- November 13, 2021
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Navigating Amsterdam as an African man has been confusing, writes Oyunga Pala, who is discovering Global Africa in the streets of the city and learning to see his blackness anew.
Stadhouderskade is a teeming thoroughfare in the heart of Amsterdam, part of the city centre ring connecting Amsterdam-West to Amsterdam-South. It begins at a bridge over the Amstel river, snakes for two kilometres alongside a series of canals, running past the historic Vondelpark, Leidseplein, the Amsterdam Marriott and several national monuments like the iconic Rijksmuseum.
It was one of the first streets I became acquainted with when I moved from Nairobi to Amsterdam two years ago. At the intersection of Stadhouderskade and Ferdinand Bolstraat street, situated between the distinct Heineken Brewery and a small sex club called Tour De Boton, sits a nondescript barber and board store with a cool name.
Shortcut & Hardwear
It is a small lifestyle shop that sells snowboarding gear and urban street wear. Inside, past the racks of clothes and merchandise, at the back of the shop, hidden from street view, is a single barber chair facing a full-length mirror. One side of the mirror is dominated by a charity poster advertising a relief effort in India. On the other, hangs a large and colourful snowboard with the image of Chairman Mao staring back.
This is my barber shop and my barber, a middle aged man named Brian, is an institution on this street. He has been in the same location for 30 years and has the laidback demeanour of a man who has cultivated an unhurried life. It is the vibe you stumble onto when you escape the chilly autumn streets into the cozy interior of the barber shop. There is always some music with a deep bassline playing. Typically, you will meet his friends who drop by to say “Hola’’, a collective of Spanish-speaking South American brothers who greet you with the warmth of people who grew up in the sun.
For Africans abroad, a barber who knows how to handle black hair is a lifeline.
Brian draws his heritage from African, Chinese and Indonesian ancestry. He is Dutch but his roots are in Suriname, a nation four times the size of the colonial master’s homeland that was once part of the Dutch colonial empire. Before I arrived in the Netherlands, I could not place Suriname on the South American map, sandwiched as it is between Guyana, French Guiana and Brazil; nowadays, it is the Surinamese cultural footprints that guide me through Amsterdam’s foreignness.
Shortcut & Hardwear has grown to be more than a barber shop. It is a black space where I find anchor as I explore Amsterdam through a network of spaces that evoke feelings of “home’’.
I am a Kenyan writer, a former newspaper columnist who moved residence from Nairobi to Amsterdam. I am the father of two young children, one of whom is a pandemic baby. They might speak Dutch as their first language and never master Kiswahili. I am living in the post-Covid-19 reality in a transformed, physically distant city of QR codes, PCR tests, vaccination certificates thrown in the face of anti-vaxxer protests, and the daily drumming of xenophobia and nationalism on social media.
The coronavirus has had an effect on this city. I once knew a freer Amsterdam, the epitome of personal liberty where tourists smoked joints in front of the police and public sex did not even raise eyebrows. I have watched it transform into a 1.5 metres society, marked by glass barriers in public spaces and where citizens hoard toilet paper in a gut response to an existential crisis.
Much like Stadhouderskade where construction works are ongoing, Amsterdam is undergoing rapid social transformation and I struggle to make sense of this new world I find myself in. The city is in the midst of a radical shift to overhaul its infrastructure in the wake of climate change while its cultural foundations, which were once thought to be entrenched and secured, are challenged by vocal minorities. On Twitter, behind the facade of a city on the shores of the North Sea moving to the rhythm of its bicycles, trams, and boats, I catch a glimpse of a city now confronted by the anti-islamic and anti-immigration rhetoric of Dutch politician Geert Wilder, the notoriety of Thierry Baudet, known for his anti-COVID restrictions and anti-Europe sentiments, and the audacity of Sylvana Simons, the founder of the anti-racist political party BIJ1.
The Dutch Puzzle is the title of a book written by Duke de Beana from a Spanish ambassador’s viewpoint and published in the 70s. Decades on, I have also found a low country of paradoxes, perhaps best illustrated by the coffeeshop located across the road from a church building. I may have been primed for the much-touted Dutch tourist attractions, its Red Light District and its coffeeshops, but one quickly becomes blasé after the initial culture shock.
Netherlands, a culturally liberal society and the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriages, is also a place that celebrates a Christmas tradition where the Dutch Santa in white appears on a boat trailed by his black-faced sidekick, Zwarte Piet, to the delight of the kids. This supposedly benign cultural festival in a country with a gory slave trading past, is vehemently defended as a Dutch thing that outsiders could never understand.
Europe is a place where privacy is a right. Sierra Leonean columnist Babah Tarawally said it is where you learn to become an individual first. I feel it the most on the metro, during rush hour in a train full of individuals where eye contact is deliberately avoided and aloofness is the norm. Navigating Amsterdam as an African man has been confusing. For a long time I was the eager new arrival who tried to acknowledge every black brother on the street with a solidarity nod and wondered why some of my black brothers did not respond to my spirit of ubuntu.
What did I really see other than pigmentation?
I did not have the foggiest clue about the vast representation of Global Africa on the streets of Amsterdam and despite my bred-in African credentials, I was learning to see my blackness anew.
Your black worldview changes when you begin to notice resonance with the diversity of people of African heritage congregating in the Netherlands. I have met men from the Caribbean islands of St Vincent, Aruba and Curaçao who reminded me of family members in Kenya. I have struck instant rapport with an Ethiopian Uber driver, a Jamaican clothing store attendant, a Ghanaian delivery man, a Congolese-Dutch columnist who spoke Kiswahilli, an African American poet from Charleston, a Guyanese who spent his youth in Uganda under Idi Amin, and a Tanzanian sister at a lifestyle store who exclaimed in excitement, “Jirani!” “My neighbour!”, when she discovered that I hailed from Kenya.
Not a single one gushed about a wildlife safari or a golden sunset over the Maasai Mara.
I recently spoke to an African man whom I had seen selling newspapers outside supermarkets around the Amstelveen suburb. He said he was from Biafra, not Nigeria, and as soon as I told him I was from Kenya, he complained bitterly about the betrayal of Nnamdi Kanu, the leader of the Indigenous People of Biafra who was abducted in Kenya and deported to Nigeria.
“Why are you Kenyans not behaving like Africans?”
I knew the context of the word behave, a rebuke to post-colonial Africans living in Europe who are prone to forgetting the struggles of family left behind in the motherland. Yet, if you stay in a place long enough, it changes you. A Moroccan taxi driver told me as much, about the lure of the Dutch lifestyle and how difficult it is to let go of the comfortable life.
“It’s hard to leave. The system works, you can make progress and invest back home. Then the women join you and you start to make babies, now they are Dutch and they grow up to be told to go back home by the racists because they are not Dutch enough and when they arrive home, they are reminded they are no longer Moroccan, they have become Dutch”.
I am 15 minutes early for my monthly haircut. Brian is busy cutting a client’s hair. Burna Boy is the musical mood of the moment. From the window, I watch the traffic zoom past on Stadhouderskade, processing a new set of city sounds. Clanky bicycles on cobblestones, trams squealing on the rails to a slow stop, and the recurring siren of a speeding ambulance. The streets are covered in leaf fall, the trees are naked, a sure sign that winter is coming.
The Netherlands is a flat country with no natural barrier against the assault of the North Sea winds that sweep across unrestrained. On my weather app, I pay attention to the codename Orange warning of unusual coastal activity. I used to complain about the weather to friends back home in Nairobi until I had an encounter at the Irish pub on Leidseplein whilst taking shelter after getting caught wrongly dressed in the icy cold rain. I wouldn’t stop whining about the duplicitous Dutch summer, causing a lean, sinewy stranger in workman clothes to blurt out,
“You are not made of cotton candy and sugar. It’s just water!”
Now I have accepted that the weather is shit and I am learning to be a weathered rock of all seasons.
My turn arrives and I take a seat on the barber chair. Normally a man of few words, Brian is in a chatty mood today. He complains about the construction work on his street, and how bad it is for business, and then we talk about football. The Dutch did not have an impressive UEFA Cup run last season and I ask what happened to the spirit of the flying Dutchmen of my youth, the magical trio of Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Marco Van Bansten. To which he answers,
“Gullit was here.’’
“On this chair, in the morning, he came for a haircut before a TV appearance in Qatar . . . he is a busy guy. . . .”
He tells me about the Dutch football legend, a childhood friend he played ball with on the streets of Amsterdam Old West. Gullit no longer spots dreadlocks and has morphed into a celebrated TV sports commentator.
“He is a funny guy, he was complaining about relatives back in Suriname, always finding a way to ask for money’’.
What were the chances, I wondered, that I would share a barber with Ruud Gullit, the foremost disciple and master of the Dutch brand of total football, the international superstar from the Netherlands that I admired as a teenager.
Dunia ni duara. The world is round.
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Many only know it as the slum located next to the country’s largest mental health facility, but Mathare has a rich history of resistance against oppression by the state dating back to colonial times.
I have lived in Mathare since I was four years old and I have seen it grow from a slum with a medium population density to become Kenya’s most densely populated area with over 68,000 people per square kilometre.
I began my schooling in the early 2000s at Action Child Mobilization Centre, a local private school that was nothing more than a shack built of iron sheets where we were taught by form four school leavers. In this part of Nairobi, qualifications did not matter and anybody could be a teacher as long as they had an average command of English. This was the best we could get. The different classes were scattered all over the neighbourhood, as it was not possible to find space for all the classrooms to be in one place. We became accustomed to learning while listening to loud music from neighbours’ houses and we sometimes did our exams while a couple was quarrelling and fighting next door. That was the environment we learned in.
As a resident since childhood, I can attest that despite the sad, depressing stories that come out of my Mathare, it is also a place of beautiful stories. Some of our best footballers and sports people honed their talents while training on our soil, people like football international Dennis Oliech and famed female boxer Conjestina Achieng. Mathare has also produced great musicians like Bahati, Willy Paul and Eko Dydda.
But the world does not get to hear about our success stories, knowing only about our struggles and the challenges we go through. When you mention Mathare to a random Kenyan, what comes to their mind is the Mathari Mental Hospital, Kenya’s only national and public psychiatric referral hospital that was established in 1901. Due to its close proximity to Mathare Valley, some people even have the audacity to ask why we live with “mad people”; they believe Mathare is for the mentally challenged and escapees from the hospital. I once tried to explain to a friend in high school that, just like anywhere else, only a few people in Mathare are mentally challenged. But he said, “Yes, every market has its own mad man, but Mathare is a market where all are mad.” I stopped talking to him. I was very angry and bitter about the picture painted of my home, the place that has nurtured me since I was four.
The stigma of coming from Mathare was so acute that, while in high school, I stopped telling other students where I grew up to avoid ridicule. Any wrong or “weird” answer would be attributed to my so-called upbringing with “mentally challenged people”. Most of them would back their highly opinionated statements with references to the violence witnessed during any general election, where Mathare youths are hired by rogue politicians to die for them on the streets.
Today I am writing the story of Mathare, the untold story that is unknown to many. Not out of anger or bitterness, but as a counter-narrative about the place I call home from a proud insider’s perspective. It is the beautiful story of a former quarry that became an urban bastion against oppression by the colonial government, and by the four regimes we have had in Kenya since independence.
I am writing this piece because only we can tell our story to the outside world. “The struggle of people against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” as Comrade Gacheke Gachihi of Mathare Social Justice Centre puts it.
Mathare did not start as a settlement for mental hospital escapees as some claim. Mathare emerged from what had been a stone quarry during the early years of colonial rule in the Pre-World War 1 (WW1) period. Most of the building stones and ballast used in the construction of the Eastleigh and Muthaiga residential areas and the Nairobi Central Business District were extracted from this big quarry. It is only after the First World War, in the early 1920s, that people started settling in Mathare. Some of the early settlers were from the areas around today’s City Park and Muthaiga that were then part of the larger Karura Forest, from where they were evicted by the colonial government. These prime areas were reserved for the white colonial elite and the former inhabitants were rounded up and concentrated in the low-laying areas, leading to the birth of Mathare and the mushrooming of the many slums in Nairobi’s Eastlands area.
The first evictees settled in the lower Pangani area that is separated from Mathari Hospital by River Mathare. This area that is today part of Mlango Kubwa and Lower Pangani was known as Kiamutisya. The different sections of Mathare were named after the headmen or leaders controlling them, like Kiamutisya and Kwa Kariuki. From there, the slum began to spread eastwards to Bondeni, then known as Kiandururu. Other areas such as Gitathuru, Mashimoni and Mathare 4A emerged gradually as the population burgeoned.
Mathare is now one of the most congested slums in Nairobi with over 500,000 residents concentrated in a mere 7.25 square kilometres. It is home to diverse ethnicities from all over the country, from as far away as Turkana in northern Kenya, and to foreign nationals from Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania.
Mathare is 8km from Nairobi CBD. This proximity, and its closeness to Eastleigh to the southwest and Muthaiga and Karura to the West, attracted Kenyans, particularly those from eastern and central Kenya, who came in search of jobs and settled in the area. This rural-urban migration created a cheap labour pool for the upmarket areas occupied by the settlers, as well as for the Asian community that resided in Eastleigh and Pangani. By the late 1920s, Mathare was home to several thousand Africans living in temporary makeshift houses made of wood, mud and other materials and working in the surrounding areas.
As the struggle against colonial rule began, Mathare emerged as the hub of anti-colonial organizing because of its strategic location. It slowly became the urban vanguard against the colonial government. Meetings to strategize how to disrupt the peaceful stay of the settlers in the country were planned in Mathare.
The agitation was amplified by the presence in their midst of radical elements who had fought alongside whites in both world wars. Residents started protesting against the punitive measures imposed on Africans, such as the hut tax, the kipande (identity document) and unfair urban zoning. The British felt threatened by the continued agitation and in 1952, at the start of the State of Emergency which was declared by the then Governor Sir Evelyn Baring, the colonial government razed down many houses in Mathare. Baring was reacting to intelligence that Mathare residents were supporting the Mau Mau, the nationalist movement fighting for Kenya’s independence. This did not deter Mathare residents; it only emboldened them to push further and Mathare continued to be the planning ground for Mau Mau activities.
It is during the active years of the Mau Mau (The Kenya Land and Freedom Army) struggle that Mathare became the crucible of anti-colonial action with the help of people like Pio Gama Pinto, who played a key role in uniting the different factions agitating for independence. Pinto was a Kenyan-born Goan who had studied in both Kenya and in Goa in India. After completing his studies in India, Pinto joined movements against Portuguese rule in Goa, which placed his life in danger and so he fled back to Kenya for his safety. In Kenya, he was the link between trade unions, the Mau Mau, lawyers and others involved in the fight against British rule in Kenya.
Workers from Karura and other areas would steal arms and other supplies from their white employers, which would be gathered and smuggled to the Aberdare and Mt. Kenya forests from where Mau Mau guerrillas were waging their war against the British.
After Kenya gained independence in 1963, the population of Mathare grew exponentially as more people flocked to the city. The first government of Jomo Kenyatta did not undertake any measures to improve the dire living conditions of the people of Mathare. The residents continued to live under the poor conditions that had existed since the colonial period. As the slum expanded, the residents were abandoned to their fate, despite the active and largely undocumented role they had played towards the attainment of Kenya’s independence.
This neglect of the people of Mathare continued under the Moi regime. During his 24 years in power, nothing was done to ensure planning, access to water and other basic services. In 1982, the residents of Mathare bore the brunt of the failed Kenya Air Force coup. The Moi government turned its anger on helpless and defenceless citizens, the majority of whom had no idea what was happening in the country. The military were unleashed on the residents like bloodthirsty dogs and houses were ransacked under the guise of searching for soldiers who had participated in the failed coup and whom it was alleged were being harboured in Mathare. The crackdown that followed in the wake of the failed coup left more than 200 civilians dead, the majority from Mathare, which is just across the road from Moi Air Base, the epicentre of the aborted coup attempt. Bodies were left lying in the streets and hundreds were maimed and injured. The damage was enormous, and the trauma would last peoples’ lifetimes.
The oppression has continued, but has never broken the resilience of the residents of Mathare, forged from a legacy of resistance. The neglect continued unabated under the Kibaki regime, and together with it, oppression from law enforcement agencies. An example that stands out is the infamous crackdown on Mungiki in Kosovo and other parts of Mathare between 6 and 9 June 2007. Those were tension-filled days as officers of the feared General Service Unit unleashed violence, rounded up citizens and demolished tens of shacks. The crackdown came after two police officers were killed and their guns stolen on the night of 4 June 2007. It was a terrible time to be a young man in the valley. Wearing dreadlocks only made things worse as they would use that to profile members of the banned Mungiki Sect. Young men were rounded up, made to lie on the streets, beaten and then forced to wade in the filthy and murky Mathare River in search of the arms that were supposedly dumped there. As though the demolitions and brutality meted on them was not enough, the police then executed more than 30 young men, some in broad daylight. The executions were carried out under the orders of the former Minister of Interior Security John Michuki and the former Inspector General of Police Gen. Muhammed Ali.
One day during that terrible week, shortly after our mid-morning break, the sound of gunshots reverberated around us. The police were firing tear gas grenades and our school was soon engulfed in smoke. With no water available, we washed our faces with the porridge in our mugs and as panic spread, some of my class six classmates tore through the iron sheets and scampered to the safety of their homes.
It is during this time that I witnessed a scene that has never left my mind. It is still as vivid as though it happened yesterday. A man was lying face down on the ground with some officers poking his back with their bayonets, those sharp knives fixed to the muzzles of their guns. The man was crying and pleading with the police and after a few minutes, gunshots rung through the air scattering the crowd that was watching from afar. I went back to the scene late in the afternoon and what I found was only blood-soaked soil. I have lived with that memory my whole life.
That same afternoon, I saw the Inspector General of Police criss-crossing the alleys and open trenches in the valley. It was very unusual to find a high-ranking government official in the deepest parts of Mathare. He was escorted by a contingent of heavily armed officers. Even at my young age, I knew that the next few days were going to be hell, and they were. The people of Mathare endured nights of violence at the hands of state agents and more people died. My two cousins, who had come to the city in search of jobs after finishing high school, had to be sneaked out before the door-to-door search that started with the start of the dusk to dawn curfew that had been imposed. The operation left more than 30 people dead, hundreds injured, demolished shanties, displaced people, and trauma. This kind of reaction by so-called law enforcers has also been witnessed during election times, where police officers act without regard for the sanctity and dignity of human life.
Uhuru Kenyatta’s Jubilee government has exacerbated the already precarious situation in Mathare. As poor youth, we have been criminalised by the same system that oppressed our grandfathers and our fathers. Young men spotting dreadlocks like those worn by Kenya’s freedom fighters are targeted for arbitrary arrest, extortion, killings and, as is the trend nowadays, enforced disappearances. According to Missing Voices, an organization that documents cases of arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings, 105 people were killed or disappeared by police between January and July 2021. The majority of these killings and disappearances occurred in the low income neighbourhoods of Nairobi such as Mathare. It is quite common for a youth to be framed and accused of being in possession of marijuana – it is planted in their pockets during arrest – and end up disappearing at the hands of the police, only for their lifeless bodies to be found in the city morgue or dumped somewhere else.
I see the youth being terrorized every day in this valley. I have also been a victim of arbitrary arrest several times by the same officers who swore to protect us and uphold the constitution. I have lost classmates and friends to police bullets; the trend of extra-judicial executions continues unabated.
It is this injustice that led me to join the Ruaraka Social Justice Centre immediately after graduating from college instead of looking for an internship or finding a job.
A systematic approach is needed to deal with this systematic oppression of generations of Kenyans, first by the colonial government and the African Home Guards, and by their allies in the four post-independence regimes. One of the founders of the Mathare Social Justice Centre, Gacheke Gachihi saw this need and collaboratively established this community justice centre in the heart of Mathare, on the same grounds where the anti-colonial struggle was planned. As a visionary leader, Gachihi saw the need to form a network of social justice centres in the country that would coalesce around issues of social justice. The reactionary approach of one-day demonstrations has been replaced with a systematic approach: that of organizing the community, educating it and allowing the same community to liberate itself from the shackles of exploitation and oppression. Through this community organizing, of which I have been a part since 2019, the residents of Mathare are now cognizant of the power of a united people with a common goal.
With my pen and paper, I shall live to protect Mathare and its rich history and heritage that derives from the critical role it has played in organizing the masses and as a revolutionary bulwark against oppression in the colonial era and during successive regimes. The onus is now on my generation not to betray the struggle but to bring it to fruition.
Mathare is now home to various progressive groups such as the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA), Mathare Roots, Mathare Green Movement and the Mathare Social Justice Centre (MSJC), the mother centre of the social justice centres movement in Kenya. Mathare is once again leading the struggle against oppression and it continues to play this role faithfully. The blood of our freedom fighters that was shed on our soil will continue to water the seeds of our freedom. Every time I walk along Mau Mau Road, from Mabatini to Mlango Kubwa in Mathare, I walk with my head held high knowing that I am walking on fertile ground, the home of past, current and future revolutionaries. The name Mathare is no longer a source of shame for me but a beacon of hope for the future for I now know that it means resilience. From Mathare to the world, the social justice movement is born. May the sacred torch of freedom fighters never dim but light the way to a socially just nation.
This article would not have been complete without contributions from Comrade Kimani Antony of Kiamaiko Community Social Justice Centre, Comrade Samuel Kiriro of Ghetto Foundation, Mr Zaangi of Muungano wa Wanavijiji and Comrade Gacheke Gachihi of Mathare Social Justice Centre
When I left my abusive marriage, I thought the worst was behind me and things could only get better. Then life handed me a breast cancer diagnosis on my thirtieth birthday.
I have been a registered nurse for eight years now and have spent two of those working in the United Kingdom. Like many who have immigrated to Britain, the search for greener pastures and working systems brought me here. I had my career figured out and I was sure that turning thirty would herald the dawn of a financial breakthrough, better roles and, if the stars aligned, a family. What I heard on my thirtieth birthday, however, sounded something like, “Happy thirtieth birthday Catherine. And you have breast cancer.”
I have heard people say, I have read, that a cancer diagnosis makes you deaf and dumb, that it stupefies you. I thought they were just unable to express what they felt. Words abandoned me on that last day of May 2021.
It started with a lump in my left breast. A tiny immovable grape-like elf hugging my chest wall and kissing the underside of my breast. It was located in a peculiar place and my General Practitioner (GP – known as a family physician in Kenya), my first point of contact, had struggled to palpate it. My breasts are medium-sized and I did not expect that she would find it difficult to feel the lump. Yet I had had to direct her gloved hands to the place where that little monster was hiding. Close to my heart. Crossing my heart.
On the 31st of May 2021 – the day my nephew turned nine and my elder sister sent me adorable photos of the boy celebrating his birthday – I took a Number 33 bus to the Edinburgh Breast Unit for my appointment with the specialist breast doctor and surgeon at the Western General Hospital where my GP had referred me when I saw her sometime in late April 2021. He started by commending me for detecting the lump as it was quite small and well concealed. Yet I had not been actively looking for it; I was just fiddling with my left breast absent-mindedly when I felt it.
After a thorough physical examination of my breasts, Mr J, as I will refer to him here (male surgeons in the UK are referred to as Mr not Dr, welcome to Britain mate!) did a breast ultrasound. He then focused on my left breast and with the assistance of a brilliant clinical support worker (the equivalent of a patient care attendant or nurse aide in Kenya) my breast became a specimen under investigation. But even as the clinical support worker did her best to distract me, my eyes remained fixed on the screen of the ultrasound machine.
I saw the outline of the lump and the edges looked irregular. Mr J confirmed this and sent me to the mammogram department where a core bilateral mammogram and a fine needle biopsy of the lump were done. My mind kept going back to Kenya though. I wondered how much I would have had to pay for the consultation and for the tests. To be honest, the financial implications would probably have intimidated me enough to ignore that lump.
Just over an hour later, I was sent back to Mr J who broke the news.
“I am sorry that the mammogram shows that there is a small cancer,” he said matter-of-factly. Small cancer? You got to be kidding me! In all my years as a nurse, I have never heard of anything like a small cancer. I have also been a nurse long enough to know that breast cancer kills more women than cervical cancer.
I will be turning thirty tomorrow and you tell me that I have breast cancer? I went through a rough childhood and stormy twenties only to crown it all with a bloody cancer diagnosis at thirty? These thoughts raced through my head, screaming for attention as Mr J’s voice faded in the background. Suddenly I broke down. I bawled and wailed. I know I spoke in Swahili and Kikuyu much to the amazement of the good doctor. How he maintained his composure beats me.
Mr J held my hand and took me to another room where I was introduced to my personal Breast Cancer Nurse. I couldn’t believe that just a few hours earlier I had left my home a nurse and here I now was, a patient in need of a nurse. Mr J and Nurse A did their best to comfort a dishevelled and inconsolable me, all alone in the UK with no family and no romantic life to speak of. I cried harder. I missed my family and friends. I wished they were there with me. But I could not risk telling them anything over the phone.
When my abusive and manipulative marriage ended, I had thought that I would never go through worse times. I had even lied to people that “when you hit the bottom, you can only go up”. I wish to correct that and say, if you think it cannot get any worse, it actually can. It did. Right there, in my full view, it got worse.
There followed a series of blood tests and imaging tests and more blood tests. I did not even flinch when the nurse said she would need more blood samples. I would have to wait about a week for the results of the biopsy that would determine what stage the cancer was in and how management would look like.
In contrast with common practice in Kenya, the management of patients in the UK is largely patient-centred. Patients take part in the management of the disease from the initial point of diagnosis. There are no surprises. Doctors do not dictate what treatment will be given. They offer options, complete with alternative routes, and discuss the risks and benefits of action or inaction. You would be a fool to ignore science. Mother dear raised no fool in me.
A week later, it was determined that the cancer was Stage 1. Sigh of relief… because Stage 1 is curable. Results also came back positive for female hormone receptors. This matters because cancer cells behave like padlocks and we must know what type of padlocks they are. For each identifiable receptor, science has the keys or medications needed. Some cancers come back negative for all three types of “receptors”, the so-called Triple Negative Breast Cancers that are notoriously difficult to treat and manage. Sneaky little witches.
On 25 June 2021, I underwent surgery under general anaesthetic to remove the lump at the Western General Hospital. The United Kingdom has since 1988 invested heavily in breast cancer units, making breast cancer care effective and efficient. Waiting times are reduced because breast cancer patients do not have wait in line with patients seeking other services. Since Kenya seems to borrow heavily from the United Kingdom’s ways of doing things, perhaps this is one practice we could import.
Thankfully, the cancer had not spread beyond my milk ducts. But I needed radiotherapy to kill any remaining cancer cells and to reduce the chances of recurrence. All this happened in less than three months. I had to put on my big-girl pants and face my treatment. I did not have the time to mourn my lovely breast.
As I write this at the Lerruat Log Resort atop Kumpa Hill in Kajiado County, I cannot help but look at my breasts again in the mirror. I seem to be doing this a lot lately. Gazing at my breasts. As if I want them to say something to me. A habit that intrudes on my attempts to focus elsewhere. They are clearly asymmetrical; the left one dwarfs the right one. My bra size has also changed.
I am glad that they did not have to remove my breast. I still look forward to starting a family and breastfeeding my babies. I do not know how pregnancy will affect my breasts but I have come to accept that worry and fear are the nub of anxiety. I just am grateful to be alive and still have both breasts. Symmetrical or not, they are my breasts and I love them today more than ever.
The idea that artists from privileged backgrounds might be the only ones left mentally fit to create art and give an artistic interpretation of the times is terrifying.
As I recover, like every other hopeful Kenyan, from the mild shockwaves set off by the release of the Pandora Papers and the confirmation that the Kenyatta family is indeed an organization with a long heritage of looting. I remember to also spare the devil some time to indulge me:
“Are you really just infuriated by the leaks because you weren’t born into a family that had your future secured in a million-dollar trust in Panama?” he says, and this is as far as I let him go because what he says tears deep into my empty pockets, it makes me feel like I made the wrong decision to quit a project I had helped conceptualize and pitch just recently.
Late last year I teamed up with an artist I still consider my mentor and friend to create work that would see us occupied for the greater part of this year, linking intergenerational struggles in the political space. What made me leave the project was the realization that we had “philosophical differences” where the utility of the resources allocated were concerned. It was an awkward split as I never really knew how to directly address this philosophical difference; what I had to say about his actions was in conflict with my knowledge of who he was and what I had thought would be his contribution to the project.
I am an artist in my mid-twenties while he has been in the field for longer than I have lived so one can only imagine the crisis of confidence I was in. I chose instead to give my mental health as the reason I would not be able to continue participating in project. This was to me the safest way to resolve this conflict, as I couldn’t tell whether this was actually how art projects are run — with little regard for the objectives initially set, and with the possibility of resources meant for the project being diverted to personal use.
Silence, and second guessing myself, has become my way of coping with this new reality that I find rather obscure. I did not have a clear picture of what was happening and whether my knowledge would have had any impact. Perhaps there really was a different way of doing things that I did not know of. Perhaps structures and plans were just formalities that yielded to personal needs where resources were concerned. There were many disparities between what we had actually done and the financial accounting, facts that our reports concealed, and this has left me without peace. What I was taking part in did not sit well with me since it is my generation that is facing systemic violence from the state using this very same tool of obscurity.
There are many instances where acquaintances have offered me advice that sounded more like a warning from an elder to a young man.
“Chunga usipitwe na wakati.” Don’t let time pass you by.
“Watu mmesoma mna shida.” You educated people are troublesome.
“Hapo penye uko hata sisi tulikuwa.” We once were where you are — now we are here doing other things.
Such warnings are usually given by former artists who become concerned whenever I happen to share with them that I find it difficult to compromise my integrity for financial gain. Some have even gone as far as calling me an idealist for insisting that if the work an artist creates intentionally promotes a certain idea of what the world should be like, then the artist would be a liar to be living their lives contrary to those ideas. But I am reminded that artists too are human beings, with the same flaws, the same needs, facing the same temptations. I have learned to take such advice as polite warnings against losing economic relevance in a country that is diving deep into an economic recession. But what does this reality mean for an artist seeking to live a different way and confronted by the need to make a living?
Reflecting on the conversations I have had with friends on the value of integrity has offered me great insights into where this split occurs. I spoke to Kate and Janet, two university students from Nairobi who seemed to be in agreement that when it comes to making money their integrity can be set aside.
“Money would make me compromise, I will not lie to you, if I see money and there’s an opportunity to get it I would put aside my integrity. After all if I don’t take it someone else is going to take it.” Kate said.
Janet added, “If someone close to me really needed that money then I would definitely have no option but to compromise.”
Both still live at home and all their basic needs are met by their parents. So it was interesting to note that compromising their integrity was not a matter of survival, it just seemed like the most sensible option because that’s what most people would do, and if you missed the opportunity someone else would happily take it. A painter friend, Janice, seemed to be more concerned about how young people are increasingly living on debt, following this thought with a rhetorical question, “For how long does one hold on to their principles when a price is being put on the table?”
Janice concluded by making it clear that she would not like to be an angry fifty-year old who is unable to speak the truth because she compromised a few times in the past.
I never really got an image of what material maturity looked like from my conversations with these friends. Janice only went as far as describing the age at which someone, an adult person, begins to feel the pressure to mature materially as varying with the background that individual comes from. I take this to mean that the imperative to survive — if we are to define material maturity as the ability to provide one’s basic needs — has always existed in all the stages of the lives of the young and poor. This is a very crucial point to consider when looking, for example, at crime in the streets and the ghetto where young men and teenage boys, driven by the inability of their parents to provide for them, use the only resource they have access to — their physicality — to meet such basic needs as food and shelter. This often involves the use of physical violence or intimidation to gain access to resources.
This is the way of the beasts, the way of life in the bush, not the way of humans and civilized societies. It is a reality that these young men would perish if they found no means to fulfil their basic needs, but does their imperative to survive ever get to be reconciled with the fact that they are causing harm to another? What does integrity mean when the young and poor arrive at this impasse almost every single day of their lives? And based on what other young people have to say, it is an impasse that seems to cut across the class divide. The only difference being that class obscures this impasse, making it seem non-existent for the rich. The more one gains access to resources, the less they have to interact with the implications of their actions.
Perhaps this is why people steal as much as they can, not just to survive or to become the richest, but rather to avoid interaction with the guilt of having hurt others to get where they presently are. There has to exist an unbridgeable physical distance between the dispossessed and the wealth of the oppressor, and for this distance to be effective one has to also create a mental from with reality. Here, the revision of language becomes an important tool, as to have to constantly consider what is meant by a word such as theft might lead one to look into their own actions and see the deed.
We detach the signified from the word theft, substituting it with the signified of the word survival because our reality has come to prove our understanding of language wrong. The majority is doing it. They can’t be wrong, can they?
The capitalist system employs the obscurity created by this distance to reward the biggest thieves with immunity from personal and public guilt, while punishing the pettiest of thieves, who are bound to the public that is their only resource, with death often executed in public. Those that choose not to steal even when faced with the imperative to survive, often end up being swept away by irrelevance, the system swallows them whole.
A friend and contemporary of mine disclosed to me that the reason he stopped performing poetry was because he wasn’t getting anything out of it. He would show up at art events and perform pieces that he’d been rehearsing for weeks only to leave without anything to show for it. He remembers telling a more privileged poet that he felt like art was a curse for him to which the poet responded that, for her, it was like a stream of healing. He found it interesting that contemporaries could have such different experiences of the same space. This conflict had become overwhelming for him, so he moved to the hospitality industry where he earns a good living.
“I can now show up in those spaces and enjoy poetry, this would be difficult before as I would be busy preparing for my own performance, now I can show up without really expecting much from the event,” he said. “I feel like, as a performer, I have lost something I cannot describe.”
I received these remarks with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was happy for him, that he was no longer threatened by the imperative to survive. On the other hand I was disappointed that a creator had been turned into a consumer by virtue of his financial status. It’s worrying how artists from poor backgrounds who refuse to conform to ways of expression that give them access to the system are fighting to stay meaningfully active in the arts.
I met Charles Anthony Matathia earlier this year, a writer and poet whose work in film has received great acclaim from the Kenya art fraternity and beyond. Nairobi Half Life, the film he co-wrote with Billy Kahora et al., is still considered one of the greatest African films of the past decade. My three encounters with this great artist, whose career and life have been disrupted by his mental health with no resources available for him to call upon, were heart-breaking. His contemporaries continue to make meaningful contributions to African art and literature while Charles Matathia occasionally pops up on social media and radio interviews as someone who was once a writer. The idea that artists from privileged backgrounds and those with reliable contacts or resources might be the only ones left mentally fit to create art and give an artistic interpretation of the times is terrifying.
As poets turn to selling clothes vending, social media influencing and photography to survive, as writers cap their pens in order to stay economic relevant by doing sales, my concern is no longer who will speak truth to power, but what type of truth is allowed to be presented before power.
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