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?
This is what terrifies me: one day, we’ll wake up and find that all of the stories are gone.
Let me explain.
I find myself thinking more about endings as I grow older. Of late, I’ve been thinking specifically about what comes after the end. Not in the sense of what comes in the afterlife – although I have been compiling a list of questions to ask God when I meet him/her/them – but more, what do we leave behind us when we are gone? Some people might call this a legacy. I’m going to call it the stories we leave behind.
Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve noticed something else about growing older, which is that the older people in my life become more expressive, more open to sharing the stories of their childhood and their past as both of us grow older. My maternal grandmother, for instance, did not speak with us much when we were children. When she did, she was usually shouting at us for doing something that we shouldn’t be doing (which happened often). But something really cool seems to have happened since I turned 20 – nowadays she wants to tell me about her life. Like, really tell me. Not in a way that’s an attempt at giving me advice, but as if she’s honestly sharing her own past. I’d like to hope that it is therapeutic for her to let out some of these thoughts, memories and feelings.
The last time we talked, she told me about what it was like to live during the State of Emergency in colonial Kenya. She described to me the way that young boys, their only crime being the fact that they were Kikuyu, would be rounded up, tortured, taken to prison; killed. At this point in the story, my young cousin, who’s about seven years old, was playing close to her feet. My Cucu pointed to him and said: They would kill boys as young as him.
I grew up treating history as something that was far removed from me: notes we read off of Social Studies textbooks for the sake of memorizing years, passing exams. But I’ll be honest, I don’t think I ever “felt” the impact of history. I mean, sure, at the back of my mind I knew that the story of colonialism featured in my life history in the sense that I am a descendant of people who survived it, but the actual effect felt so distant from my existence in Nairobi. I used to think: Yes, colonialism happened, but it’s all in the past now. We’re all right. We got independence. We survived it.
My grandparents survived colonialism. They lived to have children and grandchildren. They were strong and hardworking people who believed in God and in the promise of education. But surviving does not mean that everything that happened is finished and done, it just means that we pick the pieces together and we learn to carry all of the pain, the fear and the memories in a way that’s dignified and socially acceptable.
Think about it: when you fall in love and lose that love, it changes you as a person. You can’t go back to who you were before, because you now carry the lessons gained from the relationship. So, too, we cannot just be done with colonialism. We continue to carry it within ourselves, in the systems of government and of law of our nation, in the languages that we use to communicate with one another, in the fact that our country is shaped like an uneven swimming costume.
Warsan Shire writes about maps and bodies and pain. In this one poem, “What They Did Yesterday Afternoon” she talks about receiving the news that someone burnt down her aunt’s house. She ends the poem with these words: “later that night/ I held an atlas on my lap/ ran my hands across the whole world/ and whispered: where does it hurt?/ it answered/ everywhere/ everywhere/ everywhere”.
When I first read this poem, I thought that she was just talking about the fact that there’s so much pain and conflict in this world. But when I read it again a few weeks ago, I saw something different. I thought of the very idea of the map, the very existence of countries that are shaped a certain way, the fact that boundaries do not just come into being, they are negotiated and renegotiated with the use of force. And the names of countries and continents– Chimamanda Adichie says this: “I am Nigerian because a white man created Nigeria and gave me that identity. I am black because the white man constructed black to be as different as possible from his white. But I was Igbo before the white man came.”
Pain is embedded in the geography of our land and of our identity. So when Warsan Shire says “everywhere/everywhere/everywhere”, it could be that she’s talking not just about the geographical existence of pain, but to the fact that it has been there in the past, in the present and in the future, and to the fact that it’s contained in all of us.
I am Kenyan. I am African. I claim my heritage with a sense of pride and of passion because to me, being Kenyan does not just mean simply existing in the boundaries of this state: it means identifying with a certain story, a certain set of stories (not everyone feels this way, and that is completely valid). But in claiming my Kenyanness and Africanness in an article I’ve written in English, I need to also acknowledge that there’s a history behind how all of these things came to be a part of me.
At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston a friend, and I were looking at the different exhibits and she pointed out something that I’ve never really paid attention to: when you walk in a museum, there are those pieces of art that have a name attached to them “Art by Rembrandt Harmesz. van Rijn”, and there are those that are simply presented as “Art by the Congo People”. So, too, “1,200 people have died of Ebola in Africa” versus “Keith Brantly” and “Sarah Writebol”.
Chimamanda Adichie, again, puts it aptly: “Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign. But stories can also be used to empower, and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people. But stories can also repair that broken dignity.”
There’s a moment in Grey’s Anatomy when Christina Yang is speaking about her ex fiance Burke, and she says that when she was with him, he took so many pieces of her that she lost herself. Violence and wars, even when they are finished, take away pieces of us. And this is why I am so terrified about us losing our stories: when history stops being something that we can relate with, when it becomes reduced to a thing that happened many years ago that we read about briefly in our text books so that we can pass our exams, then we lose pieces of ourselves. And one of the things that we lose is the ability to know where it is that our pain and our beauty come from.
This is my fear: that one day, we will have lost so many pieces of ourselves that there will be nothing left.
But maybe that’s not how it ends. Maybe, before that day comes, we speak with one another. We ask for the stories. Like, really ask, not for exams, not so we can win debates, not so we can know how to make money, but so that we can understand each other and our world better. We ask the people around us, “Hey, tell me a story?”. Our friends, loved ones, grandparents, great grandparents, even and especially those people with whom we disagree most vehemently.
I think you could call this hope: this thinking that maybe, asking for and sharing our stories could be the thing that saves us.
I don’t like this expression ‘First World problems.’ It is false and it is condescending.
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.
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.