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.

beetle

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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!

 

Songs for my Ancestress

It was a sunny afternoon; my mom was home, and I was up and about the house staying busy. I’d just done some school work – Physics had a tendency back then to kick my ass and I reciprocated by dedicating a lot of study time to it. My maternal grandma had moved in with us a few weeks before  so she could be closer to medical help in Nairobi. I was aghast to see her when she arrived. She was extremely weak, and her previously slim but full frame had all but withered away. It was clear that the attention she was getting at the hospital was neither  sufficient nor effective.

I was in the living room when I heard her hoarse voice calling out for my mother, “Annie, Annie.” I rushed to my bedroom – which I’d vacated since her arrival – to see what assistance she needed. The door only opened partially, shut from the inside the old school way, with a nail that was partially driven into the door frame before being bent. I looked through the small opening and saw my grandma sitting on the Tily cooking oil container she used when she was unable to make it to the toilet on her own. Having finished with her call of nature, she was now stuck, or her upper body simply too weak to lift her up, out of the plastic can and back onto the bed.

Seeing your elders nude is still, like back in the days of Noah and his son Ham, a taboo. Although my grandma clearly needed help right away, I had to go fetch my mom to come assist her. It would still be difficult for my mother to see her own parent in such a vulnerable, partially nude state, but given the state of grandma’s health, it was excusable. Mom walked into grandma’s room, pushing the door and bending the restraining nail out of the way.

Several days later, grandma was out in the yard. She’d taken a walk outside the house, and was re-entering the house through the kitchen. Just a few meters from the door, she slipped, probably tripping on one of the many stones and pebbles that litter our yard. Weak, and having previously had to rely on her daughter to complete her bathroom needs, grandma fell face first. Sitting inside the house, I doubt I could have heard her weak voice from such a distance; on my way out the kitchen for an entirely different reason, I spotted grandma struggling to get off the ground and back on her feet.

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Of the many interactions I’ve heard with my grandparents, this was the most difficult to reconcile. Margaret Wanjiru, my maternal grandmother and my mother’s mother, was not a woman who fell flat on her face and asked for help to get up.

She was the eldest girl child of Harrison Kamau Karabi, a carpenter at Kenya Railways, and Gladys Wahu, a nurse. Gathiri, as she was known to her siblings and close relatives, led a charmed early life. She went to school at a time when educating girls was considered an anomaly. Thanks to her parents being both skilled professionals, she was schooled to lead the life of a career woman, years before the phenomenon of an independent woman had become the norm in Kenya.

Working with an outfit of the Kenya Transport and Allied Workers Union, Gathiri lived in Nairobi, using some of her income to educate younger siblings. Grandma would later relate to me business trips that she took with colleagues to the Kenyan coastal town of Mombasa. Then, as now, travelling cross country, especially to such a major tourist destination was a big deal. For comparison, neither of my paternal grandparents had benefited from formal education. Mombasa remained a far off dream, constrained as they were within the narrow confines of their home and work locations. When my dad’s dad did travel, it was involuntarily. He was arrested by the British Colonial government as a Mau Mau sympathizer. Having taken the secret Kenya Land and Freedom Army oath, he was sentenced to political ‘rehabilitation’ at Manyani Detention Camp- ironically, situated on the route towards Mombasa’s holiday spots.

Grandma was also involved in the Mau Mau effort. At the height of this 1950s anti-colonial movement, she worked at the then King Georges’ Hospital – later renamed Kenyatta National Hospital.  This meant she had access to drugs and medical supplies that the forest fighters desperately needed. My mom recounts stories of how grandma and her colleagues would smuggle medicine from the hospital and on to the men and women out in the Aberdares range and Mt. Kenya bush fighting for the country’s freedom.

Under Pax Britannica, movement was a privilege only granted to those docile enough not to threaten British interests. The only item from my grandma’s life that I’ve inherited, through my mom, is her colonial-era passbook. Unlike my paternal grandma’s which is empty, Gathiri’s demonstrates just how mobile she was – quite a feat at such a difficult time in Kenya. Grandma Gathiri’s passbook shows her travelling between her work location in Nairobi’s Maringo neighborhood to her parents’ home in the country. To say that the trips were bureaucratically intensive is an understatement. One had to apply for permission to travel before actually leaving. This involved going to the closest chief or district officer’s office and submitting the requisite paperwork. Imagine what this would have meant if you had to also appear for your 9-to-5 job. Having received permission beforehand, on the day you were leaving, you’d get a stamp from your local D.O. confirming that you’d left location A on your way to location B.  As soon as you got to location B you were expected to report to the local authorities so your passbook could be stamped that you’d in fact arrived. Any inexplicable time lapses would be grounds for suspicion and possibly detention. The return trip involved you reporting, and getting a stamp that you were departing, and a stamp in your passbook upon arrival. Essentially, the civilizing mission of the British monarchy had balkanized Kenya into separate regions; to cross from district to district your passbook served as a passport, allowing you passage, if the colonial officer on the other side of the desk felt that you deserved it. In addition, the passbook enabled my grandma’s younger brother to travel with her for school.

By the early Sixties, the political climate had certainly improved for members of the Kikuyu, Embu, and Meru communities who happened to be residing in Kenya’s budding urban areas. If things were lightening up politically, on the eve of Kenya’s colonial mishap, economically there were still challenges to be tackled. Hence, my grandma’s trip to Israel would have been groundbreaking. Surely she would have been held up as a role model for her nieces and nephews to emulate, her career the iconic demonstration of why working hard to gain an education mattered. I recall her stories about travelling to Jerusalem, washing her feet in the River Jordan, and the nostalgia that she related these adventures.

There was a photo on one of my grandma’s wall of her and a colleague on the Israel trip. These two were clearly women of the 60s. The hairdo and the short dresses tell it on a physical level. Thinking back, however, the sexual revolution that characterized this decade must have influenced my grandma’s married life and the fact that she lived as a single mother for the last half of her life. I’ve heard tell of how she once owned a car, a small red mini Morris that initially served as a passenger vehicle before its demise. That this was an extraordinary feat is best demonstrated by the utter disbelief with which a childhood friend once reacted when I described that my grandma once owned a car. In this kid’s experience, women could not drive, let alone own a vehicle.

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.