Loving in mono – dreaming in stereo

Michael Onsando
7 August ,2018

“I surrender this isn’t love it’s torture” 

  • Hold me down

Love, or ideas of what love can be, has the ability to bring us to our knees. With our backs against the wall and confronted by the harsh truth that no one is subject to your will – that illusions of control are just that. Love, we are reminded is a battlefield for preservation of the self, in a landscape that continuously asks for compromise, for a little letting go for a little more space – just a little.

My first encounter with the album “Dreams in Stereo” happens in Eric Wainaina’s studio. I have wandered into the space on other business and Eric has just come from recording “Okay,” the opening track on the album. The song takes us to all the places we know and trust Eric to take us. Heavily layered choir like melodies over intricate piano and guitar with the trademark tenor that brought us “nchi ya kitu kidogo” immediately let’s you know one thing – you’re listening to an Eric Wainaina record.

But if love itself has the ability to bring us down to our knees then what does its absence do? At what point in the process of unraveling and bringing back together does one decide enough is enough? And, post this decision, what does it look like to put oneself decision in the absence of the person they had decided was supposed to be with them for the rest of their lives?

I miss my second encounter with the album. Having made it to the album launch I barely make it through Sage Chemutai and Tetu Shani’s great openings before a my body decides that it has had enough of my nonsense. The migraine has me in bed before Eric takes the stage.

Speaking at an interview this is what he had to say about the album,“It is an even more personal and intimate album in many ways, where I felt freer to just be myself. It also explores a wide range of musical genres that are close to my heart.”

“Nilikukosea nini, ukanichukia?” 

  • Don’t bury me

The tapestry takes us through a variety of sounds, with each song painting a particular place in the landscape that our attention is being drawn to. There is clear evidence of very deliberate thought about where each note is placed, where every sound effect resonates and every echo. Even when he brings other artists in, we see why they are where they are. A personal favourite is how the diverse style of John Nzenze, Kendi Nkonge and Blinky Bill come together on “don’t bury me” creating a bouncy, snappy track that moves at the everyday rhythm of life – in a song that talks about moving on, moving forward without anger or angst, but rather letting go to move forward.

Can we fly away together, tell no one – don’t leave a number.”

  • Fly away together

I spend the week after the concert streaming the album almost every day. Not only because I was supposed to conjure up a few words about it, but because I am drawn to find more in every listen. To find more of the narrative, to move through the nostalgia and hope once again – I tire my kid brother on one such listen – so perhaps the music intended for more errr mature audiences.

Life has a way of not stopping. No matter what happens, life trudges on. And even as we tell ourselves that love is irreplaceable, we find ourselves slipping once more. We find ourselves loving, despite ourselves. We find ourselves caring, despite ourselves. And, no matter how careful we are, we find ourselves asking, once more to love and to be loved.

“Paid my dues, now I’m ready for the loving, ready for loving – no substituting.”

  • Long time coming 

As I write this essay I am still listening to the album. At 41 minutes long, the piece of work lends itself to a long drive, a long walk or the mindless listen at your work desk as you wait for 5pm. Packed with lyrical and musical content, this is more than the songs you play in the background and ignore – this music demands being listened to, demands being heard – again

“I need you to take me to a brand new day”

Brand new day

“Perhaps it is the role of art to put us in complicity with things as they happen” 

  • Hejinian

Perhaps this is why we turn to art for the answers. When love pushes us to our knees we already know what we are supposed to do. We already know that there is little to be done. Instead we need someone to remind us that, eventually, it gets better. Eventually, we see the world as beautiful again. Eventually we love – again.

Dreaming in stereo by Eric Wainaina is available on Songa, and iTunes. 

Revolutionary Type Love

Michael Onsando
11 July ,2017

“The world is changing and they say it’s time to be free

But you live with the fear of just being me

Living in the shadow feels like the safe place to be

No harm for them, no harm for me

But life is short, and it’s time to be free

Love who you love, because life isn’t guaranteed”

  • Gloria Carter, Smile.


There are many things that are up for debate. But one thing we all seem to agree on is the necessity of love. We need love. Which is why I found this whole idea of revolutionary type love interesting. Why did love also need to be finessed? What was wrong with the ordinary brand of love? This leads us to challenge what we have seen as ordinary, who that excludes. And how those excluded find home, find voice and center themselves. Perhaps this is why when Kawiria Mwirichia brought six queer photographers together they described the project as a project whose “main purpose is the acknowledgement and celebration of Queer love and the Queer individual.”

It is this idea of the queer individual that I would like to start with. And to do this I will focus on Awuor Onyango’s work. Awuor tried to create using Focault’s interior ‘androgyny and hermaphrodism of the soul that which created the homosexual out of the sodomite, a kind of Kenyan queer semiology.’ It is difficult to read through this without drawing thinking of humanizing. Making human, making whole. And it is difficult to take that away from the Facebook post I saw earlier this morning of a gay man proposing to his partner, and the hundreds of hate comments under it. How would humanizing queer people look like in such a space? What does working towards that mean for the individual and how does it affect the choices they make? Aptly named, “Visibility is a Trap,” the five part series does a lot of work around showing bodies and giving them a form of intrinsic power. None of the revolutionary loves she shows are working against anything external. Rather her subjects always seem to yield themselves. Perhaps in here is where we begin to see the humanizing work, the owning of the self and of the body.

The exhibition room itself feels warm. The walls are draped with yellow and red cloth. All the windows are closed and the light is set low. Along the floor the paths are mapped in Khanga. The net result is warmth. ‘We even wanted to put pillows on the ground but then we were afraid people would fall asleep’ Kawiria says, chuckling. And it did put you at ease, the second you walked in. And looked at the first exhibition, which was Faith Wanjala’s work.

Her photo series was about the individual finding their light, slowly shifting from being able to connect with oneself to being able to connect with an other. In many ways this series echoed the work of Mal Muga, who used his space on the wall to talk about vulnerability in gay men. In both scenarios the subjects first had to deal with themselves before being able to deal with another. This is not to say they were the same though. Faith Wanjala’s work focused on the self. Trying to show how one must come to themselves, and their own light before sharing or partaking in the light of another. Meanwhile, Mal’s work seemed to focus on how one must trust the other that they are giving themselves to. He demonstrated this taking inspiration from the Japanese form of bondage art known as Kinbaku.

Maganga decided to show queer love in its everydayness. He captured intimacies that lead me one to question – why are all these things happening indoors? Why not on the street?  It’s Hand holding, sharing a meal, hugs . The banalities of being in a relationship and how they look. His work, he hopes will “humanise queer people and see that LGBTIQ relationships aren’t only just about sex,” something that Neo Musangi does not shy away from in their work. Not necessarily sex, but this idea of the phallus and why it is at the only way we seem to be able to imagine gender.

Wawera Njeru, on the other hand, decided focus on Dennis Nzioka. Dennis Nzioka is an activist and has been on the forefront of the queer struggle in the country. Towards her celebration of him she captures his tattoos and in two images tries to explore this idea of the lone wolf. A philosophy that Nzioka himself lives by.

The thing that most appealed to me about this project was the diversity of ideas it offered. In a space where to be queer is often equated to sex, as Maganaga explores, the project gives life to this idea of diverse ways of being, of allowing ourselves to be, and of allowing others to be. And this is important in a space where love has been so strictly defined. Perhaps this is the revolutionary type love. Love that allows other to be in different ways.

To Revolutionary Type Love ran from May 18th to June 3rd 2017.A sequel is expected in 2018. Find them on Instagram here.


Reading Akello

Michael Onsando
9 June ,2015

Akello is a book of love poems.

That’s the short version. But I’m wondering what it means to say the words “love poems” anymore. To explore the ideas of feeling and being a space that is decidedly against these same ideas. Love slowly moves to being a radical act (still, I hear echoes of ‘the power of love, but that’s not it either – at least not all of it).

“Let me define

my walls

my cage

my boundaries

my limits

my horizons”

– 21, Akello

Audre Lorde reminds us that the personal is political. I’ve been reading this book thinking about what it means to ask to define boundaries as a young person navigating Nairobi – a space of dictation. I’m trying to see what it means to take that which is yours but somehow has never been.

What does it mean to really hear what the poet is asking for and let her define?

The thing about writing poetry is that it is from a place of truth. Sometimes that truth is as simple as a creak

The gate creaks open

in sol-fa, like a diva

remembering tune”

– 2

Seeing that this poem comes from a place of truth and knowing that craft is consistent (even if that consistence is change) we can begin to open up to some other truths that will present themselves. Some others that then become less apparent/comfortable to imagine. The interesting thing about these poems particular is that they are a truth we are uncomfortable with in a different way. In a way we are okay with.

We’ve somehow become okay with ignoring the significance of just how close that love cuts to our core. Having listened to love song after love song it’s become easy to reduce a lot of the message to “another love poem.” But poetry has been about love since its inception – one wonders at what point they expected the romantics to stop romanticizing.

Still it’s easier to do that than to admit “I crave you like/a hemp farm craves weed.”  Or, “But I don’t want to. If/there is one/better than you/with less flaws/ and more money/I don’t want him” First, because we have set ourselves inside relationships that are so controlled by power dynamics that admitting a need of that magnitude is unimaginable to many. But also because it is corny, and we like to see ourselves as serious people. As people who are above the pettiness of heartbreak. We have repeated it in the mirror like a mantra watching our lips form the words.

The poet herself writes it in 38 a poem on Nairobi:

“only the proud survive, only the true love.”

Truth isn’t about comfort. Truth is just truth.

“In my life


I’m not sure

which is easier to find


or truth”

– 10

I’m wondering what form of challenging exists in creating love poems in the age of protest (even as I hold back on ascribing intent. Truth is often not a position, but a state of being). Still, I’m wondering what this state of being brings out in us and what it says.

Some of the things it brings out are simple:



things I need to accept:

The living of life leaves no room for regret

and you need to grab all the happiness you can get”

– 65

Others, frolicsome:

“You’ve got me going



– 50


And some, hopeless:

“I can’t seem to stop myself

and I don’t have a plan

to get back to normalcy”

– 32

And further and further it journeys into places that make us squirm because they are places that we are either not used to being in or places we have identified as weakness. But what do we dismiss when we ignore weakness, and what does strength demand? Wambui Mwangi writes:

If Superman leaps over a tall building at a single bound, well, yawn, stretch and change the channel. If I were ever to leap over a tall building at a single bound, I would expect some serious attention, astonishment, adoration and for everyone to realise that having done all this leaping about, I would fairly obviously need a good long rest.

Conversely, I most certainly would not appreciate having immediately presented to me another building, over which I am also expected to leap without question or hesitation.

In this article, titled the Myth of the Strong Black Woman, the professor is talking about the unseeing that comes with imagining extra strength. If we imagine that black women have infinitely more capacity if becomes easier to dump and unsee as the paragraph above shows.


“It’s not that I don’t

have secrets. It’s just you’ve ne

ver asked me to tell”

– 4


The news shows us death and dying. The state continues to blame citizens for everything from wars to climate change.  These are things we need to know, they are happening and this they are important. And, in a world where all these things are happening, surely it comes as a bit of a comfort that someone is still writing love poems – because that means love still exists somewhere. Even if only in the off white pages of a 92 page book.


“And if I were different, this story would be

told again and again, upon eternity.

My words are unable

my words are unable.”

– 12