A Nigerian-American journalist in Kenya

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Tom Gitaa, A Kenyan based in Minnesota August 23, 2010

Filed under: Safety,the journey — Admin @ 12:01 pm
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In the first quarter of this year, I received an email from someone named Tom Gitaa. In the email, Gitaa said he wanted to post one of my video stories on his website. I responded positively and that is how our friendship began.

Tom Gitaa is the publisher of Mshale News, a website and monthly print publication for African immigrants in the United States. www.mshale.com With it headquarters in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Mshale also has offices in Houston, Texas and Atlanta, Georgia.

The site features news about Africans in the diaspora and Africans back home. While in Chicago, I did a story on a Liberian-American soldier who was killed in Afghanistan. The story was picked up by several publications, including Mshale.  View the story here: http://www.mshale.com/article/Features/Features/Remembering_a_fallen_LiberianAmerican_Soldier/18465

In April, Mshale picked up another one of my stories- one about Nigeria’s then Acting-President, Goodluck Jonathan, as he made his first visit to America to attend the nuclear summit in Washington, D.C. I researched Mshale News and learned that Tom is from Kenya, though he has been based in Minnesota for more than 20 years.

Later, I told Tom that I was planning to go to Kenya, but security warnings may prevent my school from allowing me to go. Immediately, Tom offered assistance, saying Kenya is safe. He even offered to talk with someone from my school to assuage their concerns.

Since I’ve been in Kenya, Tom and I have been in communication via email and two weeks ago, he said he was coming to Kenya for a family emergency.

I finally met Tom for the first time, last week, Tuesday. Upon seeing him, I immediately thought he looked Nigerian and when I told him this he laughed, saying that may be why he gets along with Nigerians and has so many Nigerian friends. We had a pleasant lunch at Java House on Koinange Street. After he finished his Swahili curry chicken meal and I had satisfied myself with a veggie samosa and a plate of rice, I pulled out my camera and audio recorder. I wanted to hear about Tom’s experience as a Kenyan in the Diaspora.

*                                    *                                    *                                    *

Tom: I’m Tom Gitaa and I live in Minneapolis Minnesota. I’ve spent half of my life in the states now because I left Kenya pretty much immediately after high school. I left college, started working after college, got married, started a family. I’ve always been in the U.S. I come as often as I can, at the minimum, every couple of years. I think in the last five years, I’ve been here everywhere for a month or so. Some of it for business, some family visits.

There have been a lot of changes in Kenya. To be honest with you, I think in the last five or six years, it has actually been more fun to come to Kenya in the last five or six years than in previous years. A lot of things seem to work. Actually, it has been really nice to drive. I try not drive in Nairobi traffic, but when I’m going to Mombasa, the road is like driving from Minneapolis to Chicago because there are no potholes! (laughs) So it’s fun.

Chika: Is it safe to drive from city to city? What about bandits along the road?

Tom: This is the thing, since I’ve not been a victim myself, I’d say it’s pretty safe. Nothing has happened to me. I’ve always gotten from point A to B. I’ve heard things. Nairobi Mombasa road, especially as you approached Nairobi, near the airport from the Mombasa side, I know that used to be a really bad stretch. Of late I hear things have gotten better.  They’re very open and happy that things are getting better. I don’t think we have what might be called the ideal government yet, but there have been strides to something better than what we had previously. I tend to find there’s a sense from a lot of people in government that things need to be better. Which is a big change from before.

The one thing I love is the internet. That has been a big change. I can normally do a lot of my business between here and Minnesota. At least I know when I’m in Nairobi or Mombasa, I can get high speed internet.

Chika: When did that come about?

Tom: Actually in the last three of four years. When I was here back in 2004, that’s kind of when the cellphone explosion was taking place. You could come here and I could not meet anyone who didn’t have a cellphone. When I came back in 2006, for unfortunate circumstances…that’s when we came back for my wife’s funeral. My wife died in 2006, so we were here in December again. So it wasn’t quite high speed yet, but you could do what you wanted to do. Go to a cyber café. And you’d find different classes of cyber cafes.

Fast forward now, I can come with my laptop and go to what I call a top-tier cyber café. I think the locals consider it expensive, but since I’m only here for a short while, I can pay for the high speed and the nicer, cleaner environment and conduct some business. Those have been fun developments.

Now, we just came for my father-in-law’s funeral and I’ve been able to keep up with my colleagues on the other side. I know what it going on in the office and what my writers are doing. You know I do a newspaper.

Chika: What do you think of the passing of the draft constitution?

Tom: You know I’m a diaspora guy, right?  I don’t know any Kenyan diaspora guy that was a ‘no vote.’ All of us, well many of us, at least those that I know where in favor. You have to know where this is coming from. Some of this was in self-interest, obviously. One of the things in there is dual citizenship is finally being recognized. There used to be a thing called the Kenya Community Abroad which was sort of a lobby group of Kenyans in the U.S., Canada, but used to encompass a lot of Kenyans in the diaspora. You know, this is actually something for a long time they’ve been pushing for- the implementation of dual citizenship. So when it was passed, it was a realization for a dream of many. Because a lot of Kenyans [abroad] where forced to give up there citizenship. I know some Kenyans, for example, who have not taken up the citizenship of other countries. Because they say they are not comfortable giving up their [Kenyan] citizenship. So, it was a big, psychological thing, to tell somebody, ‘give up your citizenship.’ So, even from that perspective, I know there are other things, accountability to the people and the like, which we all love, but for a lot of diaspora people, that was like a key thing.

Chika: What are some of the myths and false perceptions that Kenyans have of those in the diaspora?

Tom: There are two things actually. One of the biggest things is they tend to think people in the U.S. have  lot of money; that we are not struggling like everybody else; that we have a bottomless pit of resources that we can type into. I think of late, more and more Kenyans have been getting a correct perspective of what happens in the U.S. But there are still a lot of people, most people that you pull on the streets of Kenya will tell you they don’t mind going to the U.S. I have a few friends, they try to give advice to a parent to save their money they say to send their child to a Kenyan university. The parent will say, ‘you, you have already gone so that is why don’t want my child to have the same benefit.’ So that is what they still say.

Of late, especially in the last 10 years of so, Kenya has been considered an emerging market. A lot of people have come back. Business has been booming. A lot of people say, ‘You people in America…’ It’s kind of  dual thing. Some people think America is glamorous, but some have dimmed view. They say ‘all you guys do is odd jobs,’ so there is also that perspective. But over the years, I think the local people have realized that the diapsora plays an important role in the society.

Especially since the Kibaki administration came into office, there has been an aggressive pushing of Kenyans in the diaspora. They have sent ministers. I remember a few years ago they sent a minister to a conference we were having in Atlanta. They were encouraging Kenyans in the diaspora to invest. Especially in real estate. When you exclude the Somalis that have been investing a lot here, the other biggest investor in real estate in Kenya is actually diaspora Kenyans. So there has been that perception. There has been a slow evolution to say diaspora people are very important in the economy. We send a lot of money and there has been a question of if that money has been used properly. But lots of progress has been made. There’s this big project that is being done in northeastern Kenya. It’s a big project. It is the biggest project that the diaspora community has ever been involved in.  And part of those efforts actually came when the government started attending our conferences.

Chika: What are some of the misconceptions Westerners have of Kenya?

Tom: Oh, it’s a lot, a lot. You know Westerners, not all, but a good lot, there perception of Kenya and Africa in general is that, nothing works in Africa. They have heard the stories of you know, if there mind is not still in the stone age then, you’d be eaten by lions and whatever, it’s either ‘oh you know Africa man,’ ‘will I be robbed? Will I come back in one piece? Corruption?’ Yes, there’s corruption but there’s also a lot of Westerners making a lot of money here as you might have seen. I think that is the biggest misconception.

I’ve met some people who do not know there are big cities in Africa. But you have a choice. You can choose to say you want to see the old Africa, which is still there. If you want to get attacked by lions, we can arrange to go somewhere and they can eat you. (laughs) Or if you want to stay in the urban environment and experience the modern life, then all the conveniences are there. What you can get in America, London, Lagos, Cairo, Johannesburg, all of that is there. A lot of people don’t know such big cities exist in Africa.

Chika: My last question, in Nigeria there is something called ‘colo-mentality.’ Do they have such here, where you praise white people? I’ve noticed that where I live here in Nairobi, the guards don’t greet me, but they will greet the white person behind me. Is that mentality prevalent here? Preference for lighter skin and that sort of thing?

Tom: A lot of Africans are brainwashed. It’s a legacy that continues to haunt our people, especially people who have not left this country.  For example, I was at Safaricom. When I landed here, I landed on Thursday night and the funeral was Friday. I went to one of the Safaricom outlets to get a sim card for my phone. So, you know me, I don’t jump the queue. I go line up and this other person comes. A black person comes, attempts to jump the queue and ask the clerk a question. You are not supposed to jump the queue. You are supposed to ask the guard if you have a question and he will direct you. I know the procedure so I lined up. Two three black Africans came and they intended to go straight to the clerk. I think they had a quick question but you are not supposed to do that. The guard stopped them right there  and said, ‘hey hey hey, you need to line up.’ This white person, light skin, I think he was half and half. You know a mixed person. He comes and does the same thing the other guys were trying to do. He tries to go to the clerk, straight without lining. And the guard hesitated. He’s not as aggressive with this person as he was with his brothers. You see? So he hesitates until even the mixed person asked the guard and that’s when he realized he should be equal to everybody.

When I come, sometimes I stay at the hotels. When I go to Mombasa, you know that’s the tourism capital for Kenya because of all the beach hotels and the like. So when you go to the beach hotels, that is when you will see the brainwashing in full force.  I’ll approach the gate. You know they try to make these beach properties very exclusive. They see me, they automatically think I am not staying at the beach hotel. You see? When I’ve already maybe paid full fare. And I even have white people working for me. (laughs) See our people don’t know this. They try to stop me. They have to go the extra step to verify, ‘are you really staying here?’ So you will experience the blatant brainwashing, colonial mentality. You’ll normally experience them in the service industries: hotels, airports. You know you have some people in the airport who try to help with luggage. I come with my children and you sometimes see the helpers falling over themselves trying to help the white people that we just rode on the plane with.  You know things like that, it’s very unfortunate. But, we are hoping that our people will realize that this is our country. We are not saying that you should treat blacks better than whites. Treat all people the same. If a black person approaches, you don’t know what it there. For all I know, he could be the one owning the beach property or could be your boss. I could be the one owning 50% of that property. You never know.

Chika: Are white women highly prized?

Tom: I think they are, especially older white women. We have what they call, I don’t know what they call them now, but back then, we called them white sugar mommies who come here for what we call, sex tourism. At the coast it’s very prevalent. At the coast they are highly prized. In fact, in some of the newspapers even here, if you look at the personals section, you will see people directly, plainly stating, ‘white man’ or ‘white woman.’ Sometimes  you can just read between the lines.

I came back, for a sad occasion, but it’s always good to be home.

Tom’s sister, Moraa, later joined us. His sister is a writer, a nominee for the Penguin Books Awards in the fiction category, and featured in the July issue of the East African women and lifestyle magazine, True Love. I’d been trying to interview her, so it was great to finally meet her face to face.

 

“My names are…” July 30, 2010

Filed under: cultural observations — Admin @ 8:07 pm
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That’s the way many Kenyans begin when introducing themselves. One time, a guy I was interviewing stood up, cleared his throat and said, “my good names are…”

Let’s explore these “good names.”

I’ve always been fascinated with names and the traditions people use to name their children. In some Nigerian ethnic groups, several relatives will contribute to a child’s name so the child may end having at least six names.

In Kenya, I’ve learned that many children take on the names of a late relative. Well this is the case among the Luhya ethnic group. Often times, when I ask for someone’s name here, I get confused. For example, there’s a camera guy at K24 who is named Anthony.

Anthony is a very happy, friendly type of guy and you will always find him smiling (though he’s not smiling in this photo). So, I asked Anthony for his full name and he responded,

“Anthony Ngacha.”

“What is your middle name?” I asked.

He said that Ngacha is his middle name, actually his grandfather’s name. I asked for his surname and he told me “Kiboi.” So I asked why he did not include Kiboi the first time and he said he is not sure.

This is not the first time this has happened. During an interview, I asked a lady named Jane (I have changed her first name) for her full name. She told me her full name is Jane Kariuki. I became confused. I told her that I’ve known her as Jane Munyi. She said that Munyi is her father’s name but she is now married. So she told me to use Jane Munyi Kariuki. So I asked for clarification.

“So, your father’s last name is Munyi?”

“No, my father’s last name is Maganga (I’ve changed the name).”

So…I hope you understand my confusion.

Well, I sought out to understand this naming issue once and for all. I went to a guy at K24 called “Papa.”

First, I asked him for his full name and he said, “Odali Julius.”

I asked for his last name and he told me, “Kasibwa.”

“So Julius is your middle name?”

He said no, “Odali” is the middle name.

Julius is his given name while Odali is his father’s father’s name and Kasibwa is the surname. His children’s middle names all come from late family members, including his mother, father, aunt, and mother-in-law.

“And your children’s last name is also, Kasibwa?”

“No, Odali.”

I didn’t give up trying to learn! He explained that among his ethnic group, the Luhya, the child’s last name is the father’s middle name. So if I were Kenyan, my name would be Chika Ashinyeli, because Ashinyeli is my dad’s middle name. And then my middle name would be the name of a late relative. So, Chika Bridget (my grandmother) Ashinyeli.

I think I got it now.

So, I asked a few of my colleagues for their full names: Mary Wanjiku (mother’s mother’s name) Nyoike;
Gladys Wanjiru (grandmother’s name) Mwangi; Diana Wanjiru (dad’s mom) Muiri

And sometimes, a child can be named according to the season during which they were born. Julius said among his people, a child born during rain is named, Wafula and during the dry season, the name should be, Wanjala. Similar traditions exist in many cultures, most notably, among Ghanaians, who are named according to the birth day… literally. I remember explaining this to one lady. I have a friend name Akosua (“born on Sunday”) who had explained to me about Ghanaian, specifically Ashanti, names.

One day in an anthropology class, a classmate asked why almost every Ghanaian guy she knows is named Kofi. I told her that Kofi means “born on Friday.” She turned up her nose in annoyance and said it would be so awful to be in a class with so many classmates with your name.

“Millions of people were born on a Friday!” I distinctly remember her saying.

Well, each to his own, but I love the way that we, Africans, are named.

A few days ago, I was talking with a K24 colleague. Her name is Beryl and she happens to be a superb journalist. We were talking about baby names and we both agreed that African names are indeed, significant. She said that she had to grow into her own name.

I remember, my own journey, the journey of becoming Chika.

Throughout elementary and middle school, I was called by my middle name, Sandra, because I was ashamed of “Chika.” Sandra just seemed more appropriate, for the public- though at home, I was called “Chika.” In high school, I became somewhat of an “Afro- centrist” and I finally started telling people to call me “Chika.” Man! My L-town ghetto classmates had fun with that. “Chuka? Chicken? Chaka Khan?” My tenth grade math teacher once ridiculed me in front of everyone saying, “Chaka, Shiko, or whatever your name is…” But I didn’t care because I had finally learned to become “Chika.”

Then, I learned that Chika is actually short for Chikaodinaka. Chi Chi. Chika. Chikaodi. Chikaodinaka.

“My names are Chikaodinaka Sandra Bridget Ashinyeli Oduah.”

If you’re confused, send me an email.

 

The “foreigner” feeling July 22, 2010

I’ve always assumed blending in in a foreign country, especially in an African country, would be easy. But, I’ve learned, that’s not always the case.

In Guatemala, I was assumed to be a Garifuna. Also known as ‘Black Caribs,” or “Garinagu,” the Garifuna are the descendants of unions between Arawak and Carib Amerindians and enslaved Africans. You’ll find them along the Caribbean Coast, mostly in Belize, St. Vincent, Nicaragua and Honduras and to a lesser extent in Guatemala, Barbados and Roatan. They look like…African Americans and Africans and unfortunately, they don’t have it easy in Guatemala. They truly live on the fringes of society.

While in Guatemala, I got to hang out with some Garifunas and they told me about their plight. Injustice. Racism. They are fighting to keep their indigenous lands from being taken by powerful stakeholders in the expanding tourism industry. I told them about my experience in Guatemala: being closely followed by two guards in the mall (every time I looked back at the guards following me, they’d act like they were doing something else), taxi drivers speeding past me as I waited for a ride and people on the street sometimes quite hesitant to speak with me.

Some of the Garifunas told me that they go through the same thing and the reason why the taxis were speeding past me is because Garifuna girls are assumed to be prostitutes.

Sadly, it seems people of African-descent have similar stories around the world and to be honest, some of what I experienced in Guatemala, could have happened to me in certain places in the U.S.

Once, I went to a dance club with several of my Garifuna friends in Guatemala City, and as soon as we entered the discoteca, the manager came over with a worried expression. Maybe the site of a group of black people was disconcerting? He asked what we were doing and then led us to a table- in the back. But we didn’t let him damper our spirits; we danced the night away.

So, I was well aware of the foreigner feeling in Guatemala. In Nigeria, I tried to blend with my clothes and it worked for the most part. But, I was still spotted out on occassion.

“It’s your skin,” a friend told me. He said the lotions and soaps in America are of better quality so he can always tell which Nigerians are visiting from abroad because they have “glowing” skin. Wow! Um…really? Sounds like a bit of a stretch. But at least it’s good to know that all the cocoa creams, shea butters, pomegranate shower gels, rose water mixtures, almond oils, lemon and ginger extracts, aloe vera gels, black soap and Vitamin E supplements that I use are not in vain!

Now, in Kenya, a handful of people have told me that I look Kikuyu, a Bantu people who originally settled around Mount Kenya and throughout Kenya’s central highlands. The Kikuyu are Kenya’s largest ethnic group. Mr. Obaga, the music director at Nairobi School, said anyone would assume I come from just “around the corner.” One lady, swore I was a Kikuyu. But, the name Chika is not at all Kenyan and people here are having THE hardest time with what I’ve always been told was a simple name. I get a good laugh, watching Kenyans trying to pronounce it and even remember it. They want to say, “Shika,” (which means take or hold in Kiswahili) or “Chuka” or “Shaka.” One guy smiled and told me, “what a strange name! I will never remember that.” I told him to remember that my name means “girl,” in Spanish, and I am a girl. He said, “oh! In Kenya, chic means girl!” and we laughed.

So, that’s another lesson learned. I assumed Kenyans, being Africans, wouldn’t have a problem with my name. Stereotyped debunked! That’s the beauty of traveling- your mind opens and you confront your preconceived notions and stereotypes. Not all Africans can easily say, “Chika.”

Oh…and my accent! It seems to be somewhat of a problem here when it comes to reporting, and when I want to order food over the phone and when I generally want to greet someone.

Yesterday, I called an educational center to ask about their training on dyslexia for a story I’m working on. I introduced myself as a reporter with K24 and the woman on the phone simply could not understand. I re-introduced myself, oh… only about four times and each intro was slower than the last one. Finally, she transferred me. I was re-transferred about…um…let’s just say more than six times. They just did not know what I was trying to say. I was even pronouncing the word the way it is said here: DIE-SLEKS-SEE-YUH as opposed to how it’s pronounced in the states: DIH-SLEKS-SEE-YUH, with the “I” in the first syllable like “I” in the word “dim.”

But, nothing worked! I decided to just ask my story source for a contact at that center, as opposed to calling cold turkey.

You live to learn.

At a recent morning news meeting, I explained a story idea and was met with blank stares. Then someone said, “translate!” And everyone laughed. Apparently, the person could not understand me even though I was speaking as slowly as possible.

Speaking with a slightly British accent seems to help a bit. The first time I ordered a pizza, it took about 8 minutes to communicate my order. The second time I ordered, I sounded more like a Brit and it took about 3 minutes to order my food. Many Kenyans are more used to the British accent and many of them had British teachers in school.

Even humor can be culturally specific. I remember sharing a hilarious youtube video that my sister had sent me with a friend here and the person didn’t really get it. He tried to, he even chuckled. But, he didn’t get it. He said, “You Americans are crazy!” with a big smile.

I can say, I know the “foreigner feeling,” and the feeling may be positive, negative or neutral. It’s not just about your accent and your name, apparently, even your skin can make a difference in the way it “shines” and in its general complexion.

Now, I know what my parents go through. Though they’ve lived in the U.S. more than 20 years, they are still often treated like foreigners by some people. I grew up listening to my dad raising his voice to impatient customer service representatives on the phone.

“O-D-U-A-H! O-D-U-A-H!”

But the way he says “h” is different from how most Americans say it. I learned that very well when I spelled    my last name for my teacher in the fourth grade. I said “h,” they way I heard it said at home: with a deep exhalation, like “h” in “hate,” when most Americans say “h” without that extra breath, so it sounds like “eigh” in “eight.”

But for now, it’s still: “O-D-U-A-HETCH!”

 

Reflections on Kibera July 14, 2010

We stayed in Kibera for nearly 3 hours and I became increasingly anxious. I could no longer ignore the pain shooting up from my ankles. Walking in heels in such a landscape was so difficult. Had I known where I would be going, I would have worn flats. Twice, I fell into the sticky pool of water in the middle of the dirt road. The same water that carried drops of feces, chicken fluid, and who knows what else. I thought to myself, “there’s no way I can ever disinfect these shoes enough to wear them again.”

I began to feel a wave of nausea and tried to make sure the dizziness didn’t show in my face. At first, I didn’t mind the huge flies, but then I thought of what germs they may be carrying. Standing in place, I began to make sure I twitched my limbs every so often, chasing away the bugs.

Green, in Kibera! One man had begun growing kelp. They stood tall and healthy. The man was very soft-spoken. He was proud of his crops.  After speaking with him, we continued to walk around Kibera.

I didn’t realize how tired I was until we got back into the car. I said goodbye to Lawrence and Wyclef. In the newsroom, a strange feeling came over me. I still can’t describe it, but I remember it. Inside, I couldn’t stop shaking. The nausea, I couldn’t get over it. I ran into the restroom to clean my shoes, but they don’t keep tissue in there. Running around looking for tissue, I became flustered and couldn’t get the image of those children out of my head. The child standing underneath the clothing line with his hands clasped behind his back, wearing white like an  infant phantom. His head covered with a hat. Haunting me. That’s what he was doing. That’s what he’s still doing. Even as I write this now, itchy sensations tingle down my spine. Kibera.

I finally found tissue, ran back into the restroom and cleaned the bottom of my shoes. The smell from the bottom of my soles filled the bathroom- a mixture of every unclean thing you can imagine. My stomach churned as I scrubbed my hands under the faucet. Back in the newsroom, I put on my extra pair of shoes. But I couldn’t sit still. Knowing that I had to edit the footage from the bus accident, I still couldn’t keep my mind at rest.

Finding refuge in a quiet space somewhere, I called my best friend. In the States.

I needed 10 minutes to sort my thoughts with someone. Just 10 minutes. I told him where I had been, but the words couldn’t come out right. After asking the right questions, he was able to get some inkling of the story. I told him what I had seen, really, it’s the stuff from movies. Does the grandmother sleep on the dirt? What about insects? Rats? Do they tickle her feet? My mind couldn’t ask the question, before it would conjure another one. The ache in my head throbbed louder. Why was I feeling this way?

He said that I’m probably just overwhelmed. Having read about Kibera and seen it on television, maybe the experience of actually being there was just that powerful–that was his guess.

That sounded about right. Kibera was okay in the daytime, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it became a nightmare at dusk. What would have happened if Lawrence and Wyclef hadn’t approached us to assist us? Would someone have stolen my camera? I had carried my the pocket-sized Kodak in my hand, telling myself that I could not miss the perfect shot. But Caleb had warned me, twice. Gesturing towards his right trouser leg, he had said, “Chika, I put my cell phone here. Watch your camera.”

I had stood close to the camera guy or Caleb most of the time. Around the women, I was more comfortable. But, did I belong there? In Kibera? How was I being perceived? At one point, I had looked up to see a lady about my age, watching me with tiny, brown eyes. I followed her gaze to my necklace. Why in the world did I have to be wearing a necklace?! Did she think I was mocking her? The guilt cut in me so deeply—I still haven’t pulled it out. Not sure if I can.

Africa. What can we say about it that hasn’t been said?

Kibera holds the stereotypical images of Africa, yes… but it’s still the truth. A truth, which I’ve now seen and can never ignore because I stood in a pile of it. The stench ruined my shoes. Several people here have asked me why I chose to come to Kenya. I keep telling them:

“South Africa is too violent. Nigeria is too corrupt. I thought, ‘why not Kenya?”

They usually respond with a laugh and say, “You think Kenya is not corrupt?”

But hey, I got through the airport with all my luggage intact and I never had to hand anyone a shilling, so, that’s alright by me.

A week later, writing about Kibera, listening to the hyper-aggressive guard dogs outside, barking madly at some innocent pedestrian, inspiration looms before me. Africa is for the hardy and being here is like witnessing humanity in the hand of God. And for those who don’t believe in God, here’s another one: Being in Africa is like looking down, at us, from the highest peak on Earth. There, you see beauty undefiled, choking in a tangle of injustice. What have we done to Africa?

And the girl in the striped shirt with corn-rowed hair in a handful of braids, the one in Kibera, who will she become? Which image will she succumb to: the one that depicts Africans as victorious or the other one, that illustrates an enslaved African?

Because when I talk to some Africans, I understand Bob Marley’s plea: “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.” I remember talking with Nigerians back home who said white people must be the ones to save Nigeria because blacks don’t have the brainpower to do so. Blacks are a lesser specie of humans, these university students told me.

“What about me? So you’re telling me I can never be as good as a white journalist?” I asked a man in Nigeria, a man who will remain nameless.

“You live in America.” In his explanation, he said something like “white mentality” has rubbed off on me. His hair is gray and his skin has wrinkles. Tell me what he has seen that has deteriorated any sense of black pride. Perhaps he is on that peak.

 

Cultural observations: the case of race July 7, 2010

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I saw Pastor Frida roll up her car windows while stopping at a traffic light. A dozen youth had surrounded the car to cross the street. They peered into the car from the other side.

 “Is it ok to roll up your windows in front of people?” I asked. “They won’t get mad?”

“They don’t care. They’re not paying attention,” Pastor Frida said.”

Hmm…

Where I grew up, in Georgia, someone could potentially get upset, if the person raising the window was being really obvious and obnoxious. Especially, if it were a black person who was walking and a white person who had raised the window. It’s like clutching your purse tighter when a black person walks next to you.  It’s sad that I see color, but I was raised in a country that was built on color divisions; in a country where your color is used a measure of your worth,  your sophistication, and in extreme cases, your humanity.

This is the racism that I grew up with and many Americans will say they are not racist. But, one must look at the meaning of the word, racism, particularly from an anthropological perspective. Racism implies the use of race or color in a social system. Someone is racist when they use this system. I am guilty of using this system, as many of us are. And in Kenya, I am becoming more aware of this.

“Do you know Clarissa (name has been changed), that black girl?” A colleague from K24 asked me today.

“The skinny one?” I asked in response, trying to use what I thought was a more PC description.

“No, she’s not skinny. She’s black. Blacky,” he said.

Ummm…..okay.

His frank description was harmless, because it was simply a description. From his demeanor, I could tell that he did not place any value on that description. There was no implication that she was lesser, poorer, richer, prettier, more educated, or what have you.

Let’s compare that to descriptions commonly used in America.

“The nappy-headed black girl.” It’s a common phrase-you hear it in movies and in real life. And there is always a value being implied in that description. I don’t need to spell it out for you, because, sadly, the notion of black ugliness is too familiar.

But in Kenya, I’ve seen color lines being crossed in beautiful ways. I see Indians holding hands with black Kenyans. In my American skepticism, I am doubtful about the trueness of such a relationship, but it’s good to be psychologically challenged. I saw a white lady ask a black Kenyan if he could move and let her friend take his seat so she would be able to sit close to her friend.

 I watched the scene and realized that my eyebrows were furrowed. My face was tense. My mind was racing.

“Go find your own seat! What kind of discrimination is this? She has some nerve!”

 My mind went back to the night I awoke to the sound of my white neighbor tying our gate with string so we would no longer play with his children. His wife enjoyed us. He never did. The scowl that I saw on his face as I sat at the dining table in his home with my sister and his family, eating the ridiculously divine strawberry shortcake that his wife prepared is like stone, it won’t disappear from my memory. It just won’t.

My mind went back to the time when a  tiny white man in overalls stuck his head out his blue pickup truck and yelled, “Stay in your lane, you black nigger!” to my father as my dad steered toward the center of the road to avoid a parked car.

My mind went back to the times I was called “African booty scratcher” in 1st grade. In 5th grade, I was the black girl who my Vietnamese best friend’s mom feared. We had to keep our friendship a secret.

“Go find your own seat! What kind of discrimination is this? She has some nerve!”

 “No problem. Your friend can sit with you.” The black man stood up with a smile and went to the next table.

 My eyebrows remained furrowed, but my face had somehow…softened. My lips, moving on their own, turned up to smile.

 

Recommended do’s and don’ts

Filed under: Safety — Admin @ 7:48 pm
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They told me not to roll down my windows while in a car.                                                                                                                                                          

“They will ask for all your money and if you don’t give it to them, they’ll throw poop at you.”

“Human feces or like dog poop?” I asked Archana Dodhia, the Kenyan I had met at the Dubai airport.

“Human!”

Don’t use a cell phone in public.

“At all?” I asked a former Medill graduate who had reported in Kenya at the same station for which I’m currently placed.

“They’ll steal it right out your hand. It’s just like Southside Chicago,” she said.

“Don’t drink the water.”

Sorry mom, I’ve been drinking the tap water, but I make sure to boil it for 3 minutes. Hasn’t given me any problems.

I asked Pastor Frida if she is a Luo. She said she is. I asked if it’s ok to ask Kenyans about their ethnic background. She said it’s a sensitive issue. This surprised me, sort of. In Nigeria, people aren’t sensitive about what ethnic group they belong to. An Igbo will proudly tell you that he/she is Igbo. Yorubas are proud to be Yorubas. They same goes for the Efiks, Esans, Hausas, Kanuris, Fulanis, Ibibios, Ijaws, Urobos, etc. Perhaps that is way Nigeria is not yet a unified nation, but is more of a conglomeration of hundreds of ethnic groups. But that’s another story, rather another blog. 

 Kenya seems to be much more unified. I admire Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. The Mau Mau were mostly Kikuyu, but they fought for others. Yes, ethnic rivalries break out, but I sense some sort of unity among the people and I’ve only been here for a few days. On the television, I don’t see too many references to a particular group. I see references to the people of Kenya.

“Don’t drive in a car without wearing a seat belt. Kenyans drive crazy,” someone told me with an unblinking gaze.

Today, I was in a car driving with a Kenyan colleague. He was driving 150mph. My seat belt remained fastened. Even after we had parked.

 

A journey of 8 thousand miles July 2, 2010

Filed under: the journey — Admin @ 10:04 pm
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I left Atlanta June 28. My youngest sister, Amanda and I, had fun at the airport.

 

I had a 6 hour layover at the Dubai airport. But, those 6 hours grew to more than 9 hours as I waited for someone to tell me when my flight would arrive. Nonetheless, the Dubai airport was really interesting. It was easy to pick out those going to Kenya. Gate 101, please open up!

 

At the airport, I met Archana Dodhia, a Kenyan student at Auburn University in Alabama. Go figure-not to far from Atlanta. Archana lives in the suburbs around Nairobi.