Tag Archives: Kenya

Kenyans, 10 ways to **** better… #5 will BLOW your mind!

On the night of August 11th, the silence of the Kenyan night was pierced.

In some hoods, the screams were of joy.

In some hoods, the screams were of anguish.

In some hoods the ratatat was from gunfire.

In some hoods, the ratatat was from fireworks.

Less than a week later, all through the day and the night, the silence is now pierced once more by calls to Move On. Except this time we aren’t even being asked to Accept. Just to Move On. It no longer matters whether we accept it or not, the wails of loved ones who were killed, must be smothered by the ka-ching ching of coins pouring into this Kenya rising of ours.

But to expect the nation to just Move On, is like chopping off an athlete’s knees and expecting them to get back into the race. Make no mistake. Whether you acknowledge it or not, we are broken. And if you only notice it every 5 years when Kenya holds its breath, you may well be cushioned by a bubble of privilege. But the fact that we are so terrified of each other speaks volumes. And no matter how much paint we slather over the cracks in our nation, aesthetics alone will not fix it.

Yet, we also can’t exist in a state of paralysis. We must exhale, pick ourselves up and figure out what next. What does Moving On look like if we were to refuse for it to be a return to the status quo and business as usual?

Of one thing I am certain.

It has to begin with caring.

It must start with giving a shit.

If you don’t care about the fact that we are broken, this is not the post for you. And if in order to care, you need a list of all the ways in which we are broken, and how this affects your daily life, this is also not that post. And if you don’t care because the people that were killed do not look like people you call your own, this is most certainly, definitely, definitively not the post for you.

BUT if like me, you are trying to figure out what you can do, at this time, when we are reeling as a nation, when it is easy to feel helpless and paralysed, I present to you, 1O ways to care better, or at least a few things that I think you can do. And #5 will really blow your mind.

1.) Feel all the things you need to feel

Outrage. Grief. Anxiety. Fear. Anger. Love. Hope. All of them. If you aren’t ‘springing’ out of this in the way others around you are, that’s not abnormal. We have experienced deep trauma. And truthfully sometimes we are a people that are impatient with and intolerant of emotions that make others uncomfortable. But remember your feelings are valid.

2.) Bear witness

Our history makes us and we make our history. It is important to call it by its name and acknowledge what happened. It will be the only springboard from which we can truly be able to move on. Record, document and amplify the voices of those who are doing this work. Do this with honesty and integrity. Refuse to allow this part of our story to be erased or smudged out by a single narrative, like so much of what has happened before.

3.) Help in the ways you can

You know that elections stockpile you have sitting at home? Now is the time to use it. The wonderful people at www.rescuebnb.com are collecting contributions of all sorts to help the families whose lives have been affected and torn apart these last several days. You can support with money, in kind, your time, your skills. Get in touch with them and ask how.

4.) Practice care

Especially with your words, and I don’t mean be careful. I mean practice the act of care. Ask yourself what does that look like for you? It begins with not denying the lived experiences of others. Just because it isn’t your reality doesn’t mean that it isn’t someone else’s reality. Think about what you can do, every day, in your own life, that makes caring a doing word, something that is grounded in action.

5.) Blow your mind

The action of blowing evokes a sense of movement, of expansion, of effort expended to change the nature of something. In the same way, it is important to educate yourself about the historical context of what has led us to this point. It is essential to understand the nuances and read different perspectives. None of this will have been taught to you at school, so you must go and find this information. Google is your friend. I have been exploring the www.theelephant.info and finding it very useful. Books are also invaluable. Feel free to drop links that are useful in the comments section below.

6.) Stand in the gap

The best example of this I can find is what Juliani was doing online those nights when people, terrified of the gunshots around them, didn’t know where to turn. He heard their calls and connected them to assistance. Or ResqueBnB who are working tirelessly to support the communities affected. You can connect people with organizations that need their skills. You can connect people that need help with places they can find it. You can be a bridge, connecting the dots to show people different perspectives and ways of thinking. You can prevent things from falling into the deep dark crevice, by simply standing with your arms outstretched and your feet rooted in your truth.

7.) Share beauty

This, my friends is my tool for survival. When the world feels ugly, sharing beauty becomes an act of revolt. It may feel indulgent or frivolous, but especially at a time like now, it is essential to shine light when the darkness threatens to overwhelm. So share the things that may lift the spirits and stir the souls of the ones who may need it, even if it is just for one moment in their day. My little piece of beauty that I share with you today is this, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DQuWH0xbypo

8.) Imagine

Prompted by Keguro Macharia, I discovered how powerful it is to imagine. To do the work of imagination. And it is work. Keguro offered me a new framework to think about this. So ask yourself what does the Kenya you wish to live in look like? Now go one step further. Paint a picture of it. Try and articulate the very specific and practical things that make up this Kenya. Get clarity around what this Kenya looks like, how it behaves, what it feels like to live there. Now, you have something to work towards, as opposed to running away from what you don’t want. Isn’t that so much more inspiring?

9.) Tie your lesso

We have a lot of work to do. Now is not the time for apathy or complacency. Ask yourself, what are the specific things that you can do help move towards this Kenya of your imagining. For the politics to change, we cannot afford to be divorced from it. From the county level spiralling outwards, get involved. Participate. Engage with those whose vision and values you believe in. Hold those elected into office accountable. From now. Don’t wait for another 5 years.

10.) Don’t let go of hope

Never forget that what you do makes a difference. Even what you don’t do makes a difference. We are all, every single one of us, interconnected and intertwined. It may not feel like it at times, but the actions you take have an impact, sometimes in immeasurable ways. So my friends, do not go gentle into that good night. And do not lose hope, for it is the only shard of light that can help guide us out of the darkness.

If you have any other ideas of what we can do, now, at this point in time, in the Kenya we are in, please do drop them in the comments below. Any comments that go against the spirit of this post will be deleted. Chanyado is not a democracy.

Thank you to all the wonderful people on twitter, who are too many to list, but through sharing their thinking online, have helped me think through this.

photo credit: BONA LUMO <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/143828298@N08/36578576486″>There is Always Light</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

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. 

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

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

Dissecting Love

You have acquired this habit of examining love, having become distrustful lately of a thing whose workings you cannot understand. You see, if you can just figure out what love is, how it works, what makes it tick, what feeling denotes what reality, then you will know how much to trust it, what to do with it, how much of your heart you can allocate to it.

You think about the appropriate analogy for this dissecting of love. Play with the idea of performing sanitized autopsies of loves gone past. Slicing through tender flesh with steady handed precision, prodding at hardened arteries with deposits from hurts gone past. Hair trapped in a net, elbows deep in latex gloves, your mask puffs out every time you sing the words to Daudi Kabaka’s Pole Musa playing in the operating theatre. But just as you are about to reach the pulsating centre of flesh that may house the secrets of love’s inner workings, it strikes you that autopsies are only performed on the dead, and love is still very much alive.

So instead you doodle in your black moleskine notebook with the fluorescent pink pen that lends whimsy to the heaviest of topics, and you draw boxes and arrows and circle things furiously.

You land on four possible types of love. You pass on these theories to your best friend, the most discerning one, the sensible one with wisdom in her smile and mischief in her eyes. She spreads some green tomato chutney on a cracker, layers it with soft goats cheese, and pauses to hmmm before she crunches it in her mouth. It is a hmmmm of recognition. It strikes you how old you have both become. Love used to be simple. You felt it. You know you were in it. Now, it seems so complicated, so layered, so charged with agenda and masked with illusion.

You lay the four types of love out on a table, arrange them delicately and with care, the same way you used to play with your mother’s jewellery. An attempt to put beauty into order. Most of all, you do it to exorcise previous avatars of love. Name them. Shame them. Dispel them so they dissolve into whiffs of non-existence.

You think you are in love with him. You were a little in love with him before you even met him. He dripped with charm, the kind that made you want to be smarter, wittier, worthy of the banter he threw your way. But it was how he did what he did that crawled under your skin. You have always been intoxicated by men at the peak of their game. And he was that. He combined understated passion with intense skill and a disarming humility that kept him hungry, just a sliver of the insecure peeking through in conversations. Every now and then he would show you a whisker of vulnerability, and that is when you felt it. That thing. Because it was like he was giving you a glimpse of a part of himself that nobody else in the world had access to. And that was enough of the carrot for you to be kept hanging on. And so in the throes of your encounters, you almost didn’t notice how his eyes darted to the ass of the girl who walked by. Every time. Every girl. And the charm grew old once you realized it wasn’t reserved for just you. Instead it poured out for everyone he met. You see men like that can never belong to one person, they belong to the world.

But then he would ensnare you again with the way he articulated life, the certainty with which he had its nuances figured out, even if they didn’t align with yours. There was something undeniably sexy about such certainty, especially contrasted with your utter wishy washy flakiness viewpoints on life, where everything was changeable, nothing black and white, just large swathes of grey. So you, a self confessed feminist, fell in love with a misogynist.

And then you realize you aren’t in love with him honey. You just want to be him. How’s that for a twist?

You think you are in love with him. You listen to cheesy love songs on the radio and feel like you have finally been let into an exclusive club, that you now know the secret handshake. The delicious texts that you receive first thing in the morning and last thing in the night mean that to someone you are their first and last thought. The fact that you save them more for what they represent, than what they actually say doesn’t ring warning bells. Imagine, all around you there are people walking around this world, sitting in their cars, working at their desks, floating over life in a mist of this emotion, feeling this way all the time. How have you existed this long without this feeling in your life?

You spend a lot of time in the future. When the possibility of what could be, somehow outweighs the pleasure of what is now. When you imagine the things that will happen for you, the way your life will look like now that you are in love, it is almost always backed by a soundtrack, accompanied with lush cinematography and a fan to blow the hair off your face. As if you were the heroine of your own romantic comedy. You want to tell everybody about this newfound love of yours, as if somehow if it isn’t heard and acknowledged by other human beings, it isn’t actually real. And when you do declare it, you have a practiced smug content obnoxious grin that crawls over your face. Except you can’t for the life of you figure out what it is you love about this person. Just that he exists. And that for now is enough.

You aren’t in love with him honey. You are just in love with the idea of being in love.

You think you are in love with him.  It creeps up on you stealthily. At first it’s hot and furious, and you use up all your charm very quickly, doling it out in supersize portions, not bothering to ration some for later. Predictably you soon run dry. And he still sticks around. Still seems excited to have you around. You soak up the things he says to you, hoard them like little nuggets of deliciousness that you can draw on, and suck out the goodness from later. You feel floaty, like nothing bad can stick to you, it just slides off, like water off raw potato covered windscreens  at the drive-in during the rainy season. When he holds you, you close your eyes and concentrate on the feeling of skin touching skin imbuing caring and desire and want.

And this time when the texts arrive, their meaning is what you cling onto. The words becoming etched and carved onto the spongy surface of your brain, deeper and deeper, the typed out words shrugging off any ownership from the person. You see at that moment in time, it doesn’t matter who is doing the loving. You are loved. My God you are loved. It comes from a space of emptiness this sort of love, a filling of a gaping hole. As if you could plug the crack in your wall with carbon monoxide. It is a pitiful, egotistic kind of love, the type that takes advantage of vulnerability and speeds away with your dignity. Before you know it, you are knee deep in a love that you don’t own, but a love that has claimed ownership over your emotions. And for what it makes you feel, you are grateful,

You aren’t in love with him honey. You are just in love with feeling loved.

You think you are in love with him. Across unreasonable circumstances, your hurt found his hurt, recognized it, wrapped its tentacles around it and oozed thick sticky honey love, coating it with comfort and kindness. You found his nooks and crannies, his tunnels and crevices, and filled them with a languorous urgency that took his breath away. You made him feel things he thought he had banished from his heart a long time ago. And when he smiles, the sparkle in his eyes, boyish, peeking out from the veil of arrogant assuredness, takes your breath away. It is addictive, watching this effect on him. You can see him visibly softening. You feel like you are smoothening his edges like the ocean does to the jaggedness of shells.

He tells you what it is that you do to him, and you swell with accomplishment that you could make another human being feel this way. Your heart smiles that his heart smiles. You feel special. Unique even. Like this is your purpose in life. You have this special untapped power that you did not know about, and suddenly it becomes more important than anything else in the world. Because perhaps this is the only person in the world who is programmed to respond to you in this way, and to waste it would be to go against nature’s design. Cause and Response. It is science really. And when he looks at you like that, like you are the most important person in the world, how you feel about him is but a side effect really.

You aren’t in love with him honey. You are just in love with being able to make someone so happy.

So what is love? Hush honey, and just feel…..

In love via photopin (license)Photo Credit

Becoming an African

In the underground tunnels of Montreal I start becoming an African. I join other sandaled tropical brethren as we roam the belly of the city, there where it is warm and heated, where buskers play rhythms that awake the taste of nostalgia in our mouth. Where the sun doesn’t reach us, but the heat doesn’t leak out. It is the winter of discoveries. It is colder in Montreal than Siberia. Snot freezes. It is possible for it to be too cold to snow. If you leave the house with wet hair, your locks can snap off like a dry twig.

And like other shivering Africans, I discover that downtown Montreal is connected by a sprawling of tunnels, so when the city grows icy tentacles, us Africans descend beneath, emerging only at our destination, rarely venturing beyond its radius. Except of course when Angelique Kidjo comes to town. I miss home. I need to feel home.  Benin will do. I can’t find anyone to come with me, so I bundle myself up and head to the wrong end of St. Laurent. It is -40 degrees Celcius, and it looks like God pressed the fast forward button on the city. Everyone moves quickly, dashing into heated shops every few blocks to warm up, before continuing their journey. Only their eyes are visible. I know I am moving because objects keep getting closer, but I can’t feel my legs. I enter the club, peel off my layers, my body tingling as it adjusts to the temperature, and I sit down. There are fifty other people in this club. For Angelique Kidjo. I feel ashamed. I must show her how she is loved. And I do. We do. She whips us up into a frenzy of movement, dancing on chairs, tables, falling into each other’s arms. For the first time in months, I feel hot.

My new friends introduce me as their African friend. I am from Africa. Ergo I must be African. It sounds odd. At home, in my community, the term African is often a crude non-derogatory reference to mean black. It has never occurred to me that I am an African. My British Prep Schooling has determinedly erased any possible idea of an African identity in me. I have not had a single lesson on African or even Kenyan history, literature or geography. Instead I sang ‘Hip Hip Hoorah for the Jolly Good Fellows’ after a Rounders match, before we settled down to cucumber sandwiches. This is criminal. It is unacceptable for a child to be educated in a country and be taught nothing about that country. I don’t care what the educational system is. So when my Canadian friends ask me to take them to an African restaurant, I have no idea what to order. Ethiopian Restaurants save me from shame.

Even in this cold white city, I feel less African than the West Africans. They are so loudly African. Everything about them yells African. Their accents, their clothes, their music, their mannerisms. Us Kenyans are much more discretely African. I feel a little like an imposter. As if I should apologise to my Canadian friends for not being African enough. I don’t really even count as the token African. Maybe the token ethnic person.

But the cold binds us together, us Africans from the East and West. The university sets up a room for us. They warn us about the depressive effects of Seasonal Affective Disorder, aptly named SAD. Something to do with not getting the light that our bodies are used to down at the equator. We are to visit this room every morning and sit under these alien-esque lamps. The room gives me that desperate feeling I get from Casinos. And it is still cold. I discover a more elegant solution. Granted, the receptionist looks at me a little strangely when she hands over the bright orange goggles. Perhaps she doesn’t see many people my skin colour frequenting the tanning salon. I strip off my clothes, put on the crinkly paper underwear, lie down and lower the lid of the tanning bed over my body. And I feel it. Warmth right into my bones. For the first time in months. With my eyes closed, I imagine that I am at the beach in Mombasa, ignoring the beach boys and sipping on Madafu. My family never quite understand why I seem to come home from winter with a full body tan.

During the day, I join other Africans at our African Development Class, rolling our eyes at the saviour complex that is stinking up the lecture hall, unaware of our own that seeps out like a silent fart. We Nkt! over a new awareness we have of white privilege, for now, we remain ignorant of our privilege. At night I seek comfort in the dodgy African club where I am guaranteed they will play Magic System’s Premier Gaou at least once in the night. My brown Kenyan ass shakes to lingala. I feel home. I go every week, until one day a fight breaks out, and jagged beer bottles fly across the smoky room oblivious to who they hit. That night I crawl out of the club on my hands and knees, avoiding what looks like blood on the dance floor.

I can’t find any Kenyans to be Kenyan with. So I will be African with the Africans.

Then I go back home. I stop being an African. I go back to being a Kenyan.  I behave like a Nairobian.

Years later in a shop in Mumbai, the greasy attendant refers to me as an African, and it throws me off. I had forgotten that I am. His words remain with me as I sit in traffic watching young couples huddle by the ocean, their silhouettes in the smoggy haze betraying a physical intimacy that I am surprised to see in public in India. The streets look oddly familiar. As if you could be in Kisumu, where when you cast your eyes above the first floor, the buildings still have a certain colonial patina that has yet to be painted over by mobile phone branding. My sister remarks that so much of the greenery reminds her of Nairobi. We wonder what traces our forefathers have left of themselves in the landscaping of Kenya. I remember my grandfather telling me about how the Jambura or Zambrau trees can only be found along the railway line, where Indian workers and traders planted them to remind them of home. He tells us this story as he buys Jambura by the bucket load, marinating them in a sprinkling of salt, and delighting in the sweet tart flesh of this purple berry.

As the sun sets in Mumbai, we wander out on to the crowded beach. On the other end of the Ocean lies Kenya. I wonder what it must have been like for my forefathers getting on the dhows that would take them to a foreign land. In a time when the world was still unfamiliar. When they had no idea what life would be like where they were going. What would the houses be like. What language did the people speak. What did they eat. Back, when google did not exist. What did my ancestors carry in the bags that they clasped close to their bodies as they boarded the boats for the journey that would last months. Did they think they would ever see India again? I sometimes forget they were economic migrants, looking for a better life for themselves and their children. And so it makes sense that when they arrived in this new land, they tried their best to re-create the sense of home they left. They were not interested in being Kenyan. Or African. They were just Indians in Kenya simply looking to lead a better life.

And so I imagine my forefathers would be rather amused by this discovery of mine.  That I am an African.

I also think they would have gotten a kick out of the fact that Chanyado has been nominated for Best New Blog in this year’s Kenyan Blog Awards. There are only two days left to vote, so if you haven’t already, please do vote here, and spread the word. You don’t have to be Kenyan to vote. Of course I would be utterly delighted if you voted for Chanyado. It would be nice to win.

F**K BEAUTY

When you can’t write what you need to write, you write what you can. I want to write about…

That new Dove ad is absurdly symbolic. Women in five cities around the world are made to choose one of two doors in order to enter a space. The entries are labelled ‘Beautiful’ or ‘Average’. There seems to be no other way to gain access to the building. Your physical appearance is your only admission. Choose beautiful Dove says. F**K that.

My sister looked radiant tonight. I don’t know if I have ever seen her glow like this. When she made her entrance into the hall, mischief captured her and she threw her hennaed hands up in the air, her intricately brown laced hands swirling through the air as she danced. Little dried flecks sprinkled off her hands like black confetti. Later my father, handsome in his turquoise blue sherwani interrupted the proceedings to give a delicately whiskey laced speech in honour of the bride. And my grandfather wept. He has been weeping for weeks. ‘It’s not like I am dying’, she keeps telling us. I am just getting married. We still weep. We will miss her.

These women going about their lives, doing ordinary and extraordinary things were interrupted, forced to pick a box. Am I beautiful? Am I average? Those are your only two options. Select carefully. If I pick beautiful, does it mean I have good self-esteem or a healthy dose of self-delusion and a dash of conceit. If I pick average, does it mean I have a low sense of worth, or just that I have a grasp of reality with a sprinkling of humility. Pick carefully. This defines you as a woman.

It is 5:02 am. We tumble into the house, all a little tipsy and absolutely ravenous. I climb up the stairs, removing my heavy jewellery along the way and leaving a trail of my unravelling brushed gold lace sari. I gaze into the mirror at my glazed kohl lined eyes, and tell myself I must get my henna done tomorrow. Who ever heard of the bride’s sister having bare hands at her sister’s wedding. I play that game, where you look deeply into the reflection of your eyes, and try to see yourself as a stranger would. I kick off my heels, and check  my phone for the first time that day. I scroll down the timeline on twitter. In horror. Feverishly.

What’s with all this focus on beauty anyways? Why is beauty the penultimate quality that every woman should aspire to, that every woman is judged by, that every woman works towards. Am I beautiful? Sometimes I am. Today I was not. My aching body pulled down my shoulders into a defiant droop. My eyes were heavy, lined, sad. My hair looked like a nest, the curls spectacularly pulling off both frizz and limp in one deft move. My cheeks were puffy from two weeks of over-indulgence and too little sleep. Yesterday I was beautiful, my eyes sparkled. My thighs filled out my jeans lusciously. My hair was a dust filled mess of curls that made me look like I had emerged from a fabulous horizontal adventure. Am I beautiful? Who the F**K cares anyways?

We make cheese sandwiches and ginger chai. To feed our hunger. To fill the gaping pit in our stomachs that has spread its tentacles into our throats. We murmur. Garissa. We stand around the kitchen table, our hands nestling hot cups of comfort. I choke down a sob with a mouthful of melted cheese. We eat in silence. My sister is asleep. We don’t want to spoil her wedding. Outside, the dogs howl as the sun threatens to rise.

I imagine having a conversation about beauty with my unborn daughter. Perhaps I will write her a letter, from me at my 33 year old self. Dear daughter, I will write. They brought booty back. Well, it started with Jennifer Lopez, then Beyonce seconded it and Kim Kardashian confirmed it with her attempt to break the internet with butt. And if you have my genes, dear daughter, your booty will be one thing. Flat. You see, in 2014 it was all about that bass, and I was all treble. And tremble. I will tell her that they keep changing the goalposts, and you can never keep up. So ignore the rules and create your own instead. Refuse to be judged by your beauty. Refuse to be judged at all. I wonder which door I would have walked through. Beautiful or average? I think I would have kicked a hole in that wall instead, and entered the space on my own terms, who the F**K says I have to be one or the other?

It feels wrong to be getting henna on my hands. But I sit there obediently, arms resting on a cushion as the woman squeezes the silver foil cone which hovers above my hand, while she moves her wrist to draw swirling flowers on my palm. The paste tickles as it lands. The patterns form in the air before they settle onto my skin. It is cool and fragrant. I feel the henna sucking the heat from my blood as it dries, drawing out the warmth to deepen in colour. I want to cry. I feel numb. The henna lady bites her lip in concentration. I bite my lip in anguish. I check the news. I don’t know what else to do. Numbers. All I see is numbers. Where are the faces, the stories, the dreams?

It’s about inner beauty. It’s about feeling beautiful. It’s about choosing to feel beautiful, silly. I don’t care. I am tired of society bombarding me with messages that a woman’s worth is valued by her beauty. There is so much more to me. Don’t you see? I am kind. I am goofy. I am sensitive. I am intelligent. I am funny. I am (insert whatever random characteristic I feel like at this precise moment in time.) So would it have made me feel better if you put those terms instead of average and beautiful? No! Stop putting me in boxes. Stop defining me by one thing or another. I am more than a damn label. I am what I do. Sometimes I feel beautiful, and sometimes I don’t. What’s the big deal? Why the F**K does it even matter!?

Day three of the wedding. I stare at the blinking cursor. I am trying to write a speech for my sister’s wedding reception. Nothing comes out. I think this is because it is too difficult to sum up an entire relationship in a few hundred words. Or maybe it is because I can’t remember anything from when we were growing up. My memory is notoriously bad. I joke that maybe I have a brain tumour. Secretly I am scared that I do. My sister has always been my repository for our childhood memories. I think about all those sisters who lost their sisters. Whose sisters were murdered. Who will never, ever, ever see their sisters again. The grief clasps my throat again. The speech loses meaning. A friend tells me that if I have something to celebrate at this time, that I must do it. The speech becomes the most important thing in the world.

I am born with the looks that I have. I don’t have much control over that. What I do have control over is the things that I choose to do with my time. When we place so much currency on looks, so much energy, focus and time is spent trying to change these looks to fit whatever flitting definition of beauty there may be at that time. Because subliminally we are made to believe that we don’t deserve to enjoy life fully, unless we look beautiful. So that girl who stands on stage singing her soul out holds back a little. Because maybe if she sings too big, they will notice her acne. And it won’t matter how much beauty her singing filled the air with, because her face is not beautiful. So maybe you aren’t beautiful. Maybe it doesn’t matter. Because your gifts to the world are so much deeper than just the way you look. Imagine if we spent all that time and energy we spend on looking beautiful, on trying to feel beautiful, on showing the world just how beautiful we are, and instead focused on the things that actually mattered. On making the world a better place. Stop shoving the message down my face that I can look beautiful or that I should feel beautiful. Instead leave me the F**K alone, so I can do beautiful things.

So many of our Kenyan brothers and sisters have been robbed of their chance to do beautiful things. Beauty has been stolen. The henna is fading. The numbness has not. My sister has left for the next part of her life, a chapter full of promise and hope. #147NotJustANumber they will not be forgotten. We will say their names out loud.  We will remember them. Every single one. We have to find a way to make sure that this never happens again. We pray for strength for their families. There can never be enough words. But we must try. We must not let silence steal them away from us.

I pray for the day when beauty doesn’t seem so trivial.

When it ceases to be a luxury in Kenya to have a life uninterrupted by tragedy.

When the people who have the power to actually do something actually gave a shit.

Sometimes grief hides. It disguises itself as anger and lashes out at enemies of its own making.

Sometimes you have to write the thing you can, to write the thing you need to.

Photo Credit

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