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.

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Of Bananas, Coconuts, & Oreos (Part I)

So, the other day in class I was introduced – by my students – to two fascinating concepts: bananas and coconuts.

Bananas are yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Coconuts are brown on the outside, white on the inside. Have you caught on to the similarity: white on the inside? Students from mainland China and Hong Kong explained that bananas are used as a metaphor to define people of Chinese ethnicity who have adopted European mannerisms: yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Along the same lines, explained an American student of Indian descent, coconuts are deployed to describe a younger generation of Indians who grew up in the United States, speak no Hindi, Punjabi, or Gujarati, but have ties to Mother India through their parents: brown on the outside, white on the inside.

Aside from the retrogressive use of brown and yellow, terms that have not quite transcended their history of oppression in the same way “black” has, there was much that intrigued me about this kind of cultural analysis. On the one hand, I’m in the midst of writing an article about the use of African cuisine, especially in urban areas, to explore hierarchies of (symbolic) power. That bananas and coconuts are, first and foremost, fruits opens up a host of questions as to why communities repeatedly resort to food as a motif to discuss race relations, power differentials, and discrimination.

The other reason why I was fascinated by this discussion was more personal. What fruit, if any, would be most appropriate in describing the kinds of cultural mixing that forms my own personality?

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Let’s step back to kindergarten. I attended Silverbeck Academy for pre-school at a time when academies were still portent symbols of bourgeois social mobility. This counted twice as much in the rural Gikambura area where Silverbeck was located. The institution had both interior and exterior markers of class. On the one hand, its facilities were made of stone and mortar; windows had glass panes, unlike Gicharani Primary School – a public school up the road where paned windows were largely a foreign concept. Internally, Silverbeck used class trips to set itself apart.
There’s one particular excursion that is ingrained in my mind. The school took us to Wilson Airport, a small commercial airport outside the Nairobi CBD. Then, and even now, the airport is frequented by smaller planes, not the international Boeing 737s that one would find at the much bigger Jomo Kenyatta International Airport. It was a great day for an outdoor trip; the tarmacked runway was blindingly sun-lit when we arrived. After all 10 or so kindergarteners got off the bus, we walked around the airfield amongst the planes. Just touching the sleek metal must have been fun. The tail license numbers on the small engine Cessnas must have looked erringly familiar to the numbers and letters activities we did in class. The coolest part of the trip was getting into one of the 8-seater planes, sitting in the cockpit, and having my picture taken holding onto the controls.
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In other words, the sense of being different has always been with me. As I’ve grown older, I’m less perturbed by this outsider-looking-in feeling. I think this is part of why what’s foreign/unfamiliar has always been attractive to me. Back in those Silverbeck days, there was an outdoor cinema once a month in my village. Folks from the government’s Ministry of Sports & Cultural Affairs would show up in a van, rig up a white sheet for a screen, crank the generator, and project old westerns after dusk.

You can’t imagine how big of a deal these events were! They served as a lifeline for teenagers and young adults, connecting them to a “modern” world that barely condescended to visit the dusty market square that we called a town. Those images, those accents, and that music all pointed to a life larger than any of us could comprehend. And this is before we even begin to break down what it meant to view white people with guns riding at high speed towards, or away from, danger. Missing a movie show was tantamount to a midlife crisis, or worse.

My dad’s side of the family tells stories about their escapades attending these movies in the late 80s. The venue was often the outdoor pitch where our local soccer club hosted weekend matches against other teams in the region. One evening when a film was showing, aunt Wanja decided to attend. She sat upfront, on a rare patch of grass, and bundled up to keep warm. She had on an oversized coat, perhaps borrowed from an older sibling to keep the chill away. It goes without saying that there were no public restrooms available at the movie showing. As a result, movie-goers invented all kinds of ways to cater for their bathroom needs. The men, as you can imagine, would simply find a bush to the side and “do” it. Women had less options. And attending to a number 2, by either men or women, required even more skill.

On this particular night, my aunt must have sat next to a member of the audience who was particularly skillful. He/she did their thing, and wrapped it up using a polythene bag. They then deposited the package into my aunt’s coat pocket. Somehow, as she concentrated on John Wayne surviving, yet again, a fusillade of bad guy bullets, she missed both the stench and the newly added weight in her garment. It was not until the film ended, and they were heading back home, that she drove her hands deep into her coat pockets to warm them up and keep away the numbness. Her scream must have woken up any sleeping devils. Her curses would have made a sailor blush. She pulled her right hand out of her now very heavy, very smelly pocket and shook it till her fingers almost dropped off. Running to a patch of a grass, she proceeded to rub her hand and wipe off the offending goo. Getting it out of her coat pocket was another story altogether. All this time, the big village boys were having the time of their lives: pointing and celebrating her misfortune in between sending missiles of rotten eggs across the departing audience.

Getting home from a movie was rarely a peaceful affair; it generally involved fist fights or stone throwing. But not even the threat of human feces could keep us away. It was always a welcome addition of excitement to our usually mellow rural hamlet. Most importantly, however, the screen helped us imagine novel identities we’d otherwise not have experienced. A few days after watching a western, I put on a yellow rain coat and swaggered just like I’d seen the main character to. The coat was new, and came to just below my knees; the proportions couldn’t have been better if it had been meant to be worn out in the wild, wild west. And with my hands deep in my pocket, I thought that my twirling coat tail would have done any cowboy proud.