A Nigerian-American journalist in Kenya

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“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.


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.


K24 Day 2(Part II): A Grandmother in Kibera July 11, 2010

Filed under: K24 — Admin @ 8:17 pm
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I snapped her picture. Leaning over a broom, sweeping the dust, she was beautiful. Aged, full-figured. Wearing soiled white. The camera clicked at just the right moment. And she didn’t like it.

The Swahili flew out of her lips like a child dropping a bowl of marbles. Wyclef laughed and tried to appease her.
“Is she upset?” I asked. “Tell her I’m sorry.”

She wouldn’t stop. Nearby, two ladies watched closely. Marching towards me, her arms pumped and I saw the smile in her eyes, before I saw the grin of her lips. She was ok.

“Tell her I’m sorry.”

Wyclef told her. She spoke to Wyclef, who said to me, “She says ‘when you want to take a picture….’”

“Yes…” I said.

“’You must ask the person first. When they say yes, everything is ok.’”

“Tell her I am sorry. Ask her to forgive me.”

She smiled and went back to her home.

Caleb went to interview her and we prepared to leave.

“Ask if I can take a picture with her,” I told Wyclef.

“With her? You want to take a picture with her?” he asked and from his voice, I could tell that such a thing is rare.

I sat next to her and we smiled. Being so close to her I had to get a good look. Her breasts hung low. How many babies had she nourished? Her skin was gleaming. Does she use cocoa butter? Wisdom twinkled like stars in her eyes and the firmness of her body contrasted the smallness of my own. Who am I to be sitting so close to African beauty in all its wise pomp and circumstance?

“She’s from Nigeria,” Wyclef told her.

“Eh! I am your grandmother!” She said and I fell into the embrace of her arms. Comforted by her softness.

My verbal thanks seemed insufficient.

“I am your grandmother,” she said again in English, nodding her head to punctuate her words.  “Tell your mother, your grandmother is here.”

“I’ve been wondering where you were, after all these years, I’ve finally found you.” I said.

Wyclef, Caleb, cameraman, and grandmother laughed. Her hand on the small of my back– it felt like friendship.


Umeniweza Baba July 8, 2010

Last Sunday, I stood in a huge white tent with hundreds of Kenyans.

Listening to an angelic chorus of, “Umeniweza Baba,” (Swahili-You have overwhelmed me Father), I was once again stricken with the power of religion. Back in April, I wrote a story on the high religiosity in Africa. The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life had just released a study that showed sub-Saharan Africa is the most religious place on earth, according to the researchers.  Read the full story:  http://pewforum.org/Press-Room/Pew-Forum-in-the-News/Survey-finds-Africa-is-most-religious-part-of-world.aspx

I wrote that story in the United States, drawing upon what I had seen while attending churches of predominantly African congregations and interviewing pastors and other religious Africans.

But, I wrote that story in the United States.

Seeing the religiosity with my own eyes on the continent of Africa was another experience entirely. The study only confirmed what many already know, that Africans tend to be strongly affiliated with religion, be it Muslim, Christian or what have you. The Baha’i religion teaches that Africans are the “light of the world,” simply because they are in touch with the spiritual realm. Indeed, the way an African Christian prays is very much different from the way an American prays. One doesn’t need to be an expert to notice. The violent shaking, the clenched fists, the stomping of the feet, these behavioral spiritual rituals are the norm and you will see it when you walk into a church full of African Christians. In Kenya, I knew I wanted to see how religion is practiced.

I stayed at the Mavuno Church for 3 hours as an observant participant, as it is referred to in anthropology. It was a moving experience- to be surrounded by young people who were clearly so passionate about an unseen divinity. To see a woman intently focused on the sermon as a tear slides down her perfect skin. To see grown men on their knees, arms raised in surrender. To hear Africanized renditions of traditional hymns. To feel the force of hundreds of pairs of hands clapping in unison. This is what African Christianity is all about.

Wafahamu siri za moyo, wangu Yesu

(You understand the secrets of my heart, Lord)

Umeiweza roho yangu

Yesu umeniweza

(You have capured my spirit, Lord you have overwhelmed me)


Cultural observations: the case of race July 7, 2010

Filed under: cultural observations — Admin @ 8:00 pm
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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.”


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.


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.


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.


Scenes in Kenya (Part 1)

Filed under: Scenes in Kenya — Admin @ 7:29 pm
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