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.

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.

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 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.

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.