Driving While Black (& Female)

Grandama Gathiri was a trendsetter. She was brought up by a mother, my great grandmother, who was a nurse by profession, at a time when many of her counterparts were locked into illiteracy. Gathiri’s dad, in addition to being a carpenter for Kenya Railways, had also been detained by the British Crown  for associating with the dreaded Mau Mau. All these made my mother’s mother a truly cosmopolitan Kenyan; she could draw upon varied experiences: from the countryside to the expanding cities, from 1950’s professionalism to living under the constant threat of colonial military might.

It was no surprise then, that Gathiri owned a vehicle: a red mini Morris. She went through the rigmarole of acquiring a driver’s license and chauffeured herself from place to place. Eventually, so I’ve learned, the vehicle was turned into a taxi. That didn’t last very long. The business went bust. This could have been due to a whole number of reasons – perhaps the driver/operator was skimming off too much for himself and not maintaining the vehicle as needed. Or maybe the Kenyan government cracked down on private taxis, driving them out of business and reducing the competition faced by bigger politically-connected companies.

Decades later, grandma retired and moved to Juja Farm, a former colonial ranch that sustained teeming wildlife. I’d visit during the school holidays in April, August, or December. Part of Juja’s allure was the openness. The land is flatly, sparsely populated by thorny Acacia shrubs, and you can see the horizon all around you for miles and miles. The grassland provided great grazing for grandma’s cattle. I’d team up with a local herdsman, or sometimes just one of the village boys, and we’d walk behind the animals all day. Driving them towards green grass, and making sure they had plenty of waterholes close by in the afternoon.

Githu, one of my herdsmate, lived in grandma’s locality and had known her for a long time. They all called her Wa Njoroge, Njoroge’s mother. My mom’s younger brother, Njoro, was the only one still living with grandma by the time she relocated to Juja. As is customary, grandma became known for the child the community could see. The only additional moniker they gave her had to do with her literacy.

The Harris’s were a white family who lived at the original Juja Farm. Perhaps they’d bought the land from an earlier colonial settler, or maybe they were descendants of previous British settler populations. Grandma came to know them and soon she’d visit to see if my mom had called their house, the only one with a phone line within a 30 mile radius, and left a message. Fellow villagers were astonished to see Gathiri converse with the white people, in English, no less. And so fluently! From then on they called her Nyina wa Njoroge  wa Githungu, Njoroge’s mom who speaks English.

Speaking English was one thing; after all even school teachers did. Driving was quite another. I once narrated to Githu that grandma used to drive. That she had once owned a small red vehicle and she’d get in, turn the ignition, and transport herself from point A to point B. This was too much for Githu. He opposed me categorically, on the simple fact that women could not drive. Githu’s point was not simply that women didn’t get opportunities to drive, but that they were physically, (emotionally?) incapable of driving.

I lived in Ngong, a fairly urbane location so had seen numerous female drivers. My headmistress, Mrs.Murithi, chauffeured herself to school, hours before her husband who worked as the head institutional  administrator arrived. One of my classmates, a biracial kid with an Italian dad, was dropped off and picked up from school by her Meru mother. My grandma’s youngest brother, had married an optician who not only drove to work, but also took us to Juja multiple times. I knew Githu’s argument was false, but I also understand that his immediate surroundings, void of the same experiences I could draw upon, had led him to such conclusions. He vehemently denied the existence of (black) female drivers.

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While generally a somewhat cranky person, I have few pet peeves. I appreciate my own quirks enough to allow others their own strangeness. I often get on pavements and roadways as a pedestrian or cyclist; understandably, I feel very strongly when drivers ignore traffic laws and common road etiquette. My biggest pet peeve is drivers idling their brakes until they come to a final stop right in the middle of a pedestrian walkway. It’s technically illegal, but more importantly, it’s sloppy and rude. Both of which make for dangerous driving. I cannot stand it. It blows my mind that a driver can be so ignorant of the fatal potential that her car holds vis-a-vis cyclists or pedestrians. This action smirks of entitlement, and worse, complete and utter obliviousness. Again, bad, dangerous driving.

I’d just finished going through several hoops in order to renew my expired Florida license in Nebraska. The DMV officials had looked through all my immigration documents, and successfully ascertained I wasn’t one of those immigrants awaiting a deportation trumpet to Mexico, or wherever. It then turned out that I needed to pass a written test. With no prior head’s up, I’d obviously not prepared. Nevertheless, I dove right into it, and dutifully failed. Something about parking uphill when there is or there isn’t a curb. I still don’t get the difference.

24 hours later, armed with about 45 minutes worth of perusing the driver’s manual, plus a practice test, I returned. I felt good about this particular attempt. I’d made efforts to remember the 5 or 6 questions I’d failed the day before, and memorized their answers. I also had my priorities right. My goal was to get through the test; it had nothing to do with how I’d actually behave on Nebraskan roadways. A test is a test; driving is driving. The two entities do not always match up.

I patiently endured my 2 hour wait at the DMV. Where would we be without long waits at virtually all government offices? Imagine delivering services in a way that optimized rush hour, wait times, personnel, and scarce resources. What a lovely dream! My waiting ticket number flashed on the console, and I pulled myself together as I headed to counter #2. I handed over my ticket, immigration documents, plus a bar code receipt from the previous day. The officer in charge then directed me to choose any of the tablet computers lined up against the wall and get started with the written test. I did as instructed. I skipped a few questions, and even guessed one. I was a bit anxious to not fail, once again. In the end, I was happy to find out, I’d answered all but one question correctly. My guess on how many points you stand to lose over a 2 year misdemeanor record was correct. But my response to a question regarding residential area speed limits was not. It took me another 20 minutes to pay the license issuing fee, and I walked out with a paper copy of my DL. Success!

I took O Street back to downtown Lincoln.  At the second pedestrian crosswalk, I noticed an SUV idling its way onto the zebra crossing. The driver was on the phone as she eyed the light ahead so she could take a left turn. I don’t think she even turned towards where I was coming from. In any case, the person sitting beside her on the front passenger seat would have partially blocked her view. There was no other vehicle behind her; if she’d really cared to, she could have backed up and moved away from the pedestrian crossing.

The combo of using a cell phone while driving THEN stopping smack in the middle of a pedestrian walkway was just too much for me. I went around the back of her silver Mercury. Emerging from the other side, I approached her open window and said “next time, please don’t stop on a pedestrian crossing!”

Oh my! Me calling her out got her mad. Super mad. She began shouting as I walked away, “excuse me! Excuse me!” I walked on. “What did you say?” I never turned back. I got the feeling that looking back at her would not only dignify her outburst, it would also escalate this interaction. Although I could feel her eyes literally drilling daggers through my back, I forced myself to keep walking forward. My back has never felt so exposed before, and I’ve never wished for a bullet proof vest as I did that afternoon. And yet somehow, I banked on some unspoken honor code that even if she was packing, she’d not shoot me in the back. Talk of clutching at straws. When eventually the lights turned green and she took her left turn, she drove past me on the other side of the road with sneering eyes.

She’d irked me for careless driving, and totally deserved to be told off. In retrospect, however, I should have approached that moment with more humility. Forcing myself into the bubble that constituted hers and her passenger’s personal space, I should have at least excused myself. Not doing so merely rendered her invisible – in the problematic way that women of color in particular, and women generally, are invisible in white male space (basically everywhere). Like Githu, I too was participating in a monologue that underlined women’s incapacity to drive. I call out a lot of bad drivers. Sometimes I flail my arms in frustration, and once in a while I’ve even been know to issue the finger. But I’d be dishonest to claim that my probability of calling out a white male driver is the same as that of me calling out a black female driver. Sometimes it’s worth staying mum and letting go. Or perhaps using sarcasm to thank rude drivers. In any case, I’m now very keen on rewarding good road use. I wave at every driver who’s polite enough to let me past the crosswalk. After all, it’s the little things that count!

 

Of Cash, Women, & Public Spaces

I was sitting at the Green Pastures Hotel, Ngong, the other day. I’d just taken care of some errands at the bank and sent out emails. I spotted the Green Pastures café and noticed that although several tables were occupied by old Masai men, there was still space to sit and enjoy Kenya’s legendary chai. I decided to walk in and have a cup of tea and 2 mandazi. After ordering my snacks at the counter, and grabbing a seat, I became aware of two school girls in uniform eating fries. I  also began following a conversation between a security guard who’d walked in for lunch and the hotel staff. They were making fun of him for eating githeri and reminding him of previous visits to the joint when he’d ordered chapati and beef stew – a much more affluent meal than his current maize and bean stew.  He laughed off their remarks, intent on negotiating some beef gravy onto his plate. I thought about paying for his meal but he seemed a lot more at home in the restaurant than I was. On the other hand, I figured, two high school girls would love a free plate of fries. I decided to pay for their meal.

 

At the end of my meal, when I went to the counter and settled my check, I asked the cashier whether the two students had already cleared their tab. She said no, at which point I expressed my desire to pay on their behalf. Although she seemed a bit hesitant, I went ahead and handed her the KSHS 200. I had not calculated a quid pro quo –  at least in no more than an acknowledging nod of the chin, and a shrug of the shoulders. Essentially, a thank-you-but-it’s-no-big-deal response.  Nothing more. Putting myself in their same position, I reckoned that as a cash-strapped high school kid any benefactors, especially those engaged in public transactions would be quite welcome.  I get a free plate of fries and all I have to do is wave thanks and goodbye? Sign me up!

 

That, it turns out, was the exact moment of my miscalculation. These two young women were not operating under the same assumptions. I hissed at them as I was walking out the door – that “xsxs” sound you make with tongue partly jutting out from lips spread over barely exposed front teeth. They both turned to face me. I then ventured to say, “msilipe, nimelipa.” The reaction was fascinating, actually. One of them interpreted my words as an insult. Pointing her right index finger to just above her ear and behind the temple, she gestured asking, “wewe, uko na hii?” Essentially, my sanity was in question. How dare I openly pay for their meal? Her body language was extremely rude; that she was irked enough by my actions to also perform her displeasure in public is amazing to me and invites so many questions. I don’t doubt that at least one of the young ladies, perhaps both, harassed the cashier for having accepted the money on their behalf. I wonder if both female students understood accepting a free meal to also mean partaking in an exchange – for which their part of the deal was yet to be determined. Being that I’m a man, it’s not entirely inconceivable that I might have done so to elicit sexual favors.

 

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During the last couple of days I spent in Accra, I took it upon myself to bar hop extensively, in commemoration of the wonderful six weeks I’d spent in Ghana. East Legon was one of my favorite haunts. Close to the Mensvic Hotel where I was lodged, I could walk back from a restaurant as I surveyed the night scene.

 

I’d just had a lovely time at Jerry’s; this outdoor pub that sprawls from within the halls of a juke-box-furnished hall onto the busy Legon Avenue. Patrons not only sit at the counter, indoors, they also occupy plastic seats on what had historically been a sidewalk. They balance local and foreign brews – Star, Club, Heineken – on plastic tables and nod to the DJ’s efforts. Sometimes the DJ replaces the juke box; often they simply compete for an audience. The party spills over onto the busy two-way street. Young ladies in various stages of undress, saunter up and down the street. They familiarly walk into Jerry’s, order drinks, stand by the kebab/mshikaki grill and light cigarettes, then walk back onto the road waiting for the next client. These young women don’t ask for anyone’s permission to be present. If Jerry’s does not prove up to par, they easily walk across to Phillipo’s – a hip barbecue joint that boasts a long line of customers waiting to pick up their chicken, goat, or sausage meats-on-a-skewer. Dressed in wigs, black evening dresses, short skirts, sling bags, heels, and manicured nails, these young women are comfortably in place.

 

Alongside them, in between Jerry’s and Phillipo’s, a range of foreign vehicles drives up and down sometimes slowing down to let one of them hop in. Occasionally, a driver will simply pull up at Jerry’s and begin a conversation with one of the women. Drinks might even be ordered and consumed as the  couple chats, sometimes sitting inside the car, but more often simply leaning on the hood or the car doors. Understandably, given the large number of ladies present, it often seems like a buyer’s market.  Consequently, several ‘sellers’ chose to detach themselves from the Jerry’s/Phillipo’s crowd and stake out their own spots. About 200 meters in either direction, you’ll find seductively dressed ladies standing alone, as though waiting for a cab, or in twos and threes, sharing a smoke and surviving the night. Walking from Jerry’s to the Mensvic, I was fascinated by how the women chose a particular spot. Did everyone have a favorite spot; would others stay away and respect some kind of ownership? Was it more strategic to stand underneath a tree, next to a restaurant, or behind an electric pole? At what point in the conversation between a sex worker and a client did the issue of monetary compensation arise?

 

If Jerry’s and Phillipo’s are visited by the hoi polloi – folks who don’t mind mingling outdoors, assaulted by hooting taxis, mosquitoes, braving inadequate/non-existent interior décor – the new KFC joint 300m down the road is reserved for the upwardly mobile. Where Jerry’s is loud, chaotic, and characterized by cheap plastic furniture that breaks or bends – suddenly planting its occupier on the dirt floor – KFC is marked by shiny glass walls, polished daily to assist its clientele better reflect on their progress up the social ladder. The wood and metal furniture is largely immovable; the only fluid part of the restaurant is the drive thru section where customers lean out of Range Rovers and latest model Jaguars to order family packs of chicken nuggets and diet cokes.

 

Jennifer and Anita were standing together by the road side. I walked on the pavement behind them headed back to the hotel. Jennifer made first contact; not in any rude or heckling kind of way, but just a polite hello. I stopped and engaged them in conversation. They shared their names, after I’d told them mine. And then I began with the fifth degree. Where are you from? Jennifer said she was Liberian, but Anita was from Togo. I thought it was highly suspicious that none of them identified as Ghanaian. Was this to avoid some kind of stigma? For me, my antenna was doubly raised because I’d had several conversations with Ghanaians where crime and begging on the streets were social ills repeatedly associated with foreigners – not something Ghanaians did. Go figure! I couldn’t tell if Jennifer’s English made her Liberian enough, but I sought to check Anita’s French. I can happily report that even if she’s not Togolese, her French is more fluent than mine!

 

I was interested in finding out how long they’d been pursuing this line of work. And I was especially curious to figure out how, if at all, they read potential clients. I asked questions about how often they reach out to someone who’s walking. Jennifer remarked, “this one has a lot of questions!” In their position, I figured I’d only speak with men who drove, expecting them to have more disposable income. Jennifer and Anita made the argument that sometimes they actually make more from a man who walked to them. Anita was pretty clear that if she had a husband she’d not be on the streets at that time; she’d have someone to take care of her. We parted with me buying drinks for them. It was the least I could do. Having taken up their time with my questions, I could at least buy each of them a beer in return. The cash exchange was surprisingly comfortable for all parties involved.

 

 

 

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.

You Lost a Sock; You Deserve to be Angry

I don’t mind doing laundry. In fact, I rather enjoy laundry duty. I don’t get how, or when, masculinity became synonymous with unkempt, dirty, or smelly. In any case, that is not my brand of manliness. Period.

As much joy as I get from laundry, however, nothing irks me more than losing a pair of socks in between the washing, drying, and folding operations. Well, actually one thing does: losing A SOCK.

Losing a sock must have been invented by the gods to torment us poor mortals -especially those of the OCD variety. I swear that if socks and washing machines had been invented about 3 millennia ago, Buddha would still be chasing Nirvana – and his favorite red toed ankle length no-show socks. “I swear they were just here!” he’d say, muttering unholistic koans under his breath.

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Losing a sock is the absolute definition of a lose-lose situation. Ok, so the darn thing has disappeared. You’ve pocked your head into the dryer, and the washer, 5 times and each time the missing bugger does not materialize. It’s like one of those days you’d play hide and seek with your elder siblings. They hide; you seek. Only today they plotted not to let you in on the trip they’ll be taking all afternoon: to the cinema. You count out loud, spin around thrice, and shout “ready or not here I come!” By then the suckers are choosing which brand of popcorn to munch on for the next 3 hours. You walk around an eerily quite house and finally realize, then slowly admit, that you’ve been had. Same thing with the sock. You finally have to tear yourself away from the laundry room. That sucker is gone, and it ain’t coming back!

Having accepted that reality, you now proceed to blaspheme against the universe for having pulled a fast one on you. You’re so busy cursing out the heavens, you don’t notice the babe beside you. It’s Conscience, and she’s totally in league with the absconding piece of your wardrobe. It’s like that neighbor whom your siblings asked to keep an eye on you, but who only agreed grudgingly. Now that you’ve come to her house asking after them, she figures she, too, can have some fun. “You say you’ve searched everywhere? Pause. And you still can’t see them?” Hmm, she pauses again, and adopts a wise muse. She has no more an idea of how wise muses look than chickens know how the whole using-toilet-paper-and-washing-your hands-after works. Nevertheless, she throws you something; “have you checked in Mr. Mwaura’s orchard? I think I saw a group of kids going in that direction earlier.” Mr. Mwaura’s farm is in the opposite direction to the cinema. She knows that. She also knows that it’s a 30 min walk. She doesn’t care. She’s here to make you more miserable.

So is Conscience. She waits till you’ve worked up a stomach ulcer in anger about that missing sock, then politely points out. At least you only lost one sock; you know there’re people out there who’ve lost one leg. Or even both.

Wham! Out of the blue, you’re no longer the victim of a Houdini act orchestrated by the dryer and washer. Conscience completely robs you of the self-pity status you’d began warming up to. The letter you were mentally drafting to the African Union to send a Search and Rescue team and help flash out Al Shabab operatives who are terrorizing your sanity, one sock at a time, evaporates. Now you’re just a jerk who has no sense of perspective. I mean, look at you, you’re perfectly healthy, have both upper and lower limbs, and you’re whining about losing a SOCK.

Her work done, Conscience lets you be. You start folding your laundry, contrite. You imagine all that TV footage you’ve seen about Kenyatta National Hospital after an accident. The Emergency ward is filled with screams, blood, and worried relatives. And you only lost a SOCK.

As you hang your last dress shirt, however, you remember that this whole Kenyatta National Hospital business is nonsense. You lost a sock; you deserve to be angry. As a matter of fact, you paid good money for that pair of socks. The unstated agreement was that the socks were to serve you till you deemed them eligible for pensionable retirement – scrubbing windows. How dare they renege on a gentleman’s agreement? Scoundrels! You’re happy. Once again, you have a legit reason why you should go all Taliban on the gods. They’ve been mocking you this whole time. And they even had the gall to make you feel guilty about your anger. You’re a man. You work hard for your money. You have to tolerate that nasty boss. The one who’s always making baby eyes at your fiancé during Christmas parties.

Oh, so you even have a job? At a company that can afford to throw holiday get-togethers? It’s Conscience; she’s back. What the devil? You ask, with a sinking feeling in your stomach. There’s no way this line of questioning will end up boosting your morale. Do you realize the unemployment rate in the country is over 15%. There are skilled workers with more degrees than you tarmacking day and night. She’s really laying it on you this time. You have a good jobo where you can afford to buy socks. And you even have two feet to put the socks on, but all you can do is complain after losing a miserable single sock …!

At this point her voice is almost ear-piercingly shrill. She’s having none of your but-I-work-hard-for-my-money excuses. You settle in for the msomo. No need fighting anymore on this one; let it come. But now you know. Next time a sock waves goodbye, use its mate to store your cameras. Turns out the darn things make great carrying cases for lenses. But whatever you do, don’t get angry. Lady Conscience doesn’t take it too kindly when you flaunt your privilege.