Friday, 5 September 2008

Sci-Cultura's Newer New Home

So long, farewell blogger. It's been real.

Please update your links to

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Africans in France Sans Papiers

An interesting read in the Guardian today that gives a laudable account of Parisian photographer Fabien Breuvart, who in show of solidarity with hard working, tax-paying but non-social-benefits-claiming illegal African immigrants a.k.a sans papiers (without papers) has taken hundreds of photos (500+ and counting) of these workers alongside documented members of the public. The body of work is entitled Vas-y, montre ta carte! (Go on, show your card!) and carries a clear message: ‘the only difference between these two people is a piece of paper’.

See the article for more of Breuvart’s photos and details on Sarkozy-son-of-an-immigrant’s tough immigration policies that have allegedly resulted in an 80% increase of deportations of the sans-papiers since last year. The article also contains personal accounts of interviewees that reflect France’s colonial history - Algeria, Ivory Coast and Mali. Apparently the French mantra liberté, equalité et fraternité does not apply to the sans-papiers. Domage.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Kehinde Wiley::My New Favourite Painter

Apparently I have been out of the loop, only having recently discovered the genius that is Kehinde Wiley. Although now that I think about it, I had come across one of his uniquely-styled majestic paintings of a hoodie (UK slang for teenaged male in a hooded top) on a horse on some random page on facebook (should I be saying this?). Anyway, to the point - I recently saw Wiley’s exhibition The World Stage: Africa, Lagos ~ Dakar at the Studio Museum in Harlem (hat tip Kamau - you’ve become a regular resource to this blog!).

Wiley’s distinct portraiture of young, urban black men in an ornate setting has been branded by reviewers as European renaissance meets hip-hop. In a similar yet distinct thread, this exhibition presents gigantic oil on canvas paintings of local, young, male models, dressed in contemporary wear, in poses that mimic historical public sculptures from the streets of Lagos and Dakar in a backdrop of ornate, bright and colourful West African textiles. Believe me, the image here is nowhere close to doing the real thing justice.

I particularly liked Wiley’s reported interaction with the local young men and granting them some artistic license to express themselves when they modelled the theatrical poses for him. I was greatly impressed by the vibrancy, life-like expressions, and contradictory grandeur yet intimacy that these paintings portrayed, especially given their impressive larger-than-life size. I stood in one spot in the centre of the appropriately high-ceilinged exhibition room, and gently rotated, surrounded by at least ten paintings, wanting to be enveloped by and absorb all of their splendour. It was readily evident that Wiley had put a lot of thought into his choice of West African textiles used in the backdrop, not only in terms of their intricate designs but also their kaleidoscopic splash of colours which blend amazingly and surprisingly well with the colourful attire and mood of the subjects. In addition, in some cases the elaborate designs of the textiles transcend the boundary of being just the background, but swirl across, subtlely merging and interacting with the subject. From my Wiley-related investigations online, this appears to be a trademark Wiley-esque trait. The World Stage: Africa, Lagos ~ Dakar is on at the Studio Museum in Harlem until 26th October 2008. If you can, go see. I guarantee, you will not be disappointed. Or your money back :)

I hope my suspicions that Kehinde Wiley is only just warming up are confirmed, this reportedly being his second body of work inspired out of the US borders. The other being World Stage: China.

When I really like something, I have a tendency to want to immerse myself in it and absorb everything there is to know about it. If like me, you still want more on this über cool (are the kids still saying this?) wealth of talent, check out his website and profile on myspace.

Also, more of Kehinde Wiley’s work to tantalise your senses (yipee!) at the RECOGNIZE! exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington DC, that is said to explore hip-hop culture’s vitality and beauty by Wiley and other artists. Also on until 26th October 2008. Sadly, I am relying on the internet to get my Wiley fix from the latter. If I had a mansion with huge walls, I know what would be adorning them. Sigh.

Images from Kofi, artnet and i heart art.

Sci-Cultura's New Home

On a housekeeping note, the url for this blog is now
I tried to keep it simple by only removing the "blogspot". The old url will be redirected here, but I know not for how long. So please ammend your links / bookmarks accordingly and stay tuned!

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Senegal.::DJ Awadi::.Immigration

I just came across this slideshow I'd bookmarked about 2 years ago that accompanies Senegalese rapper DJ Awadi's "Sunugaal" (roughly translates from Wolof to "our canoe"). It still brings tears to my eyes. It is one of those occassions where words are meaningless - the images speak for themselves and they speak volumes. The lyrics from "Sunugaal" which was in response to the tragic deaths of young Senegalese (and other West African) men who risk their lives as they head out to the Spanish Canary Islands in simple, overcrowded wooden fishing boats are available on the same link in English, French and Spanish. An overview with statistics, migration routes, etc that links different African countries and the coveted Atlantic and Mediterranean islands that offer a door way to Europe is available here.

This heart-wrenching topic does not have the same level of media presence as it did before, I suspect partly because the Spanish government and EU went on a crackdown to put an end to this fatally risky arrival of Africans onto Spanish holidaymakers' shores who then become their problem. Sadly, some survivors have been known to be deported back to their countries and still give it another go. I would be interested to know if anyone has any news / information to share. The last I heard anything connected to this was last year when there was controversy around Spanish designer Antonio Miro's decision to use African immigrants as models on the catwalk, with canoes in the set, as a way of bringing this tragedy to the forefront of people's minds. Details here.

Also, in connection, a personal account entitled Kingsley's Crossing available in DVD and podcast documents a Cameroonian man's 6-month journey across Africa in search of a better life in Europe. You can buy Kingsley's Crossing here. (via Kamau)

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Crowning Glory - Part Deux - contemporary African hair

Apparently, the black hair industry in North America alone is worth approximately $4 billion, possibly on par with the "ethnic" cosmetics industry. I suppose this is only a natural progression from the not-so-long ago past where the use of oils, dyes such as red cam wood, perfumes such as lavender, frankincense and sandalwood and ornaments such as beads, shells, seeds, coral, amber were ubiquitously used traditionally to adorn African coiffures. Sisal fibres used to make braids have now been replaced with synthetic extensions of various textures as well as human hair. Wigs, which have been identified as far back as the time of the ancient Egyptians, are now similarly synthetic or convincingly human hair.

Interestingly, although there has been a proffesionalisation of hairdressers and the use of more sophisticated tools to manipulate and negotiate hairstyles (with the exception of the irreplaceable afro comb), unlike the tradition of having hair styled by a friend or relative, hair dressers and barbers alike have maintained the social aspect of creating a space for exchange between stylists and clients. Today hairdressing salons typically nourish an environment for gossip and banter.

The West has inevitably influenced the evolution of African hairstyles and headdress. The now ubiquitous headscarf was in part linked to prudish / modest Victorian (late 19th Century) values, as well as straightening with the use of heat or chemicals. Many hairstyles have persisted and others been fashionably created. Just like the fashion industry, the hairstyles that are in vogue ebb and flow. A jheri curl wearer may be subject to rib-tickling taunts about smearing windows and staining pillows, whereas back in the day it was the “fresh” style of the 80s and early 90s. I confess I was a cool cat back then with my wet curls ☺ Although not so much with my cornrows, which are certainly more fashionable now than they were during my childhood in the 80s.

There is a vast amount of discourse around hair of African ancestry – from its artistic attributes (see beautiful images by JD Okhai Ojeikere; inset by Samuel Fosso) (double hat tip Kamau), to its role in shaping identity, to the rights and wrongs of wearing it natural or chemically processed, but to cite a few. A powerful element of self-expression from the choice of hairstyle that cannot be evaded is that hair may be used as a means to convey a political message. The legendary 1960s Civil Rights / Black Consciousness Movement that emanated from the USA was inexorably linked to the grand and perpetually fashionable afro. African men and women in my parents’ generation wore afros – some to express their fashion sense and others to express the feeling of pride in newly decolonised lands. As a child, I clearly remember the black power fist plastic afro combs that were ubiquitous in Kenya, although at the time I didn’t appreciate the statement they made.

The same could be said for locs (aka dreadlocks), which were previously strongly associated with being a Rastafarian or a rebel, such as the Mau Mau freedom fighters against British colonial rule in Kenya. Today in Kenya, despite the earlier association with the Mungiki (a now illegal politico-religious group), it is apparent that society is becoming more tolerant to this choice of hairstyle, with many hairdressers in Nairobi tending to locs, which are being increasingly worn by men and women alike. Again, just like the ‘fro, locs are being worn as a message of Black Consciousness or simply a trendy fashion-sense.

Despite their renaissance, unfortunately, I still hear of corporate employers in North America, Europe and Africa who have a problem with the choice of these natural hairstyles despite their neat appearance. It’s quite remarkable how hair is so strongly weaved into our socio-political fabric that it evokes such strong reactions and resistance to the transformation of hairstyles' image in people's minds. Regardless, African hair will remain a hot topic of discussion for a long time to come. As far as I am concerned how I wear my hair is an expression of self, but it does not define who I am.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Crowning Glory – Part One – a brief note on the history of African hair

Hair has been a unavoidably dominant feature of African art and culture since time immemorial. Hairstyles have been coiffured as aesthetic expressions much like other temporary adornments such as body paint, which bear a sharp contrast to permanent expressions such as scarification or skull elongation that was practised by the Mangbetu people of what is now Democratic Republic of Congo.

Typically, in many communities, far beyond a tool for an individual’s expression of self, symbolic and distinctive hairstyles were also used to reflect specific characteristics such as age, sex, social and religious status. Hair in these contexts is elaborately explored within specific communities sparsed across the African continent in a fascinating book whose title is derived from an exhibition, Hair in African Art and Culture (available from Amazon) in the Museum for African Art in New York City. This beautiful and enriching, glossy, photo-essay coffee table book successfully encapsulates the rich variety of hair arrangements in both men and women, boys and girls, that have had a central place in African life and art. The blurry lines and intimate entwinement of life and art are presented by photography and sculpture and elaborated with text, including anthropological accounts.

It is a fascinating read - Within various groups spanning the African continent, hairstyles were significant as they were used to mark and express together with meaningful cries or ululation significant life-changing events such as mourning or initiations. Hair had a voice and the eyes in the community “heard” the message of the wearer. For instance, in women thick long tresses symbolised fertility and strength; disheveled hair a state of disharmony such as a bereavement; and plaited hair a commitment to social order. Interestingly, the fact that hair was entrusted to another person, usually of the same sex, created and flourished a social bond between the stylist and the wearer. Something that undoubtedly carries on today.

Hair was also used to breath life into masks, that were used in ritual. The same sacrity was given to hair used in juju (i.e. charms) that could potentially be used to harm or protect the owner. Consequently, hair was disposed of with great care.

My next post will be on the somewhat contentious subject of contemporary African hair.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Interruption of the Radio Silence with Old Wise Words

I was recently excitedly reacquainted with a book I had when I was in primary school aged 10: Swahili Sayings from Zanzibar by S.S. Farsi. I’ve always been intrigued by the use of methali (the Swahili word for proverbs) as well as metaphors as they add flavour to speech. They stir up the creative mind, reminiscent of pidgin or sheng, whose words or phrases, when traced back to the root, usually reveal a rather clever deduction.

In the bilingual preface, Farsi acknowledges the need for recording of customs and traditions before they are forgotten.

Proverbs are very useful for inculcating moral lessons…They are indeed disappearing very quickly. Until recently, children were not allowed out-of-doors after sunset…For the period between sunset and bedtime they sat indoors and enjoyed listening to the old women who told them riddles and fairy stories. These stories always had a moral and educational purpose.

As I flipped through this small but significant treasure, a methali caught my eye:

Kimya kingi kina mshindo mkuu.
A long silence is followed by a mighty noise.

Coincidence or prophetic?
We shall soon find out.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Fashionable Flair

This post marks the first of what I hope will culminate in a series that portrays the intriguing influences from our ancestors and how they have contributed, with or without our knowledge, to shape us “modern” folk.

It invariably grates me when certain members of society judge others as “backward”, "uncivilised" or “undeveloped” for prevailing in their traditional ways of life. Interestingly, Victorian (late 19th to early 20th century) women’s fashion, when Britain was a colonial power, incorporated bustles to their dresses in order to create the illusion of a large derriere, bears an undoubtedly striking resemblance to this boy's elaborate attire in the Omo Valley, Ethiopia.

Curious, isn’t it?

If my high-school-cum-crash-course-French is accurate, my source for the image on the left suggested that this boy and other youngsters had adorned themselves in body paint and transformed themselves into works of art that were reminiscent of Picasso or Paul Klee. Once again, I’d like to suggest the contrary - it is their work that is reminiscent of African art. It is well known that Picasso got his inspiration from African art forms, notably masks. I rest my case.

I'm trying to put up less garrulous posts. Not a bad start, huh.

Image 1: Boy in Omo Valley, from Le Figaro Magazine; Image 2: Victorian woman, from Living History

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

South Africa.::Molora::.On Hope

This is by no means a political blog. However, in discussing the arts, politics is bound to emerge as the two are sometimes intimately entwined. As I have mentioned before, the arts are a uniquely powerful tool to voice oppression. So too are the arts a useful means to explore change and its impact. Such as the transition of a nation.

I had intended for this post to coincide with South African Freedom Day. In my defence, however, the issues it raises will surely be relevant at the forthcoming annual celebration of the official release of South Africa from the chains of apartheid – the day that led to Nelson “Madiba” Mandela to become the first black president of the Rainbow Nation.

The [Truth and Reconciliation] Commission had been founded in the belief that the truth was the only means by which the people of South Africa could come to a common understanding of their past, and that this understanding was necessary if the country was to forge a new national identity in the future.
Excerpt from: The Truth Commission by Jillian Edelstein - published in Granta 66, Summer 1999.

Molora, a Sesotho word that translates to ash (thanks OnSesotho), is a raw, intense and captivating play, written and directed by Yael Farber. If you plan on seeing this play, be warned that this post contains a spoiler – all is revealed.

Farber cleverly adapted and juxtapositioned the Greek tragedy about mother and daughter, Elektra and Klytemnestra, which is part of the violent cycle of the Oresteia Trilogy and effectively correlated it with South Africa’s own relatively recent tragedy. Apartheid.

Klytemnestra (Dorothy Ann Gould), the audacious, forceful and seemingly heartless mother portrayed the white South African institution, while her daughter, the gentle yet strong, vulnerable yet courageous and unyielding Elektra (Jabulile Tshabalala), portrayed black South Africans with all heart and soul. The face-twisting pain and oppression that Elektra was subjugated to and evidently carried with her was conveyed time and time and time again.

Although I am not one for this type of melodramatic acting, the talented actors conveyed raw emotion with much candor and intensity, drawing the audience not only into their minds, but more importantly into their hearts. The symbolism throughout the play cleverly transcended multiple layers. A simple mound of sand took centre stage, which the audience knew to be the grave of her father, Agamemnon, Elektra’s husband, who was murdered in cold blood, by his own wife. The white, gumboot-wearing mother Klytemnestra had a bloodstained face and clothes. In addition, the appropriation of well known quotes that pervaded many layers were also used to depict the incredibly challenging topics of apartheid, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the much needed healing of the South African people.

What effortlessly remains with me, a true sign of the successful conveyance of her fight for survival, include the re-enactments at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Klytemnestra’s ruthless torturing of her daughter Elektra by immersing her head in water and holding it down – the “wet bag” technique of the apartheid era. Or when Klytemnestra forceably seals a plastic bag over Elektra’s head as Elektra lies face down with her mother Klytemnestra sitting on her bottom, rendering her helpless and at her mercy. Or when Klytemnestra burns Elektra with her lit cigarette. On each occasion, moments before Elektra gasped loudly as she painstakingly inhaled, desperately sucking in precious oxygen into her deprived lungs, some of the audience, myself included, fidgeted in our seats; the urgency palpable as tens of seconds that felt like minutes ticked, dictating raised heartbeats and miniature beads of sweat collecting on our brows as we quietly watched the ruthless and inhumane treatment Elektra suffered.

Although none of this was news to us, it was still shocking. It was as if we had been sucked into an unrelenting black hole and were falling to infinity as we helplessly watched Elektra suffer, knowing that the one woman’s pain that we felt and witnessed was only multiplied not-so-long-ago by a nation of millions. Or perhaps it was as if we had been grabbed by the hand by an unseen, unmatched force beneath us and pulled into a bottomless unillumined body of water. And when we came up for breath and eventually crawled out, there was no denying that we had been immersed as we were now dripping wet. Regrettably, we could not be reassured that this was just a play. For they were not just actors and what they conveyed was not based on fiction. I imagined that Elektra really had lived the pain. Knowing that one woman’s pain was so raw and so palpable left me overwhelmed, unable to imagine the pain of an entire nation.

At the core of the play was the message/question: is revenge the only and natural response? In other words, is forgiveness possible?

Once Elektra and her brother Orestes are re-united, Elektra voices her simple but heartfelt monologue, quoting Shakespeare:

If you prick us do we not bleed?
If you tickle us do we not laugh?
If you poison us do we not die?
And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

Throughout the play, the Xhosa women and one man of the Ngqoko Cultural Group mainly stood at the sidelines of the set, creating the ritualistic ambience through their split tone harmonies and instruments that include a milking drum and calabash and bow. Later, as grief consumes the wailing Elektra, she lies across the group of the kneeling Xhosa women who lovingly embrace her and envelope her, caressing her body that emanates with raw and tender grief from every pore, singing to her to give her spiritual healing through touch and song – insinuating this is the only way to heal the grief, the anger and the deep-seated desire for revenge. And later, brother and sister, Elektra and Orestes, unlike in the storyline of the Greek myth, spare their mother’s life.

The message is clear: revenge will not undo any of the wrongs inflicted upon them but only cause more grief.

The play ends with a silent yet incredibly powerful message - falling ash onto the shoulders of the silent, still and onward-looking cast. The ash, a tribute to the uncountable victims of the apartheid era, as a new South Africa emerges.

But the stars of the evening, in my opinion were the women of the Ngqoko Cultural Group. Their split tone guttural singing was not only captivating and haunting, but like none other I have ever heard. At first I was perplexed at their lack of eye contact with the audience, including during the bows at the end of the play. As I walked towards the tube station minutes later, our paths crossed. Star struck and unconcealingly impressed by these women, I approached them to thank them and their translator, the man of the group, willingly obliged. It instantly struck me that the reason they did not interact with the audience in their body language was simply because they were not actors. They were authentic Xhosa singers, their faces unwashed and still adorned in bodypaint and dressed in the same clothes they had worn on stage. That evening, they had simply done what they usually did. The only difference being that a random audience in a basement theatre in central London had watched them. I felt incredibly humbled by these women and grateful to have been a witness and to have been immersed in their enchanting primordial, ancestral sounds.

For a taste of Molora click here.
Molora is currently on tour in Europe and USA.

Monday, 21 April 2008

Aimé Fernand David Césaire (1913 to 2008) – A Tribute

"Poetic knowledge is born in the great silence of scientific knowledge...What presides over the poem is not the most lucid intelligence, the sharpest sensibility or the subtlest feelings, but experience as a whole.”

(via A Poetics of Anticolonialism)

Photo from AP

The much loved and revered poet, author and politician Aimé Césaire was laid to rest in Martinique in a state funeral yesterday. Arguably mostly renowned for spear-heading the Pan-African and anti-colonial movement by being part of the trio that coined the concept and movement “negritude” (defined as the affirmation that one is black and proud of it) while studying and living in Paris in the 1930s, with his friends Léon Damas (from French Guiana) and Léopold Senghor (the then future president of Senegal) in their joint university publication L’etudiant Noir (The Black Student), a literary review whose goal was to unite students of the Diaspora – from Africa and the West Indies.

In one of his most renowned works, a book-long poem titled Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (1947) (Notebook of a return to my native land), Césaire embraced and celebrated the ancestral homelands of Africa and the Caribbean.

ma negritude n’est pas une pierre, sa surdite ruee contre
la clameur du jour
ma negritude n’est pas une taie d’eau morte sur l’il
mort de la terre
ma negritude n’est ni une tour ni une cathedrale
elle plonge dans la chair rouge du sol
elle plonge dans la chair ardente du ciel
elle troue l’accablement opaque de sa droite patience.

my Negritude is not a stone, its deafness dashed against
the clamor of the day
my Negritude is not an opaque spot of dead water
on the dead eye of the earth
my Negritude is neither a tower nor a cathedral
it plunges into the red flesh of the soil
it plunges into the ardent flesh of the sky
it pierces opaque prostration with its upright patience

(via A Slant Truth)

Césaire's unapologetic attack on Eurocentric hegemony and notions of restoring African identity was later elaborated on in Discours sur le Colonialisme (1955) (Discourse on Colonialism), a manifesto which is said to have influenced one of his equally influential students, Frantz Fanon in his revolutionary pontification “Black Skin, White Masks” (1967), which examines the psychological, cultural and social damage inflicted by colonialism. A book on Césaire's collected works is available here.

Excerpt from The Independent orbituary -

The three young men [Césaire, Damas and Senghor] drew inspiration from the Harlem Renaissance's efforts to promote the richness of African cultural identity and particularly opposed French assimilationist policies.
During these years Césaire began to develop the ideas for his most famous poem, Cahier d'un retour au pays natal (1939; translated as Return to My Native Land, 1969), the work in which he coined the term "négritude". The surrealist André Breton, who became a good friend of Césaire's after a 1942 visit to Martinique and who helped to introduce his work to Parisian literary circles, called the Cahier "the greatest lyric monument of this time".

Drawing on surrealist techniques, the poem took its inspiration from the Martinican landscape and Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the first phase of the Haitian Revolution, whose biography Césaire would later write (Toussaint Louverture: la révolution française et le problème colonial, published 1960). It asserted a claim to Afro-Caribbean ownership of the archipelago, "which is one of the two sides of the incandescence through which the equator walks its tightrope to Africa".

The poem explores the distinctiveness of black cultural identity in a historically grounded manner that prefigures the black consciousness movements of the 1960s, the decade when it became popular in the English-speaking world, thanks to a Penguin translation. Stylistically varied, it moves between impassioned prose outbursts against injustice and a more lyrical mode that celebrates black ancestry.

A noteworthy article on Césaire, his life and his works is published in LIP magazine. Other tributes but to name a few, include Antilles and Global Voices.

Photos published in Le Figaro (via Antilles)

Perhaps the most disconcerting thought upon reflecting on Césaire's works is how relevant they remain today in a post-colonial world.

- Repos dans la paix -

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Pangea – One Big Happy Global Community

I am enthused by the idea of building bridges between distinct entities, be they people, places or disciplines. Film maker and creative visionary Jehane Noujaim (of Control Room fame) presented her wish at a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference back in 2006 – her vivid and captivating vision of a day the world would unite through the power of film. Jehane Noujaim took the audience into her mind as she unveiled her perfectly pitched concept of people telling their stories at an allocated, synchronised time, to an audience that would span the globe. And won the TED Prize. It was not a far-fetched idea but captivating, inspirational and pragmatic - expanding people’s minds by allowing them to experience the world of “the other” from their own locality; travelling in mind as opposed to in body, uniting the world in a unique event where people will share the experience of watching and undergoing a transformation elicited by powerful stories through powerful imagery. The event to be held on 10th May 2008 is befittingly called Pangea Day, the name inspired by Wegener’s convincing theory of planet earths existence as a supercontinent prior to detachment into the continents we know today.

When I allow myself to dive into and indulge in the concept of global unity, I am aware that there is clearly an aspect of me that is running away with fantasy. More so as we are living in an age where we talk in polarised terms and convene around coffee tables, speculating on the imminent and inevitable crumbling of the global power, as a dragon (simultaneously?) rises, spanning her wings across the globe to be the next world dominator. However, if I may stay in fantasyland for a moment yet, as I do quite like it here, thinking of planet earth’s continents as a single, conglomerated land mass as it arguably was about 250 million years ago, illuminated for me how this physicality can radically alter how we as individuals perceive and relate to the world. How our inhabitance of a giant land mass could cognitively breed unity amongst us, the inhabitants - the human race – one people on earth, regardless of our physical appearance, culture or heritage purely based on our perceived closer proximity to each other. Regretably, I am falling back from the clouds as I start to recount in my mind the number of inter-continental conflicts that are still fresh in my mind, having occurred during my own life-time….

Back to reality now, it also got me thinking about my Africanness, my Kenyanness and whatever-else-I-may-identify-with-ness. Despite Africa’s vastness and incredibly exhilirating and mind-blowing diversity, what is it that makes me feel connected to my fellow Africans at large? Turning a misconception that I see represented in the media on its head, I am now pondering on if there is a possibility that at a subconscious level, I have absorbed the oh-so-infuriating message that Africa is not a giant? What about the convenient reference to sub-Saharan Africa that excludes the Sahel (for example in terms of statistics) that we have now internalised that has only widened an already palpable divide. This subject matter in itself deserves a separate post.

I suspect that there is an ounce of truth in the notion that Africa’s existence as a land mass breeds unity to those who inhabit her undulating, diverse terrain. No argument wins by presenting a mono-variable and therefore there are sure to be other factors at play here, such as the marginalisation of a people that is inexorably embedded in our history and continues to be propagated in the current global climate with issues such as unjust global trading policies. However, thinking of the land mass that is the continent of Africa, there is a level of intimacy that we share by virtue of our proximity to each other that is embodied in the ease of access that we have to one another, albeit presuming ease of ability to traverse the artificial borders that were carved out in Europe without our knowledge. What I am saying is that our proximity to each other by default makes us feel we belong to each other. A macro community, in other words. This bears great similarity to the concept in economics that a single currency makes people feel united as it simplifies travelling and inter-country relations, therefore uniting neighbouring nations. Basically, it is all in the mind. Although I am not the expert, I daresay that this is already the case in Europe and Central Africa. Looking around me, in the UK, a small island in Northwestern Europe, it is fascinating to see how the UK plays a delicate dance with her identity; with one foot in continental Europe and the other firmly rooted in her autonomy and Britishness. After all, unlike Ireland, the rest of the UK clings onto the sterling, nose turned upwards snubbing the Euro.

Back to Africa – ironically, it is easier and cheaper to fly across the Mediterranean to Europe as opposed to travelling within Africa. Explicably due to the economic theory of demand and supply (although there are promising signs that this is changing, big up KQ). Despite this, our connection to each other remains steadfast. Thinking back to the possibilities of interwoven variables that connect us, all playing a part to nurture our sense of unity, it becomes apparent to me that perhaps another leaf to the argument is that, it may be partly because our identity is physically worn and therefore openly viewed by others (which can be postulated for other regions of the world of course). A person with whom I have no affiliation can look at me from a distance and have full knowledge of my ancestral home, without any verbal exchange. The eyes speak to the onlooker. This reminds me of the brief but appreciated act of exchanging eye contact or a subtle knod, that goes unnoticed to those momentarily sharing the same space when my path has fleetingly crossed with another person of African origin either by birth or ancestry, in a town that had a white majority. Indeed, the solidarity of minorities.

I like the word solidarity. Perhaps yet another unifying factor is our yearning to stand together, in our own defence after witnessing the seemingly tireless mis-representation of our continent as a dark, disease-ridden and war-torn hell hole. In which case, the very misrepresentation that attempts to deny us of our expansive identity also plays a part in uniting us? African Foundation for Development (AFFORD), an organisation that I have a lot of time for, formulated a policy document on what the Diaspora can do to challenge media misrepresentation of Africa.

The question of a united world remains, sitting heavily on my shoulders. Perhaps it is a long way ahead yet, however, we can only but start with baby steps by opening our hearts and listening to each other. Join me on Pangea Day around the world. Surely I can still dream, can’t I?

Update: If you can’t be bothered to read the entire schpill, just read this –

My brain has been ticking along since I put up this post resulting in a eureka moment, a connection of neuronal networks, in the realisation that what I spent a number of paragraphs mulling over as inspired by the concept of the earth as pangea may be summarised thus: there are a myriad of interwoven agents at play to form a complex multidimensional picture that will inarguably influence our definition of the term “community”. These include geographical boundaries (aha! the connection to pangea), shared interests (for example activism), age groups, gender, socio-economic and political factors. This list could potentially carry on to infinity as we identify the plethora of micro and macro communities that exist based on our differences or associations. I guess you now either (a) get the drift of my ramblings or (b) have spotted I never read a social science. Or both. Don’t you just love it when things suddenly arrange themselves into nice, little, tidy packages to calm an overwhelmed mind?

Monday, 10 March 2008

More Time

Linton Kwesi Johnson accurately captures my sentiments with regards to my recent justifiable hiatus...

(hint: if you are a patois virgin, try miming or reading out loud - it really works!)

wi mawchin out di ole towards di new centri
arm wid di new technalagy
wi gettin more an more producktivity
some seh tings lookin-up fi prasperity
but if evrywan goin get a share dis time
ole mentality mus get lef behine

wi want di shawtah workin day
gi wi di shawtah workin week
langah holiday
wi need decent pay

more time fi leasha
more time fi pleasha
more time fi edificaeshun
more time fi reckreashun
more time fi contemplate
more time fi ruminate
more time
wi need
gi wi more time

a full time dem abalish unemployment
an revahlushanise laybah deployment
a full time dem banish ovahtime
mek evrybady get a wok dis time
wi need a highah quality a livity
wi need it now an fi evrybady
wi need di shawtah workin year
gi wi di shawtah workin life
more time fi di huzban
more time fi di wife
more time fi di children
more time fi wi fren dem
more time fi meditate
more time fi create
more time fi livin
more time fi life
more time
wi need more time
gi wi more time

Update: Even better to hear it from the man himself

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Blogging Black, White, Red and Green

Some of my friends (mainly the handful of readers of this blog!) have asked me why I am not blogging on the violence that has rocked our beloved Kenya since the fateful election fiasco. I find it impossible and frankly out of question to do so, given that I am not currently living in the country. What can I contribute when I am not there to fill my lungs with the rusty smell of dried blood; or to witness the glistening edge of a panga held high and tight in mid air under the hot sun, by the owner of fixed, glazed, determined eyes; or to look into the sad beady eyes of an orphaned child or a parent banished to being flooded with the razor-sharp cutting pangs of grief that inevitably come with mourning a child; or to feel the vibrations of the earth under me, not of the habitual tremors but of Kenyans, running for their lives.

Who am I to have an opinion from a safe, detached, albeit technologically shortened distance? Simply put, I do not qualify.

Like many other Kenyans in the Diaspora, I am living turbulent Kenya virtually – through blogs, online news articles, YouTube videos and regular candid conversations with family and friends. The violence broke out towards the end of my month-long sunny sabbatical in Kenya. I did not feel ready to leave, at a time that my beloved Kenya was going through such a momentous and tormentous time. I could feel it. We all could. A time that would be marked in the pages of our history with innocent blood and analysed by scholars and wananchi alike for eons to come. It was make or break time for this thing called Kenya, as Binyavanga Wainaina simply but effectively coined it. The layer upon layer of injustices, frustrations and suppressed anger that had been accumulating over the years and forming a palpable mound under our national carpet could no longer be quietly concealed. Or ignored. Or viewed through the rose-tinted lenses of 6% economic growth. The seams had burst at the edges and we watched, mouths agape in horror, as the unspeakable propagated throughout the land like malignant tumour cells turning against the body that nourishes them. People were dying. Women and girls were being raped. Homes were being torched. And more.

But how could I stay on in Kenya and risk losing my academic job in London, my livelihood, my career?

My sabbatical was over and I had a rendezvous with KQ to airlift me out of the dark depths of pandemonium and despair. Non-stop to destination: London. I lied to myself that the spate of violence and atrocities would soon come to an end. Surely it was only a matter of time. After all, Kenyans are self-proclaimed and objectively labelled peace-lovers, and have been an oasis of hope and an example not only to our neighbours but sub-Saharan Africa at large. Surely come February we would be talking of nation-building and IPOs once again.

Back at work and the guilt started to creep in. At first it came as occasional nudges as I spent significant chunks of my working day online, reading anything and everything that I could get my mouse to click onto. And then it wound its way. Gently, quietly meandering through me like a slithering snake and slowly eating in like caustic acid until it found a comfortable place at the core of my being. It had consumed me. Mentally, spiritually, emotionally. Why did I leave in the first place? I walked the “streets paved with gold” with a blank, empty and disconnected gaze. Distracted and consumed by my disorderly thoughts. Physically I was in London, but my heart was still in Kenya. With time I started to become somewhat detached, despite continuing to immerse myself in the on-goings, but now with a less than frantic fervour. Actually it wasn't immersion. It was more like floating. Suspended at the interface between two distinct worlds, air and water. Kenya and London. I didn’t quite fit in and connect with London like I usually did. Something was missing. I longed to laugh and really mean it. To fill my body with endorphins that would lift me up, soaring like a weightless bubble, floating on an ephemeral but exhilarating high. I wanted to avoid the sympathetic, concerned gaze from colleagues and non-Kenyan friends who sought my analytical rant on the shocking images and sounds that poured into their living rooms. I just wanted to be. To feel and not to have to put words to what I was feeling. And with time I noticed that surrounded by British accents, red double-decker buses and wool winter coats in determined, urgent stride, I had become somewhat detached from the escalating body count. I stared at the various shapes that formed numbers on my computer screen, unable to comprehend or imagine how each and every single one was being buried and mourned for in a Kenyan home. I also started to react like some of my non-Kenyan friends did when I was in Kenya - making calls or sending text messages to enquire after the people I love, having watched or read chilling BBC news reports that felt so close to home. It is home.

The SMS.

I awoke one morning to a simple yet poignant text message from a dear friend in Nairobi that declared, “Kenya is dying”. Just like that. Raw and piercing. No how are you? No niceties. No sugar-coating. Like a true friend. Those 3 words grabbed hold of me by the shoulders and shook me, releasing me from my self-imposed prison. I felt my body resonate with the vibrations of my pounding heart as I subconsciously drew in long, hurried, deep breaths into my rising and falling chest. Rising and falling. Rising and falling. It was my moment of truth and barefaced honesty. The time to face my demons. My demons are really myself... Fairytale Kenya no longer lives here. I have now allowed it. The emotions, the feelings, the thoughts, the fear, the disappointment, the anger, the unanswered questions sit with me. They rise through my being, drifting upwards like tendrils of smoke, flowing freely like a river that is powered by an unseen force. They reside within me and all over me. I can feel them on my skin as goosebumps and sitting underneath the domed spaces of my arched arm hairs. I can taste them in my mouth as they slide on my moist malleable tongue, forming syllables that are carried by the vibrations in my voicebox, making sounds that merge and collide to form coherent, articulated words.

What is more important – my career or my country? Everything is a choice. Not choosing is a choice.

For a person who thought I was living by a decent set of values, constantly challenging my perceptions of the world and broadening my outlook, and sometimes irritating those close to me with my idealist views, the saddening and depressing state of affairs in Kenya has greatly humbled me.

What am I willing to give up for my country?

This episode in Kenya has given me a renewed and deeper sense of utmost revered respect and gratitude to Kenya’s fallen, largely forgotten heroes. Men and women who put aside their children, their spouses, their friends and gave all they had – their lives – so that I could grow up in post-independence Kenya. So that I may never know what it is like to pay allegiance to the monarch of a distant, foreign land. So that I may have full rights in the land that my ancestors from a number of communities trode upon and eventually nourished with their decomposing flesh. The earth that now feeds me. So that I may have the choice of where I would live. So that I may vote for my leaders. I have since dismounted from my anti-colonialism high horse as Kenyans are violating some of these rights as they attack, oppress and kill fellow Kenyans.

As the tears silently glide their way downwards, my windswept face their only witness, in stark contrast to the loud, unruly thoughts that fill my grey matter, the question I ask myself now is what can I do that is meaningful for Kenya seeing as I have chosen to stay here?

Monday, 21 January 2008

The T-word

The New Oxford English Dictionary’s (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1998) definition of TRIBE is as follows:

Noun 1 a social division in a traditional society consisting of families or communities linked by social, economic, religious or blood ties, with a common culture and dialect, typically having a recognised leader: indigenous Indian tribes.

Derogatory a distinctive close-knit social or political group
Derogatory a group or class of people or things
Informal Large numbers of people

A boxed statement headlined “usage” subsequently states:
In historical contexts, the word tribe is broadly accepted. However, in contemporary contexts, used to refer to a community living within a traditional society today, the word is problematic. It is strongly associated with past attitudes of so-called primitive or uncivilised peoples living in remote undeveloped places. For this reason, it is generally preferable to use alternative terms such as community or people.

The word tribe and its derivatives have progressively provoked a bone of contention. My heightened sensitivity to the use of this word incessantly drives me to ponder on its apparently comfortable place in our vocabulary in sub-Saharan Africa. What is the appropriate term to define the gargantuan variety of languages, cultures and traditions that traverse the entirety of the African continent and beyond? I tend to disdain from its use and refer to the debatable terms “ethnic groups” or “communities” when making an observation that demands a distinction between Kenya’s 50-odd tongues. Curiously, of the three East-African languages that I speak, only Kiswahili easily translates into kabila.

What tribe are you? - The fleeting use of this phrase, without the close inspection and analysis of a cognitively composed question has developed into a habit. It implicitly infers a label that may be stuck onto someone and used to define them by a string of regrettably familiar stereotypes; as opposed to belonging to a community that share the same language, culture and to an extent values. Although admittedly, the advancement of rural to urban migration renders the latter invalid in some cases. Perhaps the ease displayed in the use of the word tribe is attributed to our apparent innocence (or debatably ignorance) that the word tribe carries with it a heavy load of negative preconceptions, insinuations, connotations and assumptions. To my ear, and admittedly more-so when voiced by Euro-Americans, the word tribe subtly and quietly carries the undertones of an imprisonment to a Conradian perspective; one that locks Africans into a primitive, uncivilised and barbaric predisposition. An uninstructed people, who, perpetually oblivious to the external world around them, herd animals and flimsily drape miniscule pieces of animal hides or processed tree barks that functionally obscure strategic parts of their dark chocolate sun-torched, well-defined bodies. In an attempt to rationally examine this sentiment, it is clear that the root of my strongly formed opinion emanates from colonialism.

The divide and conquer tactics that the Europeans cunningly applied to their great advantage and success, after their task of studying and grouping the variety of cultural practices and languages into tribes was, I suspect, the dawning of so-called tribal politics in a number of African countries, such as Kenya, South Africa and Zimbabwe. The infamous word tribal hit the media houses in the West as a result of the violence that engulfed Kenya after the recently contested 2007 general elections, simplifying an intricately complex reality that culminated in the spate of violence that has taken away over 500 lives and destroyed an incalculable number, estimated at over quarter of a million. Hmm, those tribal Africans are at it again.

An elaborate discourse on the meaning and use of the word tribe that I highly recommend is eloquently articulated in a report by Africa Action, which was recently published by Africa Focus Bulletin dated 8th January 2008. Notably, its relevance despite the fact that it was written just over 10 years ago was readily highlighted. Talking about "Tribe" - Moving from Stereotypes to Analysis gives a balanced analysis of the rationale behind both the use or disuse of the word tribe and concludes with relevant case studies across Africa.

In a uniquely pitched piece, Paul Goldsmith’s “The Return of the Tribe”, recently published in Kwani? 4 (2007), Kenya’s cutting-edge literary journal which unapologetically cuts into socio-political issues presents the evolution of the word tribe as a specific form of organisation, which he explores within but not confined to fourth generation warfare, as he also cleverly intertwines his discourse with tribal politics in Africa. Goldsmith lists a sample of titles and corresponding authors who have given an in-depth analysis, far beyond what I ever could, on the concept of tribes and tribalism in Africa. In good faith, I hope Dr Goldsmith won’t mind me plagiarising:
The Illusion of Tribe – Aiden Southall
The Ideology of Tribalism – Archie Mafeje
Tribal Survival in Modern African Political Systems – Colin Legum
The Tribe as Fact and Fiction in an East African City – David Parkin
The Social Organisation of Cultural Differences – Frederick Barth
The Politics of Cultural Pluralism – Crawford Young

What persistently captures my attention and imagination is Mwalimu Nyerere’s vision for Tanzania (Ujamaa); one that has since united a people with the ubiquitous use of the Kiswahili language. It is evident that a nation is so much more than the artificial, colonially-imposed physical boundaries of a country; it is simply a people. Together as one despite their multiple identities.