Saturday, December 29, 2007

Ferry ride to Unguja

The ferry ride to Unguja was long, but peaceful. The ocean was beautiful. For miles on end, there was nothing around but calm skies and a gentle sea. Standing there, I couldn’t help thinking just how small and insignificant I was.
When the island became visible in the distance, we were all excited. Everybody wanted to see Unguja. A family with a video camera was filming the approach to the island. I was standing next to them and could hear their little boy crying out for candy, “Awz helwa,” over and over again to his mother.

The deck was packed. Everybody was standing out there watching the island. I imagine many of them were coming back home to visit their families. Some were probably coming to visit for the first time, perhaps to work, or maybe to make a new home on the island. Others were tourists, come to see “Africa”. There was a mix of people on that ferry, rich and poor, but for the moment, we were all equals as we stood on the deck, caught up in awe at the island’s beauty.

Some people were so enraptured that they forgot where they were, and left their bags unattended on the ground. Of course, one man, alert to the opportunity, took advantage of the fact that the deck was crowded and no-one was watching. He grabbed hold of another man’s bag and was trying to sneak away with it when somebody saw him and raised the alarm: “Mwizi!”

Suddenly, the magic spell was broken. Everyone turned away from the beautiful view in time to see the young man being pushed into a corner. The bag was grabbed from him and returned to its rightful owner. Only then did the angry crowd unleash its wrath on him. The crowd rained blows on him and kicked him mercilessly, only stopping when two men who had muscled their way through stood before him, shielding him. They took him to a little room and locked him up in there.

Whatever transpired after that, I do not know. I imagine that when the ferry docked, the man was turned in to the police. As for the rest of the passengers, most of them went back to what they were doing before the incident: watching the approach to the island. To them, it was just another ordinary day: a man had tried to steal and mob justice had been meted out to him. Now that he had been locked away somewhere, they could go back to admiring the features of the island- the trees were now visible, as were some beautiful white buildings.

I noticed that the tourists looked a bit anxious. They were probably shocked at the speed with which everything had happened and at the seeming brutality of the crowd. Where had the anger and violence come from? They were not used to being this close to public anger and violence.

Whatever their feelings were, there was no time to dwell on them, the ferry soon docked and everyone was in a rush to get off.

This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Mgeni siku ya kwanza...

Remember when we were kids in primary school, and we had to sit through endless hours of Kiswahili, memorizing semi, methali and the like? And remember how Mr Macharia was constantly making us use that phrase, “Chembilecho wahenga…” in our essays? How about “Wahenga hawakuropokwa na maneno waliposema…” And then we’d have to complete the phrase with a saying or proverb that captured the apt sentiment for that paragraph. “Haba na haba hujaza kibaba” was a great favourite of mine. Apparently, those were choice condiments, guaranteed to spice up your essay and get you one step closer to that perfect score: 19 out of 20. (Mr Macharia would never give anyone the full 20 points.) We thought they were silly phrases back then, but still used them because we wanted good grades.
And today … well I never thought I’d say this, but those old folks we were always referring to in our essays sure were wise. My life today is a testament to the deep truth encoded in those proverbs, sayings, riddles and poetry that we so grudgingly memorized when we were kids. Mr Macharia would probably be disappointed to hear this, but we never really did think about those gems of knowledge and their implications at the time. As far as we were concerned, we were cramming for the exams. Nowadays I actually find myself thinking about them all the time, and it’s all thanks to my one-time friend, Marcia, who came to visit a couple of months ago.
Marcia knocked on my door one day, 3 months ago. She was just passing through town, she said, and was looking for a place to lay her head for two nights while she processed some documents in town. She’d intended to spend the night at her auntie’s place, but there was noone at home. The neighbors had said that the family’d gone upcountry for the weekend. Marcia was really apologetic about showing up at my doorstep with no advance warning, but she didn’t know where else to go. I was glad to host her for the two or so nights that she needed a place. After all, we’d sat through four miserable years of high school together. I smiled, and told her she was welcome to stay, her home was my home, and all the usual fanfare that a gracious host goes through: “Make yourself comfortable. You know where everything is.” And so, Marcia made herself comfortable.
Day one:
I wake up. Chaos in the kitchen. Marcia’s gone, presumably to the government building to get her paperwork done. The charcoal’s on the stove, soaking wet. The matchbox is split open, and the matches scattered on the wet ground. The tap is running and the sink overflowing. I close the tap, spread the charcoal out in the sun to dry, mop the floor, and then I realize that the food I’d left out on the table the previous night for the two of us to share at breakfast is all gone. Looks like I’m going to start the day on an empty stomach. I’m already cussing the guest out at this point. No time to waste, get ready for work.

When I come back home in the evening there’s a hole in the window. Marcia got home early and the door was locked, so she broke the window pane and opened the window so that she could climb in. She smiles at me and tells me that we’re out of milk, so could I run down to the store and get some?
Day two:
A better start to the day. It seems that I achieved something with yesterday’s talk. Marcia’s already gone, but this time the place doesn’t look like a hurricane ran through it. Maybe I was too hard on Marcia last night, she really isn’t a bad girl after all. Just a bit silly at times.
Day three:
Marcia’s still gone. Didn’t come back last night. I’m worried sick. What could have happened to her? I get dressed up, grab a bite to eat. On my way out to work, guess who I see curled up on the pavement, fast asleep outside the Mabatini street bar! I smell alcohol on her breath and her clothes. Now I know where she was last night. I drag Marcia back to my place, do my best to make sure she’s okay and take off. I have to. I’m already late for work.

In the evening Marcia is apologetic. She says she met an old friend, decided to buy some drinks to celebrate the end of her bureaucratic battles at the government office, had too much too drink and lost track of the time.
Day four:
I can’t help noticing that two days have turned into four. What on earth have I gotten myself into?

She was supposed to leave by noon today, but by the time she got to the bus station, the tickets for her bus were already sold out. So she’ll have to go back tomorrow. At this point, one more day won’t make a difference, right? She can have an early start tomorrow morning. I will gladly wake up bright and early to escort her to the bus station.
Day five:
Apparently, Marcie’s antics have taken a toll on her health. She now has a full-blown flu and has a high fever. She’s retching her guts out. I can’t believe this: I actually feel sorry for her. My neighbor is a medical student and drops in to check on Marcia at my request. She’s confident it’s just the flu and tells me the name of some over-the-counter drugs I can get to ease her symptoms.

It’s a Saturday. I’m supposed to be visting my folks in Nakuru this weekend, but how can I go when there’s a miserably ill young woman in my bed-sitter? Someone has to look after her. I grit my teeth. I’m going to get through this somehow. I only hope that I don’t catch her flu in the process.
Day six:
No water in the taps. It’s bad enough when I’m alone at home and this happens, but now I have a sick guest who frequently needs to go to the bathroom. It shouldn’t be too bad. I have a couple of jerrycans in which I store water. They should be able to get us through until the water supply is back on.

I thought I had a couple of jerrycans full of water. Not anymore. They’re empty. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who emptied them. I’m too frustrated to ask her why. She’s sick. I’m going to let her be, but the minute she recovers, I’m kicking her out.
Day seven:
It’s a miracle! She’s gone. She insisted on getting an early start today, and since I was going to work, I couldn’t escort her. She said it was okay, and thanked me for my hospitality, insisted that she’d let herself out when it was time to go and that I shouldn’t worry about her. It’s nice to come home to a clean, quiet and empty home. Hold on a second… my room’s looking too clean and empty. Some of my clothes are missing from my makeshift wardrobe and my modest music collection is gone. What’s left of my savings is gone. She must have seen the box where I kept my money when I was looking for change to buy her medicine.

There’s a note on the table. How “thoughtful” of her! She apologizes for taking my money. She realized she didn’t have enough for her bus fare because she’d stayed longer than she’d intended to and ended up using all the money than she had. There’s no mention of my other belongings or of anything else, for that matter. I’m exasperated. If I could, I would throttle her at this exact moment.
Wahenga hawakukosea waliponena, “Mgeni siku ya kwanza. Siku ya pili mpe jembe.”
Those old folks were right when they spoke about welcoming a guest on the first day and giving him a jembe to go dig the shamba on the second day, but I think there’s still room for improvement in that methali. If I could, I’d rewrite it to say: Mgeni siku ya kwanza. Siku ya pili, arudi kwake!

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This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Do bees here speak Swahili?

They say that it’s easier to write about home when living away from it, that the colors, scents and sounds that filled our childhood come back to us in bold, clear detail when we are shut off from experiencing them. That’s not true. The last desire on my mind is to write about my home and my childhood. My memories are too precious to lay bare to the eyes of an outsider. And truth be told, my memories are rather hazy. I can hardly remember the names, faces and places. My present is more real to me.

I want to connect with the people around me and to talk to them about our shared reality. My present surroundings may not be the hibiscus lined streets of my hometown, but the white florets borne by the branch scraping across my window pane smell heavenly. The bees go about their busy way, moving from nectar sac to nectar sac. I wonder, do bees here speak a different language from the ones back at home? I want to laugh at this thought, but pause. Maybe it’s not ridiculous after all. No. It is ridiculous. What’s more, it’s indicative of that special brand of megalomania that has us humans constantly trying to recreate the world in our image: I speak Swahili, therefore the African bee buzzes in Swahili.

But I do wonder about this thing called language. Is it a normal state of “being”? Is it possible for humans to live and coexist without any form of language? When I open my mouth to speak over here, my accent betrays my foreign origins right away. Does something parallel happen to migrating birds during their winter sojourns in warm lands, when they encounter birds from other territories?

Here I am making a big deal of my foreignness when I have been drinking this water and eating of this soil for ages. Every single cell in my body must be “of this nation” by now. There is a kind of poetic justice in that. No matter how hard I try to dissect and to label, reality has a way of throwing all my neat classifications into disarray.

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This work is licensed to Rose Kahendi under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Monday, June 18, 2007


Yearning, reaching, grasping for the unattainable.
The dream of an island of light, distant… unreachable,
Beyond the horizon.

Drowning, sinking, choking, gasping…
Too blind to see the elusive skin
That would allow a final escape.
The silent screams
Rise and emerge into the air,
The bubbles of urgency, now devoid of meaning, dissolve into nothingness.
And the weight descends, sinking, gliding through the curtains,
Expelling the old memories.

The darkness surrounds and encloses,
Its impenetrable veil covering up all traces
Above and below.
First published in TakingITGlobal's Panorama Zine on 18th June, 2007.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Majengo: the Old Stone Town

I came
To seek
Refuge in words.
Alone, I stand marooned in the emptiness of nowhere.
With words come color, resolution and momentary joy
When my hand brushes against the tail-end of a fleeting memory, just before it flutters away into he blue sky.

I speak of them, of their memories.
They asked me to remember them when I came back,
Not to forget their names, faces or stories.

I remember
The sadness and sweetness mingled in the pictures that leant against his wall.
The soft colors spoke of his dreams and memories
Before he crossed over to that new place.

He'd thought he was moving on to bigger and better
Yet there he was in another nation,
But still on the same side of the railway track.

And another.
A traveller and story-teller
Looking for a way out.
Sadness in his eyes
And memories of the cyclical violence.

Two brothers
Dearly missed.

This poem is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. Please feel free to use my writing for non-commercial purposes and do credit my name (Rose Kahendi) as the writer.


I recently saw a picture in a daily- a picture of a bulldozer crushing structures in a shantytown somewhere on the outskirts of an African city. The caption described the scene as an ongoing project in the "beautification" of the city.

"Beautification"?! I realize that our culture is obsessed with euphemisms, but this particular use is pushing it too far? The theory behind the beautification project is probably that the poor slum dwellers make the city ugly and aesthetically unpleasing. Apparently, the city planners' and policymakers' solution to this urban "eyesore" is to evict the slum dwellers and force them out of the city, pull their structures down and burn whatever remains to ashes. It's a common enough occurence in our cities, so common that the use of he word "beautification" no longer raises eyebrows.

Particularly disturbing in this instance is the fact that the human story is lost. Does anyone wonder what happens to these people after they are kicked out of their homes in the middle of the night and all their worldly possessions are destroyed? Where do they go? How do they fare? Unfortunately, for most newspaper readers, these people become yet another statistic, one more addition to a long list of victims of the urban monster. However, for the people living the tragedy, the questions are real: what do they do? Now that they've lost their homes in the city, how long before they lose their jobs (assuming they have jobs). What about security? With no roof over their heads, they are completely naked, more vulnerable than before to the extremes of weather and to criminal elements.

Our burgeoning cities have been described as festering wounds on the verge of exploding. They have been called demographic catastrophes, and the rising poverty and crime within them has given rise to immense fear in socety as a whole. It is as if the urban African is suddenly faced with this hulking monster that he/ she has created, and doesn't know what to do about it. In fear, he/ she strikes out and tries to eradicate the threat, forgetting that on the other side is a human being with a story as legitimate as his/ her own and a right to exist.

Why have we abdicated our responsibility to our fellow human? Why do we concentrate national resources and infrastructure in one part of the country and then lament when masses migrate there looking for jobs? Why have we neglected to develop industries and to support agriculture in other areas? If we took decentralization seriously and tried to create viable mini-economies in several communities across our countries then perhaps there wouldn't be such a large influx of migrants into our cities, seeking the jobs and security that they cannot find in their rural homes or in the small towns they live in.

And what exactly is it that our city planners do? I can think of numerous cities in which the basic layout has not changed much with the official end of colonialism. Infrastructure and facilities have not been expanded or built to help accommodate the rising populations and quickly changing demographics. New neighbourhoods are built without any allowance made for water supplies or for waste disposal. Schools and hospitals are full to capacity and beyond, and the services that they offer are so watered down as to be almost useless. And yet we have city planners and architects who draw monthly salaries and regional budgets are allocated for these very "projects".

Instead of recognizing our problems for what they are and trying to fix them at their source, we opt for cosmetic interventions that will "beautify" the city. What is the point of destroying shanty towns in the South of the city, only for more to crop up in the North of the city weeks later? What is the point of ejecting rural migrants from our urban centers when we know full well that it is in the urban centers that employment in industries, homes, markets etc exists? We actually need these migrants in our cities as laborers (who, mind you, will out of desperation accept wages below the legal minimum, putting a smile on the callous industrialist's/ employer's face), and yet we refuse to acknowledge that they're crucial for the basic functioning of our economies.

It's time we stopped hiding behind pretty words and faced the ugly world we had a hand in creating.

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This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. Please feel free to use my writing for non-commercial purposes and do credit my name Rose Kahendi as the writer.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

MLK, Luthuli and Nonviolent Resistance


An undeniable link connected Martin Luther King and Albert Luthuli, two socially and politically active black leaders on separate continents in the twentieth century. The former, American, and the latter, South African, lived under the shadow of white supremacy in their nations. Both were members of economically and politically disadvantaged populations and saw solutions for the trials of their people in social and economic justice. For the two, the liberation of their people lay in Christian ethic and in the employment of non-violent methods of resistance. They were respectively committed to ending the racially divisive systems of segregation (in the American South) and apartheid (in South Africa), and replacing these with communities where racial and ethnic equality and tolerance prevailed. At the same time, the two sprang from the loins of unique cultures with particular socioeconomic and political concerns, separated by an ocean. Their responses to the social and political injustices their people faced were rooted in those culturally specific contexts.

Despite their differences, one cannot ignore the contact between their distinct spheres and cultures, and even the possibility that the two had an important influence on each other. Lewis Baldwin, a historian whose text, Toward the Beloved Community, focuses on King’s influence on South African politics, describes King’s return from an African visit in 1957, determined to be a voice for South Africa’s oppressed population: “his knowledge undoubtedly expanded to new levels as he studied the Defiance Campaign led by Chief Albert J Luthuli and the ANC in1952-53” (Baldwin, 11). Baldwin goes on to describe how “King and Luthuli communicated with each other, even as the latter faced the rising challenges of Pan-Africanism and the scrutiny and harassment of the South African government”(Baldwin, 20). Luthuli would later describe his admiration for King to G McLeod Bryan, King’s friend, who would then recount the conversation to King: “the greatest inspiration to him was your Stride Toward Freedom . . . Luthuli had been reading it in his cane fields the very day that I visited him . . . His eyes were the brightest when I referred to him as the “King” of South Africa” (Baldwin, 21). King’s reply to Luthuli expressed similar sentiments: “may I say that I too have admired you tremendously from a distance . . . I admire your great witness and your dedication to the cause of freedom and human dignity” (Ibid.). Clearly then, the similarities between the two were more than mere coincidence. This was, in time, evidenced when the two leaders received Nobel Peace Prizes, Luthuli belatedly, in 1961, and King in 1964. Both occasions reflected world leaders’ recognition that the two were the best hope for a global concern: peaceful, multiracial co-existence in their countries (Baldwin, 34).

More evidence of the two leaders’ similarities exists in King’s Stride Toward Freedom and Luthuli’s Let my People Go, both autobiographical texts, authored during a time of great social and political transformation globally. Authored in the time period between 1950 and 1965, and documenting events of political import from the same era, the two texts reflect the concurrent transition from explicit colonialism and imperialism to what many believed would be independence. The explicit racial subjugation which had governed relations between colonizers and their colonial subjects was transforming into a more nuanced form of economic exploitation in which, to all appearances, the emerging nations were equal partners with their former masters. Naturally, King and Luthuli were aware of these transformations and recognized that the winds of change could soon be blowing through their own nations. Just as new nations appeared to be phasing out rigid, racialized economies and political hierarchies, the two saw that the same could potentially happen in their own nations. However, also aware of the stakes involved for the ruling white communities, the two were conscious that their people’s struggles to modify the political and economic systems could result in bloodshed. Their efforts to prevent this eventuality by promoting non-violence and building interracial bridges won them their Nobel Peace Prizes.

It is not possible to overemphasize that the two men’s ideas resonated on a global scale because they reflected a global concern. In a sense, the black, Indian and colored populations in South Africa continued to live under the colonial yoke, even as the rest of the continent was emerging from this scene. African Americans in the U.S. South also continued to live under a similar form of oppression, and therefore, their struggles under this oppression could be likened to the anti-colonial struggles on the African and Asian continents. The two nations’ racial crises were part of a global racial crisis. By comparing Luthuli’s and King’s autobiographical writings, I hope to reveal similarities between the two men, their communities and their ideologies, reflecting that the two fit into a larger global anti-colonial scheme. At the same time, the comparison will unearth differences between the two, which I will view as evidence that the leaders’ ideologies and methods developed out of their specific local contexts and conditions. My overall aim is to underline the importance of local contexts and of global trends in influencing specific political movements and events.

I have chosen to view Luthuli’s and King’s autobiographies as personal histories. Autobiographical texts, like any other potential historical references, are subject to their author’s biases and to their particular perspectives of social and political situations. While this is a potential setback in any form of research, it could also be the opposite, as it is in this case. The two texts are primary sources; essentially the first-person accounts of individuals who orchestrated and took part in non-violent protests, and who were directly affected by their choices to do so. Because they are not “objective” observations, they emphasize their authors’ subject positions, revealing how the political and the personal intersect. The texts also provide evidence of their authors’ worldviews, and of their subjectivities and contexts. Furthermore, they document the legislation and political events of the era so that a broader picture, simultaneously national and international, emerges.

The autobiographical accounts are not exhaustive of King’s and Luthuli’s interests or of their efforts for social justice. King’s writing, for example, does not indicate either his interest in South African politics, or white poverty or US prison systems, although they are slightly touched on within. Likewise, in his autobiography, Luthuli does not highlight his views on global poverty, although he hints at them while describing his visit to India. These points indicate the specialized nature of the texts, emphasizing that they devote most of their attention to specific events in the leaders’ political careers. King’s account describes the Montgomery bus protests that began in 1954, and the extent to which these mobilized the regional black population into non-violent political action. Luthuli’s writing covers a much longer period. Thus, in his case, I will primary focus on the Defiance Campaign of 1957 South Africa, also a non-violent form of mass protest, which his account gives prominence.

The men and their communities

Luthuli and King were both elite members of their respective communities. Both were highly-educated individuals, distinguishing them from most members of their racial communities. King descended from a line of ministers and, in addition, married Coretta Scott, the daughter of a minister (King, 21). This is significant, given that a lot of black political leadership evolved from leadership positions in the Church during his era. It reveals that King already occupied a position of potential leadership by virtue of his family ties. He had a relatively privileged background, growing up in Atlanta, mixing with white childhood friends before segregation set in, and eventually attending college and university (King, 18). His educational career proceeded up to the PhD level in Boston University, in the US North. He was still writing his dissertation when he accepted a pastoral position at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama (King, 22). King’s education and his experience in the Northern states exposed him to cosmopolitan life among American whites as their intellectual and social equal. It is probable that this experience helped develop his intuition that racial integration was an achievable goal.

Luthuli, on the other hand, was the son of Zulu converts to Christianity, and grew up largely in Groutville, Natal in South Africa. His community was home to Christians as well as believers in Zulu indigenous religious thought, two groups that lived and interacted in harmony (Luthuli, 20). Luthuli was privileged enough to receive the very education that white South Africans felt created “Black Englishmen”, preparing them for positions in fields other than industrial labor, mining and agriculture. Through his schooling, Luthuli saw his white teachers, not primarily as white men, but as teachers (Luthuli, 29). His formal education ended at Adams College, where he entered a Teachers’ Training Course, and then stayed on to teach for more than a decade(Luthuli, 33). Luthuli married Nokukhanya Bhengu, of royal Zulu blood, tying him to a traditional elite family. In addition, his education as well as his Christian faith (the two were inextricably linked) availed him opportunities that were not immediately available to most people from his community. In1936, he became Chief of the Umvoti Mission Reserve after democratic elections, thus beginning official leadership in a position that his uncle had previously occupied (Luthuli, 55). In both cases, the men came into leadership of their communities by virtue of a combination of factors: their religion, their family ties and their education. Both men also had exposure to situations in which their interactions with whites were not explicitly racialized. This would have an impact on the ideas that they developed.

The contexts in Alabama and South Africa differed. The majority race in South Africa at the time that the autobiography is written is black. This community, together with the minority Colored and Indian populations, live under the oppressive rule of the white minority. Luthuli’s desire for cooperation between different groups gives priority to cooperation among blacks of different ethnic groups, and then to the cooperation of these with Indians and, finally, with Colored people. He views this series of cooperative relationships as being significant for the development of a unified national resistance to white rule. In fact, he traces the ANC’s eventual success as the voice of South African resistance to its ability to collaborate with the Indian Congress, white liberal groups, leftist whites, and various political groups covering a variety of ethnicities and races (Luthuli, 101). The autobiography also notes that South African legislation is the basis for the racialized hierarchies.

Racial cooperation in Montgomery, Alabama, as described by King, involves two primary communities: black and white. Legislation in the Southern states, including Alabama, supports institutionalized segregation. However, this is in opposition to Federal legislation, and to legislation in the Northern States. The result of this is that members of the minority black community, prevalent in the South, potentially have the ability to move to the Northern states to escape segregationist legislation and its limiting effects on their lives. Secondly, black residents of Southern states could appeal to the Federal Judiciary system if dissatisfied with Southern forms of justice (King, 160). In fact, the latter is the method that King and his colleagues used to get bus segregation in Montgomery declared illegal. The success of this endeavor illustrates the effectiveness of this tool, which was unavailable to Luthuli and his South African colleagues. In the South African case, the disenfranchisement of all blacks, Coloreds and Indians strips them of any ability to influence policy. Furthermore, they are unrepresented in the government, in parliament and in the Judiciary.

Another important factor is the amount of Northern capital invested in the Southern US states. King and his colleagues, aware of this, get in touch with the Chicago-based parent company of the Buslines that they are protesting against, reasoning that a Chicago office representative would be better able to negotiate with them (King, 113). While this turns out not to be the case, it sill represents an opportunity that was largely unavailable to the South Africans. In the South African case, any change to legislature would have to come from international pressure in the form of economic and diplomatic sanctions. In this sense, the two struggles, while both against institutionalized racism, are vastly different.

Another difference exists between the two situations. On the one hand, the ANC is a nationwide movement, with the Defence Campaign held on a nation-wide basis. Though urban-based, the association and its campaign still amass significant rural support. The MIA, on the other hand, is very specific to the Montgomery bus protest situation, created for the sole purpose of coordinating the protests and unifying the black protesters. Both organizations receive regional and international support and funding, but the scope of their efforts is primarily regional in Montgomery, and national in South Africa.

Luthuli observes another difference between his country and the US during a visit to the Southern states. He observes that black industrial and agricultural colleges in the US South are similar to those created for black South Africans. However, he notes that African Americans are able to get state financial aid, which is not the case for his own community (Luthuli, 81). On another level, Luthuli and King are similar. Both are visionaries, with the latter believing that segregation would end, and making it a reality, and the former interpreting the increasing brutality of the South African government as an indication that their reign was coming to an end. Both turned out to be right, but it is likely that their specific views of liberation were nowhere close to the present day status quo in their nations: black populations are now enfranchised and segregation is no longer an institutional reality (in theory), but their communities remain at the bottom of the economic ladder.

Their Political and Religious Thought

King and Luthuli developed their ideologies in response to specific circumstances. Both were firmly rooted in Christianity, and supported non-violent forms of protest. At the same time, they both saw religion’s applicability to the personal and the social, and tried to use this to achieve social justice and economic justice for non-white populations. Interestingly, their non-violent philosophies took a leaf from Mohandas Gandhi’s Satyagraha. Gandhi was Hindu, and, thus, some might see the two men’s adoption of his methods as a divergence from the “true” Christian path. However, as King describes it, satyagraha resonated with the Christian edict to turn the cheek. Both ideals are in favor of non-violence, but while the latter was personal, the former showed a way to translate it into the political (King, 96). The two, fully aware of non-Christian faiths were not dismissive of this possibility; they willingly borrowed from Gandhi’s ideology.

King was able to reconcile individuals from different denominations of the Christian church and to get them to unite under the banner of integration. For his part, Luthuli grew up in a community surrounded by traditional Zulu believers as well as Christians. Later on, he would be one of the leaders of the Defiance Campaign, which involved Christians, believers in indigenous African religions, Muslims, Hindus and individuals of other religious persuasions. Faith was a significant aspect of King’s political involvement. He saw God’s hand in the occurrence of the bus protests in Montgomery at that specific time. He had a concept of depersonalized love, agape love, which he believed would allow blacks to maintain their dignity and to overcome feelings of inferiority when faced with white aggression (King, 104).

With time, the two would face accusations of involvement in communism from their political opponents. It is not surprising that they both devoted part of their writings to comments about Communism. King admitted to having read Karl Marx’s writings in the context of his graduate studies. He indicated that he studied the writings of a number of different thinkers and philosophers, and described his reactions to them. King rejected Marx’s secularist non-religious approach and saw his materialism as an insufficient analysis of the then state of affairs in capitalist society. He also felt that Marx’s theory was too depersonalized and elevated the collective at the expense of the personal. At the same time, King was challenged by Marx’s works in that they addressed economic inequalities in a way that capitalism and the Christianity espoused by White supremacists did not. Thus, his reaction to Marxism and to Communist thought was mixed (King, 95).

Luthuli never had the chance to read any of Marx’s writings, but he had the intuition that a lot of the prevailing rhetoric about Communism amounted to nothing more than witch hunts. Like King, he saw Communists as a misguided group of people. He expressed his sympathy for them, but emphasized that there was no need to depersonalize Communists and turn them into social pariahs: “until things take a change for the better in South Africa, the resistance must be a body of people of diverse outlook and religion (Muslims and Hindus co-operate too) working together for one end . . . Resistance movements cannot afford the luxury of McCarthyism, nor can they allow themselves to be divided up into innumerable little homogenous groups. We are not playing at politics, we are bent on liberation” (Luthuli, 154).

Luthuli’s rhetoric was for the integration of the different races and ethnicities of South Africa into a united community. This was primarily in response to the National Party’s proposal for separate development, which would separate the different ethnic and racial groupings into homogenous groups (or so the authorities wanted to believe) to prevent miscegenation and allow the white minority to continue to exploit the other groups economically without having to interact with them socially. Separate development implied that the different races were on different positions on an evolutionary timeline, and that, therefore, they had different cultural, social and political needs. This amounted to inferior education and social services for non-whites, especially for the black-majority. Furthermore, it supported the white supremacists claim for permanent political primacy. The white rulers were fond of using the term baaskap to refer to blacks’ supposed inability to help themselves. This is somewhat reminiscent of white propagandists’ claims in the American South that delinquency was inherent in blacks as evidenced by their communities’ conditions in Northern cities. Both leaders realized that the white authorities’ constant sabotage of their opportunities to improve themselves were having a negative toll on the self-perception of black communities. As a result, both wove their tactics around the view that they were fighting a system as opposed to a race (Luthuli, 116). Hence, their movements welcomed the involvement of other races, and were, in fact, designed to inspire involvement of this nature (Luthuli,117).

The Movements

The African National Congress (ANC) came into being at the beginning of the 20thcentury. However, it was a long time before the organization was able to amass unified nationwide resources and support. Jan Smuts’ 1946 Asiatic Land Tenure helped to unify Indians and Africans in protest, thus giving rise to the first instance of cooperation between the ANC and the Indian Congress. After 1948, when the National Party came into power, conditions deteriorated for the non-white populations. White hostility towards the other races increased, swelling ANC ranks. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Under Dr James Moroka, the new President-General of the ANC, a new Programme of Action evolved. This consisted of new methods of protest. Instead of mere words and apathy, the ANC conceived of nationwide demonstrations, civil disobedience and strike action (Luthuli, 109). In 1952, the Defiance Campaign was born. It was a large scale rejection of the color bar, with blacks, Indians and some coloreds rejecting the inferior facilities accessible to them, and using white facilities instead. They deliberately flouted curfew and pass regulations. The Defiance Campaign occurred on a national scale and, despite Luthuli’s fears that the participants were not prepared well enough, it was successful (Luthuli, 112). The protesting groups were prepared to avoid all forms of violence protest and, for this reason, there was little that the authorities could do beyond initially arresting them en masse. The media response, which likely reflected white popular sentiment at the time, was near hysterical (Luthuli 118).

In Montgomery, the bus protests developed in a similarly unprecedented manner. After years of segregation and abuse of blacks on the bus lines, one Rosa Parks, exhausted after a long day on her feet at work, refused to stand up to allow a white man to seat. She was arrested, and charged with breaking the law (King, 43). This action precipitated the Women’s Political Council to suggest the boycotting of the buses, a process which soon followed. Acting under the direction of the Montgomery Improvement Association, under King’s leadership, black residents of Montgomery boycotted the buses for over five months, developing, instead, an efficient car-pool. The movement united members of different denominations and rejected all forms of aggression on the part of the black community.

In both cases, the movements’ actions seem to have sprung into action by chance, given that both contexts were characterized by decades of brutality and racial oppression. However, it is actually the case that the accumulation of several different factors such as desegregation legislation in the US, and increased oppressive legislation in South Africa, combined with spreading waves of political consciousness, jumpstarted the protests. Opposition to the protests was similar in the two contexts. Bombings and Ku Klux Klan appearances were among the white reactions to the bus boycott. However, as these turned out to be ineffectual, the authorities began to rely on legislation to delegitimize the boycotters’ actions (King, 149).

In South Africa, agents provocateurs were used to provoke violence, which was then used to justify a violent counter-attack on the protesters. At the same time, the focus turned to the leaders of the ANC, who included Albert Luthuli. The government banned them, charged them with treason, and kept them under constant surveillance. In the South African case, the Defiance Campaign became the symbol for a larger conspiracy that the authorities imagined existed and had to be unearthed. Thus, at one given time Luthuli was in jail for his role in organizing other forms of protest and testifying at the Treason trial (Luthuli, 225).


As similar as the two protests were, they had drastically different endings. The MIA’s efforts resulted in the end of segregation on Montgomery’s buses, both in legislation and in reality. They would give rise to similar victories across the region. King’s involvement and his anti-violence stance contributed to racial integration in the region (for the period that the book covered). The South African struggle went a different way. The government clamped down on all forms of protest, arresting many opposition leaders and forcing the ANC and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) to go underground. Apartheid’s noose tightened around the necks of the South African majority. In a sense, the opposition was forced to adopt violent methods.

The differences in the two endings are rooted in the particulars of each case. The scales of the protests were significant. The South Africa one was nationwide, meaning that there was more at stake for the power-holders. The MIA’s action was largely regional and, because it was not fighting a national legal battle, support from federal branches of government and from the Northern states were possible. South Africa’s whites were also in a more precarious situation than those in the American South because they were a population minority. Thus, their techniques were more extreme and more violent. The two societies were clearly at different stages in the evolution of racial relationships. Thus, the outcomes of non-violent protest were necessarily different between them.

It is important to mention that the end of the two accounts did not signal the end of the political movements described. Neither did the accounts provide a comprehensive look at the political totality of the South African and American pictures. To date race relations in the two countries, though nowhere close to the segregation of the fifties and sixties, point to the persistence of racialized economic hierarchies. Black communities in South Africa and the US are technically integrated into multiracial communities today. However, it is unlikely that they reflect King’s Beloved Community model or Luthuli’s hopes for a united South Africa.

Luthuli’s and King’s accounts have contributed to the development of global understandings of economic exploitation and violence. This is especially relevant at present, with the rise of globalization and the need to understand the interconnectedness of world communities’ destinies. The existence of large-scale currents and trends does not, however, do away with our need to understand and respect the specifics of local communities’ experiences. It is these contextual differences that make it possible to speak of a larger picture and, consequently, to develop a nuanced understanding of inter-racial cooperation and of historical writing.

Works Cited

Baldwin, Lewis V. Toward the Beloved Community: Martin Luther King and South Africa. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press. 1995.

King, Martin Luther Jr. Stride Toward Freedom: the Montgomery Story. New York: Harper Collins Publishers. 1986.

Luthuli, Albert. Let my People Go. New York: McGraw Hill Book Company, Inc. 1962.

 Creative Commons License This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. Please feel free to use my writing for non-commercial purposes and do credit my name, Rose Kahendi, as the writer.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

No end in sight

A few encounters with people and with books have given me pause for thought lately. In one conversation, two friends were talking about their love for reggae, going back to their childhoods. I was therefore surprised to hear the turn in their conversation. Apparently, both of them had lost their taste for reggae and felt disillusioned when they listened to it. As far as they were concerned, it was the same old lament being voiced in the present that had been voiced twenty or more years previously. Why, they wondered, couldn't reggae tunes incorporate more uplifting messages? Why hadn't the lyrics evolved to reflect major developments in Africa and her diaspora? They felt that listening to reggae actually disempowered them and, as a result, had decided to turn to “more inspiring” musical forms. I found myself ruminating on their words, but I was not ready to agree with them.

Reggae does often express the disenchantment of an economically and racially marginalized group with “the establishment”. That is precisely why so many youth have been attracted to it through the decades. During our teenage years, we all have rebellion coursing through our veins. Soon enough, we emerge into a cruel world and realize just how little we are and how ineffective our punches are against the world's brick walls. I think roots reggae is the embodiment of the little man or woman’s cries of frustration at the injustices of “the system”. As long as poverty and oppression remain, and as long as the global economy is slanted to favor a few and to milk the rest dry we cannot expect the laments to end or to change significantly.

I reflected further on the young men’s words, and realized that the direction of their conversation reflected significant changes in their own lives. They were no longer voiceless youth, financially dependent on others and with little control over their circumstances. Instead, they had been pushed through a middle class education and were now well-established successful businessmen, heavyweights in the corporate world. They were now “the establishment”, so how could they possibly identify with the message encoded in reggae? For them, rebellion had been a necessary part of their teenage years, but it was now time to leave that experience behind them and turn to a form of music that reflected their new realities and reinforced their faith in their lifestyles.

Shortly after listening to that discussion, I found myself reading Farid Boudjellal's "Petit Polio- tome 1". On one of the later pages of this bande dessinée, Mahmoud, the young hero, born to Algerian parents in France, is rudely awakened to the ugliness of racism in France and the urgency of the Algerian war of Independence. He seeks solace in his favorite comic strip, set in the Wild West, and dreams of running to his cowboy heroes for help, and then setting off with them to help his fellow Algerians in their battle against France.

I did a double take when I first saw this sequence of images in the bande dessinée. Was it actually possible that, in young Mahmoud’s mind, these cowboys, colonial settlers and expansionists of an earlier era, had morphed into champions of Algerian anti-colonialism?The irony was inescapable.

However, it has to be said that Mahmoud was not alone in dreaming up this strange alliance. In fact, seeing the images of the traumatized little boy's dream reminded me of how, in the mid-20th century, young children in parts of Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere, living under the yoke of colonialism, were sometimes able to get hold of American comic strips that depicted the “Wild West”. Quite a number of them would treasure these comic strips and would sympathize with the “cowboys”, somehow seeming to forget that if it was their own story being told, they would be the “barbaric primitives”, and their colonizers would be the “good-guys”, the “cowboys”.

The mindless killing portrayed in those comic books was not far from the violence experienced by these children and their families. How was it possible for them to elide over this fact as they read through the comic strips? Were the children in denial? Were they able to avoid making this comparison by convincing themselves that these tragic events were so far removed in history that they had no bearing on their lives? Were they trying to salvage their dignity by identifying with power or with the gun-toting bully?

I don't know the answers to these questions, but I do know that the violence depicted in those comic strips is not a thing of the past. It lives on, right at this moment, in the words of popular songs, in the games that children play, in the romanticized myths of the American nation’s origin, and particularly in the marginal existence that Native American nations eke out in reservations. Most of us do not notice this violence because it doesn't touch us directly, but our hearts would be heavy and our souls weary if it was our reality.

First published in TakingITGlobal's Panorama Zine on 22nd February, 2007.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Lost in Translation

With a wistful smile on my face, I remember a dear friend who, struck by homesickness, recited some of his favourite poetry to us. It was beautiful... but I had no idea what it meant. Afterwards, he explained the meaning of the words to us, but his English summary wasn't quite the same as the alliterative Somali consonants and rhyming vowels that had rang melodically in my ears minutes earlier.

That experience led me to wonder: is it really possible to translate poetry, particularly poetry coming from the long and rich oratory tradition of the Somali peoples? I'm still wrestling with that question, especially since, years on, I still love poetry and yet still don't understand my friend's language.

Margaret Laurence's "A Tree for Poverty: Somali Poetry and Prose", only seems to put into stark relief the impossible task that is translation. Her introduction to the later edition is telling. In it she consciously reexamines the assumptions that she had first carried as she translated the poems and stories, assumptions that made their way into the introduction to the first edition of the book. One can't help smiling at the difference between the two introductions; it speaks of several decades of life experience and a deeper sense of humility.

I ask myself, if I were to do a translation of poetry, and then to review the book 40 years later, would I be satisfied by what I saw, or would I feel shame that I had ever thought that way? Probably the second. :D

I have a good deal of respect for people who put themselves into their writing, and then present that writing to the world, warts and all. It takes a good deal of courage to present one's own creative work to an audience.

Wow- 4 paragraphs and still nothing about the poetry in the book. Lol! I'll get to that eventually, just not today!

Creative Commons License This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. Please feel free to use my writing for non-commercial purposes and do credit my name, Rose Kahendi, as the writer.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Ibrahim Shaddad's "Insan"

Sudanese director Ibrahim Shaddad's experimental film, "Insan" is memorable (to say the least). With no spoken narrative to guide me as I watched it, I was disoriented for a while, but eventually, I was able to put two and two together. It's a short film- 27 minutes- but that is more than made up for by the powerful story line: a herdsman undergoes a series of crises that cause him to lose his wife, his livelihood, and eventually, his hand. Quite a sad conclusion to what started out looking like a simple film about a villager's adventures in the city.

Particularly striking is the setting of the film. The film was released in 1987, a few years after the debilitating drought in Western Sudan. Was the film a reflection of that experience? Unfortunately, my grasp of Sudanese history is very weak, so that question will remain unanswered for now.

Truthfully, my interest in the film had nothing to do with intellectual engagement. I watched the film for the same reason that I once watched "Out of Africa": because it was shot at "home". I've never been to the Sudan, but it's just North of my country, and I was curious to see whether the landscape was one I would recognize, and whether I would notice some cultural continuities. Not surprisingly, there were several cultural continuities and in some strange way, I felt like Khartoum (I imagine this was the city portrayed in the film) looked kind of familiar.

This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. Please feel free to use my writing for non-commercial purposes and do credit my name, Rose Kahendi, as the writer.

Friday, January 5, 2007

Darwin's Nightmare- an East African Tragedy

The documentary film, "Darwin's Nightmare: A Celluloid Dream Release," sheds light on the extremes of globalization and the impact it has had on Mwanza, an East African urban center. Many of the villages around the Tanzanian lakeside town are stricken by HIV-AIDS, and regularly lose their breadwinners. Young women, many of them widowed by AIDS, are forced into prostitution to support themselves and their families. The fishermen who catch Nile Perch from the lake for their livelihoods are unable to eat the same fish: it is too expensive for them. All their catch is sold to the factories that process the fish for exportation to Western Europe.

So what do the fishermen and their families eat? They eat the remains from the processing plants i.e. the rejected fish, and the parts that are unappetizing for the Western European consumers. As if that is not bad enough, it transpires that the Nile Perch are foreign to Lake Victoria, and that their introduction to the lake has created an environmental disaster. Who knows how many indigenous species have been drastically impacted by the introduction of that commercial fish? I wonder what further impact that has had on the people of the lakeside who have, for centuries, depended upon the lake for food.

Within the film, Hon. Joseph Munyao, the Kenyan Minister for Livestock and Fisheries, expresses his disappointment that those who film Africa tend to focus on the negative instead of highlighting the positive. Are politicians right in saying that Western media tends to portray sub-Saharan Africa in a negative light? Yes, they are, but it is also true that the events being filmed do happen, not just in our nations, but also in every other nation in the world. Anyone that reads the news regularly is aware of several environmental crises all over the world. Additionally, poverty in different parts of the world is often highlighted in documentaries. That includes poverty in the most powerful nation- the USA. Remember Katrina.

If a documentary film happens to highlight our actual failings, how responsible is it for us to be preoccupied with our public image? It seems to me it would be more fitting to focus on the problems highlighted by the film and to try to address them.

This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. Please feel free to use my writing for non-commercial purposes and do credit my name, Rose Kahendi, as the writer.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Inter-African Ties

I read columnist Wallace Kantai’s “Ties with North Africa Shallow” in the February 26th, 2006 edition of the Sunday Standard with great interest. In it, Mr. Kantai expounds on the idea belief that any ties connecting sub-Saharan African nations to North African nations are shallow. However, I ultimately disagree with his conclusions.

In my opinion, Africa is first and foremost a geographical entity. Therefore Algeria,Morocco, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt are incontestably African. Another articulation of what it means to be African is racial. However, in reality, we can’t seem to agree on precisely what it means to be black. The moment that we try to determine whether it’s skin color, hair texture, the shape of one's lips, nose or physical frame that makes one ‘African’,we hit a roadblock. There’s also the idea that being African is political. A few decades ago, when we were united by anti-colonization movements, we readily accepted Ben Bella, Abdel Nasser and others as African. Today we are less flexible. Our political priorities have changed.

Kantai cites the Algerian experience, referring to its ruling class’s choice to identify it as an Arab nation and seemingly deny its Berber or Kabyle-African identity. It is true that the ideology of Arabism has been given precedence in official state rhetoric, but Algeria has never simply been an Arab nation. The question of ethnic and cultural identity is constantly being contested in Algeria, and is a major contributor to the political tensions there. Several Algerian public figures are explicit about their ethnic identities. They refer to themselves as Berbers, Arabised-Berbers, or Arabs. Several have specifically referred to themselves as Africans.

But let’s make allowance for the fact that several North Africans do identify themselves as Arabs. Is there a contradiction between readily partaking of both Arab and African identities? I think not. Arab identity is cultural, first and foremost, not racial and not continental. Being Arab usually implies a certain relation to the Arabic language. The people we call Arabs today are not all descended from one region of the world; they include Africans and Asians and, arguably, some with European roots. The designation‘Arab’ includes members of several different races (if one still thinks it necessary to speak of race).

It makes practical sense for North African nations to make alliances with Middle Eastern nations: they share cultural, religious and linguistic ties. To a certain degree, they share a common history. This does not make them less African. It makes them complex. We are similarly complex: The East African coast has long been part of an Indian Ocean trading community, and present-day Kenya continues to have ties to the Persian Gulf, the Arab peninsula, the Indian sub-continent and the islands of the Indian Ocean. Does this stop us from being African?

Do the economic ties between North Africa and Europe make North Africa more European? North Africa has a Mediterranean coastline. So do France, Greece,Spain, Italy, Portugal,and Turkey. The regions are in close geographical proximity and have traded for centuries.They have cultural ties as well. Economic pragmatism demands that they take advantage of these ties. How different are we Kenyans? We are largely oriented towards the British Commonwealth, and are highly dependent on the Anglo-American entity for our economic survival. The global economic balance is tipped in Europe’s favor, so just like Sub-Saharan Africans, North Africans will obviously try to manoeuvre themselves into more profitable economic relationships. One could argue that the heart and soul of Sub-Saharan Africa belongs more to the West than does that of North Africa. After all, we sub-Saharans have adopted European religions and languages more whole-heartedly. Does that make us less African?

There is no simple African identity. What it means to be African varies from region to region. When Mr. Kantai says that our compatriotism with North Africa is built on shallow sands, he is speaking from a Kenyan standpoint. A Senegalese Muslim would not have similar conclusions, because trade and Islam have long linked Western Africa to the Maghreb. In fact, there are compelling reasons to argue that there are stronger ties between Senegal and Morocco than there are between Senegal and Kenya.It is sometimes valuable to examine the meaning of being African. However, when we restrict the meaning of this term to race, we risk ignoring the continent’s rich diversity and our own cultural, linguistic and historical ties to other continents.

Creative Commons License This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License. Please feel free to use my writing for non-commercial purposes and do credit my name, Rose Kahendi, as the writer.