February 18, 2016 § Leave a comment
In conversations about poor young Africans in Diani engaging in sex tourism with older, rich white men and women, the typical explanation I get from fellow middle-class Kenyan peers places the blame entirely on the poor. I’d like to address some of the stereotypes about the poor that I keep hearing:
“They are just lazy. If they really wanted, they could work.”
Work where? There are no jobs in Diani. Tourism is the backbone of Kenya’s economy and most of the coastal region is almost entirely dependent on tourism, particularly Diani which has no other industries. And now in its 5th year, Kenya’s war in Somalia has led to the devastation of the tourism industry. Retaliatory attacks at the coast by Somali militants has made the tourists afraid to come. Several hotels have closed, many hotel workers have lost their jobs and crime is on the rise.
“If the poor would just take responsibility for themselves, all their problems would go away.”
What about the government’s responsibility? We need to stop scapegoating the poor for the failures of the Kenyan government in providing all Kenyans with the basics we need. Poverty is not caused by a lack of effort or priorities. The major factors that contribute to and keep people in poverty are systemic and actually not in their control.
“Everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed.”
On the contrary, I think that the rich and poor end up where they are mainly because of the opportunities they have in life, rather than due to personal successes and failures. The poor are poor because they lack opportunities and good jobs, not because of individual failings or poor work ethic.
“In life you just have to work hard.”
Most rich people I know got to where they are mainly because they had more opportunities, not because they worked harder than others. Yet we congratulate the wealthy for their hard work while blaming the poor for not working hard enough. We ignore statistics that clearly indicate that you are more likely to be rich if you were born rich and insist that the poor could do better for themselves if only they tried.
We forget that poor children have all the odds stacked against them. A child born into poverty has to contend with inadequate food, healthcare, education and crime-ridden neighborhoods. And even if she does try her best, very few opportunities will be open to her. Therefore chances are she will forever remain trapped in a low-wage job that prevents her from improving her life. And this cycle will repeat itself in the next generation.
While I’ve met lots of people who’d love to stop being poor, I have never once met anyone whose childhood dream was to be poor when they grow up. A little more empathy and compassion is therefore in order for those denied what they deserve by a system of inequality. As humans we should want to help the poor, not vilify them. A good place to start doing this is by changing the language we use to describe poverty and inequality.
September 12, 2015 § 1 Comment
Racists who don’t value the lives of Africans love to quote Mandela and other famous black people, in weak attempts to silence and invalidate Africans who get too radical for their liking. They take the words of historical African figures out of context, twist or otherwise manipulate them to try and win an argument. To support their baseless arguments, racists will typically barge into my conversations with cut-and-pastes from Wikipedia of quotes that don’t even apply to the situation.
And they do so with the expectation that I bow down at the mere mention of lionized figures such as Mandela. A figure who, in death, whites can sanitize to suit their interests, while conveniently ignoring the fact that Mandela was a militant who literally blew things up in his fight against oppression.
Mandela may have been the most famous African of his time, but that doesn’t mean that non-famous Africans are obligated to obey and agree with his thoughts. This may come as a surprise but we are allowed to disagree with Madiba.
As a Kenyan woman living in 2015, my perspective derives from my experience of my world, which is quite different from Mandela’s experience of South Africa during apartheid. That doesn’t mean that I don’t value the words and actions of Mandela or any other African freedom fighter. I most certainly do.
However, like every other African, I am under no obligation to place the words of Mandela above my own understanding and experience of the world. I personally value Mandela’s words and actions in the ways that they align with my freedom and the freedom of all Africans, now and today. But I will also respectfully reject them when they don’t.
I am not Mandela. I am me. I am but one of a billion African people, each with their own feelings, thoughts, beliefs and ideals.
The time racists spend searching for some Mandela quote to use to try and silence Africans could have been better spent on educating themselves on the fact that African people are individual autonomous beings, with all sorts of ideas of our own. Our words are equally important to those of the Africans whose names we are expected to fall in line at the mere mention of.
Therefore, if someone wishes to share a quote because they think I might find it interesting, helpful or poignant, that’s fine. But if they’re simply throwing quotes at me with the expectation that I bow down to them and the African figures they imagine know more about my experiences in the world than I do – they can forget it.
I can think and speak for myself.
July 4, 2015 § Leave a comment
Lately, in debates on white supremacy and racism, I keep getting responses from white people to the effect that I am wrong because they “know Africans who would disagree” with me. That my difference in opinion is not valid as the Africans they know would agree with their particular opinion. Often the white person will then go on to point out that they encountered said Africans during “extensive” travels in Africa; travels that even included my country Kenya. It is at this point that they will often stress their relief at not having encountered Africans/ Kenyans like me during said travels.
But here’s the thing. There are over one billion Africans in this world. Therefore, in order to seriously claim a firm and unanimous African opinion on any issue, you would have to obtain the perspectives of ALL Africans, and not just those of a token few.
Contrary to western stereotype, Africans are diverse people with diverse perspectives emanating from diverse experiences. After all, Africa is a continent (not a country) with over 54 diverse countries. And while there seems to be a preference among white people in Africa to surround themselves with token Africans who will tell them only what they want to hear, this does not mean that all Africans are in agreement with the token’s particular perspective.
Some Africans supported slavery and colonialism, while others continue to support neo-colonial imperialism by the West. Does that make those forms of oppression okay? Of course not. And the same applies to white supremacy and racism today. There are some Africans who – purely for financial reasons – uphold white supremacy. This is especially true when you take into account the economic hardships and rampant poverty plaguing many African people worldwide.
While token Africans make my job as an activist harder, I find that I can’t really blame them. Studies show that racism harms black people on a psychological level, leading to low self-esteem and sense of community worth among black children. It also damages the aspirations of black people and heightens anxiety and depression. When generations of black people are exposed to white supremacy and racism, it’s a no-brainer that some of that psychological damage will take on the “Stockholm Syndrome” effect of internalized racism.
Within the African-American community, there’s a name for black people who exhibit signs of Stockholm Syndrome: “Uncle Tom”. Such blacks are typically subservient or excessively deferential to white people. Uncle Toms tend to behave in a servile manner towards whites, marked with uncritical acceptance of the opinions and values of white people. Eager to win the approval of whites, they will cooperate with them – even to the detriment of the black community. In other words, they are willing to do anything to remain in good standing with whites, including betraying their own people. An Uncle Tom is a black man or a woman who bends over backwards for white people, while selling out the interests of black people.
I’m not that kind of African.
Fortunately, we live in a world in which “popular” (privileged) opinion is never the sole deciding factor. If it were, abolition and many other progressive achievements in history would never have been approved. Moreover, the fact that you “know” Africans who would validate your point of view, yet still encounter Africans like myself who would disagree with you should be proof enough of the diversity in African opinion. Picking and choosing only the perspectives that validate your opinion is a rather lame and disingenuous attempt at derailing conversations on race.
May 29, 2015 § Leave a comment
Maya Angelou, the American activist, author, poet, dancer, actress, and singer died a year ago today. Angelou had a deep connection to Africa. In 1961, she helped organize a protest at the United Nations over the assassination of Congolese leader Patrice Lumumba, which had been approved by the CIA.
Shortly after, she moved to Cairo, Egypt, and served as the editor of the Arab Observer. The country was at the time a center of anti-colonial movements opposed to imperialism and Zionism. During her time in Cairo, she met Nelson Mandela while he was on his trip in Africa in 1962, to garner support for the armed struggle and to undergo military training.
She then moved to the newly independent state of Ghana and became one of hundreds of expatriates known as the “Afro-American community”. She worked as a teacher in the School of Music and Drama at the University of Ghana. She also served as a feature editor of the African Review, and wrote articles for Ghanaian Times.
Angelou met with Malcolm X when he visited Ghana in 1964. Ghana was at the time the citadel of the Pan-African and socialist movements taking place in Africa and throughout the Diaspora. The first chapter of the Organization of Afro-American Unity, founded by Malcolm X in 1964, was formed in Ghana among the expatriate community.
Upon her return to the United States, Angelou was encouraged to put her life experiences down on paper. In 1970 she published “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” which gained international notoriety.
Dr. Maya Angelou’s contributions to literature and social movements remain an inspiration to many in Africa and across the globe.
Rest in Power.
By Maya Angelou
Thus she had lain
deserts her hair
golder her feet
mountains her breasts
two Niles her tears.
Thus she has lain
Black through the years.
Over the white seas
rime white and cold
took her young daughters
sold her strong sons
churched her with Jesus
bled her with guns.
Thus she has lain.
Now she is rising
remember her pain
remember the losses
her screams loud and vain
remember her riches
her history slain
now she is striding
although she had lain.
May 24, 2015 § 3 Comments
White people can play a role in African causes; but only in facilitating and boosting African voices – not trying to derail the conversation, or distract from and dismiss as irrelevant issues pertaining to white supremacy and racism. Dominating discourse, insisting on speaking for us, silencing criticism and abusing critics is an abuse of white privilege that only does more harm than good.
A white woman doing research in Kenya not too long ago went on a social media rant accusing Kenyans who expressed their support for the “Black Lives Matter” campaign of caring more about the victims of police brutality in the United States than those in Kenya. To her, Kenyans voicing opposition to white supremacy and racism in a spirit of pan-Africanist solidarity (see here and here) was trivial and below consideration. In short, our feelings and emotions towards the plight of our own in the Diaspora – Africans and people of African descent – did not matter.
Rather, it was her job to decide what matters for Kenyans, as we couldn’t possibly know what issues to prioritize for ourselves. After all, only the objective, rational perspective of a privileged white woman can determine exactly what is most important for us – and it apparently was not expressing solidarity with victims of the racism that she as a white person benefits from.
Taking her bigotry a step further, she went on to denigrate the efforts of Kenyans in raising awareness using social media. This in turn revealed just how much her white privilege had distanced her from the reality of the many Kenyan activists who turn to online platforms due to a lack of access to the real world platforms that she, on the other hand, is guaranteed by whiteness.
However, contrary to her belief that Kenyans are uncaring to their own, we are human beings capable of compassion and empathy for each other, as has been demonstrated time and again. More importantly, we’ve realized over time that white supremacy and racism in the West exacerbates the issues we as Kenyan people face in our country. It is this very same white supremacist and racist mentality that makes white academics in Africa, such as herself, feel entitled to engage in acts of erasure by invalidating and devaluing the views of Kenyan activists with the same or greater credentials, not to mention, lived experience, while posturing as “African expert” (white person who believes they know more about Africa and Africans, than Africans themselves).
Frankly, the cliché of the white academic turned “African expert” erasing African agency by stealing the spotlight from grassroots activists so as to be worshiped by Africa’s poor, while simultaneously boosting her academic qualifications to farther her career and profit from her “activism” is getting old. As a Kenyan woman, expressing solidarity with African-Americans against white supremacy and racism doesn’t mean I undervalue the experiences of Kenya’s poor. I just do not need a white woman to “educate” me on what they are.
February 18, 2015 § Leave a comment
Baga was destroyed, a fifth of its population wiped out, and yet the world remained silent. The outrage and attention of the world’s media was focused instead on the victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack. The attacks in Baga and Paris unfolded over the same time frame, and yet the 17 victims in Paris received more media attention than the combined 2,000 victims killed in Baga. For Charlie Hebdo, the coverage was intense, news articles were longer, the op-eds were numerous, and the editorials full of emotion. While the Paris attacks dominated the international front page headlines, for Baga there were hardly any mentions, less attention, less indignation and no outrage. In a clear double standard, the stories of both the victims and the attackers of Charlie Hebdo were repeatedly told, while the Baga victims were depicted as mere statistics.
The media tried to explain away this double standard by saying it was difficult for journalists to obtain evidence on the Baga victims. They said this even as alternative press with fewer resources was able to gather substantial material on the Baga massacre from credible sources such as Amnesty International. Others excused the intense coverage of Charlie as just the media’s way of showing solidarity with their own; while ignoring the fact that more non-western journalists have died due to “terrorism” than westerners, and yet have never received as much attention.
The real reason for this double standard is the massive political bias that exists in western media reporting, in which the deaths of westerners are sensationalized while those of non-westerners are downplayed or neglected altogether. Its only when reports of non-western victims can be politically advantageous that their plight receives attention. The kidnapping of the 200 girls in Nigeria last year was sensationalized by the West and its media under the #BringBackOurGirls hash tag so as to provide a moral basis for increased western militarization of the region. Close to a year later, the girls still haven’t been rescued.
The media bias also means that the severe abuse faced by victims of depraved western torture, illegal drone strikes and war crimes receives more antiseptic reporting. Deaths of victims of western terrorism are considered as natural, with the media offering minimal, if any calls in search of responsibility. By ignoring those victimized by the West, ongoing western policies can proceed more easily, without interference due to concern over politically inconvenient victims.
If you’re not careful, the media will have you hating the people who are being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.
– Malcolm X
Critics are already voicing concerns about the lack of critical media coverage and the acceptance at face value of official allegations on the Charlie Hebdo attack. There are legitimate fears that this intense coverage will be used to justify a crackdown on civil liberties in the West, and in particular to silence critics of Israel/ supporters of Palestine in France. Other fears are that the portrayal of the Paris attacks as a “Clash of Civilizations”, in which western ideals of freedom are under assault from Islam, is fueling Islamophobia. This false portrayal persists despite the fact that more Muslims and non-westerners die from “terrorism” than non-Muslims and westerners.
And then there was the general African reaction to the two attacks, which left a lot to be desired. Ignoring the victims in his own continent, Gabon’s President Ali Bongo was quick to fly to Paris to mourn in solidarity with the French. Incidentally, the hypocrisy of this African dictator marching in defense of freedom of speech while clamping down on free speech at home was not lost on observers.
Equally culpable was the African media whose reporting normalized and treated the Baga massacre as business as usual. Rather than providing coverage that could generate public interest, mobilize activists and institutions, and bring about change, Baga was left pretty much in the incompetent hands of the Nigerian government. To the African media, a few lives lost in the West were more newsworthy and therefore important than thousands dead in their own backyard.
Even more worrisome was the spectacle of Africans on social media rushing to declare “Je Suis Charlie”, while displaying a lack of concern for the victims in Baga. For us to express shock and outrage at the killing of westerners, but be unmoved by the slaughter of thousands of our own is a sign that we have internalized racist western views about ourselves. We no longer consider our own deaths to be important but instead believe that western lives matter more, are more human, more worthy, more valuable, more deserving of life. Its time we stopped neglecting our own tragedies while valuing the lives of westerners over our own.