Letter from Kenya’s 44th Tribe

Dear Kenyan sisters and brothers,

At last we are family. It’s been over a century of feeling like the unwanted bastard son that was dumped on your doorstep. Drenched and shivering from the storm, you allowed us to stay, but in many ways made it clear, we were not to overstep our mark with ambitious designs of being part of the household.  So after resisting to acknowledge kinship with us for so long, the fact that you have now accepted us as one of your own fills me with such warmth. Because how can our Kenyanness ever come into question when now the President has recognised the Asian community in Kenya as the 44th tribe. It still isn’t certain whether this was a declaration or simply an acceptance to consider it, but either way it feels momentous.

Because though we were brought here en masse from 1896, we’ve actually been here for much longer, stretching back to at least the 15th Century, where Vasco Da Gama allegedly used a Gujarati sailor from Malindi to help him navigate this stretch of the Indian Ocean. Yet our part in the Kenyan narrative is often smudged out, with our contribution to the country narrowed down to the railway, where four of us died for every mile built. But since then we have sweated, wept and bled into this land. We started the first independent newspaper and laid the foundation of the trade union movement. Like you, we have fought and worked and stolen and loved and betrayed and dreamed and built and destroyed and imagined right here on this land. But it’s been a tumultuous affair where our allegiance has been frequently tested. In 1963, we were given two years to get Kenyan citizenship and renounce any British passports, or leave. And 20,000 of us stayed. Then in 1965 under the Africanisation programme, all Asians were removed from civil service and blocked from owning businesses in the rural areas. And we stayed. Then in 1967, two Acts were passed that required us to get work permits and limiting the areas in which we were allowed to trade. And we stayed. So now, this new designation as a tribe feels like a recognition that we passed the test of allegiance; an acknowledgement of our belonging in the history and identity of Kenya.

For those of you who follow my blog, you will know that I have written about this idea of belonging a lot. Just last year, a foreign white woman living in Kenya asked my why I was so obsessed with writing about the Indian Kenyan identity. She said it almost with disdain and I suppose she couldn’t possibly understand. But I remember thinking how nice it must be to feel so certain that you belong, so sure of your place, so entitled to this land that is not originally yours. I have never felt that. I have asserted it, but it has been a long complex journey to get to this point. And now, maybe my cousin won’t have to carry her birth certificate, mother’s birth certificate, father’s birth certificate, parent’s marriage certificate, grandmother’s birth certificate, grandfather’s birth certificate and grandparent’s marriage certificate along with her to apply for an ID to prove she is Kenyan. And when they ask her what tribe to fill in on that form, she won’t look at them quizzically like I did. instead she will proudly declare, Asian.

But then I started asking myself what does Asian mean? After all, Asia is not a country. Whilst it is commonly appreciated that in Kenya this term is used to talk about Kenyans of Indian ancestry, who after the 1947 partition, could no longer all be referred to as Indians, does the Asian ‘tribe’ include the Chinese and Japanese and all the other 48 countries in Asia? And how can we be lumped into one tribe, when in India alone, there are at least 645 ‘tribes’. Closer to home, within what you see as the Asian community, we have our very own specific groupings with our own messy ‘tribal’ politics and ridiculous stereotypes, from the fierce warriors to the stingy shopkeepers, conservative traditionalists to the pretentious intellectuals. We brought our ‘tribal’ divisions with us from the Indian subcontinent, along with the zambrau trees that pepper the route of the railway and the chapatis that are now considered Kenyan cuisine. And I wonder in amusement, will we too now dance for the President during National celebrations? And if so, will we lift our shoulders up and raise our hands high to the beat of Bhangra, or will we bend low and clap our hands in Raasra?

I have many questions. What does this mean in practical terms, to be considered a tribe? Is there a provision in the Constitution that grants us certain rights that we didn’t have access to before? Do I sniff politics in the air? I share the #44thTribe status on facebook and receive a mixture of sentiments. A friend remarks that the last thing we need is more tribes, that we should be moving towards a more unified Kenyan identity and away from the deep tribal divisions. I get it. As a minority we’ve watched from the fringes how messy and downright dangerous tribal politics is, and many of us don’t want anything to do with it. But the truth is that language frames mindsets. And tribe is the language of belonging in Kenya. So now, maybe we are no longer ‘other’? I think about what it feels like to be named in the language of tribe. Seductive and familiar, it feels intimate, like we are being whispered to in your mother tongue.

But is tribe Kenya’s mother tongue?

I dig down a little deeper and discover that the language of tribe was a creation of the colonial regime. Before that, ethnicity was fluid and evolving, with people moving into different communities, working and living amongst, and loving those that were different from them. Becoming one of them. Until the British enforced the language of tribe to divide and rule. To order Kenya. To assign favor and privilege to one group at the expense of another, manipulating us so they could control us. They divided us physically, creating territories that you weren’t allowed to leave, the Asians in one, the Maasai in the other and so on, designating what our worlds would look like, and making it illegal to go into each others spaces, ensuring that we didn’t weep and love together. But they also divided us existentially, limiting what we could imagine for ourselves and contribute to the country. Kikuyu for labour, Maasai as herdsmen, Asians as shopkeepers, making our world smaller So within this historical context, if that’s what it means to be a tribe, I’m not sure that it’s something to be celebrated. Because I don’t want a Kenya in which our world is made smaller, where we are expected to live in certain places and only fulfil certain roles. I want a Kenya where our world is big and audacious and creates space for everyone to thrive.

So whilst I am uncertain about whether I will take up the identity of 44th tribe, I am extremely gratified by the gesture, for it means I am finally seen as Kenyan and that’s all I really ever wanted in the first place.

Yours in sisterhood,

Aleya

(This is not intended as an official letter meant to be representative of the entire Asian Community of Kenya, but is a reflection from one member of said tribe. Accordingly, any responses to these letter should be directed at me, the author, and not at ‘you muhindis’.)

Photo Credit: c-u-b  

A Ghazal for Kenya

Tonight l want to sing.

Melodies of pain.

Harmonies of heartache.

Songs of rage.

For I don’t have the words to speak, so all I can do is sing.

Come, my friend.

Is your mouth dry from sighing?

Are you as worn as I am?

Does your soul ache?

Are you afraid?

Let’s sit here outside, under this patch of sky that is momentarily ours before the clouds shuffle away to the homes of our neighbours.

Let me pour you a drink, something strong enough to bring tears to your eyes and a scratch to your voice. But first we must give our ancestors a sip. Don’t be stingy, a little more, after all they too need their tears diluted.

Are you comfortable?

Now let me sing.

I shall sing a Ghazal for Kenya, the music of melancholy that echoes along my lineage, from the shores of Veraval, accompanying my ancestors on the dhows across the Indian Ocean, leading them here, the first piece of soil in Kenya we have ever owned, where on Sunday nights, when dreams reign, my father scratches his beard and soaks his spirit in the sound of Jagjit, a ghazal maestro.

You must forgive me, for I am not accomplished in the specific poetic technique of the ghazal, but allow me to share its sentiment, as no other musical form quite captures the sweet pain of unrequited love. For it is only deep love that can birth a sorrow enduring enough to steal language. It is only the ghazal that can express the pain of separation and intensify it with the beauty of love for the thing we are separated from.

Let me re-fill your glass, for it is an insult to the host for ice to be exposed in its nakedness.

Take your shoes off, let the grass whisper the secrets of the land to your toes.

Before we start, I must tell you, like a ululation that must be answered, this ghazal is a response to the Blues sung by a sister, so that the singer may see she is not alone.

I wish her to know her voice is the solo that urges on the choir.

The first verse begins with a question.

When did we become so angry?

An earnest inquiry whispered between two friends sitting on a balcony overlooking the road, where in 1922 a woman whose torment possibly mirrors your own my friend, stood up to her oppressors, and they were so threatened by this woman expressing her rage by stripping in protest, they massacred two hundred people.

And there whilst the souls of the murdered sway to a dirge played on the natiti by a musician sitting under a tree, the friend answers.

I think it was 2007.  

The first verse ends with another question.

Was that when the anger was birthed, or unearthed?

The second verse tells of remembrance.

A young man stands on stage. He joins a litany of silences breaking, of injustices voiced, of naming those that were murdered in 2007, in Garissa, in Mpketoni, in..in..in..It is radical, this act of not forgetting in a nation insistent on moving on, always opposed to reflecting back.

And as dust dances around his lit up figure, his voice rises then croaks, it whispers and breaks, it roars then sobs. Until his rage is exposed, naked and raw on stage and the audience shudders at our normally masked anger being performed in public.

The second verse leaves us shivering and outside on the road.

Let’s take a break to eat some goat trotter curry. It will line our stomachs, as the night will be long, and the song shall go on. Don’t be shy now, there is no shame in sucking the marrow, for the sound of slurping is the vocabulary of pleasure. As you lick the stickiness off your fingers, let me continue my ghazal.

The third verse sings of darkness.

On a city night, following a tail of red lights, a young woman determinedly shuts out the world. She closes her car windows and listens to the radio. The nonsense commentary coming from the speakers drowns out the sound of the pain of a nation. Inside she too can pretend. She sings. She laughs. She taps her fingers on the steering wheel.

Three men appear. Two go to the back of the car. One to the front. He bends down and shoves his hand under the car, shoving and pushing. Her hand presses down on the horn, hooting. Frantically screaming, something, nothing, anything. As the back door swings open and a man jumps in, grabbing her purse, she locks eyes with the man in front. In his eyes she glimpses hell.

The third verse ends with anguish for the too many whom hell has become intimate with.

The fourth verse circles around to the exact same location that the very first verse began, in the spot where enough once became enough.

A departure from the traditional ghazal in which the unrequited lover is resigned to their fate, but continues loving nevertheless, this is a verse swelling with hope and defiance. However to hear this tune of hope you have to listen deeply, beyond the words recited on stage, and instead focus on the heartbeat beneath the story being told. You have to submit to the rhythm washing over and cleansing your jaded spirit in the way only art can.

Two men sit across from each other on a stage that has become a dungeon. The one who makes a living out of killing holds a knife. As the words are spoken aloud about the unspeakable things we do to each other, people giggle. The laughing spreads. An infection of malaise. A reaction that reveals the resignation of a people who can’t cry anymore, so they laugh as a form of rebellion, of taking back power and control. And in the audience, someone wonders when our tears were robbed from us, unaware of the other theft that is soon to be revealed.

Later, a performer yells out his desire for freedom in Swahili, and the audience audibly bristles. Our word for freedom has been stolen. Someone wonders what happens to a nation’s spirit when we can’t call out in our language the thing we yearn for, because it has been hijacked to become something more loaded. Yet there in front of our eyes, in the energy vibrating within those walls, a new language of freedom starts to form in the hearts of those who have just glimpsed the injustice and courage, the protest and defiance captured in the stories of those who came before us, those who imagined a freedom whose shape is unrecognizable from the one we claim to have.

So the fourth verse circles around, reminding us that we are still here, in a place that looks too much like where we were before, but calling out to us to imagine a new place.

And so the fourth verse ends the ghazal not with resignation at our fate, but with determination to imagine a new future.

And that my friend, is my humble ghazal for Kenya offered with deep love.

You look tired. Come, let us open another bottle to rinse away the melancholy.

For the moon is still rising and the sun is still snoring.

Now it’s your turn to sing to me.

Songs of faith.

Melodies of possibility.

Harmonies of hope.

For I don’t have the words to speak it, so you will have to sing it for me.

Written in gratitude to:

Wandia Njoya for your determination to speak truths and reveal new ways of thinking.

Sitawa Namwalie for your courage in continuing to break silence and pushing boundaries.

The entire #TwoEarlyForBirds team for giving a gigantic shit and daring to care enough.

And all of you who resist the stealing of your humanity. 

Photo Credit: Thank you Alice Wangui @alicekombani for responding to my call. 

And full stop.

 

I lay in bed last night asking you to visit me in my dreams. To sit with me. Stroke my hair. Peel back your eyelid with your finger like you used to and give me that sweet sweet smile that would sweep away any melancholy clinging to my heart.

Did you hear me?

It’s been five months since you’ve been gone and I waited. I waited for the 40 days to pass so that your soul could finish the journey to heaven. You see I didn’t want to hold you back. And since then, I’ve asked and asked and asked again, and still you don’t come.

So I am writing to you Mama. I’m etching out the lines of my bittersweet grief, because I am afraid if I don’t, you will disappear into the haze of colourless bite sized memories that emerge at family gatherings, becoming sound bytes that are told in the same words every time.

First of all I would like to register a complaint. I heard that you visited my cousin in his dreams. I am not going to pretend and say that I wasn’t irrationally hurt by that. But to expand any further will only make me sound petty, so I will draw wisdom from your own words and know that you must have had your reasons.

You know, I don’t miss you anymore.

Instead the missing has turned into a yawning pulsating longing that won’t go away. I crave you. Doesn’t that sound odd? Normally, when you crave something, you comfort yourself that there’s a chance that you’ll get it. But the eviscerating nature of death means that never ever ever ever ever again will I trace my finger over the crinkly, papery crackle of the skin on your hand, marvelling at how it seems completely unconnected to your flesh. Never ever again. And it makes me want to throw a frenzied tantrum. I get angry at unreasonable things. My fury lashes out its forked tongue at anything that crosses its path. The guy on the road who cuts me off. My ex who has started dating again. My shoulder blade, beneath which a stubborn painful knot has deposited itself and refuses to be dislodged.

I see you everywhere.

On your birthday we took some of your new dresses to a home for the elderly. There was a woman there who had the same gorgeous cloud of silver hair. When I leaned in to kiss her soft cheek, she smelled like you. And it tore me apart inside. I wanted to climb into bed with her, the way I used to on Sundays with you, when you would peel back your eyelid to see who had come in. And cup my face with your trembling hand. With you, I felt unconditional non-judgemental love, the kind I’ve never felt with anyone else, comforted by the knowledge that you had no opinion on how I led my life. You were just happy to have me there.

And we look for meaning everywhere.

In loud whispers we marvel at the enchanting nature with which you almost seemed to plan your death. We grasp onto these signs, refusing to let go. Believing that you were in control.

You died on Mir’aj. The holiest night in the Muslim calendar. When the Prophet’s own soul ascended to Heaven. You were buried on Mother’s Day and when we came back home from the funeral, the headline on the newspaper read ‘Mama’s final journey’. It makes me smile thinking how amused you would have been reading that, and how we would have discussed Mama Lucy’s passing on for days. And your birthday fell on the new moon, when your other favourite granddaughter was leading prayers at the mosque and had to say a special prayer for the departed souls. You would have said how clever she was. I loved that about you. How you always thought everything we did was so clever. How you were filled with awe when I would drive you to mosque, exclaiming that indeed I was very clever to be able to do so.

Here’s the thing Mama. None of us truly understood how exceptionally clever you were. It didn’t strike us as extraordinary that an Indian woman born some 90 years ago could recite Shakespeare as skilfully and passionately as you used to. That it was quite incredible that your KCPE essay was number one in the whole country. That you read every line on the page before you put your signature down on anything. We didn’t understand the odds against which you battled, in a world where women were expected to wear their pachedi and stay put in the kitchen. Daddy says all that the family accomplished in life was because of you. That you were the ambitious, fierce, driving force of their success. And as he tells me the stories, I’m only just beginning to appreciate how remarkable you were Mama.

After your soul left your body, we sat together in the living room, peeling back the memories, year by year, going back in time to the forgotten, which at one time seemed so mundane but all of a sudden felt profound. We took turns, urgently reciting them, all of them we possibly could summon, terrified that they may remain forever forgotten.

The recent. How you would hide your food on the plate underneath the spoon in the hope that you could trick us that you had finished eating. The way your brain would wander back in time, propelling you into a vivid memory that was more real than reality, so that in the middle of praying you would shout out ‘And full stop. Pencils down. That’s all now,’ your brain convinced that you were back teaching a classroom full of rowdy students. We would giggle, delighted that we had the chance to peek into a life of yours from before our time.

The not so recent. How you would brusquely tell your sister to mind her own business when she scolded you for not bothering to dye your hair. Your complete obsession with the curtains being closed the moment the sun even considered setting, yelling out at anybody unfortunate enough to be passing by.

The before. How you would get ready for mosque, making sure that you had the right amount of money in your purse, and heckling Daddy for taking so long, with his dozens of hair creams and potions. How you used to have a crush on Fayaz Qureshi and was completely captivated by his moustache.

The before before. How you would take us for walks as children, lacing up your bulky white sneakers and warning us not to drink your blood. (This saying makes sense in Gujurati, but gets lost in translation). The frank way in which you sat me down and asked me if I had heard about S.E.X and if I had started wearing a brassiere yet. You never called it a bra. Always a brassiere.

Could you hear us then reminiscing? Could you see us in the days leading up to the funeral? Me endlessly lighting sticks of incense, clinging to the ritual of death to protect me from the horror of loss. It hardly seems like the right word, loss. You lose socks, pens, maybe even a job. But how can you use such a casual word to describe the violent ripping away of a chunk of your heart when someone you love dies.

I used to think death was like a switch you just flicked on, and life would instantly stop. But I don’t think its like that anymore. I watched you struggle. I watched the battle as your soul navigated its way out of your body. How for days you sank into the space between two worlds. And when the time came, we knew. And you didn’t want us there. You never told us. But we knew. Inside. Which was strange as you always hated being alone. But this time, you had to do it alone. And so we left you that night. At midnight. For the first time in days. We left you to slip away. And when the phone call came at 2 am. We knew.

And when we gathered around your body in the hospital, holding on to each other desperately for comfort, I remember being filled with such intense gratitude when the nurse asked if she could pray for your soul. First she silently recited a Catholic prayer, then a prayer in Kikuyu. It was a very long prayer Mama. I think you would have been so enormously touched that this woman who only knew you for a few days, would take the time to talk to her God. For you.

And then you would have been very annoyed that they put down ‘housewife’ as your profession on your death certificate. You were a teacher. Proudly so. How arrogantly presumptuous to decide that a woman of your age couldn’t possibly have a career.

I lied. I miss you desperately.

I got your gold filigree ring. Let me tell you, when all the ladies were gathered and asked to pick something of yours, we went in order of descending age. And I prayed so hard that I would get that ring. It was probably the oldest, least valuable, most faded item. But I had spent my whole life slipping my fingers into yours, feeling the ring rubbing up against my skin and watching your face light up as you exclaimed how warm my hands were. And it was the one thing that reminded me most of you. I wear it now on my thumb and when I feel the yearning becomes too much, I look down at it and remember your sweet sweet smile.

Won’t you visit me tonight?

And full stop. Pencils down. That’s all now.

Photo Credit: Paul Saad

 

 

The floodgates that Modi opened

Until only a few days ago, never in my lifetime had an Indian Premier visited Kenya. So with Modi set to arrive, a whisker away from Netanyahu’s visit and barely a year after Obama’s, the hype leading up to his visit was unsurprising. A website was set up for people to register for a special community reception to be held in his honour. An emotive jingle was produced, fusing the Indian National Anthem with a patriotic Eric Wainaina tune, which the community radio station played repeatedly. In classic Indian dhamaka fashion, our heartstrings were tugged, and I will admit to being a little curious, if also somewhat bemused by it all. Indians know how to put on a good show, and I wondered what sort of razzmatazz spectacle would be on offer.

But I didn’t go for several reasons. On principle I find Modi’s politics incredibly problematic and this was a State visit. I have absolutely no allegiance to India the state, since my only relationship to India is a cultural one. My heritage is Indian. I hold it dear and am proud of it. But that is as far as it goes. I am a Kenyan voter.

And so when apparently 25,000 people showed up to welcome Modi, majority of whom had brown skin, it predictably raised eyebrows. Just why did the Indian Kenyan community, who traditionally shy away from big public events, show up in such huge numbers? With some help, I compiled an evolving list of theories:

  • Everybody loves a party and the hype leading up to the event emitted the promise of somewhat of a spectacle.
  • People are curious about celebrities, particularly larger than life personalities who share something in common with them, even if it is just skin colour.
  • A sense of cultural nostalgia and the attraction to something from a home that exists only in language passed down and fiercely preserved rituals.
  • The visit represented a seemingly profound statement of acceptance by our Head of State towards a minority that has traditionally felt threatened.
  • The bringing together of all Indian communities which is something that is highly unusual.
  • A sense that Indian Kenyans could participate in a National occasion in a way that was comfortable and relevant, but more importantly in a way they felt they had a right to.
  • The idea that Indian Kenyans had the chance to represent Kenya in this State visit, as if one were welcoming their mother and showing off their new home.

Ironically, I believe Indian Kenyans showed up to Kasarani Stadium in all their Salwar Kameezes and jingling bangles, feeling very proudly Kenyan.

However, it didn’t seem like this to some people who were watching. One tweet in particular inflamed tempers; someone who many admire, respect and appreciate tweeted a rather unfortunate accusation.

‘We know where your heart is’.

Whilst it was irresponsible to generalize in that tweet, there was something interesting underneath. A sense that Indian Kenyans were showing up for India in a way that they don’t for Kenya. Here’s the thing. When you are a visible minority, your presence is as noticeable as your absence. And yes, whilst it can be argued that Indian Kenyans don’t seem to visibly participate in political or civil affairs these days, there is a historical context to this. And we show up in other spaces and in other ways; in business, philanthropy and development to name a few. So it appeared as if our very Kenyanness was being questioned. But there is one thing we often don’t pay acknowledge. There isn’t only one way of being Kenyan. Or of engaging with issues in the country. Or even one type of Muhindi. So Indian Kenyans showed up to defend their Kenyanness on social media.

And I felt so tired.

Until I realized. The narrative is changing. In my father’s generation, Indian Kenyans were told to stop interfering with national affairs. To stop participating. Now, my generation is being challenged. We are being told, you are Kenyan, so why aren’t you participating. We demand it from you. This if nothing else is such a profound affirmation of belonging, because if it was felt that we were not Kenyan, nobody would care and this would have just been another expat event. Underneath that tweet was an invitation and an expectation. Show up for us. Not just to defend your nationality, but for Willie and land grabbing, for injustice and change. Show up and help us do the work that it takes to make Kenya better for all of us.

But the floodgates had already opened allowing a deluge of unresolved resentment and defiant defensiveness to pour out. All of a sudden this was about more, much much more than people showing up for an event. Old wounds got ripped open. Amongst the reasoned responses and kind messages of support, there were accusations hurled. Racism. Discrimination. Classism. Insularity. Big words for a lot of hurt.

And as I read the tweets, it felt like a punch to my stomach. Living in my little bubble where it just doesn’t seem so bad, I had forgotten. But I was reminded that bubbling beneath our bubbles is all this resentment and unresolved anger. And it scared me, seeing people that I know say some things that were very painful. Some were true. Some were untrue. But, I wondered, when people see me, am I painted over with that same brush stroke? How many that I call my friends feel this intense hatred towards brown skin? And how must it feel on the flip side feeling that your black skin incites hatred too?

It made me ashamed. It made me feel anguished that a community I belong to causes this pain. I wanted to apologise, but it was not my place to do so. A part of me wanted to distance myself from this. These things that are being said. That’s not me. And I saw others doing the same. It was so easy to say #NotAllMuhindis. But I had to acknowledge that there were truths, even amongst the misconceptions.

You cannot deny a lived experience. When someone says they feel cold, you cannot say to them, no you do not.

And as I watched the Twitter streets get sprayed with mud, I became intensely uncomfortable. So I listened. Because when I am uncomfortable, it is usually a sign that I need to learn something. Or unlearn something.

 Now that the floodgates have opened again, let’s not build up the wall.

Get uncomfortable.

Show up.

Listen.

‘We know where your heart is’. An invitation has been extended.

As always, this exploration is my personal opinion and as such I represent only myself, and certainly not an entire community.

 This is one of a series of posts about being Kenyan Indian. You can read more here:

Not yet Kenyan

Kenyan and Indian

Becoming an African

Indians are racists

Photo credit

For women who refuse

Part 3

This is for women who refuse to make space.

It probably confused you that I didn’t lower my gaze when you stared at me. Perhaps that’s because you don’t know who I am. For a long time I didn’t know either until my Kenyan sisters showed me where to look. Plucked from India, my tongue recognised only three generations, and I was filled with envy at those whose homes lay on land that sheltered all their ancestors. Then one day, on a stage bathed in red light, Sitawa the third Namwalie demanded that we call out her name. And as I danced in the shadows, the nyatiti licking at my soul, my blood reminded me that it could never forget.

Let me tell you who I am.

I am the daughter of a woman whose fearlessness in her pursuit of justice comes from a place grounded in such deep compassion, that it cannot be cracked by the bullying of mere men.

I am the granddaughter of a woman whose adventurous spirit recognises no limitations, whose appetite for life cannot be dampened by your silly notions of what a woman should do.

I am the granddaughter of a woman whose resilience is matched only by her intimate knowledge of what it is like to have to defend yourself in a world that tells women they don’t exist.

In my veins runs the blood of a long line of women who are not intimidated by men who confuse money with respect. You see your power may lie in paper notes and cement blocks, but mine lies in kindness and truth.

So when we sit together on the woven mikeka in front of death with the scent of incense lacing through the air and you squirm because your legs have no space, I will sit with my spine straight, eyes shut, singing loudly and I will not move.

Because I refuse to make space to ease your discomfort.

Part 2

This is for women who refuse to keep their mouths shut.

It must be perplexing to you that I have an opinion that I insist on voicing instead of just adopting the one you so kindly shove down my throat.

And that I speak out in public the things that will open up our tightly wound up world to undesired scrutiny.

Really, what is all this fuss. Why can’t I just sit pretty.

I get it. You aren’t used to the idea of a woman who refuses to just be beautiful. But I wasn’t raised to be beautiful. I was raised by a man who has never told me I am beautiful, because the way I look doesn’t mean anything to him. Instead he demanded that I equip myself with the knowledge that I would need to help make a difference in the world. That I armed myself with the language to articulate a voice that is too often silenced by a dismissive wave for more samosas.

He understood that women see things in different ways, and it is foolish to dismiss their perspective, because if you ignore what they say about the things you cannot see, you will forever be groping in the dark.

So when you are afforded the privilege of leadership and don’t speak out against injustice and refuse to do what is right, you should remember that gone are the days when our presence exists only to make tea and take minutes.

And since you refuse to do the work that needs to be done to make our world better, we have tied our lessos, tucked in our saris, zipped up our boots and pulled back our hair. Whilst you are busy protecting your little corner, we are out changing the horizon.

Because the revolution will have red lipstick and highlights.

Part Always

THIS is for women.

 

Photo credit

of downward dogs and life lessons

The Lion

I am five years old. My mum has gone mad. Sitting on her heels, fingers splayed out on each knee, her eyes bulge out, pupils rolling back into her head. Her mouth is wide open, so wide I am worried her skin may start to rip at the corners. Her tongue sticks out as if she is trying to catch raindrops. She breathes in. When she breathes out, a long aggressive ‘haaaaaaa’ comes out of her mouth. I am terrified. This is my first introduction to yoga.

Kapalbathi

My grandfather spends several minutes everyday sitting cross-legged on the floor doing a series of breathing exercises. He forcefully thrusts his stomach out and extends it as if he is mimicking being pregnant. And then all of a sudden it snaps all the way back in disappearing into his spine. His tummy undulates like a rippling fleshy wave, in and out at a speed that makes my eyes water. Hundreds of times. A loud puff sound is forced out of his nostrils on every exhale. When I get home, after everyone else has gone to sleep, I sit on my pink bed and try it myself. I get to 7 times and I feel exhausted barely making even a tenth of the speed of my granddad. This is my second encounter with yoga.

Anulom Vilom

In a hall in Westlands, hundreds of women in awe watch the man on stage. They sit on yoga mats in leggings and big baggy t-shirts or pastel coloured Punjabi suits. The man on stage is the famous yogi Ramdev, swathed in his signature flowing orange robes, which yawn at his chest to reveal an arrow of hair that emerges from a tuft in the middle of his chest and descends all the way down to his belly button. He is demonstrating the Anulom Vilom or alternate nose breathing technique which allegedly helps treat insomnia, headaches, depression, eye, hair, ear problems, sinus, high blood pressure, heart diseases etc. His face and head are covered in a cloud of shiny black hair and I am intensely frustrated at the fact that I can’t tell how old the man is. If I could just see through the hair. He finishes his demonstration and starts giving us lifestyle advice. I tune back in just in time to hear ‘Coca Cola atle Toilet Cleaner!’ The hall vibrates in giggles. This is my third meeting with yoga.

Death

We sit across from a Muslim scholar. A few days ago, after a long battle with cancer, my Grandfather slipped through the curtain into the afterlife. The women of my family huddle under the warm quilt of comfort we have woven around ourselves. We emerge to look for answers. We don’t know yet what our questions are. Recognizing eyelids that flutter too fast trying to shoo away tears, the scholar talks about life, about death. He shares theories with us. Your days are not numbered. It is your breaths that are finite. Stress speeds up your breath and so you use them quicker and die faster. Yoga slows down your breath, which is why it is said to elongate your life. This is my fourth tango with Yoga.

Yoga finds me many years later. A shattered body and dislocated heart. Or was it the other way? In that time yoga has become mainstream and jarringly sexy, all Lulu Lemon and designer mats. And overwhelmingly skinny and white. For the first time I feel excluded from something that is at the core of my cultural heritage. Ironically, it takes someone from a very different culture to gently welcome me back. Bubbling with far more energy than is ever warranted at 6:00am, a beautiful woman with the warmest heart and generous soul teaches me how to do my first downward dog. This is a relaxing pose she tells me. My arms quiver. I decide right there and then, there is nothing relaxing about downward dogs.

But in the safety of my garden, with the chirping encouragement of the dawn birds, Irene from Africa Yoga Project starts nurturing my body back into vitality. And without realizing it, my heart starts slowly putting its pieces back together. What emerges is a beautiful new incarnation of its former self, a glittering mosaic where the former cracks sparkle in the light casting playful shadows into the darkness.

Along the four years I have been practicing I learn things. Surprising things. Non-yoga related life things.

Crow Pose

The way you are on the mat is the way you are in life. I am a little skeptical of this new-agey soundbite from Irene. I try to get into crow pose but I keep falling on my face. Frustration rises and splashes my face with an expression that is decidedly not placid. You expect to be perfect immediately. This hits me with the force of primal lust entering your adolescent belly. This is true. It is true of how I live my life. It is what keeps me from writing regularly.

I start paying attention to life.

Tree Pose

I stand on one leg. Focus. On one place. I look at the door of my neighbour’s house and wonder why they would paint it such a hideous shade of blue. My mind wanders. It is a storm. My work threatens to overtake my world. I can’t find balance in my life. Balancing poses require a strong foundation Irene reminds me. My values. They are my foundation. If I ignore them, I will never find focus, and balance will remain a perpetual game of hide and seek. Epiphanies come, and for once they remain stored in the memory of my body.

Headstand vs Straddle bend

My sister looks very comfortable upside down and the last time I was this jealous of her, we were 6 years old and she had won an art competition in school. I had just been told by my art teacher that I should never draw again. I can’t seem to order my brain to lift my legs over my body. I issue the instructions but somewhere along their journey, they get lost and wander over to tell me I have an itch on my lower back. I feel forlorn. Later we are in a straddle bend pose, my forehead is resting lightly on my heels. I look over at my sister. She strains to push her head down to her. She looks at me. Forlorn is familiar. We are all good at different things I tell her in our secret sister code language that is transmitted via hugs.

First Wheel Pose

My body goes into a panic before every wheel pose. My mind whispers a litany of ‘I cant’s’. As if eavesdropping on my inner voice, Irene, ever the sage says, Remove I can’t from your dictionary. My eyes roll backwards and with it, they pull up the rest of my body. I am in wheel. I am in wheel. I am in wheel. In that euphoria, I coin my own saying. Be open to surprise, and don’t be attached to the outcome. Be in the process. I begin to feel rather pleased with myself.

Gazillionth Wheel Pose

I want to introduce myself as Aleya, the wheel accomplisher. The day before yesterday I do ten wheels and I feel invincible. I think, like anything in life, if you do the work, the results will definitely come. Then yesterday I placed my hands near my head, grounded my feet and breathed in. I couldn’t lift myself into even one wheel. And just like that my complacency deflated. Never get cocky, nothing is ever guaranteed in life.

Frog Pose

I am not entirely certain why it is so important to open one’s hips. But Irene seems convinced. So faithfully, I do as she says. Frog pose throws me so violently out of my comfort zone, I am afraid I will never find my way back again. I hold the pose for five minutes. I am truly terrified I will get stuck. That I will remain in this pose for the rest of my life, at the mercy of the goodwill of people to bring me cocktails and read me poetry. They will write about me in the Daily Mail. Breathe into the pain and exhale out the discomfort. This sounds sufficiently abstract, but I figure I am here and I am not going anywhere. So I try it. The discomfort doesn’t ease, but against the odds, on the next inhale I haven’t cracked in two.

Crescent twist with a bind

I adore twists. Irene calls me Mama Twist. I imagine the toxicity being wrung out of my blood and fresh, bright red vitality swooshing back in. If only life was like this. I peep over at my sister. She is in a bind. She looks a pretzel. Or a Japanese Ham Sandwich. The scarlet envy rushes into my blood filling my body with the same toxicity that I am trying to flush out. And just like that I realize I can see the back corner of the balcony. This has never happened before. The envy gets squeezed out and I am filled with wonder. If you don’t stop looking over your shoulder at other people you will miss the magic that’s happening in your own body. In your own life. And then another thought pops into my head. This pose. This isn’t the end game. It is actually irrelevant if I can worm my arm under my knee and clasp my hands together. This where I am right now, is exactly where my body needs to be, where I need to be.

Savasana

My second favourite pose. I lie in corpse pose. My body tingles. I can hear the individual tunes in the harmony of the bird opera, the background score of leaves rustling. I can feel every bead of sweat being sucked up into the air. My skim thrums. I think how wondrous that we have within ourselves the gift to restore our bodies and our minds.

I don’t give a rats arse whether bridge pose will tighten my arse. It truly doesn’t matter. I think of how much I love my body for flying me through life. I think of how much my body loves me.

We aren’t used to being in love, my body and I. It is generally frowned upon for ladies with love handles. This affair is an act of subversion. But I can’t help it. We are deliciously, deeply, divinely in love!

(This post is dedicated to my Yoga guide. Shukraan Irene)

Click for part 1

Picture credit

LETTER TO CBK GOVERNOR,

Dear Mr. Njoroge,

We haven’t yet met, but I attended the Imperial Bank depositor’s meeting that you called for in December. I remember looking at the lined faces that filled the room and thinking that if anxiety had a physical form, you would have had to wade through a swamp of nerves to reach that podium. And yet at the same time if hope had the ability to lift, KICC would be soaring towards the searing sun.

There were two things you said in that meeting that have stayed with me ever since, and even then I was struck by how unusual it was to hear them coming from a Kenyan leader’s mouth.

The first was an apology to the depositors for not engaging with us earlier. In that moment something shifted for me. You didn’t believe an apology was beneath you. But even more important than that is you didn’t think of us as just bank account numbers, but real people whose life’s work was suspended by a straining string. That you acknowledged our humanity may appear irrelevant, but in a country where the humanity of its citizens is regularly actively invisibled, it is an act of dissent, a fierce commitment to respect life.

The second started with an admission that CBK itself, either by virtue of negligence or active participation, had to have played a role in this scandal, which by your admission is even bigger than Goldenberg or Ango Leasing. Then, you said (and I will have to paraphrase here) that even though it didn’t happen under your watch, it is now your responsibility. And that for me was the turning point. In Kenya, responsibility is a word that seems only ever to be used when spectacularly ducking it, or throwing it at someone else to apply blame. Yet you claimed it. And my hope turned into belief.

I want to clarify here that I am not talking about the remainder of the money, though I do want to thank you for facilitating the release of a portion. Since you had requested for a grace period of March to communicate the next steps, I shall respect that. And even as you work on a recovery plan, everything you have said so far leads me to believe that you have every intention of going after all those that were involved in robbing 53,000 people of their hard-earned money. That’s what this letter is about.

This is not a letter from me as an Imperial Bank depositor. This is a letter from one Kenyan to another. It is not easy being a Kenyan these days. The newspapers are filled with the evidence. We are being killed. We are being robbed en masse. We are being de-humanised, disrespected, silenced. And whilst this is more acute amongst those who do not enjoy a level of privilege, nobody is immune, except for the political elite who enjoy a distance from the experience of being Kenyan.

But I’ve said it before and I will say it again. This is not the Kenya I want my children to inherit. So I am compelled to do whatever I can to agitate for better. Change starts with us. As Kenyans we have to acknowledge that we simply cannot go on like this anymore. It is destroying us in ways that we can’t even see or feel yet. We have to decide that as a country that there can be no room for this thieving at the expense of everyone else mentality. These are defining times.

A great person who I am privileged to call my friend reminds me that the most effective way of taking back your power is by influencing change in the spaces you occupy, in the communities you are part of and in the spheres of your influence.

Mr. Governor, you sit at the centre of a very large space.

We currently live in a country of no consequence. Every day people are exposed for fraud so mindboggling massive our brains can’t wrap itself around the enormity. Every day people are literally stealing the future from our children. And absolutely nothing happens to them. We shake our heads, crack a joke, start a twitter trend and move on. Yet inside we are screaming as we break apart. The effect that this sense of helplessness has on our psyche as a people is enormous. It steals from us more than our money. It robs us of any agency over our lives. It literally destroys our spirit. And it is happening countrywide.

Even without realizing it, it changes our values, and we don’t recognize the impact that this has on us. Let’s be honest, most people are proven correct in their belief that it pays to be able pay someone off. Yet this whole big mess we are in shows that in the end it costs dearly. None of this is news to you obviously.

But it is profound. It tells us that our hard work will not be protected. And that is very dangerous. Once honest people feel that there is no point in doing the very necessary work that builds, sustains and lifts, we will become a nation full of Emperors walking down the streets buck-naked.

It has emerged that there were several parties involved in the Imperial Bank fraud. Even more worrying is that If CBK are complicit in this one case, where else have they been on the take, and what are the implications of this on our entire banking sector?

So just know, whatever you decide to do, whether you like it or not, will send out a very loud signal that will be heard. The message will either be that it is no longer acceptable to steal and get away with it, or that impunity will continue being the order of the day. I do not envy you. In Kenya, even more than other places in the world, it has become difficult to do the right thing. Not only is it more lucrative not to, sometimes it can be downright dangerous.

But as the wonderful Audre Lorde said, ‘we can learn to work and speak when we are afraid in the same way we have learned to work and speak when we are tired’. And we are tired. And we are afraid. And you may get tired. And you may get afraid, but know that the people of this country are behind you.

You are at the cusp of making history.

This is the reason I have written this letter to you today. To tell you that in the great Kenyan spirit of Harambee, if you call for justice, your voice will be strengthened by the voices of at least 53,000 people. When I wrote this piece, within 24 hours it was read by over 35,000 people, which is highly unusual for a little personal blog. Kenyans are listening. We are with you.

Godspeed dear Governor.

Yours,
Aleya Kassam

P.S. to my readers, I am loathe to turn Chanyado into an Imperial mouthpiece, so regular programming will resume next week. I promise.

 

Photo Credit

Open Letter to Imperial Bank

To the Shareholders and Directors of Imperial Bank,

Exactly one month ago on a cloudless morning, a message soundlessly snuck into our family whatsapp group. It sat there nestled underneath photos of the newest addition to our family – a floppy eared Alsatian pup with a vicious teething problem.

Imperial Bank had been placed under receivership.

Overnight we were rendered effectively broke. Just like that. You see every single shilling our family has is in Imperial Bank. Every single shilling. With only a few hundred bob in the wallet, we didn’t even have the money to pay our electricity bill. And it’s been like that for a month now, with no idea what’s going on or whether we will ever be able to access that money. In the last month entire families have had to beg and borrow money to put food on their tables and pay rent. Children have had to be recalled from University and businesses have been paralysed. To add insult to devastating injury, you have not deigned to issue a public statement, have not bothered to provide an explanation, hell you have not even offered an apology. You see our agreement was with you, the bank. So if you, putting it lightly, messed up, the least you can do is look us in the eye, acknowledge the gravity of the situation and recognise the enormity of the consequences.

But it has been one month. And all we have gotten in that one month is shrugged shoulders. I certainly don’t understand the complexity of the situation. But to me, this is akin to me handing over my money at a shoe store, and the salesman refusing to give me the pair of shoes I bought, but just muttering ‘Aki Woyishee’. So please, help me understand how my money has not been stolen.

You know, just under a year ago, armed men broke into our home, terrorised us and stole whatever we had in the house. It was a traumatic experience, but somewhere deep inside me, the violence of the encounter aside, I got that these were men were overcome with desperation and a sense of helplessness. They may have felt trapped in a cycle of despair, the kind which I cannot, by virtue of my privilege, understand. Our failure as a society to take care of these people had driven them to monstrous actions. That’s why they could do what they did in the way they did it. They didn’t see us as human because they didn’t feel like they were being seen as human. We had decapitated each other’s humanity. And they had to feed their children.

So what was the motivation here? A fancier car, a finer single malt, a more expensive pair of shoes, a bigger house? Greed.

And ignorance is not an excuse. Frankly, as directors and shareholders the buck stops with you. You are ultimately responsible and should be held accountable. I’d like to know, what are you doing about this? Of course, the Government has a role to play, and in some way did play a role. But our President has said we are fine, and we just need to work hard.

Work hard. We know a thing about working hard. In that Imperial Bank account is life savings of five members of our family, three generations, amounting to over 155 years worth of working hard. In that bank is 53,000 people’s worth of working hard. Livelihoods.

You know it is rumoured that a large percentage of our community has been affected. Let me give you some context of what that means. My forefathers left India, carrying nothing but steely determination. They came to Kenya and worked hard. Let me give you more context. One month after we finally moved into our own family home, I caught my grandfather standing in his room furiously turning his tasbih. My grandfather tears through tasbihs at a rate that wears away the thread and sends coloured beads frantically spinning across the floor like tiny little rain dudus that have lost their wings. He had a smile on his face. I asked him what he was thinking about. He said that when he was twenty years old, all he owned was a toothbrush. And now he can’t believe he was standing in his own family home.

Everything my grandfather has accumulated is in that account. His life’s work. What does life’s work look like? He tells me about how he used to wake up every morning at 4:00 am to drive through the misty winding ridges of the Ngorongoro Crater delivering bread. How he lost it all when in the 60s President Nyerere embarked on Ujamaa and his bakery was nationalised. How he stuffed the car with whatever belongings could fit in between the various family members squeezed into the little Volkswagen beetle, and drove off back to Kenya to start all over again. How he ended up in Mombasa and set up another bakery. In a chapter of his life which I call The Haunted Boflo Days, he would wake up in the morning to find the bread he had baked in the previous evening had green mould laced over the perfectly risen crust. Perhaps convinced that the djinns of Mombasa had acquired a taste for his baked goods, he packed up. And they started all over again.

This time they tried their luck with a cafeteria in Nairobi. My now arthritic fingered, silver haired granny would wake up before the sky blushed orange to make samosas. Every morning she would precisely mix the filling of spiced minced meat, dhania, chillies and onions. Carefully she would stuff each samosa, one by one, sealing the corners with the sticky home-made flour based glue so that they wouldn’t explode when fried. It was tedious, finger cramping work. The money in that bank came from my grandma making literally millions of samosas with her hands. And my grandfather would stand all day in the cafeteria, selling these samosas, one by one. Samosas that made them famous. Samosas that when fried had a crispy golden brown pastry that you crunched through to get to the hearty meaty core. And they were popular. Together they built a thriving business. Honest, humble, hard work. Until one year on boxing day, they were forcefully evicted. And they had to start over all over again.

That is just a slice of my grandparents story. I won’t even go into the decades of 10 hour workdays that my working class mother and father put in, with the hopes that now they are both retired, they could live a comfortable life. So you see, we are used to starting over again. But as my dad said last week, at 64 how do you start all over again?

We are fortunate to have a support network that has helped absorb the impact so far, but we are just one of the 53,000 families who have been affected.

It has been one month.

So tell me please, what are you going to do?

Photo Credit

Lamu: Tortoise Coitus and Farting Yogis

It has been six years since I was last in Lamu and as I squeeze through the narrow alleys towards the house where I am being hosted, memories pop out at me from each corner. I had forgotten how specific Lamu town smells. The humidity in the area teases out an almost aromatic fragrance from the donkey dung scattered on uneven pathways. Surprisingly it isn’t unpleasant. The house I am staying in has a lush central garden that has become my view as I write. Every now and then the branches succumb to the flirtation of the breeze, and the garden sways littering delicate white frangipanis on to the deep brown soil.

Periodically the air is punctuated with the heavy grunts and alarming hisses of the randy tortoises who seem to spend every few hours copulating. Tortoise coitus is alarming. He mounts her and visibly thrusts, his neck getting longer and straining, and his face contorting in an expression that is very disturbing in how human like it is. Animals mate, they don’t make love. You expect it to be perfunctory, almost business like. These two tortoises are at it a lot, but I think she has finally had enough. This morning as I scoop up the hot bahazi with the still warm mahamri, he mounts her and she tries to get away. She crawls towards the garden. Still mounted he follows. It looks like he is steering her. She keeps walking. He keeps following. I feel a wave of inexplicable anguish wash over me. She must feel so helpless trying to get away from him, and he won’t get off her, his weight on her body reminding her that she is trapped to his will. I get an unwanted peek at his jewels. It is much bigger than I thought it would be and waves around like a palm tree branch in the wind. I suddenly lose my appetite for breakfast.

Lamu is a noisy place. There is a gujurati phrase, which when translated loses its lightness, everyone lives in each other’s armpits. The houses are built in a way in which everything is amplified, and you have to get used to the forced intimacy of sounds creeping into your space. This morning at 2:00am a baby coughed and I awoke. I lay in bed listening to the comforting of a mother’s cooing and wondering if I will ever wake up at 2:00am to the sound of my own baby coughing. Yesterday the loud taarab music that seemed to be playing from a loudspeaker within the neighbourhood suddenly switched to 70s Bollywood music, and just like that I was snatched from a balmy Lamu afternoon and spat into my dad’s car somewhere in Voi on a road trip to Mombasa. But without a doubt the most striking sound of all is the loud Adhan that pierces the air every couple of hours. I have never lived in a place where Islam is so interwoven into the day, and the call to prayer fills me with an inexplicable peace that my body had lost the memory of.

Yesterday evening after a full day of writing, needing to stretch out my spine, we wandered down to a little cafeteria behind which a yoga class was taking place. The average age of the mostly mzungu students at the class was 75, and that was after you had accounted for myself and two Swahili women in their late thirties. The teacher, a taut man named Kelly, tapped at his ipad to play the pre-loaded tracks of indian chanting whilst he led a gentle class that comprised mostly of stretches. The end of the class saw us in happy baby pose, where you lie down on your back, legs up in the air, knees bent, hands clutching your feet as you roll around. As we lay on our backs and spread our legs up to the air, it started. Loud ones, staccato ones, shrill ones, squeaky ones, hissing ones. One by one, the orchestra of farts sputtered out into the air from the tired bowels of the elderly yogis. And the most astounding thing of all, is that not a single person laughed. There was nary a giggle. We all acted as if we had just experienced an onset of temporary deafness, and continued wiggling around in happy baby pose.

As I lay awake waiting to hear the Adhan at dawn, I thought about the farting yogis, and why the rest of us innately understood how important it was to preserve their dignity and pretend we hadn’t heard the litany of flatulence. A memory popped into my head of my grandma a few weeks ago when I lay in bed next to her. Her brain had gone back into a familiar loop, and as she does every Sunday, she commented on how beautiful my teeth were, and asked how I had managed to transform them considering how dreadful they were before. My teeth are not great, but they have never been dreadful. Her brain has constructed some story about them which she has fixated upon for the last several years, which every time we are together forces its way to the front of her brain comes out in the exact same way, every time.

This time she went to touch her own teeth for emphasis, but when her fingers met only gum, her eyes filled with alarm. When I asked her what was wrong, she wailed, ‘they are gone, they are gone, they are gone’. I am not proud to say this, but a giggle popped out of my mouth.

‘What would you do if you woke up one morning to find you had no teeth?’

She looked at me aghast.

My laughter had poked her already tenuous sense of dignity, at an age where the structural integrity of your dignity is entirely reliant on the people around you playing along.

And I had broken the rules.

MY MUSE RAN AWAY WITH OBAMA

It was 4:18 am and the studio at the office had taken on the dazed stillness of people concentrating on concentrating. Warren G’s Regulator played in the background and provided an oddly comforting soundtrack at a time of night when sanity had started to wane. Everybody was tired. The once dirty jokes had now become merely a little dusty, and as the only woman in an all male studio, I have to admit I was quite relieved. I craved a salted caramel hot chocolate, but settled for sun salutations in advance of sunrise, in the hope that they would wedge out the knifelike pain that had deposited itself below my shoulder blades.

In the middle of a downward dog, I was struck with a thought that seemed rather profound given the pre-dawn hour of 4:23 am. Those pithy quotes attributed to world leaders that we see pasted against a ubiquitous sunrise probably came from some poor writer simply trying to wring out a living. Indeed at that moment in time, somewhere in the world there were other over caffeinated writers hunched over computers, grunting away, engaged in the labour of birthing a piece of writing that they would have to hand over to someone else to take out into the world. Just like me. With Obama’s upcoming visit to Kenya, my every moment had been hijacked to produce the Choose Kenya campaign which would be running in the lead up to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit being hosted in Nairobi.

And with this realisation, the ghosts of ghost writers past came swooping into the room, wailing litanies of unfinished novels, poetry collections, short story anthologies, musicals and scripts that they had laid to rest in the graveyard of abandoned dreams. I could see the skeletons of these pieces of writing rolling around restlessly, clattering and moaning at being trapped in their coffins. The ghosts spurred me on. I was not writing to sell decoders or fertilisers. This was an opportunity for me to write copy that I believed in. Something that people may really connect to, identify with, see themselves in. Something too that would be pasted on photoshopped sunrises to be shared endlessly in annoying whatsapp groups or recited at the beginning of high school debating club speeches. Maybe even literature….ok, too far.

And so I wrote my little pulsing exhausted heart out. Even though I would be pouring my heart into words that I knew would be poured out of the mouth of an administration that I have my issues with, I remembered that Kenya is more than the government, more than politicians, more than beautiful landscapes. It is us. And so I wrote it for us. With the memory of growing up in the 90s and running into shops to escape the tear gas, I wrote it to acknowledge how far we have come. And with the recent memory of school children being tear gassed still fresh in my mind, I wrote it to remind us of the stakes and how easy it is to slip back. When I was done, through the deceptive filter of sleep deprivation, I stepped back and surveyed what I had written. I was pleased. It was honest. It was drenched in soul. It was true to who we are and sincere in intention.

And so I went to bed and dreamed that Obama and I shared pizza on the eve of the Summit.

The next day I faced the dreaded Creative Director. The piece needed severe editing if it was going to fit into the time allocated for the ad. With my fluorescent magenta pen I got to work. With every snip, I felt the nuance of the piece withering up and the soul getting sucked out of it. With very word I mutilated and every line I decapitated, my heart bled in fluorescent magenta stains all over the paper. By the time I had finished, the page looked like a crime scene. My beautiful heartfelt script had been crudely chopped up and my multi-layered narrative had been forced into the very single story that I had been resisting.

You see that piece was disproportionately important to me. But, despite it being flawed, I was proud that it evoked a sense of pride of who we are as Kenyans, which is something we tend to only feel in times of celebration or devastation. One of my favourite things about Kenyans is our perpetual dissatisfaction with the status quo. The politics. The traffic. The corruption. The education system. The health sector. There is always a keen sense that things are not good enough, that we have to do better, can be better. And yet against the backdrop of what it feels like to be Kenyan over the last several years, and the exhaustion of helplessness that you feel at the perpetual mess surrounding us, the truth is that we have come far. And we continue to stride. It is important to me that we acknowledge that. Not to the world. But to ourselves. Sometimes it seems we are trapped in the same single narrative about ourselves, that we push back against with the world. Ironically, we aren’t very good at seeing our own nuances.

So yes.  The Kenya we have is very far away from the Kenya we want. And there are wonderful things about us. And there are not so wonderful things about us. And this can all exist at the same time. And acknowledging one doesn’t vanish the existence of the other. I think perhaps we need to live more in the land of ‘ands’ and less in the land of ‘buts.’ And if you want to see the piece I am talking about writing, it is here.

So Obama came. And he left. And my muse ran away with him. As you may have noticed, I haven’t written for the blog in months. The thing with the advertising industry is that it demands everything from you. The industry is wrapped up in a glossy veneer of glamour and urgency that is designed to trick you into feeling like what you do really matters. And let’s be honest, it doesn’t really. But like many creatives, I need to believe my work matters for me to be able to give it my all. And I need to give my all to my work to feel like what I do really matters. So this self-perpetuating cycle can leave you with very little for yourself at the end of the day. And four months later you are sitting in Lamu in a state of sheer panic that maybe you can’t ever do non-advertising writing again.

I keep reminding myself of a lesson that I learned before but clearly have not been paying attention to. It is important to give your heart to the work that you do, but remember to keep the juiciest parts for yourself, and most of all be careful not to forget it behind when you leave work.

I have sent myself on a forced five day leave to Lamu to write. Perhaps the taarab music, fragrant frangipanis, fresh fresh and the echoing of the adhan will lure my muse back. If not, I shall write without her anyway.