine, we cannot ignore their important role in rebuilding/repair.

I’d like to imagine a world where identity is not an insult. Where being is enough. Where being as one is, is not cause for alarm, or distress. Where “Don’t be such a girl” is not used to insult people. Where “That’s so gay,” is probably the most absurd thing one could say. And, imagining this world, I’d like to begin building it.

When I was talking to a friend about writing this I told her “But this is so obvious, I don’t even know what I’d write.”

She asked “What do you want to say?”

“Can we stop calling people gay as an insult?”

“Then write that”.

So I have.

The Africas And the Complexity of Our Media Problems

Michael Onsando
7 January ,2014

I don’t like this expression ‘First World problems.’ It is false and it is condescending.

– Teju Cole

An article in Al Jazeera talks about how the Western media is always getting the story wrong. It is, more importantly, asking why we instinctively turn to Western Media outlets – as if the rest of the media on the scene is full of monkeys at a typewriter who are yet to figure out who dies in Hamlet.

I’ve been arrested by the idea of how the Africas (the term ‘the Africas’ was coined by Ann Daramola to demonstrate the diversity within Africa) and, more specifically, Kenya (doesn’t) work. I’m wary of the media, all of it. Media from the West, the East, the North, the South and, sometimes, even dead in the Middle. Every media outlet has an agenda (I realise the irony of writing this, and posting it on an online journal). This skepticism of the media is what keeps me out of the media debate on how information is gathered and disseminated. While I agree the Western media gets the Africas horribly wrong, I think we err deeply as well when telling our stories.

Allow me to go back a little, in order to move forward.

A lot of my friends have dropped their English names. The argument is to be reclaiming their heritage. Getting back what was, authentically, African. While this argument is sound and the intent exists, I believe dropping the English part of one’s name is, to a large extent, to deny the complexity of the times within which the Africas exist.

As much as we reject the ways of the acquired part of our identity, we cannot deny the fact that it is deeply embedded within us as well. We would love to find our way back to our roots, to our culture, but the extent to which this culture has been eroded, changed, vilified and manipulated does not allow us to go back. At least not back in the way we imagine it would be. One cannot speak as to how culture within the Africas would have grown or changed had we remained unperturbed for those decades.

The identity of the Kenyan is, as much, defined by the West as it is defined by us. I grew up listening to Eminem, alongside E-sir. On TV I had to sit through hours of Oprah till my sister came in and sat me through hours of Shaka Zulu.

This is the crisis we have.

While we do rigorously fight to define ourselves – as we must – we mustn’t forget  that a definition has successfully been imposed upon and within us. We are not just who we are but who we have been told we are.

And it is not only the personal that is a struggle. We have nations that have to deal with defining who they are and what democracy and survival mean for them while trying to keep from being exploited. Kenya, for example, thought we had it down with our valley of peace under Mwai Kibaki then he was kicked out. Then, five years later, peace was no more. Then, five years later, peace was the tool that was used to bring Uhuru Kenyatta  into power.

Identity is a hard enough nut to crack without having to deal with the surrounding pressures of a global demand for product and a history of colonization.

The burden of identity is always upon the identified.

Chuma Nwokolo

The thing with identity is as individuals and, indeed, as states we must be allowed to find it on our own. One of the most powerful tools of identity is the media. The stories that we read, see, hear and discover all shape the identity formed of others. By virtue of the media being such a powerful tool for identity we must think about how that tool is used and, in effect, what identity we have created.

Upumbafuness has set about trying to start tracking misogyny in the media in Kenya. They work on user submissions and haven’t gained much traction. This is not to say that the media isn’t full of misogyny – it is. One can only guess that the administrators had problems keeping up with updating the blog. However, it has become an interesting digging ground with the few articles it has managed to gather. They range from defending rapists to overt homophobia.

I think what makes me wary about the essays that insist we tell our own story isn’t that they are wrong – they aren’t. It is very important that we have this story told by people who understand the layer, nuances and histories of a place. It’s even more important that the Western media gets the whole superiority complex out of their minds. No, what bothers me is that they all seem to stem from a place where we assume that the media houses here will do such a great job of telling those stories even when we have no evidence of the same.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a famous TED talk called ‘The Danger of a Single Story.” In this talk she speaks of how shocked a roommate of hers was shocked that she listened to Beyonce. As if somehow a young lady from Nigeria must only know of cooking pots and trees. Aamer Rahman in a skit called ‘Workshops for Whitey’ talks about being ‘complimented’ on his English and how condescending and dumb it is. Teju Cole (quoted above) talks about the hashtag #FirstWorldProblems. The idea of the Africas being a dark continent that struggles for survival is dumb, and is exactly how the Western media would like to portray it.

However, the reverse  is false as well.

I get particularly uncomfortable when people counter poverty stories with stories of cities and metropolitan areas. While I understand the origin of the reaction, and what work it seeks to do, I don’t think it does that work.  I think the one facilitates in the erasing of the other of vice versa.

All the silly stuff of life doesn’t disappear just because you’re black and live in a poorer country.

– More Teju Cole

I’m wary of media – all of it. I think the code of conduct that is taught is just another piece of paper that they read, in order to receive another piece of paper. The idea that an institution owned by the rich and powerful will expose the rich and powerful is slightly laughable. However, if we must think critically about the media (as we must about everything) then we must.

The Western media gets the Africas wrong – all the time, and that sucks. We should point it out and give them hell. In the same breath, media within the Africas gets them wrong as well and one can only hope that we do the same.