The Woyingi Blog

About The Short Film Pumzi, an African Sci-Fi Post-Apocalyptic Morality Tale

I have recently stumbled upon the trailer for the short film Pumzi (Pumzi means ‘breath’ in Swahili). The film has been travelling around the US but I haven’t heard if it is coming to Canada. As a Sci-Fi fan, I would love to see more African Sci-Fi films. South Africa’s District 9 was visually stunning with a great plot but it had no Black African central characters. I want to see more Black African Sci-Fi heroes on film; they already are coming up in fiction, thanks to the work of writers like Nnedi Okorafor, a Nigerian American whose fantasy novel Zahrah the Windseeker I recently reviewed (See The Woyingi Blogger’s Review). 

From the short film Pumzi

The film is directed by young Kenyan filmmaker Wanuri Kahiu who studied film at UCLA. Kahiu won Best Director at the Africa Movie Academy Awards for her film From a Whisper, about the 1998 bombings of the US Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar el Salaam, Tanzania. I unknowingly had already seen her work as a director because she directed the behind the scenes documentary for Philip Noyce’s film Catch a Fire, which is based on a true story of a regular oil worker who becomes a freedom fighter in apartheid South Africa. She also directed a documentary about the Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai

Pumzi is a Kenyan/South African co-production. Its South African producers are Simon Hansen (who produced the short film Alive in Joburg which became the feature film District 9), Hannah Slezacek and Amira Quinlan of Inspired Minority Pictures. Kahiu was able to come up with the grant to finance the film from the Goethe Institut, Focus Features (which also produced District 9), and the Changamoto Fund. The film was shot over two weeks on location in South Africa. There were no Kenyan actors used. The film runs for about 21 minutes. It was screened at the Sundance Film Festival and Cannes, where it won Best Short Film. Kahiu is now working on trying to develop Pumzi into a feature-length film. 

South African Actress Kundzani Moswela with Kenyan Director Wanuri Kahiu

The film is set in East Africa 35 years after World War Three, the “Water War”. The war has caused large-scale ecological devastation. Put simply, “nature is extinct”. The land is uninhabitable so humans must leave inside specially sealed compounds. Humans only have recycled urine to drink. 

The central character of the film is Asha, played by Kudzani Moswela, a South African model and actress. Asha is a curator at a virtual natural history museum in the Maitu community, which is one of these compounds. One day she receives a sample of soil that is not toxic and she decides to use it to plant a seed she has in her possession. It starts to grow! Asha wishes to see if the soil sample is indicative that there is plant life on Earth again. In order to get permission to go outside she must apply for a visa from the authorities of the Maitu community. She is denied. Asha then decides to break out of the compound in order to see what is happening on the Earth’s surface for herself. 

Asha and the soil sample that might be a sign of hope for the future

Kahiu has written the following statement about writing and directing the film: 


There is no part of myself that has not been involved in the making PUMZI. PUMZI has invaded my every thought, my dreams, my senses. PUMZI has been my heart and it’s rhythm. 

The film started as a joke. A friend and I pondered the possibility of living in a place where we paid for air. We invented the city, the virtual natural museums, the people. That was over 2 years, many tears, much frustration and several re-writes before the film was ready to go into production. At some point, the Universe (with help from Kisha Cameron) conspired and introduced me to the Producers of the film and it was a perfect fit. They were passionate about the project, profoundly knowledgeable about Sci-Fi and exceptionally generous with their expertise and resources. During pre-production one potential crewmember commented that making Pumzi (based on the budget and the ambition we had) was like pulling a rabbit out of a chicken’s ass’. Naturally he wasn’t hired, but the crew who were went above and beyond what was expected. 

A week before the shoot was scheduled to start we had not cast the lead character, Asha. And then Kudzani Moswela walked in. Her audition, her presence and her excitement for life dissipated any doubt. She was Asha. She breathed into the film unimaginable softness and courage. She became the heart of my heart. Her interpretation of Asha and the story was painfully tender and through it new, undiscovered layers of the film came alive. 

Now, years, months and many painful Visual Effects hours later, Pumzi is finished. More beautiful, more poignant, more charming than anyone expected. Pumzi is a visual ode to life. A life that (as described by Lorraine Hansberry)has within it that which is good, that which is beautiful and that which is love. Pumzi is the essence of all these. Pumzi is my breath. 

In an interview with Kenya’s Daily Nation, Kahiu states

Wangari Maathai has been talking about this issue for years and we never heed her advice so I am not here to tell people to conserve the environment alone, I am showing them what will happen if we don’t. 

According to, Kahiu researched classic 1950s films to create Pumzi’s futuristic sets, comparing the processes of matte painting and rear-screen projection with indigenous African artwork. Kahiu states: 

We already have a tradition of tapestries and functional art and things like that, that loan a backdrop for films. 

Being a filmmaker in Africa is not easy. Not only is it hard to get financing for films, it is also not a respected profession. Kahiu, whose mother is a doctor and whose father is a businessman, still struggles for recognition even in her family. In an interview with CNN she said

I have aunts who come up and say ‘Oh, you’re still doing that thing?’ like I should move out of it, or it’s a phase I’m passing through. 

It is also particularly difficult to be a woman filmmaker. As Kahiu reflects

The success of Kathryn Bigelow shows how, even in 2010, it’s still like ‘Oh my gosh! A woman made a film that’s winning awards!’ It’s ridiculous. 

Kahiu is committed to building a profitable film industry in Kenya. She says

I would like to work and build an industry, so that everyone walks away well-paid, with great hours. 

Kahiu would advise young African filmmakers to do the following

To write their own stories. Their own experience as Africans. And to plant a tree. 

Further Reading: 

Website for the film Pumzi 

Trailer for the film Pumzi 

Interview (2009) of Wanuri Kahiu in the Kenya Daily Nation available online 

Interview (2009) of Wanuri Kahiu in available online 

Interview (2010) of Wanuri Kahiu by CNN available online 

Interview (2010) of Wanuri Kahiu in 

Interview (2010) of Wanuri Kahiu by Bird’s Eye View 

Interview (2010) of Wanuri Kahiu in Vogue Black 

Website for Kahiu’s film From a Whisper 

Trailer for the film From a Whisper

Watch Kahiu’s short film Ras Star available online

Website of Awali Entertainment Ltd, co-founded by Kahiu 

Website of Focus Features’ Africa First Program

Website of the African Movie Academy Awards 

A particularly cool image from the short film Pumzi

Day in the Life: A Peck on the Cheek from the GG

Posted in Countries: Canada, Day in the Life, The Woyingi Blogger by the woyingi blogger on September 29, 2010

At the beginning of August I received the following e-mail:


On behalf of Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, Governor General of Canada, we are pleased to extend an invitation to you to attend the Governor General’s Youth Dialogue “Can We Talk” in Ottawa.

Kindly refer to the invitation attached.

Please find below additional information on the event:


DATE: Tuesday, August 10, 2010

TIME: 5:00 p.m. (Please arrive by 4:30 p.m.)

(This portion of the event finishes approximately at 7:00 p.m.)

LOCATION: Rideau Hall, 1 Sussex Drive, Ottawa

A dinner reception at Rideau Hall and the National Capital Commission’s Sound and Light show Mosaika on Parliament Hill will follow. (Note: participants will be given VIP passes for the sound and light show).

My first response was “Why was I invited to this?” “Who is behind this?” I still don’t know; I’m guessing it was the Governor-General’s advisor on Youth Affairs, Peter Flegel, but other than a brief conversation after a play at the Great Canadian Theatre Company, and being his Facebook Friend, I don’t think Peter really knows me well, and certainly he can’t know much about the work I do with youth. Then I wondered if those who invited me actually thought I was a youth? I guess I am depending on what definition you use but really, I’m too old to be considered a youth by youth the youth I work with but I’m young enough to not be perceived as being like their parents.

But what work have I done to make be deserve to be invite to the GG’s Residence. Well, I have run an after-school program for like about 7 years in my subsidized housing community, I also run a program for immigrant and visible minority girls each day during the school year at six different high schools, and I did come up with the idea to have 15 week workshops facilitated by local Spoken Word artists for at risk (at risk of awesomeness that is) immigrant and visible minority youth. I then wrote proposal and got funding from the City of Ottawa and Crime Prevention Ottawa (There were four streams: An All Girls Stream, and All Boys Stream, and ESL Stream, and a Francophone Stream). So, I’ve done some stuff…but other people have done more…and in less time.

Shopping with an African Muslim Fashionista

So, I was invited to meet the Governor-General. What was I going to wear? My friend/auntie Semira, an Eritrean-Canadian who can’t help to be something of a Fashionista, due to her country’s colonization by Italy and a long stint in African communities in Montreal, where women know how to dress in style, with flair, and on a budget. She was excited for me of course as meeting any Canadian Governor General would be an honour but she couldn’ help but ask which one I was going to be meeting. I assured her that it was Michaelle Jean, who wouldn’t be leaving her post as GG until the end of September. This, of course added to her excitement and desire to help me find something to wear, something that could be described as “smart casual” as the invitation advised.

The Woyingi Blogger at the Mic, this is the GG's Hair! Photo by Ben Powless

For years, Semira has been advising me to develop a more elegant and more African style of dress, something that could distinguish me from other people when I attend conferences or am asked to MC functions.

I don’t care about clothing. As long as something is clean, I’ll wear it. Most of my clothes are hand-me downs from Arab, African, and South Asian friends and aunties. I seldom buy clothes. Why? A combination of poverty and a real inability to shop well. After I shop for clothes, I am seldom satisfied by what I buy so I really try to avoid the experience.

Semira knows how to dress stylishly on a budget. She is always so colour-coordinated from her veils to her shoes. The Muslim African Fashionista is a godsend to the bland streets of Ottawa, and a broke and frumpy Black Girl like me.

Semira drove me to Pennington’s in Barrhaven and picked out some clothes for me to were. We were helped out but a lovely sales associate. Semira picked out a lovely purple scarf that I could wear as a hijab that matched the long empire-waisted shirt I had chosen.  This purple scarf and be seen on the cover of Metro Ottawa, in which the Governor-General is clearly laughing at myself and a young local poet and activist. Why she is laughing at us will be explained further on:

Michaelle Jean and Ottawa’s Lack of Awesomeness

to be continued

Day in the Life: Seeing The Hijabi Monologues

Posted in Day in the Life, The Woyingi Blogger by the woyingi blogger on September 29, 2010

Hijabi Monologue Performers at the Kennedy Center

On Tuesday evening, I went to a performance of The Hijabi Monologues that was hosted by the US Embassy. It was a great experience as I had been following the project for the last few years. The project grew out of conversations between friends Sahar Ullah, Zeenat Rahman, and Dan Morrison in 2006 who were  students at the University of Chicago at the time. All the stories shared in each monologues, which currently runs about about 12, are based on true stories. Ten were written by Ullah, and two have been recently added in order to better portray the generational and ethno-cultural diversity of America’s Muslim community.

According to The Hijabi Monologues Facebook Group:

The Hijabi Monologues is about the power of storytelling.

It is about creating a space for American Muslim women to share their voices; a space to breathe as they are; a space that does not claim to tell every story and speak for every voice.

Through the power of storytelling, generalizations and categories are challenged. Through stories, strangers touch and connect. Through stories, the story-teller and listener are humanized.

Hijabi Monologues: Our stories. Our words.

Here in Ottawa, not all of the pieces were performed and there were only two performers. Los Angels-based activist May Al Hassan and Kamilah Pickett, who is now based in Washington D.C., performed about six pieces, including one written by Kamilah Pickett herself.

Pickett summarized the intent of the monologues as follows:

The inverse of Eve Ensler’s the Vagina Monlogues. Where Ensler takes something private and personfies it by giving it a voice and puts it in your figurative faces, we’ve taken something (headscarf) public, something everyone seems to have an opinion about and push it out of your figurative faces by giving the entire woman a voice.

Kamilah Pickett’s monologue, entitled “Ten Things About Me”, was one of the monologues recently added. It is written from the perspective of an African American Muslim woman who wears hijab. In an interview, she said:

I figure that my viewpoint would be different than the other stories simply because I am African American, so there is a different perception that goes along with that,” Pickett said, explaining that most Americans see the hijab as a foreign concept. “As an African-American who wears a hijab, I kind of turn that whole viewpoint on its head.

In her own words:

Kamilah was born in Detroit, raised in Atlanta, and has lived in DC for the past six years. She’s had some really cool jobs and gotten a few really cool degrees along the way, most recently a Juris Doctor. And she’s twice the G she appears to be – don’t let the hijab fool you.

Kamilah is smart and “sassy” and a wonderful performer but like most of the other performers of the Hijabi Monologues, she is an amateur actor and a volunteer. She is currently studying to be a lawyer in Washington D.C. I really enjoyed Kamilah’s performance of her own monologue as well as of the others she performed. She is a natural comedian. During the question and answer period after the performance, she was asked about her experiences performing the Monologues to an “indigenous” African American community member. She said she hadn’t really thought about this experience but then shared her predicament as an Black Muslim woman who wears hijab and therefore is subject to discrimination on two fronts. I can relate to this and speak of it often in my Being Black, Being Muslim pieces.

All the monologues struck me as being very genuine. The fact that they included swearing, which although it is not something Muslim women who wear hijab are expected to do, we often do do, was refreshing. One of the stories, performed by May Al Hassan, was about a young woman who grew up being bullied because she was overweight. She ends up getting into a romantic relationship with an older neighbour who she is drawn to because he actually finds her attractive. This leads to an unwanted pregnancy. She hoped that her neighbour would marry her, as she had been expecting, but instead he doesn’t return her phone calls. After telling her best friend about her plight, this friend then goes and tells the whole school. Eventually, this young woman’s parents find out. Her father can’t handle it and goes back to his home country for several months. Her mother stands by her but the young woman still ends up running away from home and eventually has a traumatic miscarriage. It’s a brutal story but it rings true and I was really glad to see that the writers and performers didn’t shy away from discussing taboo  subjects like pre-marital sex. It happens, just like in any other community.

Another dialogue, Knock on the Door, came from the real life experience of Leena al Arian, sister of freelance jounalist and producer for Al Jazeera English Laila al Arian, and the daughter of Palestinian American Sami Al-Arian, who is still under house arrest as an accused terrorist supporter. The story of how her father was taken one morning is both poignant and illuminating of the impact of the war on terror on people’s daily lives.

I am glad that the US Embassy brought the Hijabi Monologues to Ottawa but it would be great to see a Canadian version of the Hijabi Monologues that could be performed more regularly as it is a great way to open up dialogue within the Muslim community on various topics as well as shatter stereotypes about Muslim women who wear hijab in North American society.

Further Reading:

Interview (2008) of Hijabi Monologues creator and writer Sahar Ullah available online

Video Clip of the monologue My Son’s Wedding Feast available on Youtube

Re-narration of Muslim-Western Experiences (article available online)

To learn more about the case of Sami al Arian and the impact on his family visit the website of the documentary USA vs Al-Arian and the website Free Sami al Arian.

Nigerian Lives: Aina Onabolu (1882-1963)

Posted in African Art, African Artist Profiles, Countries: Nigeria, Nigerian Art, Peoples: The Yoruba by the woyingi blogger on September 22, 2010

Portrait of a man 1954

Aina Onabolu was the first Western-trained portrait artist in Nigeria. He also pioneered art education in the country.

Early Life  Onabolu was born in Ijebu-Ode in 1882. He started painting at 12. His main sources of inspiration were Western art that he saw as a child in Nigerian magazines and missionary religious text.

Onabolu went to live in Lagos in order to study at Caxton House School. He finished his education in 1900 and began working at the Customs Department as a marine clerk. Onabolu did not give up his passion for art and studied on his own, teaching himself to paint in the European academic style.

Onabolu’s Views on traditional West African art

Aina Onabolu had no interest in studying the art forms that were indigenous to his region. His opinions on these subjects were influenced by his missionary education. Western missionaries saw African arts and craftsmanship as inextricable from the practice of “pagan” religious traditions. They saw the figures as idols that needed to be destroyed in order to ensure that the newly converted were loyal to Christianity. In 1910, Nigerian Railways official J. Holloway wrote to Onabolu, saying:

I am happy that you yourself realize the danger of going your forefather’s way…by creating the type of art that our church can quarrel with…I came back from Abeokuta a few days ago, and I must here bring to your knowledge what the Rev. in our church said. This Rev. gentleman strongly rebuked the congregation for their stubborn devotion to their idols which he regarded as heathen objects. They were considered ungrateful people who could not appreciate what God had done in their lives.

Onabolu also had contempt for traditional art forms because he saw them as primitive. At a time when his contemporaries, like Picasso, were being influenced by the simplicity of West African art, Onabolu rejected this style for the more realist depictions of figures in more traditional Western art. In his book, A Short Discource on Art, published in Nigeria in 1920, Onabolu writes:

What have we done to promote Art and Science? Our Geledes, Alapafajas, the Ibejis (sculptures) and our drawings are still crude destitute of Art and Science; our canoes remain as they were since the day, when first they came into use without the slightest improvement. Why! Are there not among us young men, or men of brain capable of improving our condition and surroundings? There are, I say emphatically a good number of young men among us with fine brain, but for want of self application and perseverance they cannot bring themselves forward, and therefore, remain unknown.

Adam and Eve 1955

In contrast, at the time, a German anthropologist, Leo Frobenius , was visiting the regions of Yorubaland and Benin where he discovered traditional Bronze figures. These figures so struck him because of their complete lack of crudeness and the obvious knowledge of artistic techniques and science that would have been required for an artist to make them that he believed that they could not possibly be purely African in origin. He came up with the truly bizarre theory that these bronzes where Greco-Roman in origin and that their makers were the descendents of the lost island of Atlantis. The fact that this theory seemed more reasonable to him than to think that Africans could have had the intelligence and skill to design these figures all on their own demonstrates the intensity of the racist opinions held against African artists and their abilities. Frobenious lamented that these bronzes belonged to the Yoruba people. He said “I was moved to silent melancholy at the thought that this assembly of degenerate and feeble-minded posterity should be the legitimate guardians of so much loveliness.” It was these racist opinions that Onabolu wanted to disprove by showing that he could paint in the European style just as well as a White man.

In 1935, Aina Onabolu, was commissioned to construct pews for the Lagos Cathedral of the Church of Christ.

Onabolu died in 1963.

The Exhibition Hall of the Nigerian Gallery of Art is named after him.

to be continued

Further Reading:

The intersection of modern art, anthropology, and international politics in colonial Nigeria, 1910-1914  by Olubukola A. Gbadegesin (essay available online)

Picturing the Modern Self: Politics Identity and Self Fashioning in Lagos, 1861-1934 by O. Gbadegesin (essay available online)

A “Rooted” Reading of Race in the History of Art by O. Gbadegesin (article available online)

African Writer Profile: Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr

Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr is a poet, playwright, essayist and short story writer. Her life has taken her from the Benin port city of Cotonou to the artistic hub of New York’s Lower East Side in the 1960s. Although retired from academia, she still works diligently as a writer and supporter of African and African diasporic artistic expression. 

I first discovered Ismaili while reading The Heinemann Book of African Women’s Poetry, edited by Malawian writers Stella and Frank Chipasula. In this book, Ismaili is listed as a Nigerian poet. However, in French-speaking circles, Ismaili is considered as a Beninois writer. 

Ismaili was born in 1941 in Cotonou, Benin. Cotonou is a port city and the largest city in Benin, often considered the country’s economic capital. Ismaili’s mother was from Benin but her father was from Kano in Northern Nigeria. Ismaili grew up with her maternal grandparents in Cotonou. She studied at her grandfather’s Koran School and at a Catholic missionary school. After her mother’s death, she was sent to a boarding school in France where she stayed for six years. At 15, she married a Nigerian who was studying in New York. She was able to get a bursary in order to study in New York as well. New York has been her home ever since. 

Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr


Ismaili hoped to become Africa’s first opera singer. She studied for a BA in Music at The New York College of Music as a Voice major, with a minor in literature. She also studied musical theatre at Mannes School of Music. However, Ismaili went on to study psychology because she felt that this would be more useful for an African who hoped to help shape the newly independent West Africa of the 1960s. She studied for a Masters in Social Psychology at The New School for Social Research and later obtained a PhD in Psychology from the State University of New York (SUNY). 

Eventually divorcing her husband, Ismaili worked throughout her graduate studies in order to support herself and her son Daoud Samir. However, she also partook of the local arts scene, particularly the burgeoning Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. She followed its poets, painters, and playwrights but also its dancers. She befriended the likes of Virginia Cox, Tom Feelings, Ellen Stewart, and Amiri Baraka (back when he was LeRoi Jones). She discovered the dance studio of Syvilla Fort. Fort was a leading teacher of  the Dunham technique, which was rooted in the dance traditions of Africa, Haiti, and Trinidad. She also developed her own Afro-Modern Technique, which incorporated more modern styles of dance. At this studio, Ismaili had the opportunity to  meet the young dancers, singers and actors who came to learn movement and dance. 

Ismaili went on to have a successful career in academia, both as a lecturer and administrator. She is noted for her expertise in the literary movement of the Harlem Renaissance and Negritude. She has written essays and lectured on African Writers, such as Mariama Ba, as well as African American writers such as Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. In 2000, she retired as Associate Director of the Higher Education Opportunity Program at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, a position she held for 15 years. 

Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr continues to live in Harlem and now writes full-time as well as conducting workshops, lectures, and seminars on a variety of subjects from the history of African American dance, to anti-war poetry readings. She also is asked to speak and perform at conferences across the United States as well as internationally. She is helped develop the curricula and is a faculty member of the online Masters in Creative Writing Program at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. She is the second vice-president of Pen and Brush, an organization founded in 1894 that is dedicated to supporting women working the fields of literary, visual and performing arts. 

Home to Harlem 

In her essay, Slightly autobiographical: the 1960s on the Lower East Side, Ismaili reminisces about what it was like to live in an area that was a centre of African American artistic innovation in the 1960s. Ismaili, like many of the artists who lived in the Lower East Side, came for the low rents. But she soon found an environment that would help develop her own literary impulses even if it presented many frustrations. For a single mother, an African, a Muslim, and an independent-minded woman, the Black artistic scene in the Lower East Side of the 1960s could be inhospitable to say the least. She writes

For me this was a painful time. I was separating from my husband for the first time. Alone, with a small boy, trying to complete graduate school and write, I felt very estranged at times from my ebon scribes and painters. They made it clear they were not interested in me because I was Black, African, and too ethnic; i.e., |not beautiful.’ Besides, I did not do drugs or drink. In fact, cigarette smoke made my eyes tear and my throat choke. To add fat to the fire, I had strong opinions and was extremely independent. These were the ’60s, and Black men were coming into their own. Black women had to understand their manly needs, walk ten paces behind, submit to male authority. We were not to question a man’s work, even if it were incorrect. We were to dress “African,” assume the persona of “The Motherland,” and raise little revolutionaries. Most of all, we were to remain unconditionally loyal to the Black man and never, under any circumstance, be seen in intimate association with a White man. This, of course, was in stark contrast to the behavior of almost all of the men I knew–excuse me, brothers–who had not a single “significant other” but several White women as lovers and wives. 

But Ismaili also found friends and supporters. There was the great sculptor Valerie Maynard, who babysat for Ismaili in exchange for having Ismaili and her son pose for her. There was artist and children’s book illustrator Tom Feelings who encouraged Ismaili’s writing. About him she writes

Tom was my best friend, my soul brother. (We used terms like that then.) I told him of my feelings of rejection and isolation in the midst of parties and other social events. He always understood and helped me understand the fear and difficulty Black men had when asked for something they had historically been denied–fraternity with sisters. (I might add that sisters had difficulties among themselves, too. We often cast a “cut-eye” at one another when “possibility” was in our midst.) But Tom always encouraged me. In fact, he was responsible for my coming to my first Umbra meeting and for my first publication in the now-defunct Liberator. He said that, in the final analysis, all that mattered was The Work. We have remained friends, sister/brother, for more than twenty-five years. 

There was Ellen Stewart, founder of the La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, who also encouraged Ismaili to write, but in her own voice. Ismaili recalls Stewart’s feedback on a play she wrote

My friends told her I was a writer and had written a play, which Ellen asked to see. Embarrassed but eager for her comments, I took it to her. “Do you know this?” she asked. “Have you experienced this?” It was a small piece fueled by the issues of the 60–racism and Southern oppression. I was crushed because I thought her inquiry was a negation of my work and my ability. She saw that, and spoke slowly to me, sharing her experiences of having been born and raised in the South. Then she said, “Little Sister” (I was so elated that I almost didn’t hear the rest of it) “you can write; there is no question. That is not the issue. The issue is truth and artistic honesty.” She urged me to produce a reality fueled by my own thoughts, in my own words. We ended with her saying, “When you have something you feel you want me to read, let me have it.” She was, and continues to be, true to her words. Whenever and wherever I see her subsequently, she always calls me “Little Sister” and asks about my work. 

It must have been difficult for Ismaili to be an African among so many African Americans to find and keep her own creative voice rooted in her own experience as a West African. Although amongst Blacks, she was still an outsider because of her African and Muslim identity. African Americans were discovering their own stories and their own unique ways of telling them. But these were still American stories, written for Americans. It must have been perplexing for Ismaili to figure out who she was writing about as well as who she was writing for. 

Life in exile 

The alienation facing West African women writers is expressed in Ismaili’s essay, West African Women and Exile: City, University, and Dislocated Village. The intended readership of this essay is other Western-educated West African women who are torn between “back Home” and life in exile in the West. Ismaili writes

This paper has evolved from conversations with sisters from “Home.” We mourn our “Exile.” With enthusiasm of a born-again [Christian], we return “Home” with our degrees, earnest and eager to “work.” Then we come face to face with socio-political constraints of our nations. Run squarely afoul of Senior Lecturers who remained in the trenches while we were abroad, frolicking in the lands of plenty. Our personal expectations, our family pressures, societal restrictions on women are some of our greatest enemies. Things we took for granted before are now luxuries. Assigned readings being fulfilled are dependent not only on financial resources of students but the availability of books in the libraries and the country. Simple needs, xeroxing machines and paper, faxes, and now complex telecommunication systems and computers, are seen as extravagant and often are prohibitive. Intellectual famine confronts us with all its grisly remnants; empty library shelves, university censorship and hoarding. Books on the illegal market at twice the price offer little salvation. Defeated or overwhelmed by it all, we send out triplicate resumes and write all former professors to come to our aid in getting us the heck out of our “Homes” as soon as possible. We come back to former host countries, to universities where we are able to earn a decent wage and maintain a tolerable standard of living. 

Exile is not always the romantic notion of heroic revolutionaries. It is a place of uncertainty, pain, frustration and anger. The struggle to maintain one’s sobriety and to support the family is waged in tears with one self and the kindred at “Home.” It is real and deeply felt when one reads of massive five-year projects to introduce village women to water purification and social development. Hard to bear are those embedded memories of things we saw as children. Our experiences and rites of passage, stories we heard, all are negated by those amongst whom we have learned and possibly been influenced. 

You get a glimpse at the dilemmas that must have plagued Ismaili as a lecturer in African Literature with the following passage

It is getting late. We must prepare a lecture for a graduate seminar on “Sisterhood Within Polygamous Compounds.” In our central heated homes, we choose each reference to silence the anticipated negative response our students have formulated. We call each other with our concepts of female language and how it operates in Aminata Sow Fall’s novels. We stray from the immediacy of the subject as we reminisce. How clearly we see Sall Niang in her chair, beautiful and big. We laugh knowingly or, as we have learned, as is said in the parlance of psychological terminology. We connect with her as she uses a winnowing basket to count her money. The flow of conversation is not hindered. Schooled fingers are computerized eyes that separate coins according to value. We can see the wide spread of her lap forming a printed cloth carpet for her computations. This woman is familiar to us because she is in fact, an aunt, mother, neighbor who never seemed to understand she wasn’t our mother when it came to scolding. 

It must be frustrating to teach people in an objective and coldly academic way about works of literature that reflect one’s own lived experience. For West African women writers, there is the added frustration of having to defend “Africa”, “African Traditions” and “African men” from students and colleagues who tend to look down on non-Western communities out of racism and ignorance. But on the other hand, these women are frustrated with the corrupt governments in their countries of origin and the patriarchal structures that subjugate women; but these are the types of conversations West African women would prefer to have with each other, not with their students. The need for sisterhood to make this exile livable comes through in this essay. Ismaili writes about her first meeting with fellow West African writer, Ama Ata Aidoo

I see her today as I saw her over twenty years ago. She was already a writer of note, and was here on a research fellowship. I was in graduate school hanging on by weekly pinching from wages to pay my tuition. I was walking down the Avenue of the Americas and W 4th Street. Just about to turn down Cornelia St. to walk two more blocks to my four-flight walk-up flat. Out of the African Cosmos, a voice came. “O-wee sister.” I was relieved of my anger over an undeserved grade by this intrusion. There was a full-bodied woman with a huge head-tie and a buba over a pair of Blue Jeans! Well, her face was so full of smiles, I almost cried. We embraced. I was asked about myself. I told her where I was from and why I was in New York. She told me who she was and why she was here. 

While living in exile, West African women are able to connect across national, ethnic, and religious lines, united by the common cultures of West Africa and a need to commune with who have been equally displaced and who understand the longing for home, the nostalgia for the past, the financial pressures of family “back home”, and the frustrations of coping with Western racism and ignorance. 

On Ismaili’s poem Solange 

My favourite poem by Ismaili is Solange. It can be found in The Heinemann Book of African Women’s Poetry. The poem is about Solange, a young of French and West African descent. Because I myself am of mixed parentage, I like to find literary works that meditate on this experience. In the poem, Ismaili rhymes Solange with melange, which means “mixture” in French. Solange is fair-skinned but troubled by her more “African” physical features from her flat nose, her curly hair, and her protruding backside. Although the poet keeps reminding Solange that she is beautiful, she doesn’t believe it. Solange “frets” over her African physical traits. She can try to control her curly hair by using chemicals to straighten it. She can try to control her backside by trying to “strap the buttocks that/will not flatten/inside a Chanel line.” But there is nothing she can do about her lips and her nose, and, as the poet contemplates “What is a face with those?” My favourite passage in the poem is the following: 

Your eyes are Parisian dreams 

and your hair has a mind of its own 

like you. 

Sometimes it would be French 

Sometimes it would be Cassamance

Solange, like many women of mixed race, is struggling with trying to fit a Western standard of beauty. She is made up of “A little bit of this and/a little bit of that”. Although she may be considered beautiful, particularly in an African context where fair-skin is coveted, she will never fit into the French ideals of beauty she seems to be aspiring to. Solange has not yet accepted that she is beautiful on her own terms. 

Further Reading: 

Profile available online 

Interview (2005) in French available online 

Rice Keepers: A Play by Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr published by African World Press 

Website of Pen and Brush Inc. 

Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr’s Writing available online: 

Poems available online 

Slightly autobiographical: the 1960s on the Lower East Side – Lower East Side Retrospective (Essay published in the African American Review available online) 

West African Women in Exile: City, University and Dislocated Village (Essay published in Jenda: A Journal of Culture and African Women Studies available online)

Black Canadian Profile: Opiyo Oloya

Opiyo Oloya

Opiyo Oloya is a Ugandan Canadian educator, journalist, and African music enthusiast and radio show host living in Toronto, Canada. 

He is the subject of Voice of Freedom, a documentary in the series A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada about immigrants to Canada. 

I first came across Opiyo Oloya when I was doing research about the Canadian-based organization GuluWalk

Opiyo Oloya describes Gulu Walk as follows

The Gulu Walk is organized by two young Canadians Adrian Bradbury, 35, and his friend Kieran Hayward, 30. The immediate objective of the walk is to highlight the plight of Acholi children who trek each night for personal security to town centers in Gulu, Kitgum and Pader districts in northern Uganda. 

The children are afraid of staying in the villages less they become victims to abductions by Lord Resistance Army rebels (LRA), rapes and wanton murder by lawless individuals. To draw the attention of Canadians to the “night commuters”, Mr. Bradbury and Mr. Hayward will walk 13 km. every day in July. 

Along with supporters, they don a bright orange t-shirt with the Guluwalk emblem at the front and stroll along the busy Danforth Avenue, to Yonge Street and finally to Nathan Philip Square in front of Toronto City Hall. 

Every night they are joined by large groups including members of the Uganda community. The final goal is that the Guluwalk will become a worldwide event, putting pressure on the government of Uganda to seek permanent peace so that the children of northern Uganda will not have to walk to town any more in order to find security. 

Gulu Walk has been key in raising Canadians’ awareness about the plight of children in the war-torn areas of Northern Uganda. It is no surprise that Oloya would be involved with the organization and try to promote its work to his fellow Ugandans. Oloya himself is an Acholi from Gulu Town. 

Opiyo Oloya  works as the principal of Divine Mercy Catholic School, an elementary school in Vaughn, Ontario. To my knowledge, there are not many Black school principals in Ontario, so being able to become a school principal both as a Black man and a refugee is something of a feat in and of itself. He also writes a weekly column for New Vision, one of Uganda’s national newspapers, is the founder of International Resources for Deaf and Blind Children as well as the Acholi Diaspora Association of Toronto. He started Karibuni, an African music show on CIUT 89.5 FM. 

Oloya grew up on the savannah of Gulu where he played with cows and goats. It was also in Gulu that developed his love of music. He writes

My interests in music started at an early age. In fact, I can’t remember a day when music was not a part of my life. I remember how we would wake up to one or the other of my brothers whistling in the brisk morning wind. Later in the day, as she pounded millet or grounded simsim paste, my mother would be humming a tune. 

It was his student activism that eventually led to his decision to flee to Canada in exile. Oloya attended Makerere University from 1979 to 1981 as a political science student. This was a pivotal time in Uganda’s history. 1979 saw the exile of Idi Amin and the return to power of Obote. Ugandans had hoped that this would be the end of dictatorship but this was not to be. Opiyo Oloya was elected as the President of the Makerere University Students’ Guild. Although, one might not think of student politics as of any importance here in Canada (although this is a misconception as most student politicians I know have gone on to work for political parties) in many developing nations, student politics can be quite influential and therefore are seen as threatening to repressive political regimes. Oloya’s presidency was overruled by a veritable “coup” in 1981. He subsequently fled to Kenya from where he applied for refugee status in Canada. He states that among his many reasons for fleeing Uganda was a fear that the Obote government was trying to promote ethnic divisions in the country, something which Oloya deeply opposed having been raised by a father who, he states, “never saw Baganda or Acholi”. While in Canada, he continued his studies at Queen’s University, graduating with a political science degree in 1986. He went on to attain his Master’s of Education at the University of Ottawa. 

Oloya has helped to bring African music to Canadian ears as host of Karibuni on CIUT 89.5 FM. This is fitting as it was the radio that exposed him to the beat of Africa. He writes

African pop music first came to me through the radio, which we used to carry around everywhere, even when we working in the fields. Radio Kinshasha and Bunya (both in Zaire) were our favourite stations. This is how I first learned names like Zaiko Langa Langa, Empire Bakuba, Lipua Lipua and Bella Bella, all upstart groups in the 70s. Franco and Rochereau were already big in the 60s on Radio Uganda. 

Opiyo Oloya came to Canada with the name Joseph, but decided to return to his Acholi first name while here. When asked why he gave up his “religious” name in a 2010 Interview, Oloya replied: 

I am a Catholic and we go to church every Sunday. One of our children, Oceng, serves as an altar boy. We don’t use Christian names because we feel that it’s not important to be Christians with Christian names. 

 Oloya stumbled upon teaching as a career unintentionally. He states

Making it as a teacher was one of the best experiences I’ve had. It was a turning point because I never knew I was going to become a teacher. I was doing graduate work when I discovered that I am passionate about teaching. 

I was a replacement teacher for a day at a school in Ottawa. I told the children a story with a sad part and pretended to be very sad. They all came and fell over me and I felt panic stricken because I thought I was going to suffocate under this mountain of kids. But I found that teaching is something I love doing and I was completely at home with. 

Oloya went on to become the principal of Divine Mercy Catholic School. One of his students, Hannah Godefa, an Ethiopian-Canadian, who while in Grade 4 decided to organize Pencil Mountain, a supply drive to collect 20,000 pencils to send to Ethiopian students. On a family visit to her homeland, Hannah had been shocked by the country’s poverty and the fact that many Ethiopian children did not have such basic school supplies as pencils. Hannah sought her principal’s help to bring her idea to fruition. Oloya was initially hesitant to support Hannah’s idea because of her young age and the fact that he wasn’t sure how serious she was. But Hannah’s persistence won him over. Hannah worked with local businesses in Vaughn to help with the “pencil-raising” and with her fellow Divine Mercy students to sort and package the pencils. She was able to raise 25,000 pencils which she delivered to students in Ethiopia. To learn more about Hannah Godefa’s activism visit her website

Oloya had this to say about Hannah

“I have never encountered anybody in Grade 4 who has come up with some idea to save the world,” he said. “She’s very committed and very focused.” Mr. Oloya describes Hannah as a smart girl whose understanding of poverty has a lot to do with her recent trip. “She saw the difference between the life she was leading here and the life of children her age there,” he said. “She realized she should be able to do something because she is a lot better off.” 

Along with being an educator here in Canada, Oloya tries to educate his fellow Ugandans through his weekly column in New Vision, one of Uganda’s national newspapers.  I have always disagreed with the idea that immigrants to Canada should cut all ties with their homelands out of sense of loyalty to Canada. When people accuse immigrants of not “letting go of their baggage” because they try to raise awareness here in Canada about issues facing people in their countries of origin, people who could very well be their own family members, I am appalled. But I hear this quite frequently, even from immigrants themselves. I agree that one should not continue conflicts here in Canada but it would be a missed opportunity to not try to enlighten one’s fellow Canadians about these conflicts, even from a biased perspective. I feel this is doubly important for immigrants, and anyone of African descent. The image of Africa is so obscured here that it is important to have African voices trying to educate both Africans and non-Africans about what is going on. I have found Oloya’s articles, along written with a Ugandan audience in mind, very useful for me as a Canadian of African descent trying to understand what is going in on the continent. 

Oloya’s articles discuss a variety of topics from genetically modified foods, to the use and abuse of Ugandan workers by Security corporations in Iraq, to Uganda’s involvement in Somalia’s civil war, to the Ugandan government’s treatment of homosexuals. It is on the last two subjects that I would like to discuss Oloya’s writing in some depth. 

Uganda’s involvement in Somalia 

Oloya actually went to Somalia this year to write about the conditions there and even had an opportunity to meet the current President. Uganda, along with Burundi, currently supply the bulk of the troops sustaining the US backed African Union’s Somali Mission. It is for this reason that Uganda was targeted by the Somali terrorist group Al Shabaab for retaliation on July 11, 2010. During a gathering of large crowds at a local restaurant and a local Rugby Club to watching the final match of the FIFA World Cup this year in Kampala, Uganda, three explosions went off killing over 74 Ugandans and injuring 70. Oloya had expressed his concern about such possible retaliation by Al Shabaab in earlier articles. He also has been quite to point out the following

It would be counter intuitive to start clamping and harassing peaceful law-abiding locals of Somali heritage living within the country, say in Kampala or Bujumbura. They are the eyes and the ears to first alert authorities on suspicious individuals and events. 

This is an important point as there are many Somali people living in diaspora in East African countries like Uganda. One would also hope to hear this from a Ugandan Canadian who is active in Toronto’s African communities seeing as the Somali make up the largest communities of African descent in Canada. 

In his 2010 article, Miracle in Mogadishu, Oloya writes about the doctors working with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to treat women who suffer from obstetric fistula. He recounts the story of Fatumah Sheik Hassan as follows

Hassan’s problem began with the birth of her first child, now 14 years old. The birth was difficult because the baby would not come out, and had to be coaxed out by the midwives. The baby lived, but Hassan began to have problem controlling her rectum. With each birth, the problem grew until became intolerable to those around her. Nobody wanted to talk about it because of the shame associated with it, and Hassan became a leper in her village, avoided by neighbours and laughed at by children. 

As luck would have it, Hassan’s sister came to Mogadishu for a visit and heard rumours from other Somali women about the miracle “daktari Amisol” who could cure women. Although the sister could not believe it at first, she met a woman who claimed she had been cured. 

She rushed back to Baidoah to tell Hassan who wanted to leave the very next day for Mogadishu except she did not have money for transport. She had to cool her heels for a month to raise funds which she did by selling four goats for about $100. 

On July 20, 2010, Fatumah Sheik Hassan was “liberated” by AMISOM doctors who operated on her, and fixed the problem she had lived with for almost two decades. According to Commandant Dr. Evariste Nintunga, a surgeon with the Burundi contingent, and who operates alongside Col. Dr. Kiyengo on women with Fistula, Hassan will not have any side effect. “She should have a normal life when she returns to her village”, he said. 

It appears that the purpose of articles like this is to reassure Ugandans that their involvement in the African Union Mission in Somalia is welcomed by its people and actually proving successful. 

Uganda’s Treatment of Homosexuals 

Beginning in 2009, Uganda made international headlines not because of the plight of communities living in Northern Uganda but because of proposed legislation to sentence Ugandan homosexuals to life imprisonment, as well as sentences for people who rented to known homosexuals and knew homosexuals and didn’t report them to police. Although homophobia in Africa has been known to be prevalent this proposed bill appeared extreme to say the least. Oloya had written about the issue of treatment of homosexuals much earlier. In 2005, Oloya wrote a letter to the then Commissioner of Special Education, Guidance and Counseling, Martin Omagol, expressing his concern about Omagol’s urging of head teachers to do whatever it takes to stop the spread of homosexuality in Ugandan schools. Oloya presents a voice of reason, making two very important points. He writes

Two issues arise from your statement. First, your statement suggests that homosexuality is like the common cold that is passed on from one person to another. 

Nothing could be further from the truth. Though debate about the cause of homosexuality continues, scientists and social theorists tend to agree that nobody chooses to be homosexual. Available data from the US, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere in Europe tend to place the homosexual population between 3-8% of the total population. Here, in North America where gays live and work alongside heterosexuals, the gay population remains steady. You don’t see young people suddenly catching the “homosexual disease” simply by interacting with homosexuals. In other words, without data that suggest increase of homosexuality in Uganda schools, you are merely fanning homophobia. 

Secondly, by crying that the sky is falling and we must do something about it, you are perpetuating the stereotypical notion of homosexuals as social deviants who must be stamped out. 

In 2009, Oloya wrote a letter to Ugandan Parliamentarians, outlining his concerns about the proposed “Anti-Homosexuality” Bill. He makes a very important distinction between homosexuality and the rape of children by adults of the same sex, which is pedophilia. However, the bill considers pedophilia by members of the same sex as “aggravated homosexuality”. It appears clear that there has been and on-going panic in Uganda about the rape of children by homosexuals as well as their “recruitment” to homosexuality. However, Ugandans do not seem to be equally concerned about the rape of young girls by men. As Oloya writes

….by using the term “aggravated homosexuality”, Bill 18 gives the appearance that a homosexual man raping a boy has committed a far more serious crime than a heterosexual man raping a little girl. In reality, whether a male pedophile rapes a girl or a boy, the consequences of these heinous crimes are the same; the child is scarred for life.  The low life criminals in both cases are pedophiles who must be punished to the fullest extent of Uganda’s law. 

First, look at rape as rape, and then look at homosexuality as a stand alone issue.  Once you have separated the two issues, keep in mind that just as only a tiny minority of heterosexuals rape girls and women, only a tiny minority of homosexuals rape boys or adult men. Should you choose to make homosexual rape of a boy punishable by death, then you also have a duty to make heterosexual rape of a girl punishable by death.  Both are victims of rape who deserve to see their molesters face the same justice.  It is that simple. 

Oloya is a practising Roman Catholic who is sensitive to African cultural and religious sensibilities towards homosexuality; however he time and again reminds those in government that Uganda is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He understands rightly that if you erode the human rights of one group it is only a matter of time before other groups will be attacked as well. In a country grappling with ethnic conflict and poverty as well as coming to terms with a history of dictatorships, opening the door to such stark violations of human rights could be opening a floodgate. I personally found Oloya’s articles on this subject comforting as my discussions with Africans and Ugandans in particular had been very unsettling due to the level of paranoia they expressed about a global “conspiracy” organized by human rights organizations and homosexuals to “recruit” African children to homosexuality. Who is telling them this?Many Africans I spoke to seemed more concerned and knowledgable about this “conspiracy” then they were about the conflicts in their region, the state of their country’s economy, or even their country’s literature. Focusing on such a half-baked conspiracy theory seems to be a distraction from addressing the real life and death issues affecting the continent. 

Opiyo Oloya is both a committed Ugandan journalist and dedicated Canadian educator. One need not give up one identity in order to properly fulfill the other. I am sure that Oloya is performing both roles just fine. 

Further Reading: 

Profile on Roots World available online 

Profile from A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada Voice of Freedom Documentary available online 

Interview (2010) with Opiyo Oloya by Elizabeth Namazzi available online 

Webpage for Karibuni on CIUT 89.5 FM, this program is available to be listened to online 

Oloya’s Articles on Ugandans working for Security Corporations in Iraq available online: 

Do Africans Recruited for Security Jobs Get Compensation for Injury or Death? (2005) 

Did Askar Security Lie about Recruits for Iraq? (2005) 

Others on the subject: 

Hundreds Seek Work as Guards in Iraq by Daniel Wallis (2005 article from Reuters available online) 

Oloya’s Articles in about the treatment of homosexuals in Uganda available online: 

Gay Bill should be about crime first, then morality (2009) 

A Letter to Education on Homosexuality (2005) 

Others on the subject: 

The U.S. Christian Right and the Attack on Gays in Africa by Kapya Kaoma (article available online) 

Homosexuality and HIV/AIDS in Uganda by Victor Mukasa (article available online) 

Oloya’s Articles on genetically modified foods in Africa available online: 

Norah, tell Europeans what they are not used to hearing (2009) 

Monsanto Had Their Agenda (2003) 

Others on the subject: 

Uganda’s Position on GMOs: Whose Position? Reflections on Uganda’s Policy Making Process on GMOs by R. Naluwairo and G. Tumushabe (ACODE Policy Briefing Paper available online) 

Interviews with African musicians by Oloya available online: 

Interview (1996) with Salif Keita from Mali 

Interview with Geoffrey Oryema from Uganda

Being Black, Being Muslim: On Being Hated and Afraid

Posted in Being Black Being Muslim, Blacks and Classism, Blacks and Islam, Poor Whites, The Woyingi Blogger by the woyingi blogger on September 12, 2010

I’m a bit angry tonight and I don’t know why. So I’ve decided to do some free-writing. Let’s see how it goes.

Today is September 11th. We Muslims are also still celebrating Eid al Fitr, the festival celebrating the end of Ramadan.

It’s a strange time to be Muslim here in Ottawa. Three men from Ottawa have been arrested and charged with plotting a terrorist attack as a result of a CSIS-RCMP investigation called…ahem…Project Samossa. The last and youngest man to be arrested, Awso Peshdary, is well known and respected by his fellow young Muslims, who have rallied around him in his defense.

Although I feel that your average Canadian is beginning to realize that judging Islam based on the actions of The Taliban and al Quaida is like judging Christianity based on the actions of The Ku Klux Klan, I am still afraid.

In the fallout of all this, a colleague of mine said that non-Muslims are probably more afraid than Muslims in Ottawa are, what with the alleged plot to attack our city.


Well, I have to disagree. As a Muslim living in Ottawa, I am pretty afraid, of a lot of things. For one thing, if there actually was an attack on Ottawa, I could be killed, just like a whole lot of other Muslims living in Ottawa where we are a highly visible minority (There are about 65,000 of us in Ottawa). Actually, when one looks at terrorist attacks around the world, it’s mostly Muslims who are dying in places like Somalia, Pakistan, Iraq, Afghanistan and it’s not like no Muslims died in London or New York. But this strangely gets forgotten when discussions about Muslims and terrorists begin.

I also have to be afraid of hate crimes. I have to be afraid that I, as a “visible Muslim” because I wear hijab, might be attacked, even killed by someone who decides to hold me personally accountable for whatever threat that he or she perceives Muslims to present. Like poor Ahmed Sharif, a taxi driver originally from Bangladesh, who was recently stabbed by a 21 year old film student for the crime of being Muslim. There is worry that Islamophobic rhetoric is actually escalating, particularly in the wake of the proposal to build the Cordoba House near Ground Zero in New York.

Now, let me make it clear, being hated isn’t anything new to me. I’ve been hated long before I became Muslim. I grew up on welfare, living in subsidized housing here in Ottawa. I was called names by fellow students like trailer trash and welfare trash. I got to see my mother and my neighbours referred to as white trash…sometimes even by my teachers. My guidance counsellor advised me and my friend that we were a burden on hard-working taxpayers like himself and he didn’t know why schools had to waste time with kids like us seeing as we were just going to drop out and get pregnant and go on welfare like our mothers did. Our mothers who were trash. I grew up accepting that the people who really mattered, not people like us but people who worked who didn’t have to depend on charity and the goodwill of taxpayers, thought we were as good as garbage. I dropped out in junior high because I felt like I was a burden to my teacher, seeing as I was reading at a Grade 2 level in 8th grade…

During the Mike Harris years, there was a sharp escalation of hatred towards people on social assistance and the poor in general. I had to get used to Lowell Green’s tirades about welfare bums and editorials in the Ottawa Citizen about how people like myself, my mother and my neighbours were plotting to defraud the system. As if we lived just to piss taxpayers off. I remember being so afraid that we would be cut off, that our neighbourhood would be sold off to Minto and we wouldn’t be able to pay the rent, that we would end up homeless, and that no one would care because we deserved this…because we had not earned the right to exist.

My fears proved all too real. John Baird, who is now a minister in the cabinet of Stephen Harper but was then a minister in the cabinet of Mike Harris, was involved in implementing a policy of zero-tolerance for “welfare cheats” that placed life time bans on people convicted of welfare fraud. Kimberly Rogers, who was placed under house arrest for welfare fraud for receiving welfare along with student loans (Before changes made by the Harris government, people could receive welfare to cover living expenses and separate student loans to cover the cost of studies, under Harris this changed, meaning that people had to take student loans to cover their living expenses as well). The judge who convicted Rogers told her the following

This is how serious the matter is, Ms. Rogers. There is a jail term that is going to be involved, it just happens to be a jail term that will be served in your home, and not at the expense of the community. You have taken enough from the community.

Rogers was required to stay under house arrest while pregnant. She was only allowed to go out three hours per week. She had to pay rent and buy food without any income. She committed suicide in her apartment during a heatwave in August of 2001.   The coroner’s jury at the inquest into Rogers’ death recommended that the Harris government’s zero tolerance policy needed to be scrapped or more people would die.  I feared that someday this could be me or my mother.

There were times when the level of hate rhetoric got so high that I really thought people were going to come to our neighbourhoods and lynch us. Kind of like how Premier Ralph Klein got drunk and went to a homeless shelter and verbally attacked the homeless…for being unemployed!

That’s the kind of hatred I grew up with.

So, when I became Muslim in the post 9/11 world, I had some idea what it would be like to be hated.

As a Black person, I was familiar with being called names. Being a Black Muslim just means that on top of being called a nigger, I am now also called a sandnigger (interesting variation on the original) and a paki, my personal favourite as it hold so much irony. Paki means purified so although it is intended as an insult it’s actually a compliment. One of the significant changes has just been that I now have more than hateful words thrown at me. I have trash thrown at me as I walk along the road-I once had an egg sandwich thrown at me when I was pushing my friend’s baby in a stroller and recently I had a can of beer thrown at me. At least it’s not stones.

However, I have been pretty disappointed to experience the level of anti-Black racism that exists in Ottawa’s Muslim communities, particularly those that are more affluent and therefore less likely to interact with Blacks, at least within Ottawa’s Anglophone communities…there is more interaction with Blacks among Francophone Muslims, most of whom are North Africans. When you are poor and live in a poorer neighbourhood you eventually learn to get along with everyone. In my neighbourhood, I can chill with Afghans, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Kurds, Iranians, and a vast assortment of Arabs with no problems or off the cuff ignorant remarks. We are all struggling and many are or at some time were on social assistance so no one has any business turning their noses up at anyone else. But among the middle to upper middle classes it’s tough, you have to face a lot of ignorance due to a lack of experience interacting with Black people-from listening to bizarre stories of how some “uncle” threatened his parents that he’d marry a Black woman if they didn’t let him choose his own wife, with such a threat hanging over their heads they acquieced-“How Funny Ha Ha Hee Hee!”-to people expressing surprise if you are a Black person who can express yourself in English fluently-“Well, you don’t sound Black”-To commiserating with Black Muslims who had been rejected by their South Asian or Arab fiance’s family because they were Black-“What would the children look like? What would the community think?”-To comforting Black Muslim kids who’ve moved to the more affluent suburbs and have difficulty making friends with their Arab and South Asian counterparts…sometimes even being shouted at by these children’s parents-To volunteering to collect and distribute halal meat for Eid and being told that it shouldn’t go to those “Somalis“-To watching a Muslim woman call Black Muslims in Africa “savages” during an interreligious dialogue and having to be the only one in a room of over ten people willing to confront her. Being Black among the “established” Muslims of Ottawa can feel like death by a million papercuts, which is why I prefer to spend my time in the ghetto among poorer Muslims. I’m scared of being hurt. Muslims my age and younger are learning to overcome these prejudices but people my age and younger don’t make up much of our community’s leadership. The newly formed Muslim Coordinating Council did put in its constitution that a least one member of their board had to be of African descent, demonstrating how much of an issue Black exclusion from leadership in Ottawa’s Anglophone Muslim communities really has been.

I then have to cope with the rampant Islamophobia within Ottawa’s Black communities. Some of this comes from ignorance, some of it comes from actually lived experiences of oppression by Muslims, some of it comes from Christian religious zeal, some of it comes from a bizarre anti-immigrant sentiment that exists particularly among Blacks who are the descendents of slaves and often also gets directed towards any immigrants including non-Muslim Black immigrants.

The ignorance factor is the easiest to resolve. Again, regular interaction between non-Muslim Blacks and Muslims of whatever race helps. This depends on both communities as the anti-Black racism in Muslim communities can prevent this interaction as much as the Islamophobia of Black communities. I would like to see interreligious dialogue groups exclusively for Blacks of all faiths. This is actually pretty important as I haven’t seen many Blacks, either Muslim or non-Muslim, actively involved in Ottawa’s interreligous dialogue groups. Why I say these groups should be exclusive to Blacks, at least to start, is to address the “actual lived experiences of oppression” of Blacks by Muslims, and vice versa, and the ignorance and resentment that Blacks have about each other is probably best aired amongst Blacks. These dialogue groups should be focused on conflict resolution, reconciliation and finding common causes for action and solidarity…and should prioritize representation from people under the age of 40 as both Black and Muslim communities are both younger than the mainstream Canadian community and I feel that younger Blacks and Muslims are more open-minded than our elders…call me ageist but this has been my experience. I’ve met people who I know will never change their minds and seem to want to take any and every opportunity to make hateful statements; I don’t see the point of wasting time with them. By the same token, I’d love to see entirely South Asian interreligious dialogue groups that bring together Muslims (of all sects), Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Christians etc. to achieve similar objectives. I’d love to see dialogue groups between people of colour and the indigenous peoples of Canada with similar objectives. A girl can dream. But for now, I also tend to avoid the “established” Black community, because I’m scared.

Truth be told I avoid the middle to upper middle class of all communities, Muslim or non-Muslim, Black or whatever, because I am afraid of them…I am afraid of what they will say to people like me or about people like me…my early experiences of hatred as a child growing up on welfare have shaped how I interact with people and what spaces I can feel safe in.

The Islamophobia of the mainstream Canadian and American community has taken familiar forms. Daniel Luban, in his article The New Anti-Semitism, outlines the similarities between Islamophobia and the fear and hatred of members of the Jewish community. This fear and hatred usually revolves around a belief that Jews are conspiring to control the world. They are therefore dangerous and All of Them must be considered suspect. The Old anti-Semitism is still very much alive and well and I have come face to face with it on a regular basis among Muslims, Blacks, and mainstream White Canadians. Whenever I am faced with another person’s hatred for a community that I don’t belong to, I actually get more scared than if I was the one having hatred directed at me. This is because I don’t want to become complicit in their hatred by not being brave enough to confront them and I always wonder why they feel comfortable saying these things to me…why don’t they realize that their hatred horrifies me…do I come off as a bigot, someone who would sympathize with them? I feel the same way when people express homophobia to me; they think that because I am a practicing Muslim I must also hate all Gay people. Last year, I was let in on the global conspiracy of gays to convert Africans, particularly children to homosexuality, which is just one part of their grand plan to take over the world. As the details of this diabolical plan were laid out to me by a young African academic with a Master’s Degree, I had to restrain my laughter and dispute her assertions calmly and reasonably. So, it looks like some people think Jews and Gays are conspiring to control the world…

Muslims also appear to be jumping on the world domination bandwagon. Well, at least according to Islamophobes. We’ve planted Barack Obama into the Oval Office, we are using the constitution and the Canadian Charter of Rights to defend our barbaric religious practices, and we are breeding like rabbits in order to populate Europe and North America with Muslims until we devour the remains of Western civilization like a swarm of locusts. I remember reading comments about the Octo-Mom, Nadya Suleman, whose father is Middle Eastern, stating that she was a Muslim (She’s not) participating in Biological Jihad against the United States. Luban rightfully compares this with Anti-Catholicism as well, something that Canada is very familiar with (It was Catholics’ fear of Protestant exclusion that made it necessary to include the public funding of Catholic schools in Canada’s first constitution, in the British North America Act). The current Pope has also gone on the record stating his fear of the high Muslim birth rate and the need for Christian Europeans to get with the program and start making more babies.

After the arrests in Project Samossa, so many media reports emphasized how “normal” the suspects were. The point that they were trying to get across was that a terrorist could be anyone…well at least anyone Muslim. I feared that maybe my colleagues and acquaintances would come to suspect me. “Well, she seems fine now, but who knows what she’s really plotting? You never can tell with these people.”

How do you prove that you don’t want to take over the world? Particularly, if you are someone like me, who is quite opinionated and does want to make change? How do I prove that I am a loyal Canadian citizen if I openly criticize our government and its policies? Does wanting to hold your government accountable to your ideal of human rights and social justice make you less of a patriot? And what is patriotism anyway? As the daughter of a deportee (See Note below), who has also seen friends and neighbours deported after spending years in this country, I know that Canadian identity is a pretty precarious thing. I am angry that people I know and love have been ripped from their families, often arbitrarily, never to be able to return. Does being angry mean I am not a Good Canadian? Will I someday have to sign a special loyalty oath? Because I am a Muslim, and therefore suspect will I someday be interned like Japanese Americans and Canadians were during World War II?

People might think I’m overreacting. I don’t think I am. Because it’s been nine years since 9/11 but it feels like only yesterday. Because the fears I have carried with me since childhood are still all too real. Because my fears aren’t based on ignorance but experience. Because our Prime Minister is talking about Russian airplanes invading Canada although the Cold War’s been over for 20 years. Because we are still at war and there seems to be no end in sight.

So, I’ve always been hated and I’ve always been afraid but I guess I still haven’t gotten used to it.

But I know that my creator won’t give me anything I can’t handle. And just as I am learning to overcome the deep sense of shame and worthlessness that the hatred I faced as a child growing up on welfare fostered in me, I won’t let myself be ashamed for choosing Islam as my religion. And I won’t be silent and I won’t “keep my head down” for fear of being seen as unpatriotic because I believe in democracy, and democracy can only survive if citizens hold their governments accountable. I don’t want September 11th to become a day of mourning for Canadian democracy the way it is for Chileans, who mourn the 1973 US-supported military coup that overthrew their democratically elected government. I will end my reflection with words borrowed from Chilean American writer Ariel Dorfman, whose sentiments I share:

The terrorists have wanted to single out and isolate the United States as a satanic state. The rest of the planet, including many nations and men and women who have been the object of American arrogance and intervention reject – as I categorically do – this demonization. It is enough to see the almost unanimous outpouring of grief of most of the world, the offers of help, the expressions of solidarity, the determination to claim the dead of this mass murder as our dead.

It remains to be seen if this compassion shown to the mightiest power on this planet will be reciprocated. It is still not clear if the United States – a country formed in great measure by those who have themselves escaped vast catastrophes, famines, dictatorships, persecution – it is far from certain that the men and women of this nation so full of hope and tolerance, will be able to feel that same empathy towards the other outcast members of our species. We will find out in the days and years to come if the new Americans forged in pain and resurrection are ready and open and willing to participate in the arduous process of repairing our shared, our damaged humanity. Creating, all of us together, a world in which we need never again lament not one more, not even one more terrifying 11 September.

NOTE: My father’s defense lawyer when he was trying to appeal his deportation on human rights grounds was Lawrence Greenspon, the same lawyer who defended  Momin Khawaja. I guess Greenspon likes a challenge. I would like to think that Laurence Greenspon is the only connection I have to Khawaja…well that and a love for hip hop. If I ever had a chance to meet Khawaja I would take him to task on his use of the word nigga seeing as he constantly referred to his friends as his niggas and they referred to him as their nigga. Is there a word yet for Middle Class South Asian kids who act like they are Black Americans from the ‘hood, claiming everything but the burden of Blackness and Poverty? Keep me posted.

Further Reading:

Tracking Attacks on Muslims This Summer by Seth Freed Wessler (article available online)

New York Taxi Workers Alliance: Ahmed Sharif Family Support Fund Info

Ground Zero’s Slave Graves by Jamilah King (article available online)

When will those brave critics of Islam decry this mob hate? by Pankaj Mishra (article available online)

Muslim Presence Website (on bilingual Muslim Canadian organization promoting peace and community engagement among Muslims in Ottawa and Montreal)

Welfare Fraud, Necessity, and Moral Judgement by E. Kimel (Rutgers Journal of Law and Public Policy article about the Kimberly Rogers case)

The New Anti-Semiticism by Daniel Luban (article available online)

Globalizing the Culture Wars: U.S. Conservatives, African Churches, and Homophobia, a new report by the Rev. Kapya Kaoma (report available online)

Manzanar Muslim Pilgrimage (video available online about a visit by American Muslims on a former WWII Japanese American Internment Camp)

The last September 11th by Ariel Dorfman (article available online)

Nigs R Us or How Blackfolk Became Fetish Objects by Greg Tate (excerpt available online)

Essay Review: Women in Egypt by Angela Davis

Posted in African American Feminists, Angela Davis, Countries: Egypt, Egyptian Feminists, Essays, Reviews by the woyingi blogger on September 10, 2010

I have recently reread the essay Women in Egypt by Angela Davis, which is available in her essay collection Women, Culture and Politics. The article was originally written in 1985 and published in Women: A World Report.

This essay is an account of Davis’ trip to Egypt and the discussions with women’s rights activists in the country. It also includes her reflections on how to work in solidarity with women’s movements in developing countries without succumbing to the sensationalism, paternalism, and sometimes downright racism of Western feminist movements that claim to want to “liberate” and “save” women in developing countries from their sexist male counterparts. Western feminists often do this without knowing much about the societies in question and not taking into consideration the dignity and agency of the women they claim they want to help. As Davis writes:

When I initially agreed to travel to Egypt for the purpose of documenting my experiences with women there, I did not yet know that the sponsors of this project expected me to focus specifically on issues relating to the sexual dimension of women’s pursuit of equality. I was not aware, for example, that the practice of clitoridectomy was among the issues I would be asked to discuss. Since I was very much aware of the passionate debate still raging within international women’s circles around the efforts of some Western feminists to lead a crusade against female circumcision in African and Arab countries, once I was informed about the particular emphasis of my visit, I seriously reconsidered proceeding with the project.

As an Afro-American woman familiar with the sometimes hidden dynamics of racism, I had previously questioned they myopic concentration on female circumcision in U. S. feminist literature on African women. The insinuation seems frequently to be made that the women in the twenty or so countries where this outmoded and dangerous practice occurs would magically ascend to a state of equality once they managed to throw off the fetters of genital mutilation or rather , once white Western feminists (whose appeals often suggest that this is the contemporary “white women’s burden”) accomplished this for them. (Davis pages 117-118)

It is important for those reading this essay to know that Angela Davis is politically positioned on the left and so most of her encounters are with Egyptian women who are also politically on the left. However, Davis is very frank about the fact that she is meeting mostly with women who are from the socio-economically privileged and urban classes and regrets that time and language barriers do not permit her to connect more with peasant and working class Egyptian women.  Just as Western societies are complex so are non-Western societies, so assuming that the perspectives of the most privileged of a society are the norm is counterintuitive.

Davis has an opportunity to meet with several of Egypt’s prominent progressive intellectuals and writers such as Sherif Hetata, husband of Egyptian Feminist, novelist and founder of the Arab Women’s Solidary Association (AWSA), Nawal el Saadawi; artist Inji Eflatoon, one of Egypt’s first socialist feminists to link gender and class oppression, who we learn has painted a portrait of Davis; Dr. Latifa al Zayyat, who wrote the acclaimed novel Open Door (that was turned into a film starring the legendary Egyptian actress Faten Hamama (ex-wife of the more internationally renowned Egyptian actor Omar Sharif-he converted to Islam in order to marry her); Fathia al Assal, one of Egypt’s first female playwrights and head of the Progressive Women’s Union.

Davis emphasizes the economic oppression experienced by Egypt’s women, particularly after Sadat’s reforms to Egypt’s economy moving it from Nasserite socialism to free market capitalism. This has resulted in increased unemployment in Egypt. This process was called Infitah. As Al-Ali explains:

Infitah not only constituted the declared economic policy of privatization and open markets, but its laissez faire undertone also extended into the realm of the government, administration, migration, foreign policy etc. (Ayubi, 1991). In other words, infitah did not exclusively refer to economic liberalization, but also entailed a neoliberal reform of the state sector and a realignment of international alliances, that is, a rapprochement with the United States.  

As Davis and most of the Egyptian women she interviews are Marxists, they constantly link Egyptian women’s oppression to Sadat’s economic liberalization and the forces of global capitalism. For readers who are sympathetic to Marxism this connection might seem forced. However, I recommend the readers reflect on the fact that several Middle Eastern countries that are well-integrated into global capitalism and have strong ties to the United States are also incredibly behind in terms of women’s rights, for example Saudi Arabia, where women are not permited to drive, and Kuwait where women only got the right to vote in the last few years. Capitalism and close political ties to the West do not equal women’s empowerment or liberation.

Davis and the women she encounters also see that sexual liberation does not automatically equal women’s liberation. Davis reflects on the West’s sexual revolution due to the availability of The Pill and how although this made it easier for women to control their reproductive health it did not necessary create equal romantic relationships. Davis reminds Western readers that women in the West still face many barriers and this is humbling and helps the reader see the Egyptian women Davis writes about as equals who we can learn from and not victims to be pitied.  I think we in the West need to consider the ways in which sexual liberation without real political and socio-economic liberation for women have actually put women at a disadvantaged and played into patriarchy.

It is clear that it is impossible to focus on Egyptian women’s sexual oppression without addressing their socio-economic and political oppression. The fact that several of the women activists Davis interviewed had been imprisoned under Sadat for their political dissidence makes it quite clear that women’s oppression in Egypt goes beyond sexual oppression based on religious fundamentalism.

Angela Davis was visiting Egyptian women activists during a pivotal moment, as it was during the 1980s that women’s organizations developed out of politically leftist organizations in Egypt. As Al-Ali writes:

In an article on feminist activism in the 1980’s, Akram Khater argues that the movement was divided into two main camps: Nawal El-Sa’dawi and the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (AWSA) on one hand, and Fathia Al-Assal, the head of the Progressive Women.s Union, on the other (Khater, 1987). However, the narratives of several women activists involved in forming a coalition at the time provide evidence of a much broader spectrum and more diversified movement than that described by Khater. The coalition called Committee for the Defence of the Rights of the Woman and the Family consisted of leftists, Nasserists, Wafdists, enlightened Islamists, women from the Arab Lawyers. Union, AWSA and other interested individuals (Hi-jab, 1988). The committee included mainly party affiliates and independent organizations, while charity groups have been increasingly absorbed into the growing NGO movement.

She continues:

The very act of forming the emergency coalition, when the constitutionality of the Personal Status Law was challenged in 1985, represented a break from prevalent nationalist- and liberal-modernist discourses in Egypt that only focused on women’s rights in the public sphere as part of creating new societies. (Hatem, 1993:42).

Davis was visiting Egypt at a great moment for observing Egyptian women’s political engagement on women’s rights issues. The resistance of Islamist social and political forces to the amended Personal Status Law, which manifested into a challenge to the amended laws constitutionality, created an opportunity for Egyptian women’s rights activists to directly challenge women’s oppression in the private sphere. The Egyptian Personal Status Law had been amended officially in 1979, the first major amendment and revision since 1929. As Al-Ali explains:

Under the influence of the president’s wife, Jehan Sadat, reform of the Personal Status Law (governing marriage, divorce, custody, etc.) was proposed. The reformed law, labelled Jehan’s Law, granted women legal rights in marriage, polygamy, divorce and child custody; it was implemented in 1979 by presidential decree along with another law that introduced changes to women’s representation in parliament.

In 1985, women’s rights activists had to fight to maintain these amendments as the Mubarak government was being pressured to scrap the amendments due to the Islamists’ challenge to its constitutionality. Egyptian women’s rights activists would end up winning this battle as Al-Ali explains:

The early years of the Mubarak regime were characterized by a search for stabilization and consolidation. In 1985, the Personal Status Law, which had been at the centre of the debate on the state.s legitimacy, was amended due to strong opposition from the Islamists who perceived it to be anti-Islamic. The revised law abandoned many of the rights that women had attained in the earlier version (Bibars, 1987). A strong women’s lobby used the 1985 Nairobi Conference.marking the end of the decade for protest and pressure the government to refor-mulate the law. Two months after its cancellation (just prior to the Nairobi Conference), a new law was passed that restored some of the benefits the 1979 version had provided.

Unfortunately, it would take the death of 12 year old Badour Shaker during her circumcision at the hands of a doctor for Egypt to offically ban female circumcision in 2007.

This essay is a great introduction to the secular leftist Egyptian women’s movement in the mid-80s and give interested readers some direction in pursuing further studies into Egyptian and Middle Eastern women’s movements.

The Woyingi Blogger’s Personal Reflections:

As a veiled practicing Muslim woman, the only real difficulty I had with Angela Davis’ essay was the dismissal of women’s engagement in religious leadership as a way of promoting women’s rights. I believe the fact that Davis and the activists she most closely identifies with are working from secular ideologies is a barrier to them truly engaging with the diversity of Egyptian women. (It is important to note that Egypt does not only have Muslims, although they are the majority. There are also Christians and Baha’is. Egypt also used to have a significant Jewish community but with the escalation of antagonism between Egypt and Israel, many Egyptian Jews were forced to leave Egypt.) Although Davis and her Egyptian counterparts connect the wearing of the veil/hijab with middle and upper class conformity because they observe that many peasant and working class women do not veil, they seem to underestimate their own class privilege and its influence on how they perceive the veil. My own personal experience with Egyptian and other women and men from Muslim majority countries has been somewhat challenging as they often equate my wearing of the veil with ignorance, lack of education, and lack of career ambition. Davis, through how she recounts her exchanges with veiled students, seems to connect wearing of the veil with a desire to stay at home and not work. I don’t agree with this and I don’t believe that the achievements of veiled Muslim women in academics and various careers around the world supports such a connection.

That said, there are obvious limits that taking a religiously based approach to Muslim women’s rights will impose and many of these limits cannot be tolerated in a truly free society. For example, an issue that has arisen in several Middle Eastern countries, most notably Lebanon, is a Muslim woman’s right to marry someone outside her faith. This is forbidden in Islamic Law, however it is a reality that women are doing this. Only a secular approach could address a reality like this. However, with the issue of female circumcision Islam can and has been useful in its eradication, particularly in Muslim diaspora communities. For example, when members of the Somali communities began to immigrate and meet other Muslims from countries where female circumcision is not practice it became clear that the practice was not religious but cultural and therefore not a requirement. I must note that female circumcision is not only practiced by Muslims but also by several other non-Muslim communities in Africa such as the Kikuyu of Kenya.

The veil is not inherently oppressive I believe. However, it is not inherently liberating either as some Muslim women have attested. I believe that the symbolic significance of wearing the veil changes based on one’s national, political, social, and economic context. As a Muslim woman living as a suspect minority in the West, my wearing of the veil could be interpreted as a form of resistance against Islamophobia and the pressures of Western conformity. However, if I were living in a country in which the veil was mandatory and one was forced to wear it by the government, this would not be the case.

Further Reading:

The Women’s Movement in Egypt with Selected References to Turkey by Nadje S. Al-Ali (study available online)

Feminism in a nationalist century by Margot Badran  (article available online surveying the Egyptian women’s movement over the 20th Century)

Website of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association (AWSA)

The Hidden Face of Eve by Nawal El Saadawi

Daughter of Isis: an Autobiography by Nawal El Saadawi, translated by Sherif Hetata

Women and Gender in Islam by Leila Ahmed

A Border Passage  by Leila Ahmed (Memoir) Excerpt available online, Penguin Reading Guide available online

Western Eurocentrism and Perceptions of the Harem by Leila Ahmed (Essay available online)

Review of  Latifa al-Zayyat The Open Door by Al Ahram Weekly available online

Website dedicated to the life and work of Latifa al-Zayyat

Khul-Khaal: Five Egyptian Women Tell Their Stories by Nayra Atiya

Check out my page on Egyptian Literature

Website for Women Living Under Muslim Laws

Website for Women’s Islamic Initiative for Spirituality and Equality (WISE)

Film Review: The Wilby Conspiracy (1975)

Posted in Africa on Film, Apartheid, Countries: South Africa, Films, Reviews, Sidney Poitier, South Africa on Film by the woyingi blogger on September 9, 2010

Film: The Wilby Conspiracy (1975)

Director: Ralph Nelson

Starring: Sidney Poitier, Michael Caine, and Rutger Hauer

Genre: Action

I often go searching for DVDs at my local Giant Tiger. This is not just because DVDs are so cheap there. It is actually because I have found some of the strangest, rarest, and most fascinating films there. My entire collection of Sidney Poitier Films have been purchased from Giant Tiger.

The Wilby Conspiracy is probably one of the most unexpected roles I have seen Sidney Poiter play and one of the real gems I have discovered at Giant Tiger. Despite the seriousness of its subject matter, it’s something of a comedy in the British 60s style which is both farcical and cheeky in its use of sexual titilation. When I say that it is an unexpected role for Sidney Poitier, I guess what I mean to say is that for about the first hour or so of the film I was thinking-“Why is Sidney Poitier, such a distinguished actor, in this piece of fluff?” The Wilby Conspiracy is sort of a sexy South African version of  “The Defiant Ones” set in South Africa. But, The Wilby Conspiracy is actually one of the first Hollywood films to speak firmly against Apartheid in South Africa and watching the film must have been something of an education for American and British viewers as it truly brings home the injustices of the apartheid regime. It is also directed by Ralph Nelson, who had previously directed Poitier inLilies of the Field (1963), a role for which Poitier won an Academy Award for Best Actor, becoming the first Black person to do so. So, by the end of the film, I understood by Sidney Poitier took the role.

In The Wilby Conspiracy, Poitier plays Shack Twala, a Black South African dissident who has been in jail on Robben Island for ten years. We first meet him in a courtroom in Cape Town where his young and attractive White South African lawyer is trying to appeal for his release based on the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Miraculously, the court agrees. This is the begining of The Wilby Conspiracy.

Twala’s lawyer, Rina van Niekirk, is so excited by her victory that she invites Twala to come with her and her English boyfriend Keogh, played by a young and dashing Michael Caine, to go back to her office to drink champagne. Twala agrees, although it is apparent that for a Black South African dissident who has just been released after ten years in prison he can’t be as carefree as his young White lawyer. On their way to Rina’s office their car is stopped at a barricade and Twala is ordered out by the police because he doesn’t have a pass card.

In 1952,  the Abolition of Passes and Coordination of Documents Act was enacted. This misleadingly-named law required all Africans to carry identification booklets with their names, addresses, fingerprints, and other information. Africans were frequently stopped and harassed for their passes. From 1948-1973, over ten million Africans were arrested because their passes were “not in order”. Burning pass books became a common form of protest to the apartheid regime by Black South Africans.

Although Rina tries to explain to the police that Shack doesn’t have a pass because he has just been release from prison, the police arrest Shack and put him in handcuffs. Rina insists that they do not and ends up being punched by one of the officers. Keogh comes to her defence and he and Shack end up seriously beating up the police officers. Rina knows that both Keogh and Shack are facing arrest for assaulting police officers. Their only option is to get out of Cape Town. Shack proposes that he and Keogh make their way to Johannesburg where Shack has a friend who can get them across the border to Botswana. Keogh reluctantly goes along with Shack.

Shack and Keogh’s misadventures on the way to Johannesburg are reminiscent of the film The Defient Ones which stars Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis as two escaped prisoners who must work together in spite of their mutual prejudice to survive. But Caine and Poitier never achieve the level of cameraderie that Curtis and Poitier did, making this part of the film not as enjoyable as it could have been. Along the way, it becomes clear that Shack and Keogh are being followed by a South African Secret Police Officer named Horn. But why are they being followed? Why don’t the police just arrest them when they have the chance?

Shack and Keogh reach Johannesburg and must find Mukkerjee in the Indian district. Mukkerjee is a dentist and member of the same Black Congress that Shack is involved with. Shack gave Mukkerjee diamonds to hide. These diamonds are meant for Wilby Xaba, who is a leader of the Black Congress living in exile in Botswana and trying to collect money for weapons to lead an armed resistance to apartheid. But Mukkerjee no longer has the diamonds as he put them in a sink hole so they would not be found by the police. Mukkerjee’s assistant, Persis Ray, knows about Mukkerjee’s work with the Black Congress but doesn’t approve. She ends up killing Mukkerjee in order to get the diamonds for herself but in the end is killed by Keogh and Shack. Keogh and Shack retrieve the diamonds and get a plane ride out of South Africa on Rita’s estranged husband’s private jet. They are followed by Horn. We soon realize that the only reason that Shack was released from prison was in order to lead the South African Secret Police to Wilby Xaba’s location in Botswana so that they could arrest him. That’s The Wilby Conspiracy.

Wilby Xaba is played by Joe de Graft. It would be interesting to know how many people who saw the film in 1975 recognized him. Joe de Graft is a prominent Ghanaian playwright. He was a student and later a teacher at Ghana’s renowned Mfantsipim School. At the time of the film, he was living in Kenya and working at the University of Nairobi on a UNESCO appointment. He contributed greatly to Kenya’s theatre scene.  He passed away a few years after the making of this film in 1978.

The Wilby Conspiracy is based on a novel by British Writer Peter Driscoll, known for writing thrillers set in foreign locales. According to Professor  Mary-Kay Gamal Orlandi, the film version of Shack Twala’s character is more heroic than his literary counterpart. She writes:

Just how pointed Shack’s portrayal is in the film can be seen by comparing it to the novel. There Shack escapes from Robben Island through a secret police deal; he is forty years old, decrepit and scared. He and Keogh are thrown together by chance when Keogh takes pity on him; it is Keogh who arranges the flight, retrieves the diamonds, everything; Shack is killed by Horn during the retrieval of the diamonds. Rewriting this role and casting Sidney Poitier in it shows the filmmakers’ determination to present a strong, intelligent, politically educated African working for the liberation of his country.

The very fact that the film’s screenwriters had to rewrite the story in order to create a more noble Black character shows their own committment to both the anti-apartheid struggle as well as creating strong and positive roles for Black actors. Keogh is not allowed to be the White Knight Saviour in the film and it is only by the end of the film, after everything that he and Shack have experienced, that he takes a determined political stand. I appreciated this as it was more realistic. Shack Twala has no choice but to resist and fight on against all odds. Keogh is just trying to get back to his normal cushy life. The screenwriters also developped more interesting female characters than those in the original novel. As Orlani states:

The women’s roles, too, are strong ones. In the novel Rina is simply Keogh’s mistress; in the film (played by Prunella Gee) she is an idealistic lawyer, a bit naive in her assumption that the United Nations Code on Human Rights will be accepted by a South African court. (It is, but apparently this is part of the plot to get Wilby.) Her strength is physical as well as intellectual and moral: she stands up to and pays the price of a humiliating body-search. When she and the men are running through the veldt to catch the plane, she does not collapse and get carried, like so many heroines. The other woman in the film, Mukkerjee’s dental assistant Persis, tries to convince the others to divide the diamonds. She cares nothing for the struggle; she has bourgeois ambitions to get to London, “where a girl like me has a decent chance.” When the diamonds have been retrieved, she asks Mukkerjee, “You are determined to give the diamonds to those black terrorists?” Mukkerjee replies, “Those black terrorists are the only hope for South Africa. If the emerging nations of the Third World are to obliterate terrorism and racism…” “I don’t give a damn about the emerging nations!” breaks in Persis and shoots Mukkerjee in an attempt to steal the diamonds. Her character is overdrawn and melodramatic, but she is certainly more than an ornament or sex object.

Both of the female characters in the film are used for sex appeal, however their roles are quite complex and interesting. Rina is the only White South African character who we are supposed to like in the film. She is trying to fight for justice in her homeland which puts her own freedom and safety in peril. The predicament of the White South African with a conscience during apartheid was a tough one. During the 1970s more and more White South Africans became involved in the anti-apartheid movement. Those who became activists risked imprisonment and many had to go into exile. The apartheid system was built to keep each racial community away from each other. Although Whites were meant to be the benefactors of this, they were also not supposed to cross the boundaries. Rina is a rebel not only in her resistance to the apartheid regime but also in her romantic relationships. She is seeing Keogh but she is in the process of getting divorced from her abusive rich playboy husband Blane, played by a young and strapping Rutger Hauer. Rina has to use Blane’s plane in order to get Keogh and Shack out of South Africa to Wilby in Botswana. This means Blane has to pilot it. She has to use sexual favours in order to get his help; however she also blackmails him by saying that she will tell his father, who is an ardent racist, that Blane has been having sex with Black women in Mozambique. Sex and marriage between Blacks and Whites was outlawed officially in 1950 under the apartheid regime. This law also classified South Africans into three racial categories: Whites, Coloreds (mixed race peoples and  Asians) and natives (Black Africans).

Interracial sex takes place between an Indian and a Black South African in the film. Shack Twala has been in prison for 10 years and it becomes apparent that he is desperate to have sex. In a strange scence, Shack forces Persis into his hiding place. It is clear he wants to have sex with her but he doesn’t communicate this to her with words. The two exchange looks until it becomes clear that Persis is game and then the two have sex. I think this could be the first time a Black man and a South Asian woman have engaged in sex on film…making Mira Nair’s steamy Mississipi Masala, starring Denzel Washington, the second time. Sex between Indians and Blacks was also forbidden under apartheid law, and generally the two communities did not socially mix apart from business transactions. Even in terms of resistance to apartheid, South Asians and Black South African relations were strained. Persis’ character, played by the gorgeous 1965 Miss India Universe Persis Khambatta who is best known for her role as Lieutenant Ilia in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, is the most enigmatic in the film. She seems to have nothing but contempt for Blacks and yet she has sex with one. She expresses that she feels trapped in the Indian district of Johannesburg. With Persis’ character, one can see that although the South Asian communities of South Africa were definitely at an advantage in comparison to Black South Africans, they were also  ghettoized and trapped. Persis sees her way out by betraying Mukkerjee and stealing the diamonds as opposed to working in solidarity with Black South Africans like Shack. Like Rina, she is rebelling against the conformity of the society she lives in, but only for her own benefit. The dilemma of which side to support plagued both South Asian and Coloured politics throughout the apartheid regime, and was particularly frustration for Indian South African activists like Fatima Meer, who wrote the first authorised biography of Nelson Mandela.

The supreme villain of the film, Horn, is also not a conventional bad guy. He is intelligent and seems to have real conviction about what he is doing. He is comparable to the character Nic Vos that Tim Robbins plays in the filmCatch a Fire. Nic Vos  is meant to be an amalgam of several real-life South African secret police officers. Both express a deep concern that the activists of the anti-apartheid movement are communists and being supported by communist countries (which was actually the case-The film Catch a Fire was written by Shawn Slovo, who is the daughter of noted anti-apartheid activists Ruth First and Joe Slovo, who were leaders of the South African Communist Party). Considering that this is the time of the Cold War, these concerns seem quite understandable. However, unlike Vos, Horn is also a racist and deeply against racial mixing. Again, when one understands how deep-seated this thinking was and is still among Afrikaners, to the point where many believe that to be true Christians they must remain racially pure, one sees that racist ideologies are not simply a matter of ignorance or stupidity, as we too often try to dismiss them today. The determination and intelligence of Horn’s character is what makes him so frightening and what makes Michael Caine’s actions at the end of the film seem almost unavoidable. As Orlani writes:

The character of Horn is crucial to the film’s success, not only because it is superbly acted by Nicol Williamson but because it avoids easy judgments of him as just a baddie. Historical and ideological reasons, not individual moral ones, are suggested for his positions and behavior. He is an Afrikaner, probably a farmer’s son. His racism is not a sign or a result of his being evil. It is an article of belief and his actions proceed naturally from it. When (in disguise) he approaches Keogh on the road to Johannesburg, Keogh pretends to be a commercial traveler. “Ladies’ underwear?” says Horn. “I’d hate for your kaffir to handle the merchandise.” When Horn comes to threaten Keogh and Rina, he finds them taking a bath together, “I’m surprised your friend Shack’s not in the bath with you — he’s shared your plates and sheets, hasn’t he?” He says to Keogh with genuine puzzlement, “It hurts me to see an intelligent educated white man so against his own people.” He regards antagonism between the races, as the natural state: to Mukkerjee, “Stick to what you Indians know best — cheating the blacks.

The only character that I would probably want to take the screenwriters to task on is that of Mukkerjee. He seems to be written as a stereotypical Indian, who is rather nervous, feeble, and mousy. He is Shack’s main ally yet there seems to be no cameraderie between them. More should have been invested in trying to demonstrate why Shack would trust Mukkerjee with the diamonds. As it is portrayed in the film Shack doesn’t seem to like Mukkerjee and Mukkerjee seems afraid of Shack. I would have preferred to see Mukkerjee as a stronger and cleverer character who has a genuinely strong connection with Shack based on common values and convictions. Orlani writes about Mukherjee as follows:

Mukkerjee, by contrast, is a rather comic character. Short, middle-aged, nervously smiling, he is terrified when Horn invades his office to search for Shack, naive in his idealism and no match for Persis’ determination. On the other hand, his depiction makes the important point that a revolution is not made up exclusively of handsome heroes. When Keogh finds out who Shack’s contact in Johannesburg is, he says incredulously, “A politically committed Indian dentist?” setting Shack up for another good answer: “We have all colors, even yours.”

That said, the film is definitely promoting a message of solidarity between differing racial and class groups. Collective efforts are the most succesful in the film as opposed to individual efforts. As Orlandi writes:

The film clearly promotes unity, not separatism, as the way of change for South Africa. The characters in the film can be seen as representative of their various classes and races — blacks, Indians, whites, working-class, lower-middle class, and bourgeoisie — working together. More important, there are several scenes in which the individual stars are upstaged by group efforts. When Shack and Keogh stop in the village, men and women push over a hut to hide the car, children rub out the tire tracks with their feet. As the two fugitives eat and recuperate, they are surrounded by smiling faces while music plays in the background.

The most dramatic scene depicting the power of the people is when Horn’s helicopter is brought down by several of the villagers Wilby has been working with. They then tear the machine apart. The most striking point the film makes is that violent resistance to apartheid is necessary. At the end, Horn says that he won’t stop hunting down the likes of Shack and Wilby. Keogh says that he knows this and then proceeds to shoot Horn dead. Keogh has gone from being a disinterested and disengaged English visitor to a violent militant. It is important to remember that Nelson Mandela, now one of the world’s most beloved political figures, was the head of the African National Congress’s military wing and was considered a terrorist by the apartheid regime. One man’s terrorist is often another man’s freedom fighter. However, this opens up many questions about the ethical use of violence in contexts of resistance and revolution. These are of course questions that a film like The Wilby Conspiracy doesn’t have the capacity to answer.

The Wilby Conspiracy was filmed in Kenya. Michael Caine wrote about the experience in his autobiography. He was surprised that no one recognized him as a celebrity; however everyone recognized Sidney Poitier. Poitier got the best tables in restaurants and was even invited to meet the then President of Kenya Jomo Kenyatta. The film could not have been filmed in South Africa for obvious reasons. Sidney Poitier, along with other American entertainers such as Sammy Davis Jr., Arthur Miller, and Nina Simone signed the We Say No To Apartheid Pledge in 1965. Poitier was well aware about the apartheid regime as it had effected the distribution of his films in South Africa. Several of his films were outright banned, for other films Poitier was edited out of interracial scences. As America was trying to integrate, South Africa was enforcing segration. The casting of Poitier in The Wilby Conspiracy must have brought home to American audiences the similarity between the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and the struggle for integration and civil rights in the United States.

The Wilby Conspiracy is a fun ride with a political conscience. I recommend that you check it out.

Further Reading:

The Wilby Conspiracy: Action for the sake of politics by Mary-Kay Gamel Orlandi (film review available online)

The Wilby Conspirarcy New York Times Film Review available online

Introduction to Apartheid: Lesson Plan for Middle Schools available online

Book Review: Daughter of Mumbi by Charity Wanjiku Waciuma

Posted in African Literature, African Women Writers, Countries: Kenya, Kenyan Literature, Memoirs, Peoples: Kikuyu, Reviews by the woyingi blogger on September 8, 2010

 Daughter of Mumbi by Charity Wanjiku Waciuma

East African Publishing House, Nairobi, Kenya, 1969

During my visits to used book stores across the country, I am often happy to find African literature that is now out of print. Charity Waciuma’s memoir of growing up in colonial Kenya is one of those finds. This memoir covers Charity’s childhood and youth growing up during the ‘Mau Mau’ Emergency. The book is dedicated to the memory of her father, who was murdered during the Emergency. The book also full of information about Kikuyu history and traditions as well as Charity’s own reflections on how these traditions changed in the face of British colonial policy and Christian missionary activities.

Charity Waciuma is a Kenyan writer of children’s books; her books include Mweru, The Ostrich Girl (1966), The Golden Feather (196), and Merry-Making (1972). An excerpt of The Daughter of Mumbi can be found in the 1983 collection “Unwinding Threads: Writing by Women in Africa”, edited by Charlotte H. Bruner, and published by Heinemann as part of its African Writers Series.

The title of the memoir, Daughter of Mumbi, is a reference to the Kikuyu origin myth. According to Kikuyu tradition, Mumbi is the name of the founding mother of the Kikuyu people.

In the first chapter, Names, we learn how Charity got her Kikuyu name, Wanjiku. She writes:

In our country names are not chosen haphazardly; they are vitally bound up with being the sort of person you are. Any name includes many people who are now dead, others who are living, and those who are still not born. It binds its owner deep into Kikuyu history, beyond the oldest man with the longest memory. All our relatives to the furthest extent of the family, their actions, their lives and their children are an intrinsic part of our being alive, of being human, of being African, of being Kikuyu. (page 8)       

Charity, as her father’s third daughter, was supposed to be named Waithira (the beautiful) after her eldest aunt on her father’s side according to Kikuyu custom, however as this aunt had died before Charity was born and one of Charity’s cousins who had been named after this aunt had died as well, the clan elders believed that Charity would die too if she was given this name. So, it was decided that she would be named Wanjiku (the gossip), after her father’s younger sister. Kikuyu naming traditions are quite elaborate and involve taking names from both the father’s and mother’s families. Kikuyu have no fixed family name in the European sense. Individuals are usually referred to as the daughter of, mother of or wife of. (For example, renowned Kenyan author Ngugi wa Thiongo’s son, who is also a writer, is named Mukoma wa Ngugi, meaning Mukoma son of Ngugi). Charity’s last name Waciuma (beads) is actually a nickname given to her grandmother’s father who had so many goats, a sign of weath in Kikuyu culture, that they called him beads because he had as many goats as beads in a necklace.

Charity’s father met an itinerant Christian missionary and decided that Christianity was for him. He had to run away from his village in order to study at the Church of Scotland Mission School at Tumu-tumu. After six months, he returned home but he was severely beaten by Charity’s grandfather, so he returned to the Mission School. He only returned again after another five years, in order to ask Charity’s grandfather to pay the bride price to the family of Charity’s mother, Wangui, who was a fellow runaway and student at the Mission School. Charity’s grandfather refused. Charity’s parents were married instead with the help of the missionaries and the money raised by two years of Charity’s father working as a carpenter for the Mission.

Charity learns about Kikuyu history and tradition at the feet of her grandfather, who, despite having rejected her father for becoming a Christian, eventually accepted his son and his new family back in to the fold. I wonder if many other early Kikuyu Christians must have lost their knowledge of their heritage because their families were less accepting. Charity reminisces:

My brothers, my sisters and I used to visit my grandmother every week after finishing Sunday School at the Church of Scotland Mission. When he heard where we had just come from, my grandfather would stand up and curse. “The young people of today have no respect for our god who dwells on Kirinyaga—Mount Kenya. He is the god of our forefather, Gikuyu, who lived at Mukuweini-wa-Gathanga in what the muthungu (European) has named Fort Hall District. Gikuyu lived there with his wife Mumbi and his nine daughters—Waithira, the beautiful, Wanjiku, the gossip, Njeri, the devoted, Wanjiru, the generous, Wairimu, the dullard, Wangui, the clever, Wambui, the talker, Wangari, the farmer, Wamuyu, the hardworking. (page 12)

Charity’s grandfather believes in the prophecies of Mugo wa Kibiru. According to Kikuyu tradition, Mugo wa Kirbiru forsaw the devastation that the Europeans would bring to the Kikuyu people. He is said to have foreseen such details as the building of the Uganda Railway and the coming of jiggers, insects that eat away at people’s feet that are believed to have been brought by the Europeans. Charity and her siblings often have to dig these insects out of their grandmother’s feet during their visits to her.

Charity’s grandfather is polygamous. His first wife, Charity’s grandmother, is Kikuyu but his second wife is a Maasai woman who her grandfather captured during a raid on a Maasai village. Reflecting on the subject of polygamy, Charity writes:

For myself, I decided against polygamy, but its rights and wrongs are still being argued continually and furiously in our schools and colleges and debating clubs. There seems to have been a time in our society when there were many more women than men, possibly as a result of raidings. Under these circumstances polygamy may be socially good. Even today our women like to get someone to help them with the hard work of the farm and the house. Polygamy is clearly second nature to most Kikuyu men. I hate it because it hurts the position and dignity of women and exaggerates the selfishness of men. But, however things go, it will be many decades before it genuinely comes to an end in Kenya. (pages 11-12)

In the second chapter, More of Grandfather’s Legends, her grandfather recounts a story of a bloody battle between Maasai and Kikuyu. In the third chapter, Doctors All, Charity discusses the difficulties faced by her father, who was trained as a health inspector, as he tries to convince the local people to trust in Western medicine instead of the cures of local traditional healers (Charity calls them “witchdoctors” and holds them in contempt, even deliberately playing pranks on them as a child by manipulating their superstitions). At one point, plague spreads through the village and instead of encouraging his people to be inoculated as Charity’s father had asked, the local chief tells them to go hide in ant-eaters’ holes. When people continue to die, the chief eventually tells his people to get inoculated at the dispensary run by Charity’s father. The District Commissioner soon disposes of this chief and replaces him with a young Catholic schoolteacher who is more amenable to Charity’s father’s wishes.

In the forth chapter, Muma: Yesterday’s Law, we learn about the local village court in Charity’s village that was preceded over by court elders, who themselves were appointed by the colonial government. The court was based on both colonial law as well as traditional Kikuyu law. Charity has memories of interacting with prisoners such as members of the independent African Christian Church, the Dini ya Israel:

Many of the prisoners were members of the Dini ya Israel, an independent Christian church. They wore long white robes. The men wore turbans and did not shave, like the Sikhs of India. They did not believe in the use of medicine. If God wanted to punish his children by making them sick man should not interfere. Similarly they opposed soil conservation. When God constructed the world he knew what he was doing and it was presumptuous to try and alter it. They therefore came into conflict with the administration which was trying to persuade the people to preserve their land by making terraces to hold up the red soil’s rush down the hillside in the rains.

In the week or so that they were kept in the local jail I learned many hymns and prayers from them. Too soon they were taken away to the higher court at Fort Hall administrative centre. On the way there, and indeed wherever they went, they sang their hymns, attracting the attention of all the people, especially the children. They always aroused great interest and they made many converts. (page 37)

I was curious to find out more about the Dini ya Israel. I couldn’t find any African Independent Church with this exact name, however, I did find information on the African Israel Nineveh Church, that was founded by Kenyan David Kivuli in 1942 and that is now one of the largest independent Christian churches in East Africa. If readers could confirm that this church is the same church as the Dini ya Israel Charity discusses, it would be much appreciated.

Charity has the change to observe court proceedings and chat with the court policeman who won’t respond to her when she asks if he takes bribes. Often, if the court elders could not draw their own conclusions about an accused innocence or guilt they would ask the accused to take an oath. This would involve getting the accused to slaughter a goat and swear that if he or she is not telling the truth he or she would be crushed like the goat they were slaughtering. It would be believed that if a person were lying he or she would be dead within a week. Of course, people who didn’t really believe in the power of Kikuyu traditions any longer could easily take the oath without fearing any real consequences. Many of the cases at the court were from young women demanding that the young men who got them pregnant admit that they were the fathers. As Charity reflects: “The younger educated men did not believe in the oaths and did not fear their power. Mostly they used to take the oath to deny their responsibility for the pregnancies of the girls who came to accuse them in the court. (page 40)” It is from observing the proceedings of such cases that Charity discovers how babies are really made. Her parents had always told her that babies were bought at the hospital.

Charity begins to reflect on the injustices of the Kenyan colonial government when she befriends older youth who are beginning to question the lack of education available in Kenya and the corruption of the courts.

Kiarie, who was at Makerere College, Kampala, in Uganda, told us all about his university, the studies, the students, the teachers and the people who lived in the town. He told us about the Kingdom of Buganda; how they had their own King, the Kabaka Mutesa, and their own government. Some of us thought he was making fun of us, so Ndegwa asked, “Do they have their own courts and Elders?” And he said, “Yes. And in their District Council meetings they don’t have a White chairman. Well, they really have some sort of ‘uhuru’—freedom.”

“Are many of them educated?”

“Yes, of course. They have many more schools and colleges than we do. I assure you it will take long before Kenya has so many schools.”

“Why do they have all these things, while we haven’t?”

“Mostly because there are hardly any settlers there and when the British Imperial Government arrived they found them with their own Kingdom.”

For a few minutes we got down to our washing, singing traditional songs as we worked. Then Ndegwa asked suddenly, “Have you heard about my father’s land case? You know he can’t take the oath because he is Christian and he won’t bribe the court Elders for the same reason. He can’t afford to pay for the appeal to the District Commissioner’s court if he loses.”

“My boy,” Kiarie replied with the weighty air of one who knows the world, “we all know how corrupt these so-called Elders have become. Judgment in a case these days depends on who has the longest purse. The poorer party always loses even if he is telling the truth—which he probably is. Corruption is gradually killing the helpless old people without money. In the old days the Elders were never bribed and corruption was strictly suppressed. You know at that time the Elders were elected by the people but now the Administration appoints these corrupted old men. They are not interested in the affairs of the ordinary African. All they want is to get rich quick, at the expense of their poor fellows who have no voice or power at all.” (pages 42-43)

In the fifth chapter, The Shamba, we learn that despite not respecting the healing methods of the “witchdoctors”, Charity’s father does rely on them to cast spells to protect his farmland from thieves—and it worked. Charity also observes the plight of the local people who worked on the coffee plantations of the Europeans for meager wages. Kenyans were forbidden to plant cash crops like coffee for a long time and then when permitted by the colonial authorities they had to plant a different variety and were subject to stricter regulations for its cultivation than the European settlers. Charity is also exited by news of the Ethiopian King visiting Kenya. She was surprised to learn that there was actually an African Christian King and she dreamed some day of meeting him and visiting Ethiopia.

In the sixth chapter, Itega and Irua, Charity discusses the challenges she and her sisters face because her parents refuse to have them circumcised as is Kikuyu custom. Charity’s grandfather is deeply shamed and has to face pressure from fellow elders to have his granddaughters circumcised. Unlike Charity’s parents, many other Christian Kikuyu in the village had their daughters circumcised. She writes:

About this time, we lost many of our good friends when they went through the circumcision ceremony. Because we Christian girls had not” been to the river” we were unclean. We were not decent respectable people and mothers would not have the shame of letting their daughters be seen in our company. It was believed that a girl who was uncircumcised would case the death of the circumcised husband. Moreover, an uncircumcised woman would be barren.” (page 61)

In the seventh chapter, Sunday, Charity relates her and her sisters growing boredom at church and the harassment they face from other girls their age because they are not circumcised. In order to entertain her sisters, Charity tells them a story based on a real incident:

The stranger went to the dispensary, where he found Miko the dresser. He demanded to see Waciuma. ‘I don’t know where he is,’ Miko replied. ‘You show me where he is,’ shouted the stranger, grabbing Miko’s shirt and slapping him on the face.

“Who are you?’ Miko asked the stranger.

“My name is Bartholomew, and I have been terribly beaten and burned by your people because I am Luo. I just came here to pay a visit. Some men across the river invited me to their home and while we were drinking they started abusing me; then they beat me. I cannot tell why,’ he concluded bitterly.

“Do you know why they beat you?” Miko said. “Because you are rude and very proud.” Then he slapped him on the face, and blood flowed from the stranger’s burned cheek.

“Just then daddy arrived. “Why did you slap this man and who is he?” “His name is Bartholomew and he is a Luo,” Miko told daddy.

“ Are you a Luo?” daddy asked Bartholomew, still looking at Miko. Then he slapped Miko so hard that later he said his fingers pained him. Miko fell down, and daddy did not help him up. He held Bartholomew’s hand, took him into the dispensary, and treated his woulds.” (pages 70-71)

I am not sure what the origins of animosity between the Luo and Kikuyu are but this incident seems to demonstrate that these tensions predate the conflicts over ethnic representation in the post-independence Kenyan government. Barack Obama’s father, Barack Obama Senior, was a Luo politician as was Tom Mboya.

to be continued…

Further Reading:

A Puppet on a String: The Manipulation and Nationalization of the Female Body in the “Female Circumcision Crisis” of Colonial Kenya by Sarah Boulanger (essay available online)