Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Emotional Wellness


There's a good piece on the Huffington Post called "10 Ways to Improve Depression and Anxiety without Meds." It's written by a psychiatrist, Dr Sheenie Ambardar, and I believe it is directed at an audience of people living with mood disorders. But I think it makes great advice for a general audience.

The first item on the list, "Limit Your Time on Facebook," cracked me up, but it is true. I think spending time on Facebook is okay if you're strategic about it, and do it for networking or professional purposes. Using your Facebook account as an extension of your personal life is another story.

I think the seventh item on the list, "Pick a Goal, Any Goal," is not specific  enough. I can imagine somebody picking a huge task as a goal, and then getting anxious or depressed about not being able to achieve it. That would contradict the intentions of Dr Ambardar in writing the article.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Setting your own limits


I have just come across a great blog post by the writer, Donald Miller. It touches on decisions that we can actively make to improve our emotional well-being. The post, Need to Manage Your Relationships? touches on the challenges Miller has faced managing his time and relationships in such a way that he can meet his professional and social responsibilities without exhausting himself.

You really should read this piece. It articulates what so many of us go through daily, trying to be supermen or superwomen in our jobs and lives in general. We are under so much pressure to perform well at work, to be supportive friends, and to meet whatever personal goals we have set for ourselves, that we forget that we can't do it all.  Many of us go overboard, committing ourselves to too much, and then subsequently wonder why we are so burnt out and resentful in the middle of the week.

I'm glad to say I checked out of that particular hotel a long time ago. But the article resonates with me because it parallels my own process of coming to the realization that I had to set my own limits and stick to them. I was the person best placed to do this because I knew when I was at my most productive, when I was most exhausted, what was really important in the scheme of things, and what wasn't.

From his brief post, it is apparent that Miller learned what his daily work and life rhythm was and structured everything else around it. Fortunately, I too learned to do something similar a few years ago, and it simplified my life tremendously.

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

Thursday, May 24, 2012

On popular perceptions of adoption in Kenya


In August last year, a Kenyan media personality, Caroline Mutoko, announced on her Facebook page that she had just become a mother. At first glance, it may seem like there was nothing unusual about this. After all, motherhood is part of the natural order of things. This, however, was a special situation. The radio show host had just successfully adopted a baby girl and was happy to share her joy with her fans.


Predictably, the responses to her announcement ran the full gamut. They ranged from those which lauded her actions to those which cast aspersions on her motives for adoption. Of those who wrote negative comments, some were sure that she had adopted because she did not want to 'ruin her figure' with pregnancy and childbirth. Others were certain that she had adopted in order to prove she was a 'self-sufficient woman', with no need for a man. Yet others claimed that she was infertile and poked fun at her for this perceived shortcoming.

These negative comments were pretty ugly, and they also said a lot about the insecurities of the people who expressed them. Many of them suggested an underlying belief that one's social worth primarily came down to his or her capacity to perpetuate the family line: Only a 'true man' could impregnate a woman, and only a 'true woman' could give birth. Anybody who 'failed' this basic test was not quite 'man enough' or 'woman enough.' It seemed that these people imagined that a child could only bond with those to whom it was related by blood and that adults could only feel maternally or paternally protective towards their biological offspring. Hence, a woman who had not given birth to the child she was raising was a 'fake mother;' she was simply masquerading as a mom until the 'real mother' came along. To me, the very idea that a woman or man who took on full responsibility for another human being could be labeled a 'fake parent' was absurd. What was so fake about the affection, time, and resources they had chosen to give to these children? What was so fake about the fact that the children now had a place and family to call their own?


It is true that giving birth to a child is in and of itself important. If women were to stop giving birth, the human race would not last long. However, we all know that a newborn cannot mold itself into an emotionally-stable, productive, adult member of society. It takes a parent or parents to do that. It so happens that the biological parents of children are sometimes unable to play that role. People pass away, leaving their children orphaned, others are incapacitated by illness, others are overcome by addiction, while others don't have the desire or capacity to nurture their children. This is why we make it possible for others to step in and play the parenting role: to protect those children, to feed, clothe, and shelter them, and to teach them morals and values. When they succeed in raising happy, well-adjusted, young men and women, who are we to take that achievement away from them by calling them 'fake parents'?


Those who are dismissive of adoption seem to forget one crucial thing. Our societies have structures in place for the protection of many children whose parents are, for one reason or another, unable to parent them. These structures are called extended families. Think about it: How often does the average African nuclear family welcome a young brother, sister, niece, nephew, or cousin into the home, and support them through primary and secondary school, or even college? Do these relatives not become part and parcel of the home? Do we not consider them our brothers and sisters and share our resources, however limited, with them? For all practical purposes, this system is pretty similar to adoption. Perhaps the only difference between the two comes down to the legal formalities that define them. Legal adoption bestows upon the adopters the legally-recognized role of parents while fostering within the extended family proceeds even without legal recognition. Both situations are defined by a shared ideal. They seek to provide a child with a loving family and a safe place to call home.

Fortunately, Kenyan society has matured to the degree that legal adoption is steadily gaining legitimacy in the public's eyes. More people recognize everyday that there is more to parenting than conception, pregnancy, and childbirth. In addition, more people are willing to accept the idea that we are all stakeholders in our society. When children in our communities suffer from neglect or abuse, their pain and suffering reflect on us as a whole, not just on their biological parents or relatives. We have something to offer to our communities, something that goes beyond our capacity to bring vulnerable, little babies into the world. Hopefully, as time goes by, we will develop an expanded sense of the roles we can play as socially-responsible, adult members of our communities.

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

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The myth of linguistic purity

Professor Farooq A. Kperogi's piece on "The Arabic Origins of Common Yoruba Words" is an interesting read. While I do not speak a word of Yoruba, I can see parallels between the context he describes (in response to the Italian Professor Sergio Baldi's "On Arabic Loans in Yoruba") and the Kenyan one. I am a speaker of Swahili, a Bantu language whose lexicon has also been expanded over the centuries with vocabulary from Arabic, among other languages. Hence, I know for a fact that most, if not all, of Kenya's languages have in turn benefited from this expanded Swahili lexicon by themselves absorbing words from Swahili that are originally of Arabic origin. 


There's nothing unusual about this. I think that every spoken language bears testimony to the interaction of two or more groups of people, and, over time, comes to include vocabulary from myriad other languages. Languages are, in this way, records of the history of human interaction. They are simultaneously records of the spread of ideas over land and sea. Because languages reveal the degree to which different groups interact, intermarry and influence each other, it is remarkable to me that ethnic nationalists  are able to base their claims for ethnic supremacy on the perceived purity of their languages. Does the irony of the situation escape them?


I remember reading an opinion piece written in that very mold a few years ago. An individual was making the case for abandoning Swahili as the national language of Kenya, pointing to its Arabic-sourced vocabulary as proof of its 'impurity,' and unsuitability for consideration as an authentic African language. The individual then declared that one of the other indigenous languages of Kenya would make a more suitable national language. I pondered on his words awhile, wondering which of these indigenous Kenyan languages would qualify as 'pure.' 


Might it be Gikuyu? Consider the following words:
TABLE: Metha (Gikuyu) <- Meza (Swahili) <- Mesa (Portuguese)
BOOK: Ibuku (Gikuyu) <- Book (English)
PAINT: Rangi (Gikuyu) <- Rangi (Swahili) <- Rangi (Persian)
TIME/ HOUR: Ithaa (Gikuyu) <- Saa (Swahili) <- Sa'a (Arabic)


What about Dholuo? Sure enough,Dholuo had its fare share of vocabulary borrowed from other languages, including the following:
TABLE: Mesa (Dholuo) <- Meza (Swahili) <- Mesa (Portuguese)
BOOK: Buk (Dholuo) <- Book (English)
TIME/ HOUR: Saa (Dholuo) <- Saa (Swahili) <- Sa'a (Arabic)
PLATE: San (Dholuo) <- Sahani (Swahili) <- Sahn (Arabic)
MINUTE: Dakika (Dholuo) <- Dakika (Swahili) <- Daqiqa (Arabic)

An analysis of the tens of other Indigenous Kenyan languages would have revealed similar issues. So where exactly would one draw the line, determining which language was African enough to displace Swahili? Linguistic purity is a myth. By extension, so is cultural purity. So when do we plan on revising our understandings of what it means to be Kenyan, Nigerian, or African to reflect this?

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

Thursday, May 10, 2012

In America, everything is politicized

When I read this article, I had to laugh. It brought to mind a conversation I once had with my friend, Maina, a Kenyan living in the US. We were both attending an event organized by an African American student group. Some of the African American women attending the event were dressed in the best of African couture, but there was a distinct difference between the way they carried themselves and the way a Kenyan or Tanzanian woman dressed in a similar outfit would have carried herself. I put it down to the fact that the American women probably felt self-conscious in their dresses. Maina, who had lived in the country longer, had another theory. He figured that Americans didn’t know how to simply be. Everything they took up, every cultural practice or idea they picked up from another nation, they had to repackage, politicize and turn into a movement.

I shook my head in doubt, but Maina smiled. “Believe me,” he said, “this lady in the Kitenge is probably wearing it to express political solidarity with pan-Africanism. She’s not wearing it for the reasons our moms or aunties would- because they liked the color or because the pattern flattered their figures.” I never did ask the lady in the Kitenge why she was wearing the dress. That would have been rude. But today, as I read this article on Digital Journal, I have to admit to myself that there may have been something to Maina’s words.The title of the piece is “Time magazine cover features boy,3, sucking on mother's nipple.”  And here is an excerpt from the article:

The cover of this week's Time truly shows a boy being breastfed by his mother, exposing some side-boob. Aram Grumet, 3, was asked to stand on a chair and place his mouth over his mother's breast, a practise familiar to mom Jamie Lynne Grumet. The Grumets employ attachment parenting in their household, described by Time as "extended breast-feeding, co-sleeping and 'baby wearing,' in which infants are physically attached to their parents by slings.

I come from a part of the world where women routinely breastfeed their children. It is simply what they do. Most Kenyans, female and male alike, don’t give a second thought to a breastfeeding mother in the room. I can't imagine a Kenyan photographer conceiving of breastfeeding as a controversial subject, and going out of his way to have the mother and child pose in a manner designed to provoke readers. It is true that, in Kenya, some kids still breastfeed occasionally beyond the age of 3. This is normal. They ultimately outgrow it. It's not an issue that has to be politicized.

Apparently, a different order prevails some hours West of the Greenwich Meridian. Not only is the decision to breastfeed or not to breastfeed a political stance backed by ideology, but basic childrearing practices are also labeled with special terminology. America has already given us “helicopter parenting.” Make way for “attachment parenting,” “extended breast-feeding,” “co-sleeping,” and “baby wearing.”

Seriously, it would never have occurred to women of my grandmother’s generation to come up with fancy names for these basic practices. Nor would it have occurred to them that, one day, parents would engage in battles over the legitimacy of their child-rearing ideologies in the comments sections of magazine articles and blogs on the Internet. I think Maina was right. Americans can be a tad bit too ideological about everyday matters.

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

Thursday, May 3, 2012

It's time we addressed the ethnic elephant in the room

It often seems to me that the specter of race is omnipresent in America. One cannot go anywhere or do anything without encountering some passionate debate about race or racism or being thrown into some limiting category (i.e. "You can't do xyz because black/ white folk don't do that."). As a foreign black woman living in the United States, it exhausts me. But I have to be honest with myself. It's not a uniquely American thing. In my own nation, we are obsessed with ethnicity.

I do not see any difference between racism and ethnic hatred. They are one and the same thing. Race is first-and-foremost an invention of overzealous scientists of past centuries. So when the pseudoscience is swept aside, all that actually remains to distinguish people of different 'races' is their culture. That thing we call 'race' in America should really be called 'ethnicity,' because most of the time when people talk about race, that is what they are referring to. When there is friction between people of different races living together, the roots of their hostility can often be traced to cultural misunderstandings and to competition for the same resources. Surely, the same could be said about the so-called tribal hostilities that break out between communities in myriad nations every single year.

The thing I find most interesting is the priority we tend to give to racism as the greatest evil in the world, and the comparatively underwhelming criticism we have for ethnic hatred between people of the same skin tone. If you really think about it, you will notice that the most highly popularized conflicts in the media are those that can be dressed up as racial conflicts. American conflicts that live up to the black vs white dichotomy are highly popular, as are South African ones. When we talk about Sudan, we are most interested in talking about 'Black vs Arab' than in talking about the other violent conflicts between 'Black and Black' and 'Arab and Arab.' The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has probably garnered as much media attention as it has because Israel is often imagined to be a cultural extension of Europe (notwithstanding the fact that a large proportion of Israelis are actually Jews from Arab lands) and the distinction between Israelis and Palestinians is often figured into the language of race.

Now think long and hard about this: When are Nobel Peace Prizes typically awarded to those individuals who have tried to broker peace and mutual understanding between communities at war? I am willing to bet that the most celebrated cases have involved those who have fought for peace between distinct 'racial' groups.

The reason why I am thinking about all of this is because it strikes me that we have gotten complacent about the perpetuation of inequality and discrimination of most kinds in our societies. Most of us speak passionately about the evils of racism and talk of our solidarity with the global fight against racism when living in the diaspora, but back home we are comfortable using offensive terms to objectify those who don't belong to our own ethnic groups. We don't question power structures that favor our ethnic groups or families, but are critical of those that exclude our ethnic groups and families. Furthermore, we speak passionately about our right to live anywhere in the world and to contribute to society as equals, but back home we run those who speak different languages out of our communities.

I am afraid that we have a lot of soul-searching to do. It is very easy to point to American society and its failings as far as race is concerned. However, Americans are far ahead of most of us in that they have a visible tradition of self-criticism and self-betterment. If it wasn't for that, the trans-Atlantic slave trade and plantation slavery would still be with us. I am not claiming that America is a utopia. Institutional racism continues to take a violent toll on American society. But I do want to emphasize that there are those who push back against racism and ethnic hatred in its different forms, and their voices are audible. How many of us can say the same about our nations? How many of us know a sizable number  of people in our own nations who will stand up for justice, even when it reveals inconvenient truths about their own ethnic communities? I think it is important for those of us from other nations to be more honest about acknowledging just how virulent our own homegrown hatreds are and to critique our roles in sustaining them.

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