Representation Matters – Part I: Stereotypes

French actor Omar Sy and his cesar
French actor Omar Sy and his cesar

The way that  people of colour are represented by white people has always come with a lot of negative stereotypes, even before the creation of visual communication media. You just need to open a history book to notice it.

Old advertisement for a French Brand of chocolate powder. The brand still exists and the ad too, but they removed the bananas, we are in 2016, come on …
Old advertisement for a French Brand of chocolate powder. The brand still exists and the ad too, but they removed the bananas, we are in 2016, come on …

Nowadays, even if the minds have changed a little bit, those stereotypes are still being fueled by the media. In a world where the big media corporations are in the hands of white people, the representation of people of color is a big issue, especially in movies and series.

What you don’t see, doesn’t exist, and to invisibilize people of color in  movies and series is a strategy to invisibilize them in society in general. For instance, black kids who live in country dominated by white people grow up without seeing themselves on TV and without having positive role models since the few roles given to black people are negatively stereotyped: gangster, drug dealer, abusive husband, hypersexual woman/ prostitute, constantly- happy-black- person -who –loves- to- dance -and –entertain- other- people etc. and this has negative consequences on their self-esteem.

In France for instance, there are few black actors and those who have success often play stereotyped roles. This is very noticeable in the trajectory of the French actor Omar Sy. He started with comedy shows and I really liked him back then, but since he started to play in movies, he let himself get trapped in very stereotypical roles, to the point that I wonder whether he does it on purpose, because it’s impossible not to notice. He won a Cesar (the French equivalent of the Oscar), playing the role of a poor uneducated black man from the suburbs of Paris (Suburbs = ghetto in the French common psyche, although this is a stereotype too), who starts to work as a domestic for a wealthy white man who lives in a wealthy area of Paris. The French movie industry gave him an award because this role perfectly corresponded to the most common stereotype of black men in this country. After this role, he played the role of Samba, an illegal immigrant and in his last movie, he plays the role of the <<chocolate clown >>. It would be funny if it wasn’t sad, and I am afraid of imagining what will be his next role.

On the contrary, since he started a career in the US, he played an X-man and a successful cook. I am not saying that the US is the perfect country when it comes to the representation of people of color, but on those issues this country is ahead of the others, at least on the discussion about the representation of people of colour in the cinema industry (e.g the recent Oscars controversy). In France we are far from having a controversy or even a conversation on the subject.

In her speech when she won an Emmy award for her role in the series How To Get Away With Murder, Viola Davis said : <<You can’t win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there>>. This statement is not completely true, before her black women have won awards, but for stereotyped roles (slave, domestic worker, single abusive mother etc.). On the contrary, Viola won her Emmy for the deep and complex role of a sharp lawyer and law teacher, in a series that is produced by Shonda Rhymes, a black woman known to produce series with interesting roles for women of color (she’s also the producer of the series Scandal).

Viola Davis et son emmy, you go girl !
Viola Davis et son emmy, you go girl !

This shows us that the stereotypes about people of color are often due to the fact that the people who write the scripts and produce the movies and series are white, and hence perpetuate-consciously or not- old racist and colonial stereotypes. When they are obliged by the quotas to put people of color in their series and movies (at least in the US), they create uninteresting and shallow characters, like the character of the only black guy in the series New Girl.

People of color in the movie industry exist, they are many and they are trying to write, build and produce their own stories and narratives, far away from stereotypes. But they are rarely given opportunities because those who own this industry are not willing to change the way they see people of color and the way they want them to be seen.

The case of the movie <<Bande de filles >>

The actresses and the director of the movie Bande de filles. I had the same look on my face when I watched the movie.
The actresses and the director of the movie Bande de filles. I had the same look on my face when I watched the movie.

Bande de filles is a French movie that features 4 young black women in the leading roles, which is very rare in France. When the movie came out , it was promoted as a progressive and revolutionary movie just because the actresses were black (except that in France in 2015, having 4 black actresses in leading roles is not being progressive but being late, just my opinion).

Since I am used to stereotyped roles and since the (white) director appeared on TV bragging and congratulating herself for making a movie with black women, I had my doubts about that movie even before seeing it. Guess what? I was right. The movie went way beyond my expectations: it is so full of stereotypes to the point that it becomes ridiculous. It is the classic White Gaze* about the suburbs: a poor black girl teenager is mistreated by her older brother, has no parental presence in her life and ends up selling drugs.

This is the trap of representation: when the movie industry doesn’t invisibilize people of color, it pretends to be progressive when the only thing it does is reinforcing well established stereotypes. However, there is something maybe more insulting than stereotyping and invisibilizing people of color in movies and series. It is what is called <<whitewashing >>, which consist in casting white actors to play roles made for actors and actresses of color. And this will be the subject of the second part of this article.

*Having a White Gaze is seeing the world with the eyes of a White person. 

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FRENCH TRANSLATION BELOW

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Omar Sy et son césar
Omar Sy et son César

La façon dont les personnes racisées sont représentées par les personnes blanches a toujours comporté beaucoup de stéréotypes négatifs, avant même la création des supports de communication visuelle. Vous avez juste besoin d’ouvrir un livre d’histoire pour le remarquer.

Vieille publicité pour une marque française de chocolat en poudre bien connue. La marque existe toujours et l'annonce aussi, mais ils ont enlevé les bananes, nous sommes en 2016, voyons .
Vieille publicité pour une marque française de chocolat en poudre bien connue. La marque existe toujours et l’annonce aussi, mais ils ont enlevé les bananes, nous sommes en 2016, voyons .

Aujourd’hui, même si les mentalités ont un peu changé, ces stéréotypes sont encore alimentés par les médias. Dans un monde où les grands groupes de médias sont dans les mains de personnes blanches, la représentation des personnes racisées est un gros problème, surtout dans les films et séries.

Ce qu’on ne voit pas n’existe pas et invisibiliser les gens de couleur dans les films et les séries est une stratégie pour les invisibiliser dans la société en général. Par exemple, les enfants noirs qui vivent dans des pays sous domination blanche grandissent sans se voir à la télévision et sans avoir des modèles positifs car les quelques rôles donnés aux personnes noires sont stéréotypés négativement: gangster, trafiquant de drogue, mari violent, femme hypersexualisée/prostituée, personne-noire-toujours-de-bonne-humeur-qui-adore-danser-et-faire-rigoler-les-autres etc. Cela a des consequences négatives sur leur estime de soi.

En France par exemple, il y a peu d’acteurs ou d’actrices noires á succès, et ceux qui en ont jouent souvent des rôles stéréotypés. Ceci est très visible dans la trajectoire de l’acteur français Omar Sy. Il a commencé avec des spectacles d’humour que j’adorais á l’époque, mais depuis qu’il a commencé à jouer dans des films, il s’est laissé piéger dans des rôles très stéréotypés, au point que je me demande si le fait exprès parce que très sincèrement, c’est impossible de ne pas le remarquer.

Il a remporté un César pour le rôle d’un jeune homme noir, pauvre, sans éducation, de la banlieue qui commence à travailler comme domestique chez un homme blanc, riche, du centre de Paris. L’industrie du cinéma français lui a donné cette récompense car ce rôle correspondait parfaitement au stéréotype le plus commun sur les hommes noirs et la banlieue. Après ce rôle, il a enchainé avec le rôle de Samba, un immigré sans papier et dans son dernier film, il joue le rôle du clown << chocolat >>. Ce serait drôle si ce n’était aussi pas triste et j’ai peur d’imaginer ce que sera son prochain rôle.

Au contraire, depuis qu’il a commencé une carrière aux États-Unis, il a joué un Xmen et un cuisinier succès. Je ne dis pas que les États-Unis sont le pays parfait quand il s’agit de la représentation des gens de couleur, mais sur ces questions ce pays est en avance sur les autres. Du moins en ce qui concerne la discussion sur la représentation des personnes racisées au cinema (exemple : polémique récente sur les Oscars). en France on est loin d’avoir une polémique ou ne serait-ce qu’une discussion sur le sujet .

Dans son discours de victoire aux Emmy award, récompense qu’elle a gagné pour son rôle dans la série Murder ; Viola Davis a déclaré: << Vous ne pouvez pas gagner un Emmy pour des rôles qui sont tout simplement pas là >>. Cette déclaration n’est pas complètement vraie car auparavant les femmes noires ont remporté des prix, mais pour des rôles stéréotypés (esclave, travailleuse domestique, mère célibataire abusive etc.). Au contraire, Viola a remporté son Emmy pour un rôle profond et complexe, celui d’une avocate et professeure de droit, dans une série qui a été produit par Shonda Rimes, une femme noire connue pour produire des séries avec des rôles intéressants pour les femmes de couleur (elle est aussi la productrice de la série scandal).

Viola Davis et son emmy, you go girl !
Viola Davis et son emmy, you go girl !

Tout ceci nous montre que les stéréotypes sur les personnes racisées sont souvent dus au fait que les personnes qui écrivent les scripts et produisent les films et les séries sont blanches, et donc perpétuent-inconsciemment ou non – de vieux stéréotypes racistes. Et lorsque celle-ci sont obligées par les quotas à mettre des gens de couleur dans leur série et des films (du moins aux États-Unis), ils créent des personnages inintéressants et peu profonds, comme le personnage du seul noir dans la série New Girl.

Les gens de couleur dans l’industrie du film existent, ils sont nombreux et ils écrivent, construisent  et  essaient de produire leurs propres narratives, loin des stéréotypes. Cependant, leurs opportunités sont limitées car ceux qui possèdent cette industrie ne sont pas prêts à changer leur façon de voir les personnes racisées et de la façon dont ils veulent qu’elles soient perçues.

Le cas du film << Bande de filles >>

Les actrices et la réalisatrice du film Bande de filles. Je faisais exactement la même tête en regardant le film.
Les actrices et la réalisatrice du film Bande de filles. Je faisais exactement la même tête en regardant le film.

Bande de filles est un film français qui a 4 jeunes femmes noires dans les rôles principaux, ce qui est très rare en France. Lorsque le film est sorti, il a été promu comme un film progressiste et révolutionnaire juste parce que les actrices étaient noires (sauf qu’en France en 2015, avoir 4 actrices noires dans les rôles principaux ce n’est pas être progressif, mais être en retard, c’est juste mon avis).

Puisque nous sommes habitués à des rôles stéréotypés et que la réalisatrice (blanche) est apparu à la télévision s’autocongratulant d’avoir fait un film avec des femmes noires, j’ai e eu mes doutes sur ce film avant même de l’avoir vu. Et devinez quoi? J’avais raison, ce film est allé bien au-delá de mes attentes: il est tellement rempli de stéréotypes que cela en devient ridicule. C’est le classique White gaze * sur les banlieues: une pauvre adolescente noire du ghetto est maltraitée par son frère aîné, n’a pas aucune présence parentale dans sa vie et finit par vendre de la drogue.

Voilà le piège de la représentation: quand l’industrie du cinéma n’invisibilise pas les personnes racisées, elle fait semblant d’être progressiste alors qu’elle ne fait que renforcer des stéréotypes bien établis. Cependant, il y a quelque chose de peut-être plus insultant que le renforcement des stéréotypes et l’invisibilisation des gens de couleur dans les films et séries. C’’est ce qu’on appelle le << whitewashing>> ou le blanchissement, pratique qui consiste à utiliser des acteurs blancs pour jouer des rôles faits pour des acteurs et des actrices de couleur.

Ceci fera l’objet de la deuxième partie de cet article.

* Avoir le <<White gaze>> c’est voir le monde avec les yeux d’une personne blanche.

Silence, A Book & A Vote

We’ve been silent for a long time. Again. And (again) it’s been a busy silence.

Last year, around this time period, we dropped our first anthology. I’m still proud of it and I’m still surprised by the response it received. I met a lot of new people because they recognized my name from it and we talked (in fact, one of them is featured in what I’m about to cover). And, I don’t know if what we said actually made it into the book but we had an interesting discussion with Helen Young the author of “Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness” while she was writing it. It was an interesting time.

Now, a year later, we’re back with another anthology.

Our first anthology “Kenyan Fantasy” was internally code named: Beyoncé because we basically dropped it out of nowhere with no warning whatsoever.
This new one is code named: Adele because we’re gonna give you a couple of warning shots before we actually release it.
(Side Note: Zendaya better do something really interesting next year so we can keep going backwards in the alphabet.)

So, some time, very very soon, we’re dropping Issue 2 of the Will This Be A Problem Anthology. Officially Named: The Economy of Spoons and other stories.

Post

This time we left it open genre. We let the writers go wild but we did have something of a plan in mind. We wanted an anthology that had its tendrils everywhere or at least, everywhere interesting. This anthology is something of a journey. You really don’t know where you’re going to end up from story to story. You will meet audacious conmen, strangely important spoons, colours in a way you’ve never seen before, college love, a new Geppetto and Pinocchio and much more.

I’m really excited for it. It’s going to be brilliant.

Coming soon.

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In other news, you may or may not know this but there’s voting going on.

This blog has been nominated in UP Nairobi’s Best of 2015 under the best blog category.

promo version

And I, to my genuine surprise, have been nominated for best local author. Your votes would be much appreciated.

Will This Be A Problem under best blog
Kevin Rigathi under best local author

The link is below.

https://docs.google.com/forms/d/11oTH03eeZXgCnOh1H10uSs-5Wnx2FlzanWXdYv0ho6U/formResponse

You’ll be hearing from me soon.

On Mourning: Repetition and Re-memories

The word “again” is a signifier of time and memory. “Again” recalls a time a thing that is happening now happened before. I imagine—which makes it true, if not factual—that every language has a word, or words, to signify the repetition of things. Once upon a time, certainly, there must have been no use for it, but that is a time that must only be remembered through imagination that becomes fiction, but once was not.

Again-ness also connotes movement. There must be distance between the thing that happened and its subsequent repetition.

Mourning is permanently in a state of again-ness. If we were to count mourning as we count things, like chairs and buses, there was, I imagine, a first mourning. It might have been a pain so bad, the person or people who felt it may have thought there could only be one such time for it. And then, as with other things, the person or people moved away from the mourning. Maybe they forgot it, maybe they did not. If they forgot it, it did not feel like it was happening a second time. But then it happened a third time and a fourth and a fifth, ad infinitum. For us to mourn again, we remember that we mourned before. And then we remember why we mourned before, and we find that there are finite causes of infinite mourning.

That is not to say that it is impossible to become stuck in the first mourning, but that there is certainly movement, even if it is away from the first instant of our mourning, such that a second one can come in a fresh wave before the first one is ever left behind—if mourning was a bomb, or even an entire war, then Palestinians barely have time to look up after the first mourning comes before the second one hits.

But even if, hypothetically, there are periods in every person’s life free of mourning, they are not in sync, which means at any given time, there are large numbers of mourning occurring. And because this happens again and again, because of time and memory, because there are finite causes of infinite mourning, mourning threatens to become banal. When it does this, sometimes we forget—forgetting is a significant exercise of memory—which of these causes are the reason for our mourning, or when this mourning began, or when the last mourning ended, or which mourning felt better than the other, or even that we are mourning at all.

Sometimes, then, our mourning begins to look like misremembering.

It has been 105 days since Garissa.

My brother was born in 1997, and this became an important year for it. 1997 was an election year. 1997 was the year a Ugandan newspaper claimed Moi was possibly the second-richest man in Africa after Mobutu Sese Seko. 1997 is when the Remuneration of Teachers (Order of 1997) was signed. For me, 1997 was the first time I had a bath on my own, by candlelight because KPLC had done its thing. My mother was in hospital, having just given birth to my baby brother. My father filled the tub for me, lit the candle and left me to my devices.

This is a misremembering. I recently recounted this memory to my mother and she told me it couldn’t be true because in the January my brother was born, I was just under three years old. My father has many parental shortcomings, but she said he wouldn’t have left a two year old alone in a bathtub, and with a candle nearby. Furthermore, a wonderful woman named Regina was working in our home at the time, and she had given me my baths every day since my mum had gotten too heavy to. 1997 was the year Daniel Arap Moi ‘won’ his fifth term of presidency. In 1997, Ksh. 100 million was raised at a KANU presidential lunch, with meals being sold for as much as Ksh. 5 million.

My memory of time, then, is factually incorrect, but my memory of place and action remain true—I just must have been older, my brother was probably sick and hospitalised and my mother must have been with him that night. But memory is often an interweaving of different strands of logic until they don’t make sense anymore, and this one insists on assigning itself to January 1997, so I let it because it is important to me but ultimately harmless. At the time I began to piece it together, I was also piecing together other memories—none of them my own—of the Kenya that had been kept out of my textbooks. So, in 1997, Wangari Maathai ran for president, yet I recall a teacher telling my all-girls class that women couldn’t be president. In 1997, the Kenyan government “admitted” that NYS recruits were receiving military training; my mother’s stories about her time in the NYS sound like boarding school escapades. In 1997, the Office of the President, the Ministry of Agriculture and the Ministry of Information, Transport and Communications ignored an alert on the El Niño floods that killed hundreds of Kenyans and left tens of thousands more homeless, although a government helicopter rescued Lands Minister Katana Ngala from his home in Ganze.

I am still picking up snippets of what it was like to live in the “Moi years”. My cũcũ still recalls being followed home and having her phone tapped because she worked for the university, and she insists she had it easier than most. Even though I was born eight years before he finally left office, I have been made to understand that these were his “milder” years, at least for a certain class of Kenyans—the years after Kenya’s first multi-party elections, the years after a thing called democracy came to pass. Kenya was, apparently, a better place for it, but the fear hadn’t dissipated. I didn’t feel it then, but I hear it when our memories were forced to merge with others’ that came before us, like when my teachers forcefully drumming the Loyalty Pledge into our tiny brains. One time, many years after Mwai Kibaki became president, my teacher declared that Moi was the best president this country had ever had, and for several months, I took and spoke it as gospel truth. I was not the brightest kid—it took me a while to realise that “because my teacher said so” was not a sufficient answer to “Why?”

Around the time, real or falsified, of my monumental bath (it was a big deal, ok?) my understanding of “President” was “owner of everything in the country”. When I began to remember the bath, I realised that I spent my childhood going around with the persistent thought in the back of my head that Moi owned everything—the bathwater I was sitting in, the candle, the soap, the wash towel, our apartment, a university, a road, a stadium, a number of choirs, a high school. I cannot know the fear of the Moi years because I did not carry it, but that was my understanding of it, aided by the framed pictures of his scowling face everywhere—be careful with things, because he owned them.

In April 2015, shortly after #147NotJustANumber began to trend online in honour of the (then) 147 students killed by Al Shabaab at Garissa University College, the Kenyatta (II) administration—christened the “hashtag government” by Kenyans on Twitter—launched #2YearsOfSuccess. Understandably, this distraction didn’t sit well. As I read the indignation, anger, disgust and disbelief in tweets from people who responded to the government hashtag, I remembered a recurring sentiment from the last two years during which terrorist operations carried out in Kenya (by non-state actors) have spiked—that even the Moi years hadn’t been this bad. Sometimes, our mourning looks like ahistorical nationalism.

*

I learn about the Westgate attack from Twitter, shortly after it began, all the way from my college dorm somewhere in South Africa. Quotidian language narrated quotidian violence, especially that after the legislation of shoot-to-kill. I am only slightly alarmed, knowing that whatever it is will be over before anybody knows exactly what it is but the tweets keep coming. I call my mother to make sure my family isn’t anywhere near the mall. This is how she learns about the attack. She says my brother is at home, but I call him anyway. And then I call him again. And again. He finally picks up after over thirty minutes of incessant ringing, during which panic is hitting me in fresh waves every time I refresh my newsfeed. He is at a friend’s house. I realise then how painful breathing has been.

For four days, everybody is looking at Nairobi, and yet I cannot possibly mean everybody. For example— the people I live and learn with appear not to know until the third day, and my tongue is too heavy for food at mealtimes, let alone conversation. “Everybody” as it is deployed, though— and I use the military jargon deliberately— means “mainstream media”, “[select] world leaders” and people, especially (but not only) white people, in the omnipresent and suffocating West. Eventually, my campus-in-a-bubble catches up with the news; to be Kenyan now is to watch faces fold with sympathy for weeks after.

The number stops at 68. A few days before the attack on Charlie Hebdo writers, Boko Haram attacked Baga, a village in Nigeria. The circulating number of deaths is about 2000. The number tied to GUC is 147, or 148, even though, at the time, it was suggested the death toll was closer to 200 than to 150. When I sent in the first draft of this post, 14 people in Mandera were still alive.

[Sometimes, our mourning looks like numbers in our Math exercise books waiting to be marked before they let us go home.]

There is a certain kind of outrage that arises that feels familiar. Its language is one that I’ve used several times for many years before now. It is built on a word: nobody. In the tangles of race and capitalism, of proximity to the centre and of peripheries, of class and productivity valuation, there is space for only one group of people— “everybody” — and its opposite, “nobody”, which, by definition, cannot actually also be a group or a person, but ends up being one.

That is, nobody is talking about Baga. Everybody is talking about Charlie Hebdo. Nobody is talking about Garissa, or Mpeketoni, or Lamu. Everybody is talking about the Boston Marathon bombing. Nobody is talking about #BringBackOurGirls— at least not anymore. Everybody is still supposed to think back to 9/11.

“Why are folks always begging, looking for reactions to the West? So what if Europeans don’t comment on Garissa? Is OUR grief not enough?”

  —Kinna (@kinnareads), 06/04/2015

In the space left by “nobody”, there is keening, screaming, accusations, questions, grieving. Yet our mourning has been made to look like—

“I’m a little confused. Is this atrocious because the international media is talking about it or because school children were tear-gassed?”

—Ndinda Kioko (@ndinda_), 19/01/2015

But then, you are scrolling through your timeline, your dashboard, sometimes even through Whatsapp, or when you pick up a newspaper, there are photos of bodies, everywhere. Sometimes, there are words for the positions these bodies are in: littered, strewn, scattered. Like dirty laundry. These photos serve the function of moving mourning from the space that nobody occupies to the one that everybody does. They are necessary for everybody to tell the story that nobody has been telling. Without these pictures, everybody cannot help nobody grieve. So sometimes our mourning, though it may not sound like anything, comes in shades of black and brown.

*

I am told they are blocking the roads in the City Centre that run outside Parliament, the President’s office, the Vice President’s office for security purposes, but Kenyatta and Ruto will have breakfast in a high-end café to inspire Kenyans’ confidence in them.

In the days after April 2, Senator Mike Sonko asked, on social media, why the students had not done anything to limit the scale of the attack. To ask what the Kenyan government did to prevent the attack is to dig up stories and memories of what the Kenyan government, pre- and post-independence, has done to warrant the attacks.

Removal of Somalis from Laikipia reads the head of a letter from July 1928. The Somali Problem in Laikipia: How It Was Solved reads the headline of an article dated May 1926.

It has been 31 years since the Wagalla Massacre, a violence so unimaginable, it slips through the cracks of collective memory. And yet someone, more than one somoene, imagined it. More than one someone remembers Wagalla every day because memory forces unwanted imagination.

It has been just over a year since #KasaraniConcentrationCamp. A Google Maps search points you to Moi International Sport Centre.

I was told, after Westgate, that a group of women had overheard the attack being planned, and had tried to inform the authorities, that they were dismissed because they are sex workers. To ask what the Kenyan government did to prevent the attack is to remember the relationship the state has with women.

About the widow of a man named Ibrahim Effendi, who lived on two acres of land in Nanyuki for 15 years after his death, the British government says, “The question of this woman’s prescriptive right does not therefore arise.” This is in 1929.

During the four days of the Wagalla “operation”, nearly every girl and woman is raped and/or assaulted by KDF officers.

Listening to Mike Sonko, and the government’s “Security starts with you” rhetoric, many women are not unfamiliar with the cruel and violent trope of victim-blaming, because we know it every day. Even though we mourn as families, as friends, as what-if victims, as communities, sometimes our mourning is very, very lonely.

*

Some time in 2014, I overheard a conversation between two Kenyans in my school. One, a freshman, was not sure he was going home for the holidays because of the explosions in Gikomba and on buses in Nairobi. The other told him he had nothing to worry about: “people like us”—that is, diaspora Kenyans with money, with options— never visited markets, never used public transport.

Sometimes, our mourning looks like distance, removal. Sometimes it is not mourning at all.

It’s been 105 days since the Garissa attack, and I still cannot think of my campus, any campus, without thinking about GUC. Many times, I wonder how long it would take to spread fear like a blanket over the 7000 students in my school— how long would 4 men need? How long will a larger group (50? 139? 275?) of men in government-issued fatigues take? Could this happen here? Probably not. Do I, then, have the right to mourn in this way? Should my grief look like this? I don’t know—there is no guide to grieving.

In the last 105 days, while reading all I can about Garissa, I learn that some language changes when memory is reworked; some does not. In 1997, nominated MP Mohammed Shidiye called the insecurity in Garissa a “festering wound that has gone untreated for over 30 years” while demonstrators accused the government of harassing Somalis. What the media calls “[suspected] terrorists” today were called “bandits” then. For 105 days, I have been trying to find the vocabulary to make sense of the road to Garissa, not because there is no information, but because there are too many things to remember, too many lies to untangle, too many phases of and faces for our mourning. Sometimes there is coherence but most times there isn’t, so instead, I take bits and pieces from different histories, I borrow from other people’s work and scrap together this post.

The New Gospel

Excuse me sisters, would you hold on a moment. If you would allow me just a minute, I wish to tell you about the gospel of “real feminism.”

In the beginning some men (not all men) got together and decided to fix feminism. They saw there was clearly a problem and came up with definitions and priorities for feminists to adopt. They even suggested legitimate mediums “serious feminists” should use (not twitter). When they were done, they looked upon their work and they were pleased. They called it, real feminism. This is how our gospel was born.

Unable to contain their excitement they brought their creation to other feminists but they were often rejected. Prophets are after all not welcomed in their own homes (or even the homes they move into uninvited and try to renovate). And so it was decided that the old feminists were heretics and heathens to the cause. They were given many names to mark them; new feminists, twitter feminists, militant feminists, lazy feminists and so on. The prefix did not really matter so long as one remembered to include a dismissive tone when they said it (for example, Beyoncé feminists.)

The old feminists accused our prophets of being anti feminist. Our prophets laughed (intellectually) and said, “No. We have no problem with feminism. Look at the feminism there, we like that. And feminism in the past, it was serious, we loved that. This feminism of yours is the problem.”

“So the feminism that’s here and now, the one in spaces that you occupy…that one’s a problem?” Asked the feminists (bitterly).

“No no no…we don’t mind feminism. It just has to be real feminism. You know, the real one.”

“It seems to us,” said the feminists (emotionally), “that the further feminism is from affecting you, the more likely it is to be ‘real feminism’.”

“That is not it at all.”

And that is how the first great debate of feminism was won.

The old feminists went away more bitter, more man-hating and pretending even more to know where Ukraine was on the map. Unfortunately, their rebellion would not end there. Say what you will about them but they were a tenacious lot. They would not be gone for long. They popped up again as the prophets spoke the truth of how old feminists did nothing for men, the boy child and their issues.

“But we do! All the time,” interjected the old feminists (rudely).

“Lies!”

“We do! And even if we didn’t…why don’t you do it? Why don’t men come together and try help each other instead of spending all their time attacking us?”

“Go back to the kitchen!”

“Right…When in doubt- misogyny.”

“Listen to them,” said the Prophets, “so emotional. It was JUST a joke. Calm down.”

“You know why you don’t know what we do? Because YOU don’t pay attention to those issues. If you care for men’s issues so much why do you never talk about them? Why is it that the only context you discuss them in is as a weapon to wield against feminists?”

“Coz” they said.

And thus the second great debate of feminism was won.

On it went. The “real feminist” proponents showed the old feminists all the things they weren’t doing. The old feminist claimed to have done them by presenting evidence among other underhanded sneaky tactics. The proponents told them the flaws of old feminism schools of thought and the old feminists asked if they had even bothered to read or research those works as if this had anything to do with it.
And somewhere along this path the old feminists for whatever reason, started to get angry. By doing so what the prophets had been saying was proved true, old feminism just made women unreasonable which was bad for everyone.

This is the foundation of our church. It is true sisters, you must embrace feminism, no one is saying otherwise. But it must be real feminism. You can’t just go and be a feminist, it is a process. There are rules and directions and you have to listen to the people who know things. I know it seems weird and counter-intuitive that men should be telling women about the female experience and such but hey…man is the head of the family, even the global family. And where do ideas come from? Yeah. Exactly. The head. Sticking to outdated feminism has already brought so much grief. It destroyed our morals, it destroyed the family unit and remember all those times it destroyed society? I’m sure you read about it in papers and blogs everywhere.

Sisters, the brotherhood of real feminism is here for you. Do not be scared of us. We want the same thing as you, equality in all things, even feminism. All we suggest is a just division of labour. You can be the feminists and we will tell you how to do it. It’s only fair.

Bless you.

The Weight Of Clarity

Guest Post by Anonymous

I’m depressed.

The internal chaos caused by my self-doubt, the naysayers, the teachers, friends and family that told me I couldn’t do one thing or another got to me. I broke. It has been feeling like they were right about me all along, that my attempts to prove them wrong are laughable.

A month ago it was too much for me to handle. I tried to kill myself.

I didn’t die but I feel even worse than I felt before. If anything, my dark thoughts have become even more morbid for the stigma attached to mental depression is truly horrible. My family has barely talked to me, my so called friends don’t know what happened but haven’t spoken to me, my girlfriend has tried to support me but even for her, it’s too much. She doesn’t know this person I’ve become. I am irrational, emotional, vulnerable, paranoid and empty. My self-confidence is at an all-time low, my ego non-existent and, even worse, when I am honest about how I feel it kills those around me.

Being a man in African society, you are meant to be strong. Nobody expects me to be honest about my vulnerabilities, I’m not meant to feel that way. I’m meant to be strong for her, for my family. I’m supposed to ignore the pain, I’m supposed to keep it in. I’m supposed to pretend that I have it all figured out. But I do not have it figured out. Alcohol no longer dulls my senses, I can no longer run away from the pain. I have to live with it, deal with it. But it feels like I have nobody I can talk to because they are all gone or they are on their way out of my life as I speak. I am just lucky that through all this I have had great support from my mother.

I wish I was a great writer, that through my words you could feel my pain. I know a lot of people out there are going through something similar. They, just like me, are unable to talk about it because of the stigma attached to it, because they know they will lose a lot of their so called friends. They know they will not find support. I’m asking you to be there for those people who need you, the signs are there, listen to them. Its hard for anyone to understand what could ever drive one to kill themselves. Its unthinkable that one could be so hopeless, but you don’t have to understand, just try to empathize. And for those in pain, talk to somebody, don’t try harm yourself because it only causes more pain. You hurt those that care about you and in the end, you hurt you.

“Suicide sometimes proceeds from cowardice, but not always; for cowardice sometimes prevents it; since as many live because they are afraid to die, as die because they are afraid to live.”
– Charles Caleb Colton


Follow this link for information on a Kenyan mental health and suicide prevention helpline.

Compliments That Matter

Mirrors are actually one of my favourite things. No philosophical reason behind this, I simply like how my face looks. I love the way my skin glows softly. I like how my eyes slant ever so slightly. Even the beauty spot on my collar bone is looked at adoringly. I know I am pretty and I enjoy that fact. I spend a ridiculous amount of time deciding what colour of lipstick complements my complexion. When I am going out somewhere, I take the extra effort to look my best and on such days, the amount of selfies I will take is dangerously close to infinity. Simply put, I love my face.

Don’t get me wrong. I may be vain but I am not foolish enough to assume that the best thing about a person should be based on how they look. If one day I was stripped of my looks, you know what would happen to me? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Without my looks, I am still me. I still have a brilliant sense of humour, I am eloquent and I am intelligent. I do my best to treat others with respect and I make an effort to be open-minded. My looks do not determine my character, my outward appearance is not a determinant of the kind of person I am aiming to be.

When I read this, I finally saw in the simplest way, the thoughts I had been formulating on beauty. I know people who are gorgeous and others who are plain. Some have extra beautiful features and others aren’t conventionally beautiful. Some have body shapes that deserve to grace the catwalks and others have bodies that are going through life. Now, should we as a society sit around and figure out a way to compliment people on their looks so that they can feel worthy of being who they are? Should we tell someone that despite the fact that they are making an effort in school or with volunteer work or with their friends that at least they have nice eyes? Should we tell someone, that the only time anything will matter about them, is when their looks will redeem them? If I may ask, if a person is ugly does it matter? If a person is fat, does it matter?

Pause. Take a minute and ask yourself, should a person’s looks matter this much?

I do not deny the fact that when I see a pretty person I will be awed. I will appreciate and think “Wow”. However, I won’t go out of my way to befriend or value this person more because of how they look. If a person is ugly, I will notice but I won’t think, “Damn it, I cannot be bothered with this person. Look at them, they must be horrible”

Moreover, we always look at people and insist on comforting them about their looks.

“One day, someone will love your face….one day, someone will hold you and they will look past your big nose and love you”

Ok, you know what this person is saying. That people need to forgive you for your looks in order to love you. Someone should sit down and redeem your looks with their love. Do you seeing the utter ridiculousness of this? Why should someone need to do this?

Why can’t you say “My goodness, someone is going to love your cooking or I envy the person who gets you, you are so funny”

I know what you are going to say, that people are attracted to what they see. However, I am not talking about immediate attraction. I am talking about love and respect. Things that take long to be formed, things that grow with time. These things can come about based on who you are and not how you look. And if someone only loves you or respects you based on how you look, you are not the problem. They are.

Society has forced upon us unnecessary standards of beauty that very few people can live by. We look at each other and dissect ourselves on an unwritten universal rule book as if we are toys in a factory. So, why don’t we try to be better? Why don’t we shed these standards and start appreciating each other for our experiences, for our contributions, for the memories we create and maybe when we start making it a habit, people would realise that they are so much more than their looks. And with that we may come up with a society that is based on character rather than looks.

Let us start giving compliments that matter. Tell someone you love how they remember minute details about people. Tell your friends you like it when they laugh at their own jokes. Tell that random classmate that you think it is absolutely brilliant the way they make an effort in school. Let us figure out ways to show people that they don’t need a pretty body feature or the perfect waist to matter. Let us stop placating each other with our looks and start raising each other up based on our characters.

As the prose aptly put:

“What’s beautiful is that you can make anything happen. Stop being beautiful. Get ugly. Go be alive”

Shhh: A Step by Step Guide to Silence

Sometimes, you can almost admire the skill with which our rights are being stripped from us. There is a kind of finesse to it, a mastery that you don’t see very often. It would be impressive if it wasn’t so goddamn terrifying.

*

If you’re a government that wants to arrest people for speaking against it, and you’re unfortunate enough to be in a democracy, you’ve got to pick your words very carefully. You cannot say that you were insulted, that would seem petty – you call it undermining authority. That has weight. It sounds important, dangerous even.

He’s in prison for insulting the president. No. That just screams dictator.

He’s in prison for undermining the president’s authority. Yes. Now you’re onto something.

How a slight can undermine the authority of the most powerful man in the country is, as these things always go, something that need not, and will not, be explained.

Once you have the right words, you now have to pick the right targets. You can’t just round up any old critic. You’re trying to send a message and set some precedent. If you choose badly you won’t accomplish either. For example, take Gado. It is unlikely that you will find anyone who has depicted the president in an insulting manner more often than Gado. If an insult can undermine authority, then Gado is public enemy number one. In the face of Gado, the president is very nearly out of authority to be undermined. But you cannot arrest Gado. At least, not at first.

You really cannot justify arresting a popular satirist without turning everyone against you. He’s too easy to defend. He’s too well liked. Charging him with anything, even something as important sounding as undermining the president’s authority, is just too clearly wrong. You cannot sell it. So you need another kind of target.

You need someone not very sympathetic. Someone guilty of something else, preferably something they said. Someone difficult to defend because no one really wants to be associated with them. You need to find yourself a Wadi Okengo.

Once you find and arrest a person like Wadi, you’ve already won the first battle. Dissenters will find that they cannot defend the right they think is important without defending Wadi as well. He is someone an injustice is being carried out against and they have to defend him, it’s all part of the responsibility. But, the very moment they do, his hate speech will come up. The disgusting tribalist things he said will inevitably become linked to the whole case and it will all seem like part of the same issue. His defenders will find themselves in the untenable position of both defending and distancing themselves from him. Predictably, this is not a very effective way to convince people you’re right. They’re in a fight and they don’t have sufficient ammunition. You win.

But you can’t stop there. The message needs to stick. If you really want them to watch what they say you need to show them that no one is safe. That no fish is too big to fry. That’s where someone like Robert Alai comes in. Extremely popular but not very sympathetic. A man with such an even distribution of allies and enemies that any debate involving him will quickly descend into noise. And should anyone be willing to put aside their loathing of the man to defend him, what of it? He is the man who prays for women to be raped. Who said he would strip scantily clad women himself? Etcetera etcetera. Defending him is just as difficult as defending Wadi if not more. Again, you have them fighting an uphill battle to get anyone to even care about the issue at hand.

Lastly, the smaller players need to get in on it. Maybe a Governor somewhere should have someone pulled in and level the same kind of accusations. Let that kind of thing crop up and spread about for a while. And when you’re done, one will have to ask whether what they want to say about you is really worth going through what Alai did. What every other person you go after will. Because it’s not about insults, it’s about undermining authority. And because no one truly knows what that actually means, they’ll have to watch themselves.

People are going to ask if they can afford to have hundreds of thousands (or any significant amount) held up for months during court proceedings. They’re going to wonder if they can stay employed if they’re accused of undermining a public official’s authority. All of that risk? Just to make a criticism? They’re going to look at the effect of one person talking versus the potential cost it could bring and do the math. They’re going to ask the kind of questions that make people afraid to talk.

When you finally start going for the people you really want to get, you wont need tricks anymore. You’ll have legal precedent on your side and the entire process will be normalized by then. It’ll be like police taking bribes, just another ugly facet of Kenyan life they accept as unavoidable. The way of things. Blasé. You can even let them talk a little then. It won’t matter because those who complain will not meet a willing audience. They will meet the face of defeat. They will hear those three little words that both excuse and explain away everything. They will be told…this is Kenya.

You Are Almost Safe Now

I love my government. They care about me. They want me to be safe.

This is why the things I am hearing from my fellow Kenyans disturb me so.

I have heard some complain that the government is trying to silence them, to stop them from protesting, but this simply isn’t true. They don’t want you to stop demonstrating. They, if anything, encourage Kenyans to spread their message if they are discontent. All they are asking is that you hand them control of when and where you can do it.

Why?

Because YOU told them “tumechoka” and they listened. They thought about it, had a few serious discussions and now, they are going to craft protest routes and designations guaranteed to be significantly less strenuous for you. You will not be so tired after these new improved government approved demonstrations. It will almost be like you did not protest at all. You see? Your government listens. Your government cares.

I know you want to say that positioning affects the impact of a protest and that’s usually the idea but listen; this is even less stress for you. The government is taking this out of your hands and doing that work for you. Who is closer to the problem than the people being protested? No one. They are the problem and so they know it best. They are, by definition, experts. They can tell you where to stand if you want to effectively criticize them. They know these things.

And besides, it is for your own good. It is for security.

Some Kenyans are, believe it or not, complaining that if these amendments go through, glorifying or advocating for terrorists might get you 20 years in prison. I don’t know why this bothers you. Are you planning to praise terrorist acts? Of course not. Or maybe you’re just concerned about what might or might not be considered supporting a terrorist act. If that is the case, I’ve got you covered.

Gatundu South MP Moses Kuria says

“We want to make it clear that when the Bill comes to the House, there will be no coalitions, religious affiliations or partnerships. We ask Kenyans to watch out for those who will be on the side of freedom and democracy and those who will be on the side of terrorists and killers”

You see? It’s really easy to figure out. Support for terrorists is what politicians say it is at any given moment. What else would it be? If you are not supporting this bill and you don’t feel like you are on the side of terrorist and killers then, well…you’re wrong. Politicians are infinitely wise. They know. If you want to be on the safe side, listen to them. Do what they say. They know what is best for you. They are doing all of this for you. For security.

If you go to the official government channels on twitter they will tell you what you should already know. America did something like this and so should we. Now some of you have been quick to point out that this didn’t exactly pan out for the good old US of A. That those laws were abused and expanded and used on American citizens. Terrorism took on new meanings and even the man who introduced the patriot act came out against how it was being used. All valid points. But…this is Kenya.

Unlike the US, we have a perfect record of government ethics. Our politicians have always proved themselves to be fine individuals with impeccable moral fibre. To claim that they will abuse the potential ambiguity in the bill and twist it to serve their own ends is ludicrous. Poppycock. Balderdash! Our government is good. As we are sure that the next government will be and the one after that, ad infinitum. It is simply the way of things.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand some of it may seem scary. Like if the Director General has “reasonable grounds to believe a covert operation is necessary” he can give written authorization to an officer of the Service to “obtain any information, material, record, document or thing.” Furthermore, to achieve that goal the Service member can “enter any place or obtain access to anything,” “monitor communications” and “do anything necessary to preserve national security.” Wow.

This is in fact quite frightening and at first glance appears to have loopholes that could fit a fleet of buses. The ambiguity of where the limits are would suggest that there aren’t any. But, fear not. The Director General will be “subject to guidelines approved by the Council.” That would be the National Security Council. I don’t know why the first two words were dropped in an amendment, but it was drafted by far wiser minds than I and so they must have their reasons.

Point is, these mystery guidelines are made by people who know what they’re doing. Politicians, the police and the military. The people who have done the most to make Kenyans feel safe for decades. The ones you should trust.

Does this not set your mind at ease? Do you not feel safe now? Do you not love your government?

But it was all right, everything was all right, the struggle was finished. He had won the victory over himself. He loved Big Brother. – George Orwell


 

UPDATE: 

If you have thoughts on how the security bill can be improved or anything like that, email them to clerk@parliament.go.ke before 5:00 PM on Monday the 15th

Or make your way to the Mini Chamber, County Hall, Parliament buildings between 10:00 am and 5:00 pm on Monday the 15th

Fantasy And Africans

Will this be a problem has been silent for about a month now but, and here’s the good news, it was an interesting kind of silence. You see, it wasn’t the silence you’d get if we were neglecting you, our dear readers. It was not even the silence you’d get if we were tired of you or awkwardly avoiding you with nothing to say. It was the busy, wary silence of someone who’s planning you a surprise birthday party.

Ok, maybe it’s not a birthday but there is a surprise.

I’m happy to say that we finally (and very sneakily) started working on one of this site’s pillars a few months ago. It was always the plan that WTBAP would be concerned with art and literature and now, we actually have something to show for that besides intentions. I present our first short story and poetry anthology.

jpec edition

You probably have questions. Such as…

1. What the hell is THAT thing?

That is the mascot. Her name is Jane.

Thing is, it’s a strange anthology and, in some ways, very dark. I wanted the cover to reflect a bit of that. I guess we could have eased you into it but why the hell would we do that? Right from the start, we’re pushing you into deep end.

2. Why are the eyes following me? Those eyes! Ahhhh!

Because it wants your soul. Duh!

3. How can I get this anthology?

The anthology will be available exclusively in electronic form. It will also be free.

At the bottom of this post there will be links to get it in the main ebook formats and, if you wish, you can also read it here on the site.

4. Kenyan Fantasy?

Yes.

We’re big fans of fantasy here at WTBAP. Over the years I’ve talked about the rather inexplicable lack of African fantasy books. The content is really just begging to be written and I know African fantasy readers aren’t rare by any measure. But, somehow, there just isn’t much of it and when there is people tie themselves in knots to not call it fantasy. Magical realism pops up a lot and I’ve even seen Ben Okri’s work called (I’m not even kidding) African Traditional Religion Realism. It’s kind of the overlooked child of African literature.

So, the minute we got a chance to make some fantasy we hopped right onto that train (though one could argue that we may have accidentally boarded onto the horror express. Oops). We made the theme for our first issue Fantasy and we got down to work. I think we’ve come up with something special.

5. Will you be doing this again?

Most definitely. We’ve learnt a lot from making this first one and I think it’s going to make the second one even better. So many lessons, so many ideas and this is just the start. But that is a struggle for another day.

6. Another day? So this won’t have a regular schedule.

No. I can’t promise that it will. We’ll do it when we have time but I can’t say that there will be regular intervals between the releases. Well, I can, but it wouldn’t be true.

And now….the book.

READ ONLINE AND DOWNLOAD HERE