On Reading … (Part III)

Another publication that suffered from serious malnutrition in representing people of  color was the Tintin collection. Instead, the comic series made up for this dearth via numerous stereotypical depictions of Native Americans and Asians. When Tintin finally chose to include Africans, the caricatures were more than offensive. They were over the top; the author dug deep into Europe’s stock of racist African images and paraded these within the covers. Cannibals wielding a humongous pot seeking to make a meal of Tintin and his pet Snowy? Check. A jungle seething with venomous snakes and vicious wildlife? Check. Naked, bone-clad witch doctors? Check. Tintin Au Congo had all these and more. It’s quite wild when you think about it, really The Congo, after bearing the brunt of Belgium and French colonial occupation, was subsequently subjected to cartoonist Georges Remi’s civilizing pen. Remi, more well-known as Herge’, reverts to 18th century iconography in portraying Africans. Herge’s Congolese characters are, much like Joseph Conrad’s, brutes with vaguely human features.

Working with literature in high school was a joy. I had the privilege of learning under teachers who truly enjoyed language and what it could achieve. Kiswahili literature, Fasihi, was taught to us by Misters Ruo and Sarara. Shamba la Wanyama, a Swahili translation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, was just annoying. The language seemed archaic. There was little about the diction that was creative, flippant, and dynamic, attributes I associated with Kenya’s street and vernacular languages. Rather, Shamba felt heavily weighed down by grammatical structure. The ideas therein made much sense, however. I could wholly identify with the key questions raised about distribution of national resources and the elitism that accompanied political office. Aside from that, the rest was simply too lofty.

Ken Walibora’s Siku Njema was more my thing. The romance novel was, in retrospect, not very politically ambitious. It adopted a neoliberal outlook without much in the way of critical engagement. Characters were poor and impoverished not due to the economic policies instituted at the national level, but because of their own individual circumstances. Nevertheless, the text approached language with a reverence I appreciated. And communities were not merely pawns in an expansive game of chess, but actually individual subjects whose dreams, desires, and fears were worth understanding. The novel might have been utopian, but unlike Orwell’s Shamba La Wanyama, it did not limit human lives to production and labor. Creativity was a vital part of Walibora’s world. The lyricism in his language was refreshing; it paid homage to the great poetic tradition in Kiswahili. More importantly, his word choice enabled him to better tug at our teenage heartstrings. Sometimes the characters underwent extremely sad experiences; for instance, the protagonist was mistreated by his guardian, an aunt who accommodated him after he was orphaned. Other times there was fear, so palpable it vaulted from off the page. Like when the main character runs for his life, pursued by a knife-wielding childhood rival. And, of course, there was love. Lots of love: the innocent kind of love between young friends exploring their new physical awareness; the sellable kind of love that was transacted between characters; and the unrequited love that Walibora’s hero repeatedly got invitations to, each time fleeing in the opposite direction.

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The River & The Source

Leading us in English literary studies was Joshua Musee, a man who has remained my friend to this day.  There was much that we read together, but The Burdens by John Ruganda and Margaret Ogola’s The River and the Source stood out. Musee’s class readings of Ruganda’s play dramatized the work into our classroom space. He basically performed the text with his voice. Ogola’s novel was phenomenal. In the 2 years that I used it for my fourth form national exams, I must have re-read it about 10 times. There were many passages I could recite, especially the refrains that occur in the text and which Ogola composes as a chorus to the larger narrative. Akoko Obanda, the protagonist, came alive to me in the form of my maternal grandmother. Her great granddaughter, Vera, was a role model. I lived, breathed, and identified with these personalities. There was nothing abstract about this fiction. Ogola’s was a true novel. Becky, Vera’s sister, a young woman who vigorously wielded her sexuality, eventually succumbs to AIDS. This hit close to home. My mom’s eldest brother, after whom I’m named, had passed away about 4 years prior, due to complications with HIV/AIDS. These were the early days of the disease, at least in Kenya. A diagnosis, if there ever was one, often came very late, and was publicly understood to be a death sentence. I witnessed family friends, 2 couples in fact, die in the same manner; first the wives, then the husbands. Add to that list one of my dad’s younger sister, Aunty Wanjiku – a really funny, vibrant woman. A literary examination of Ogola’s narrative wasn’t so much a close reading analysis as a reflection on the lives my community and extended family lived.

Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword affected me in ways I had not anticipated. On the one hand there was a great sense of adventure, as a group of children travelled across the Bavarian countryside fleeing from Nazi Germany. In this way, The Silver Sword sowed an interest in understanding World War II that has endured since then. And yet, there was horror. Lots of it. Though certainly written as a children’s book, and hence void of the graphic brutality that other WWII narratives such as Saving Private Ryan depict, Serraillier’s work had an underlying sense of fear that was palpable. I understood  the Polish family’s misery as they fought starvation and the elements, all while fleeing the SS and evading capture. There is certainly the sense that this is a group of siblings who have been torn apart; and when healing finally arrives, it will only cover emotional wounds that are too deep to ever forget.

Both the picaresque and the humor of Wind in the Willows made it a truly remarkable text. Toad, the protagonist, sets off on a voyage down the river he has lived beside for many years. Many exploits await (him?) her in the journey ahead. What drew me to this book most, however, was the sense of travel and freedom. The world was truly Toad’s oyster and he went about savoring it. The inquisitiveness and curiosity that are behind Toad’s acquisition of a boat, preparation for the trip, and finally saying goodbye to friends before heading out are the same feelings I experience before each trip, even today. Each day on the road presents itself as a new opportunity to re-invent myself. That’s a rare gift we nomads have; routines have a way of wearing us down to a monotonous set of habits. Thankfully, the open road beckons!

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 Of Black, White, & Black and White Guns

So, I’m walking in the park, absolutely minding my own business – enjoying the sun, complementing myself for having made it outdoors while I could have spent many happy hours glued to the screen watching old episodes of “The West Wing.” Holmes Park Lake is a low-key recreational area where families hang out over the weekend. Quite a few folks had chosen to fish – an honorable hobby that requires much more patience than I often possess. Others were out on the lake paddling their stand-up boards. And as usual, multiple elderly couples were sitting on benches, some on motorized chairs enjoying the shade and reminiscing on bygone days.

I had left my apartment earlier that morning dressed in sneakers and with my camera fully loaded. The intention was to re-visit the Sunken Gardens I’d just discovered the day before, take photos, and then explore some of the many miles of trails that everyone in Lincoln, Nebraska keeps talking about.

I enjoy walking, immensely. I tend to power walk most times, even when there’s no seeming reason why I should be doing so. I love seeing how far I can go before I start running short of breath. Power walks have become a great substitute for my running. I’m using my knees very sparingly, especially because I often end up running on urban concrete, which wrecks havoc on the joints. Most of all, however, I love getting to my destination; often I have none in mind when I set out, but my body will figure out how tired I am before requesting that I sit on a bench and just enjoy the breeze.

Holmes Park was clearly going to be my destination. I’d already walked 3.5 miles, sweated a lot, and I was dying for some water. My plan was to grab a bottle of water from a vending machine I could see next to a baseball pitch, circle the lake, look for a spot underneath a tree, then sit and just breath for a while.

Walking towards the vending machine, I met two women. One was clearly older, and I immediately presumed that the five year old boy who was running several meters ahead of them was her son. The boy had a tree branch in his hands. The dry, hooked twig – brown and thin in his curled fingers – had been transformed into a weapon. Playfully, the kid turned his rifle towards me, and made shooting sounds. I almost missed the gesture, but his mother’s emphatic, “please put that stick away, ok?” brought me to the real significance of the situation. I’d just been shot at by a white kid.

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“Cops and Robbers,” that’s what we used to call the game back when I was in primary school. It was a heck of a lot more glamorous to be a robber. You could get away with a lot. Few of us wanted to be law abiding officers of the state, hunting down ruthless criminals. But without the boys in blue, the game wouldn’t have worked. So we often had to recruit a few less aggressive boys, or sometimes (heaven forbid) one or two girls.

It looks easy, this game, yet it’s anything but. There is a style, a panache to how you handle your weapon. How you wield it and how fast you can discharge it. The weapon – sometimes a Chinese-made plastic toy gun. Metal was ideal, but few parents could lavish such luxury onto our childhood dreams. More often, we made do with pistols carved from wood, or sometimes modeled in clay. If all else failed, one could always grab a twig and re-fashion it into a rifle. Or even simply point out the index and middle fingers, with the ring finger forming a trigger, while the thumb could be cocked before firing, a sure sign of those who truly understood the mysterious ways of such boyhood heroes as Chuck Norris, Rambo, Jean Claudde Van Damme, and Terminator.

You got shot and you were obligated to fall down and succumb to your injuries. Sometimes you could hobble away, nursing a bullet hole through your leg, but rules were rules. You couldn’t miraculously get better. Not if you wished to be invited for playtime next weekend.

None of the bullets flying towards you were covered in racial slurs. There was no N-word when you went down. It wasn’t even about ethnicity. Much, if not all, the dialogue during the game was run in Sheng: the nativist-denying tongue that binds kids in Kenya’s urban areas. It’s a language that borrows, shamelessly, from English, Spanish, and French, but also from Swahili, Kikuyu, Dholuo, Luhya, and a myriad other languages spoken in the country.

Perhaps there could have been traces of civil war. Remnants of the conflict that pitted Gikuyu loyalist – aka British collaborators – against their brethren who supported the Land & Freedom Army (Mau Mau). The latter ventured into the forest and waged a guerilla warfare that lasted from 1952 to 1957. But I think the intricacies of that civil war, and its implications on present-day Kenya were lost to us. We did not rehearse that particular series of battles. Just like the communities around us, no one invoked the spirit of dreadlocked forest fighters; no one proclaimed that they’d like to be Mau Mau, and sure as hell no one wished to impersonate the Lancaster Fusiliers, soldiers from the United Kingdom who were flown in at the height of Kenya’s Emergency period to flash out GEMA (Gikuyu, Embu, Meru) malcontents who were destabilizing what had been an otherwise “model” British colony.

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As we review the long history of U.S. grand juries repeatedly acquitting white officers who’ve murdered unarmed black men, getting shot at by a white kid matters. The action straddles the murky world of child’s play, while also reflecting contemporary debates about the worth of black lives and just how much do they matter. Was the boy’s gesture mere repetition of what’s happened before, or rehearsal for what’s to come after? How do we re-negotiate the rules of public space in ways that differentiate play from real actual danger? What’s society’s role in bringing up children who appreciate historical patterns of injustice and are awakened to the opportunities for activism and transcendence?