What Eye Saw – III

The kisses. Many and often. Passionate, in a plastic kind of way. Self-conscious smooches that ride on the back of the Queen’s English to spread a Latter Day Pax Britannica. Frail, in the end; yet effective. These scrounged lips and bared teeth mole their way into teenage minds in Nairobi. They are suave and chic, and in the peri-urban Ngong area, as provincially anxious as we were of our small town roots, we lapped these up. It helped, too, that the token black girl was cute. Long flowing hair, heat treated to decorum. An upper middle-class sheen dominates the arrangement of hair ties and pins. The front bob is uppity personified. We eat it all up.

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Not just the possibility, but the actuality of being anyone, anywhere. On the back of his white, middle class ancestry, he rode on to be a pilot, a surgeon, a fireman, an engineer, a college professor, sometimes even an actor. This genius, was, as I’d later come to appreciate, an apt manifestation of privilege, and the mobility that accompanies it.

Hence, given the politics, this was a vision of life that was wholly seductive. And also adaptive. We marveled, in our school boy yarns, at his use of mobile phones. Plus, at a deeper level, a more guttural, instinctual, eat-meat-raw-and-bloody moment, we understood him as men. His pursuer was a Jezebel –  a wickedly beautiful tormentor none of us could resist, even if we’d tried. And yet he attempted, always no more than a step ahead of her long grasping nails. Barely out of reach. And yet, getting captured by this modern day Delilah, would it really have been such an awful thing? That was how blinding her sex appeal.

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Majestic twin peaks in Arches National Park

I think it was mostly the flowing hair, perfectly fanned and billowed into a cinematographic sculpture. There was, too, the dark green truck. I don’t know why green, when my TV set was black and white. But dark leafy hues best suggest the wild and untamed look he projected, assisted by a faithful companion. These were two men bonded in nature and violence, and not broken by any mountains. The poise between expansive outdoors and close-quarter combat.

Modern day cowboys. American Indians who seemingly preferred to not stay dead. Bobby-Six-Killer never sounded more poetic. A private eye duo that cleansed crime from a land wholly condemned of the original sin. The settlers on the land quipped, ” we shall miscege-Nation our way to Americanness;” successfully burrowing into claims of autochthony that 30, 000 years of settlement decried. But who’s counting?

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It was a millisecond moment that promised a whole life of adventure. Just that exact moment as the soundtrack began, and the TV series title appeared. Before, as it were, the blonde, bronzed limbs of Brooks Shields and her uber-suburban community unfolded. Way in advance of, it turns out, the bedroom misdemeanors that had had the program relegated to 2130 hours: post-national news hour, when adult supervision could be counted on. And if absent, not Kenya Broadcasting Corporation’s care.

The click from the shutter, opening, not closing, uncountable doors in the visual world. I birthed by dreams of dying a photographer midwifed by a Hollywood lens that peddled American sex, drugs, and violence. Could that I had belonged, even as an afterthought, in this pristinely white movie set. Scrubbed entirely of, the Civil War, and the Civil Rights. This was the Nineties, after all, and heaven forbid that the bitter aftertaste of history trouble our determined march towards the future of a new millennium. This is how it was, to be Bold & Beautiful.

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This is the monk who became a daddy. And the son flails in tight upper cuts and round houses, achieving a sense of release unrecoverable since that moment of birth. What weighs this family down, and together, is the impossible search for mother. Mother earth, and Wife earth, absent. This unholy crime-busting trinity is incomplete. The quest is incarnate, as spirit. And so we have before us, ladies and gentlemen, the father, the son, and the searching spirit. There may, too, have been whiffs of whiskey in that deep-pocketed shoulder bag slang on top of a trench coat above the old man’s shoulders. A rebellious spirit this. A spirit of color. A spirit with color.

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What Eye Saw

There’s a way in which films are that much more fun when you share them with a crowd. In my final year of high school, I would walk to Stella’s home for action movie VHS tapes. Never mind that I didn’t have a VHS player, there was a cute, young bird involved and that’s all that mattered. She was older, as they often are. And came with a horde of boys peacocking to win her. I was not deterred. Our connection was intellectual and much deeper–or so I consoled myself. Stella had just sat for Kenya’s final high school exams. Having attended Kenya High, a top school in Nairobi, her smarts were beyond doubt. I envied her air of maturity; that, I-know-more-than-you look. I was eager to drink from her fountain of knowledge: borrowing her notes from French class and relishing the perfume smell that accompanied each page turn.

Steven Seagal’s Under Siege was a great reason to hang around Stella’s house. I borrowed the VHS at least once but never actually watched the movie. That part of my life has many memories of me visiting friends so I could watch films. I remember making numerous trips to my grandpa’s house in Ngong so I could sit and enjoy the God’s Must be Crazy series. My sisters and I would usually pass by their house on Sunday afternoons after church. We’d do lunch, and as we ate one of his kids would play the movie on their VHS deck. The films disturbed me then, and still do even now.  And yet I keep returning to them.

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Left, Kenyan comedian Eric Omondi, in a 2017 rendition of Gods Must Be Crazy. Photo Credit: Instagram @ericomondi @254dave_photography

Ngahu. That’s the name under which the main character in the movie series Gods Must be Crazy is known by audiences in Gĩkambura. Whenever I visit my grandma’s house and we screen these films, as captivating as the action is, I find it much more interesting to watch the spectators.

I’ve come to understand the action in the Gods Must be Crazy narrative from a postcolonial paradigm. I see the antics of the characters as racist projections by a white hegemony that could neither fathom African intellectuality, sophistication, nor culture.

My cousins do not share my interpretations. They are genuinely amused at the childlike amazement that Ngahu displays when he encounters a firearm, an automobile, an airplane, or even a soda bottle for the first time. They laugh at Ngahu, rather than identify with him, as I do, from an expansive pan-African paradigm. To them, Ngahu deserves his ill luck; they view the star actor as a country bumpkin with much to catch up on in terms of urban civilization.

On Reading … (Consuming White Pop Culture)

More than once, all our good intentions to work hard and be responsible were jeopardized by TV. What could our young minds do but bend in awe of television dramas such as The Passions (UK), Home & Away (Australia) and Smurfs (USA)? The latter was especially addictive. It was an animation series, with a blue Smurf family: Papa Smurf, Mama Smurf, and a whole bunch of Smurf kids, aunts and uncles. The villain was a carnivorous cat, and its equally vile owner. Oh, and the show had the catchiest sound track ever. Even though I couldn’t tell why, there was something clearly American about the cartoon. And indeed it was, the original Smurfs (Les Schtroumpfs) aired in Belgium in the late Seventies. It was then imported into the North American market during the Eighties. Although production had stopped by 1989, it was so popular that reruns of the original shows aired well into the 2000s.

There was a lot of American pop culture circulating in my childhood. The two most significant books been the Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys fiction series. Owning one of these books was badass; it gave you major street cred at school – regardless of whether you’d read them or not! Usually, it meant that the owner came from a family wealthy enough to buy imported books, or that they had visited the U.S. and bought the books there. Both possibilities totally tantalized our schoolboy minds. It was not unusual to have to beg and borrow before acquiring the reading rights of a Hardy Boys book. Often, the owner would only let you read the book at school, no way they’d allow you to go home with it. For one, you might choose to conveniently forget the book at your house the next day, or the kid’s parents might ask to see the book that evening. Books were expensive; if they went missing, even for an evening, you could expect a scolding, at best, or maybe even a spanking. But sometimes I’d be lucky enough to take a book home, sometime even for a weekend. Bliss!

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Consuming American Pop Culture

In the current, supposedly, “post-racial” American social scene, it’s quite fascinating thinking back to Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew. These books had NO black characters, not one. Zilch. Sleuthing and clever detective work was a decidedly white, middle-class pursuit that folks of color were simply not privy to. Either black people had no crime in their neighborhoods or they were wholly unable to tackle it. Probably more of the latter. The protagonists in both texts had this aura of leisure. They pursued detective work because they had the time, and the resources for it. They had access to vehicles, computer and telecommunications equipment, cash, contacts, etc. that were clearly part and parcel of their social class. This was a world apart from the one I occupied. Where I lived, white people were rare and far between. And always rich. In the novels, people who looked like me barely showed up. I accepted those two worlds as is.

The British Famous Five series had many of the same features.  4 white kids, and their dog, who went on holidays, visited the circus, sniffed out trouble, and solved it. There was a nomadic air to these kids. I got the sense that they could travel anywhere they wanted. Even their dog seemed to have a better life than I did. I tried to collar on one of the mutts we were always trying to domesticate. My dog couldn’t appreciate that I was beckoning him into a world of mystery and adventure. One where we’d skulk around our neighborhood in the dead of night, skipping in and out of shadows as we cursed the bright moon. Glory and fame awaited our crime-busting duo! After several attempts I gave up on the uncultured canine. I’m certain I saw a flicker of rejoicing on that dog’s face.

On Reading …

In primary school, I learnt that Africa’s storytelling tradition produced a variety of genres. The most prominent were myths of origin; “how” stories – e.g. how the tortoise beat the hare; and “why” stories – e.g. why the lion sleeps during the day. As I later came to learn, these texts represented the first wave of African literary production. In the first half of the 20th Century, after several decades under European colonization, Africans turned to cultural production in order to shore up their sense of self, and to prepare for the inevitable battle for political self-determination. If mass protests and employee strikes did not yield immediate success in ousting foreign rule – and how could they, when such actions often incited violent reprisals from colonial administrators – subjects of British, French, Belgium German, and Portuguese imperialism turned to the cultural realm. Licking their wounds after strikes on the Dakar-Niger Railroad, the Ethiopian railway service, and at the port of Mombasa, Africans returned to their treasure trove of oral traditions for guidance. Authors collected anthologies of proverbs, sayings, riddles, songs, and stories.

It was these collections of orature that I would later encounter at Ngong Hills Academy, five decades on. There was a large number of African story books circulating between us kids. Such tales inevitably involved giants and ogres, talking animals, and feuding humans. Our school library supplemented these with boxes of books that were brought to class by our class teacher for distribution during “Reading Hour.” The entire room would go silent, after the usual and attendant chaos that emanates from 10-year olds choosing what to read. East African Why Stories by Pamela Kola, for instance, had tales such as “How the Goat Became Our Friend,” “How the Hawk and the Crow Came to Hate Each Other,” and “How the Beans Came to Have a Black Sport on Them.” I loved these texts. The language was simple and easy to follow – think Old Man & the Sea. There was nothing pretentious about them. As woks of fiction, they had initially been commissioned to demonstrate the colonial fallacy that Africans could not write, read, or produce anything intellectual.

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Burning Grass by Cyprian Ekwensi

In Dec 2015, I travelled to Kenya for the Christmas holidays. 7 months earlier, I’d graduated with my PhD in English and had been fortunate to have my mom join me in Miami for the ceremony. As she departed, we’d agreed that my family would hold a bigger get-together later that year to truly celebrate my achievements, with relatives and family friends in attendance.

During those actual festivities, in the midst of all the goat barbecues, plates of pilau rice, and cups of porridge, my mom stood up to address those who’d joined us. She narrated how back when she still had an accounting job in Nairobi, book peddlers would swing by their Kenya National Assurance offices at Bima House and offer books on credit. I’d buy books and pay for them bit by bit before getting enough cash to make a new purchase, she said. Buying books was a luxury, it meant giving up on other wants such as a nice wardrobe, fancy shoes, a car, etc. In the end, however, mom was convinced that her nerdy investments had been worth it. She finished by urging young mothers to provide resources that inspired their children’s reading and that helped them develop curiosity and intellect.

I, too, would agree. Those books were game changers for my sisters and I. They introduced us to an outside world that was beyond anything we knew. Our family library included a 5-volume collection of Bedtime Stories, as well as Christian stories from across the African continent. I’d rush home from school with my play buddies but once in the house I had 3 tasks to accomplish first. The first thing to do was get out of my school uniform and keep it nicely in preparation for school the next day. The next item on the agenda was a quick snack. By which I mean feasting on whatever had been left over from lunch the same day, or from last night’s dinner. Thinking back, it’s amazing how much food I was able to tack into my stomach. I’d have breakfast before heading out the door in the morning. My school prepared lunch for us at around midday – often rice and beans, or Ugali and beans. At 4:30pm, when I walked into the house from school, my first destination was usually the kitchen: in search of food.  And of course, I’d have dinner later in the evening at around 9pm.

I have distinct memories of sitting at our dining table, a plate of Ugali and pumpkin leave stew in front of me. I’d dip into the food with my right hand, as my left hand held down a book of children’s stories from Malawi. I was only barely aware of my mouth accepting food, chewing, and swallowing. Instead, I was engrossed in the suspense surrounding a protagonist who’d ran into a snake. To make matters worse, this happened when she’d gone down to the river with friends, precisely what her mother had asked NOT to do. I could identify. My snack and reading break often had to be abruptly aborted because dusk was creeping in. And with it, my mother. Before she arrived it was imperative that my sisters and I have finished our to-do list. That usually included things like doing dishes, watering the vegetable garden, feeding our pet rabbits,  making dinner for the dog, lighting a fire and boiling water, and taking a shower.

Of Bananas, Coconuts, & Oreos (Part III)

The definition of this phenomenon is intriguing. I’m neither fish nor fowl. Folks such as myself who return to Kenya from the “diaspora” have elsewhere been called “winter bunnies.” Perhaps that works. However, in line with the fruit metaphor that I began this series of essays with – bananas, and coconuts – I’d advance oreos as an alternative terminology. Oreos are not fruit, clearly; but they’re a sweet snack, and served as dessert can easily substitute for fruit salad. More importantly, they’re black on the outside, and white on the inside. An accusation that has most certainly been laid against me. Several times.

For instance, I’ve made a tradition of cooking a meal for my family before I head back to the US for school or work. This past trip home, I choose to make a pasta and mince meat sauce dish. The cooking was fun, and the dish turned out great. However, knowing that my dad does not much care for Italian dishes, I made a side of Ugali – our beloved corn meal bread. I, too, skipped the pasta and had ugali, with the meat sauce, and I thought it was an excellent combo. My mom, my sisters, my partner, and one of my mom’s friend and her grand daughter all had spaghetti. When my partner went back to her house and shared with her family what I’d made, one of her sisters laughed saying, “he’s pretty much a mzungu.” That’s the white part.

This is an alarming time to live in North America, especially in large or medium-sized US metropolitan areas, as a black male. Police brutality is not merely something that stays in the news, it’s a daily reality that sooner or later will catch up with someone who looks like me, has hair like mine, and my particular shade of skin pigmentation. At that moment, in the eyes of Caucasian police officer XYZ, I will be the farthest thing from white that he’s ever seen. I could eat all the pasta I want, clip my accent to high heaven, but when his boot grinds my face, and my chin meets the ground, I’ll be black – as black as ever was.

What to do, then, with this cultural schizophrenia? This belonging-yet-not-quite-belonging? This insider-yet-outsider position? Perchance should I eschew it, and escape the confines of my multiple social cultivation? How shall I straddle this no-longer-purely-Kenyan-and-never-truly-American state of being?

I take heart in what I’ve observed Kanges – conductors on Nairobi’s public transport – do. They and their counterparts across the country are Kenya’s social artists par excellence. Gone are the days when most touts were high school drop-outs with no alternative means to make a living in a system that pendulums between nepotism, tribalism, and a semblance of meritocracy. Currently joining their ranks are male and female college graduates – products of a formal education that still emphasizes white collar employment at a moment when automation is reducing the labor force both in manufacturing and service sectors. They are suave, these new manambas. They are adept salespeople who can’t let go of their smart phones. If they have misgivings about occupying such disparate economic positions, they display nothing but cool confidence.

Only in Kenya do bus touts turn into traffic control, and actually do it competently. They spend all their working hours on the country’s streets, roads, and highways. They live and breathe traffic control. By the time a passenger service vehicle approaches gridlock, the tout is already dangling at the door, set to alight with refinement. Within minutes, two or three of them will get together and take control. There is nothing altruistic about their actions, they resolve the traffic jam in favor of their own vehicles, but their grateful passengers, eager to get home, would hardly have it any other way. Simultaneously, matatu drives take pride in flouting traffic laws. They drive on the wrong side with relish, evidently in a bigger rush, and more impatient, than all other road users. They blatantly demonstrate chronic  infrastructural inadequacies that have choked city roads with vehicle snarl ups.

Channeling the trickster figure in Brer Rabbit or Anansi the Spider, they manage to stay one step ahead of the long arm of the law. Always. I watched a television report of the driver approaching a police checkpoint manned by cops armed with breathalyzers. The fellow, very smoothly, shifted the vehicle to low gear, opened the door, slid out, and ran into a dark Nairobi street for cover. He was inebriated enough to recognize that he would be nabbed for driving under the influence, and yet still agile enough to perfectly execute this daring escape. Skills he’d certainly picked up jump starting decrepit vehicles saved him from a stiff traffic fine, or worse, a weekend in jail.

With that, here’s to patronizing the city’s top restaurants and the low class street food stalls all in one breath. The newly-opened Nairobi Best Western has a 5 star feel to it that similar establishments in North America have long given up any pretense to. The rooftop restaurant with a swimming pool for guests has an excellent view of the CBD, in addition to over-priced drinks and very tasty lamb. And yet this set up lacks the charm and the grit that seduces me back to Mama Uji’s stall, open air and by the road side.