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Love is a Mixtape

Side A

One sweet day – Mariah Carey

 When somebody you once loved dies, a part of you also dies. You won’t realize it because that love was two decades ago, brewed in the 90s to the soundtrack of old school R&B. But it was your first love. Back when your heart delicately unfurled itself for the first time to romantic love. Before your heart had ever been broken. Before you learned how to put your guard up. Before you had been taught how to hold back. And so you gave everything. And received everything. Because that’s what makes first love so special. And it was beautiful and pure and full of possibility. Then life comes at you and changes you. Hardens you. Darkens those rose coloured glasses. Steals the innocence from your eyes. Leaves your heart with a mosaic of callouses from years of cracking and being patched together again.

Un-break my heart – Toni Braxton

 Two decades later, hands clutched together and trembling, you stand looking down at your first love and he looks so handsome. Except his prostrate body is covered in a funeral shroud and red roses line the length of his body. You think you can still see the stubble on his face. Perhaps if you reached over and rubbed your palm across it, the once familiar roughness would muffle the screams in your chest. Because in that moment your heart breaks again. But it is unlike anything you have ever experienced. This time the cracks let in a wind of loss. It is final. It sweeps in and rattles around the dark cavity, letting out a mournful whistle, and displacing once forgotten memories.

Shy guy – Diana King

And in that moment you are 15 years old again. You sit next to a boom box, listening to Hits not Homework, two fingers poised over the play and record buttons, ready to pounce the moment the right song comes on. Having already curated the songs you want on this mixtape, you patiently wait for them to appear through the radio waves, alert so as not to allow the presenter’s voice to intrude into the seamless love story you are weaving. Side A will be filled with ‘Your Songs’. For Side B, you wait till late at night, when there is no risk of banging doors and interfering conversations. Then, you whisper into the boom box, recording 30 minutes of your voice. Because this is a time before whatsapp voice notes, or mobile phones. When you waited 15 minutes to get a dialing tone on the landline and had to rely on the person being home, their line not being busy, and fighting off other family members wanting to use the phone. Voice was precious. So you’d hoard every spoken word, listening to it in the dark. Rewinding and pausing and inhaling and exhaling and smiling.

More memories start getting dislodged.

The grainy newspaper cutting of him in his Team Kenya Hockey uniform when they beat Uganda.

The scarf that housed the distinctive musk teenage boys wore in the 90s, before you sniffed the scent away.

The heart shaped pillow with the red satin weave that he gave you before he knew you hated shit like that.

Killing me softly – Fugees

 It surprises you how much you are affected by this. After all you haven’t been in each other’s lives. You don’t talk. You aren’t even Facebook friends. Then you realize you are mourning who you both were at that time in your lives. Before every passing year, chipped away the what could be’s and turned them into what will be’s.

So you mourn the 15 year old girl whose shoulders were yet unburdened by the weight of societal expectations. She lived and loved in the moment. She coloured outside the lines, threw away the eraser and joined the dots as she pleased, certain that the picture she created would be a blueprint for life.

You mourn the 17 year old boy with the poetic spirit and athletic prowess. Deep, sensitive and with a heart so full of love to give. He was a thinker, at once both reflective and mischievous. He shunned the way he was expected to be, adamantly insisting on being true to who he was, whether people liked it or not.

Until the end of time – Tupac 

For the first time you were both rebels, untested yet by society’s determination to chisel you into acceptability. But the years would chip away at both of you. For this is the nature of this world. But at the end, before it could try to claim his story, prop up the sculpture of what it made him into, and say this is who he was, you find yourself urgently typing away. Because you know better. You know who he used to be. Before the shaved blade got to work on both of you. When you were trees whose branches instinctively stretched out towards the sunshine.

So you look at his 3 year old son and you want so desperately to tell him that he may not understand it yet, but his father was a great man. One the world didn’t understand what to do with, and will be poorer because of it. One whose glittering wings are hopefully stretched out, gliding into the afterlife, where you pray his soul finds joy, freedom, peace and home. So you write him as you knew him, to record the impact he had on those who loved him. And you write to honour his legacy. To stop and pay homage to love. Because sometimes we can forget to do so.

Everything is everything – Lauryn Hill

The next few days after the funeral, the radio is filled with ‘your songs’. At first it seems peculiar. How could you all of a sudden be hearing songs you haven’t heard in several years. One after another. Every time you turn on the radio. Then at 8:05pm on Chiromo Road, when the co-incidence feels too eery, you burst out into sobbing laughter. He always was playful.  Perhaps this is him sending you a mixtape, from wherever he is, so that you can remember….remember the girl you were at 15 years old, when your heart was full of possibility, full of hope, full of defiance. To remind you not to lose her, because she’s still inside you, simply waiting for you to make space for her to come and play.

For Shino.

Photo Credit: Suzyhazelwood

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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. 

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

#StoroSosa – Soaked In The City

She covered her mouth slightly; worried her words would come out in stale coffee scented puffs when she spoke. He on the other hand had shed his self-consciousness over the last two dates, becoming bolder in the way he brought his face close to hers, in the way he ordered a latte assuming that’s what she wanted, in the way he possessively wrapped his arm around her waist when they walked. The audacity thrilled her. He thrilled her.

Except for the statement he had flung up in the air, like a slimy slug that had offended his sensibilities. The one that bobbed over her head momentarily, before squelching around her brain and suffocating everything else in there. Ati a high maintenance chick. Really? Her? She hadn’t refuted it. To do so would be to confirm it. She wanted to tell him that she only painted her nails that bright red, so that he would be entranced by her womanly wiles. Men are hypnotised by the things that call attention to femininity. Didn’t he know that? That’s why she was enduring those heels. So her ass would be elevated. Hadn’t she read that somewhere? Oh yes, that Biko guy’s blog.

Now as they walked to the stage, his statement looped itself in her mind. The rain had subsided, leaving the streets gushing with the remnants of appetites satiated; sweet wrappers, receipts, plastic bags, cigarette butts, safari cane bottles; they swirled in a hungry tide of brown water. There was no other way to cross the street. They would have to wade through the cess-pool of the Nairobi streets.

High maintenance? Huh! She’d prove to him she wasn’t. Dazzle him with an unpredictability that would rob him of his certainty, and in its place, plant the seed of surprise….and consequently delight. Yes. That’s what she would do.

She looked at him, gave what she hoped sounded like a carefree laugh, and put one foot in the water, scrunching her nose and squeezing her eyes in a grimace. No, this wouldn’t do. She had to be more playful. She had to frolic. He had to be enchanted by her non-high-maintenance-ness. So she made herself lighter, taller, looser and skipped through the water as gracefully as one can in tight ripped jeans and white stilettos.

He followed.

When they were both stopped at the other side of the street, she searched his face for signs of delight. But he was bent down, removing his shoe to pour out the water that had collected inside. She followed his cue and slid the heel off her foot, tipping it over to drain it out.

Along with the water, something else plopped to the ground. Something slick and rubbery and long.

The both looked at it in horror.

They both thought the same thing at the same time.

God, I hope that wasn’t used.

#StoroSosa is a series of short bite-sized snippets, inspired by my nosy eavesdropping, as I weave stories through smoke rings.

This #StoroSosa comes from a drenched afternoon trawling second hand book vendors on Tom Mboya Street with Msingi Sasis, the incredible photographer. You can find more of his work here: http://nairobinoir.com/

Photo Credit: Msingi Sasis

#StoroSosa : Moo-ve Over

It was just after midnight  and I was driving home with my window down, figuring what to do if I come across the gang of carjackers involved in that night’s shoot-out in Parklands; I needed a plan of action. One that preferably didn’t involve me peeing in my pants…or getting shot at.

That intensely annoying song was playing on the radio,

‘You know what to do with that big fat ****

Wiggle, wiggle, wiggle’

Whoever produced that song has figured out some sort of musical algorithm that messes with our brains; it is one of those songs you just can’t turn off, and find yourself singing out loud at the most inappropriate of times.

As I enter the Museum Hill overpass from Chiromo Road, I see something blocking the road a few metres away.

Holy cow!

A white cow, just out of calf-hood, stands in the middle of the road, intently chewing. As I gingerly drive around it, it turns its head sideways to look at me defiantly, as if daring me to do something about its presence, if I don’t like it. It has puppy dog eyes. I almost want to shake my fist at it and yell you don’t scare me….you have puppy eyes! But I am going to sit this one out. There can be nothing good that comes out of arguing with a puppy-eyed, masticating white cow standing in the middle of Museum Hill road.

I remember a story my grandfather told me. Many years ago the family was driving from Mombasa to Nairobi, and hit a deer on the road. My uncle promptly got out of the car, slit its throat, dumped it in the back of the car and onward they drove. My granny was only mildly irritated that she had to spend the rest of the journey with a dead deer bleeding all over her shoes, but positively livid that  once they got back home, she would have to spend the next couple of hours making deer curry, when all she really wanted to do was wash her hair.

I want to yell at the cow, you are lucky my grandfather is not in the car!