The coastal town of Kilifi was just waking up but I was still in dreamland. My young face was a peaceful picture of sleep. My twelve-year-old heart was beating in anticipation of the sumptuous breakfast that mama and my ten-year old sister Nashibe were preparing. Our two-room kitchen had three fireplaces, and they were all busy.
One of the fireplaces was frying pancakes, with Nashibe, deftly flipping them over on the rugged frying pan, another one was unmanned as it was cooking tea and the other one, the biggest of all, was merrily heating a large, darkened pot. It was half filled with hot sand that bore a yellow bowl that bore a round cake that was almost fully baked.
The traditional oven was responsible for a very sweet smell that was coursing through the kitchen.
“Merry Christmas honey!” mama called out to papa when he emerged from the main house disheveled and smiling.
It is indeed Christmas, Nashibe thought. It’s not every day that mama calls papa ‘honey.’
Kenyans are not particularly fond of wearing their hearts on their sleeves. But they are quite fond of wearing Gucci-like attire on Christmas day.
“Where is my kitenge?” papa asked mama.
Kitenge is African wear that boasts of many colors aesthetically intertwined into designs and occasional wording. The previous Christmas, Jemimah, one of papa’s favorite niece had bought for him the kitenge attire he was now asking for. This Christmas, she had bought for him flawless safari boots that he planned to wear later in the day.
I awoke to the smell and sight of heaven.
The aroma of fresh cake sauntered into my nostrils as my bleary eyes made out a brand new Liverpool Football Club T-shirt. It was draped over a sack of maize on the floor. I closed my eyes again and said ‘thank you’ to Jesus. Even at that tender age, I was already addicted to two things – football and food.
Both were well tended for this Christmas morning. Mama was responsible for the latter and papa for the former. The T-shirt had cost papa five hundred shillings and he still frowned in recollection of the costly price tag. During breakfast, all the presents were officially handed out.
My seven-year old brother Kuka got a sleek, silk football short. If he had watched enough Hollywood movies by then, he would have hugged papa and mama. But he expressed his sheer gratitude, by flashing a smile so joyous it melted mama’s already mellow heart. My four year old sister Jane and Nashibe got pretty pinkish, reddish dresses that sent them into squeals of delight.
Mpari, our first born brother got a spanking new black jeans. His thanks were profuse.
People are so smartly dressed that Christ must be smiling wherever he is, the Pastor thought and even commented about it in his sermon.
Rubbish, a rotund middle-aged lady in the front row thought. Christ is more concerned with our inner selves. She pointed this out to mama after the service. Mama just flashed her sunny smile and hurried home. She was hosting grandma plus her brother in-law Lenny for lunch.
It was a lunch that left all the diners sighing with gratification. They feasted on two fully-grown jogoos, cockerels, that mama had been overfeeding for the entire year, steamed white rice, steaming ugali, maize meal and diverse, plenteous helpings of traditional vegetables.
The beefy cocks were roasted, fried, and boiled together with tomatoes, onions, coriander and a host of other delicious tidbits.
“Nimekuvulia kofia ya upishi mama Mpari!” Lenny said to mama as he smacked his lips.
“But you are not wearing any cap” Grandma innocently observed.
Old age and childhood are full of innocence, Lenny’s wife Betty thought as she cleared the table and helped mama to serve dessert of papaya and nanasi, pineapple.
The same quorum gathered again for dinner. This time, Lenny removed two caps for mama. He had devoured five big, round chapattis and licked away the green grammes stew that according to me, tasted like heaven.
And so the heavenly day came to a close, with a word of prayer from grandma. “Dear father in heaven,” she prayed, “thank you for your great love and the great food we ate today and for this great headscarf that my son bought for me, though he should have chosen a different color…”
Grandma’s prayers were so chatty that a few super-spiritual people found them irreverent. “…and finally, help us not to oversleep tomorrow.”
The prayer was over and Christmas was over.
The cock crowed and Mama Nanzala woke up. She reached below the bed and retrieved her brown aluminum suitcase. Although it was still dark, she was able to remove her black skirt and orange blouse. After returning it back to its home beneath the bed, she retrieved her husband’s silver aluminum suitcase and removed from it a blue linen trouser and black cotton shirt. These were the clothes that he would be wearing that day.
Those two suitcases were old but special to Mama Nanzala and her husband. When they got married twenty years earlier, it was in these suitcases that they kept their few personal and most important belongings.
After taking a cold bath, she went to the kitchen lit the fire, placed water for porridge on it and began sweeping the kitchen.
The pig pot in the corner of her kitchen was full of water. It had been a wedding gift from her grandmother and she treasured it. Next to it were three smaller, cooking pots. They were also wedding gifts from two decades earlier, when potters still had the ancient pottery skill that resulted in sturdy, beautiful pots.
It had rained most of the night, so as she cooked porridge for her children, she had one eye on the skies above. Although the sun could be seen on the eastern horizon, it couldn’t be felt. She poured the porridge into four cups for her school going children and into a big calabash for their father. She placed them all on a big rectangular tray and took them to the sitting room.
Her father-in-law had been a carpenter, so for their wedding, he had made for them a dining table, four stools and a three-piece wooden sofa set. They were still as good as new and as she placed the porridge on the dining table, she felt proud. Although they were struggling because of high school fees for their two daughters in high school, their house looked and felt nice.
The four children were the first to take their porridge and sweet potatoes, followed by their father.
After they had all left, she poured twenty kilos of maize from the big sack into a smaller one then placed the sack on her maize. Five minutes and two hundred metres later, she had arrived at the market and placed the maize on a counter in her small shed. For the next six or seven hours, she was going to sell the maize to supplement the income that her husband earned as a tailor.
Another glance at the sky left several frowns on her face. The clouds were gathering menacingly. Even before she could comment about it the impending rain to her fellow traders, she felt the first drops. They hit her forehead, nose and cheeks in quick succession.
Within less than five minutes, the raindrops had transitioned into a torrent. A huge tap in the skies had been opened and it was no longer raining – it was pouring down instead. As it poured a wind howled loudly, screaming at everyone and everything.
Mama Nanzala had a sinking feeling in her stomach. Without thinking twice, she threw herself into the rain and literally sprinted towards her children’s school almost one kilometer away from the market. Her sprint was however reduced to a jog because of the powerful flow of water that was all around her. But stills she ran on.
She dashed past the school gate towards the administration block. All children had been ordered to remain in class so when she burst into class one, she saw her youngest daughter huddled with other children at the back of the class. The other three were also safe. What wasn’t safe was their house.
After it stopped raining seven hours later, she rowed in a canoe, together with her husband and other villages. She couldn’t even recognize her own compound because there were no houses standing. All she saw were floating iron sheets floating big pot. The one that her grandmother had given her for her wedding.
Oh God, please help the people of Budalangi, she prayed, and began to weep.
The warm Mediterranean waters slapped my feet as the cool sea breeze soothed my weary soul.
Just being there on the humid shores of the Mediterranean, had cost me almost $2000, which was the sum total of my life’s savings, sale of a plot inherited from my mother and a debt of $500 obtained from a loan shark.
Have I bought survival or death? This question kept tugging at my heart like a restless child. I searched the vast waters momentarily intrigued by the dancing waves that would carry me all the way to Europe.
Have I bought survival or death? This question surfaced again. But I pushed it aside, in the same manner that a mother quiets a nagging child. Next to me was a woman old enough to be my mother, or even my grandmother. It was hard to tell the age represented in her excited eyes and unsmiling face that was partially covered by a blue veil.
It seemed to me that there were almost as many women as men on that hot sea shore. People appeared to be both excited and hopeless, which was an exact replica of my own emotions. I knew that hundreds of other migrants had died in this unforgiving waters of the Mediterranean. But when my best friend back in Abidjan pointed out this to me numerous times, I had always retorted that, ‘planes crash from the sky all the time but people keep boarding them.’
I smiled as my thoughts took me back to Abidjan where my journey had started. Despite its daily struggles, my country was my home and as Bwak the Bantu poet says, ‘home is like saliva, it remains in your mouth even when you spit it out.’
For weeks, the normal daily routine of my life had belied the immense excitement within.
As I hang my washing on two thick wires, I felt a draught blowing into my armpits through the exact spot where my blouse was torn. I didn’t want to repair my clothes because soon, I would begin a journey with my twelve years old daughter. Our final destination: Lampedusa, a tiny Italian island. It was a journey without a visa but full of hope.
Europe. That Europe, where my cousin had prospered, was my last chance, my last dice. The die was cast as I had already paid the men who would shepherd our long journey to Libya and beyond.
I gazed above the clothes that I was hanging and saw my daughter Keita. She didn’t know her father and I would never tell her. He was an uncle who had raped me barely a year after the death of my mother. I had also never known my father.
Like me, this beast of an uncle lived in commune d’Attécoubé. Some called it a shanty but I called it home.
Despite the trauma of my childhood and teenage years, I managed to complete high school and attain a diploma in accounting.
To my shock, my diploma became a source of frustration because it kept reminding me that there were no jobs even for diploma holders like myself. In a plastic folder were 183 copies of job applications that I had submitted.
I felt as useless as the polythene papers that littered our ghetto.
Keita was hungry although she had just eaten a beignet a few minutes earlier. So I gave her money and she dashed to the bakery at the corner for another one.
That evening, we feasted on foufou and gombo sauce. I loved this meal because it was the favourite meal of my late mother whose roots were in Bouaké, the second biggest city of the country.
Inhabitants of Bouaké are known as Baoulé. They are renowned in cotton farming, the region’s main cash crop.
Another wave threw itself into Libya’s hot sand but I didn’t notice it since my thoughts were still in my home country. Would I ever see the splendor of Lake Kossou again? I wondered. This lake was near my rural home and it always calmed my nerves every time I visited it.
‘We are going to live in Europe,’ I had told Keita one morning as she put on her school uniform.
‘France?!’ Her eyes lit up.
‘Yes,’ I nodded happily. The previous day, I had finally accumulated all the money that was needed for us to join the trip.
Apart from my best friend Ninette, no one else knew about the trip as I didn’t want to become a laughing stock in case it backfired.
I watched happily as the small frame of my daughter disappeared though our narrow doorway as she ran to school. Although she was 12, people thought she was 7 or 8. I wanted her to grow up in Europe, far away from the blind life of my country. Blind because one could never see what tomorrow had in store. One never knew if a good education would lead to a good job. Even if you were lucky enough to get a job, the salary was often enough only for your transport, lunch and rent. This meant that you lived for today with no idea of how you would survive if you lost your job or if you fell critically sick. No. I didn’t want my daughter to go through this. I wanted her to live, not just barely survive.
Sometimes, the names of our current and former presidents would trickle into my mind.
Henri Konan Bédié, Laurent Gbagbo, and Alassane Ouattara. Did they care for Keita and I? Just as I wanted the very best for my daughter, did they want the very best for all the children of Côte d'Ivoire? Famous as these names were, the only name that mattered to me was Keita. My beloved daughter.
I just wanted my baby to grow up, study, get a job, get married, get children and be happy. Was that too much too much to ask? It seemed to me that unless she studied well and got a good job; marriage, children and happiness would be beyond her reach.
There was commotion on the crowded beach. Someone shouted something in Arabic. Someone else shouted something in English then finally someone shouted out instructions in French. The boat would arrive soon and we were asked to board it in an orderly way. There would be space for everyone. Remember to pray.
When I had finally left Abidjan the previous week, I had shed tears of joy. I clothed my daughter in new black jeans, new white sneakers, a new green blouse and a new green woolen sweater. After all, a new and better life awaited her in Europe. We joined hands and prayed for the one millionth time.
Then we walked out of our narrow doorway, heavy bags on our shoulders and bubbling hope in our hearts.
I didn’t look behind at the roads of the shanty town of Attécoubé, as if doing so would cause me to change my mind. I was finally walking away from a life of poverty and never ending uncertainties.
Keita and I left Côte d’Ivoire through the small town of Zegoua at the border with Mali. From Mali, we travelled on to Senegal and then Libya.
I will soon be on that boat on my way to Europe. I thought happily as my eyes made contact with the equally joyous eyes look of a Somali woman. Seated at her feet, almost clinging to her, were two kids younger than Keita. Our religions, cultures and countries were different but we were united in our hope for a better tomorrow.
Our lives were in the hands of those men who had taken our money and would now hold our lives in their boat. .
It was time to board the boat.
The Somali woman and I looked at each other once again and our lips parted into half smiles.
In those smiles, was hope for ourselves and our children. My mama used to say that when you lose hope, you stop living.
· 3,149: the number migrants lost lives in 2014 as they attempted to cross the Mediterranean.
· 22,000: the number of people who have perished since 2000.
· 150,000: the number of people who were saved in 2014.
· 36,000: the number of migrants who reached European coasts since January 2015.
I can’t remember the misery that has touched my African childhood yet there has been some. I realized that I was an African child later on when I was studying geography and learnt that the globe has 5 continents including Africa.
Our teacher, a kind round woman with a perfect light skin complexion told us that since we were born on this continent, we were Africans. For her, we were true Africans with local color and behaviors. So because I believed her from the beginning my 4th year of my primary school, I believed her again. I was an African child.
That same day, after the break, the teacher taught us the countries that comprise Africa. I think they were 53 at that time. And we were more than amazed to recite them with their capitals and memorizing those countries helped me to win the popular country game that we loved to play.
The first thing that enthralled me about my continent was its superb shape. That shape that, once I became an adult, I could elegantly and proudly wear as earrings, on clothes or shoes but more than that the shape that I have engraved on my heart and that I could draw even in the middle of a deep sleep. Now that I was an adult, I had the feeling that my heart had taken the African continent’s shape because every time I see this refined image of Africa, my heart beats, sometimes of ultimate sadness but mostly of an intimate happiness.
But let’s come back to the fact of being an African child and the joy that this engenders. My African childhood is that era when boys wore khaki school uniforms and us blue dresses, writing our first words on a slate as notebooks were for older students. But the biggest joy of that time was having “les copines” (friends), those game companions who competed with me to recite prayers or gracefully stretch our arms to dance our traditional dance “Umushayayo”.
To be a young African girl for me was playing games like mabigibigi, jumping the rope, picking up small stones. It was also the time of gathering firewood, fetching water and learning how to cook. It could be also imitating how mothers carry babies on the back. As I didn’t have a doll, I used to carry a cloth folded in a vulgar form of a baby.
Family was also important. I always wonder what being I would be today if my parents had never taught me the values of a family.
The first family value that I learnt was equitable sharing, principally the share of food. We used to sit on a traditional mat, umusambi, and eat from the same tray using our fingers that we had first washed in a green, blue or red plastic basin with tembo soap. Since that time, I share everything, almost everything, with my siblings.
The joy of my African childhood was also watching Cinderella and imagining that one day; I will be a princess and will meet a Prince. It was also to feel the hot earth burning my bare feet or the pressure of small stones on them.
It was going to pray and learning religious values that have shaped my sense of morality.
For my brothers, I believe their joy was running behind a football ball and dreaming of becoming Ronaldo, always going to play in the middle of the road despite parental prohibition.
For the rural kids, I think that their happy moments were to pilfer fruits on their way to school, to fetch water or chase firewood, on their way to everywhere. It was roasting a fresh sweet potato in hot ashes and eating it with a ripe avocado.
Years later when I grew up, I was shocked to see that our African childhood is so often summarized on a global image that displays a dark child who embodies destitution. A child with a bony body, nasal mucus, naked, empty eyes and who suffer from chronic hunger.
I wonder why those pictures of ourselves don’t show those joyful moments, why don’t they show the songs we sung, ibisakuzo (the riddles) we asked each others, and the stories we heard and shared while cooking? Why do those pictures want to take away precious memories of our African childhood? Who benefits from them? Us or them?
Of course. Of course. If someone had photographed me just after the 1994 tragedy in Rwanda when almost all Rwandan were in temporarily camps, sheltered in white tents with the word UNHCR in blue; If someone had taken a picture of me at that very instant and published it; people would have exclaimed:
-“Oh my God, what poverty in Africa!”
But what that picture would have missed to capture was that even in truly or apparently tough moments of African childhood, there is also joy, sharing, games, songs, poesy, friendship, hope.
Come on! Misery is in everyone, everywhere. It just takes different forms.
This June 16th, 2015 and every year, instead of focusing on hungry African children, let’s celebrate happy African children.
In 2000, the ‘African children choir’ from Uganda released an album called ‘Still walking in the light’ so are African children.
Solène, 25, is one those Rwandan girls who have drunk so many cups of fresh cattle milk- inshushyu that her skin has the natural glow of the water that trickles from a rock. A nurse at Plateau Clinic has confirmed her worst nightmare – that she is pregnant. This sudden announcement has taken the shine off her beautiful face; her lovely fair complexion has darkened. She can’t call her family just yet and instead dials her best friend’s number.
Solène atendeka (double dates) two men. The one she is really in love with is not her official boyfriend. The one she truly loves is a friend from high school. She couldn’t date him simply because his faded jeans and humble background wouldn’t sit well with her family. He would also be a source of ridicule from her friends. ‘Have you seen the loser Solène is dating?’ They would whisper behind her back.
These reasons pushed her to say yes to Joe, her “cover” for seven months now. Solène despises his rich man’s arrogance, his disdain for the poor, his pretentious manners, and the superior expressions that his face displays like the way he never say thanks after receiving a service or the way he always wants to give a tip instead of queuing like others. But despite this, she goes steady with Joe because he inspires the pride and offers the luxury that her heart desperately desires.
Solène is what many Rwandans call umukuzi, a profiteer; as she double-dates and stays with Joe for financial reasons. His money is the only quality she likes in her businessman boyfriend, the father of the baby she is carrying.
In Rwanda, 47% of all pregnancies are unintended and sex before marriage is taboo . When Solène goes to the church every Sunday, she is supposedly a “good virgin girl”. This is why it’s difficult to announce her pregnancy to her family. She will blot out the nearly perfect image, the virtual label she has proudly worn for 25 years.
“Why haven’t you taken contraceptive pills or used a good condom while they are available in all pharmacies of Kigali?” A cousin asked accusingly after discovering about Solène’s pregnancy.
‘You must abort!’ Her best friend told her, as did several other close friends.
But her moral sense refused to take this path. In addition, her church mentor admonished,
“If you follow this ghastly choice, God will never forgive for killing His child and will curse you.”
If Solène aborts, she will be among 25 abortions per 1000 women in Rwanda. A third of abortions are done by various faiseuses d’anges, French for angel makers, as traditional healers are known. 14% and 19% of abortions are performed by midwives and doctors, respectively. The majority of women who abort are unmarried, first time mothers who are below 25 years.
Solène’s second choice is to keep the baby and carry the shame of a single mother. Her third choice it to get married to Joe. Despite her beauty, she worries that Joe will not wait for her. He is an eligible bachelor, her mother always reminds her. He will be an easy prey for other ambitious female scroungers starting from her church choir mates.
Ninety four percent of Rwandans are Christians. Whenever they get married, they engage in a civil ceremony, traditional wedding and a church service. These three parts of a Rwandan marriage have to be accomplished for one to feel “fully married”. Unfortunately, this ‘full marriage’ sometimes lacks the good old love and focuses more on social aspects.
Common factors behind such marriages are unintended pregnancies, age, social pressure, financial interests, better employment opportunities and then…. deep affection.
As the foundation of the actual marriage is not solely love, conflicts often arise. In 2013, Rwanda faced 508 murders, assaults and suicide cases related to family conflicts. Extra marital affairs have increased considerably and sugar daddies have run riot. Due to unhappy marriages, there are also young men called abapfubuzi who offer their services to satisfy old sugar mummies.
It is a web of deception that binds together young and old; rich and poor; religious and secular.
After finding herself caught in this web, Solène decides to save her honor and get married to Joe.
She chooses comfort over love.
In the past, a woman was considered as “umutima w’urugo” (the soul of the family). She was not allowed to voice her thoughts too often or to share her complains too loudly. She was meant to keep her feelings at the bottom of her heart and humbly accept her blissful or painful destiny. A respectful Rwandan woman was meant to raise a family and take care of the husband.
This cultural subservience gradually subsiding thanks to flourishing women emancipation.
The Rwandan woman who had silently faced gender based violence in the past is now aware of her RIGHTS. She now knows that her dignity is non-negotiable.
As women are more empowered, they are allowed to defend their rights including the right to divorce. Rwanda counts 3.4 % divorced women against 1% men, a seven-fold growth since 2002. Still, it’s harder for a divorced woman to find another stable partner as there are 88 men for 100 women countrywide.
Consequently, the Rwandan woman often remains single after divorce, which can expose her to sexual depravity. The same is true for a single woman who becomes accidentally pregnant, especially in rural areas. Most men will not consider her to be ‘wife material.’
On the other hand, in Rwanda, the womanhood and the motherhood depend on the manhood. She has to wait for the male to propose her. The life of an adult woman is intimately defined by her marital status otherwise, she will be considered as a social failure. Around the age of 30, she is already seen as an old girl, umukecuru.
It is against this backdrop that Solène cannot risk becoming an unwed single mother. Her parents are so eager for their daughter to give birth within marriage that they take a bank loan to fund her wedding.
On a Saturday evening, Solène’s aunts organize a kitchen party where all men and children are excluded. These elder and wiser women share with Solène and other young women the secrets of a successful marriage.
A week later, the traditional wedding was celebrated in the morning hours. The dowry was paid to Solène’s parents. Women were in shining traditional “imishanana” and men wore dark western suits. The DJ played the very popular Araje araje araje, araberewe ni umugeni mwiza mumurangamire…
This is a song by a local artist that accompanies the bride when she comes to greet her husband-to-be. People cheer as Solène comes. But the hawk eyes of some women search the bride’s belly to verify if she is pregnant or not.
To cover the shame of pre-marital pregnancy, Solène is wearing a wedding dress that covers her pregnancy bulge. As they escort her to the holy altar, her father and mother are grateful that the white bridal veil is covering the bride’s sorrowful eyes.
They smiled, celebrated, drank, ate, prayed and danced. They rejoiced that the wedding had saved their family from a scandal.
They had gambled on Joe’ wealth to help paying back their credit. Although the bank loan now weighs heavily on them, they believe that they have done the “right” thing.
Since Solène was born, her parents have never mentioned the “sex topic” in front of her. The only time that they have talked about her body with her, was at the age of 12 when she had her first periods. She learnt more about sex through a biology course back in high school, public plays, and through animated debates with female friends. In these discussions, there was a very thin line between fact and fiction and most of them pretended to be innocent.
Solène remembers that her cousin has accused her to not using contraceptive measures. What that cousin ignored was that she has never needed them before Joe. She followed him blindly and he led her to a pregnancy and marriage that she wasn’t ready for.
Solène’s family could have prevented this unplanned pregnancy by having an open and honest discussion about sex education at an earlier stage of her life. Instead of learning from Solène’s situation and protect her younger sisters, they have covered the smoke while their home was on fire by encouraging her to get married.
Even as her family slept on the job, the government made some small steps towards empowering young women like Solene. Rwanda accomplished what no other country has done: to increase the contraceptive prevalence rate by more than tenfold within a decade, from 4% in 2000 to 45% in 2010.
Last year, 0.24% of the National budget was allocated to gender institutions and now Rwandan women over twenty-one years have access to modern contraceptive including injectables, male condoms and pills. However, these efforts are not always supported by local churches that preach abstinence. These contradictions are likely to confuse young people and create a feeling of guilty shyness if they had to talk about sex.
It is against this backdrop that women like Solène find themselves exposed to consequences of unprotected sex and early pregnancies.
In the middle of different social and public laws that protect Solène, which one reminds her aunts during the kitchen party to tell her that being a single mother is also her choice? Which law would protect her from judgmental and sadistic stares from her family, colleagues and the entire society?
Who would compassionately tolerate her illegitimate pregnancy? What if it’s the society itself that pushed her to marry Joe while she tenderly loves someone else? Why do the church and her community tolerate her more once they know that she is pregnant but will get married soon?
Solène believes that she has protected her baby by offering him a chance to live in a family set-up. Yet if her marriage fails, her child will have the misfortune of growing in a broken home. Even if she would have the financial security that most women aspire for, she would be tempted to secretly meet the other boyfriends and fall in the vicious circle of unfaithfulness.
Since Solène is a highly educated person with a modest and stable job, she could have chosen to raise her child alone and in so doing shatter societal judgments.
She would have completely agreed with those who preach women empowerment. She would have inspired other girls to say no to early marriage.
She would have been the hero of women who get married just because they are too afraid to be criticized.
She would have defied cultural laws that oblige her to obey her parents no matter what happens.
She would have understood that obeying one’s parents doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing one’s dreams.
She would have lived the experience of a woman who can stand on her own two feet.
She would have known the experience of choosing.
Then she would have invited love to her heart.
And finally, she would have been a fully emancipated Rwandan woman, who chooses what is best for herself.
The day had finally arrived. The moment was upon me when my first time would soon be behind me.
It was evening, probably six thirty because darkness was knocking on the door as those golden rays that make sunset special waved farewell.
This isn't how I had planned it. When you plan for something for an entire lifetime, that something will grab your cheeks and tease you when you finally do it.
Remember your first day at school? All those strange children who surrounded you as you sat in those hard chairs and gazed in front of you blankly. The tall lady in short hair and a long skirt. She had kind eyes and smelt like your mama. But a stranger is a stranger. You wanted your mummy.
Or the first time you swam. For years, you had watched people swimming and wondered how they could slither in water like fish. Then your wonderings finally led you into a pool with a friend who could swim by your side, ready to coach you. After gulping water that felt like the entire Indian Ocean, you finally floated. Three weekends later, you moved one hand in front of another and actually moved in the water. That's what they call swimming. Is that it? It was a bit of an anti-climax.
Or the first time you boarded a plane. That was awesome! You may retort. But exactly how different was the feeling of takeoff from that of a lift taking you to eleventh floor? I however concede that when you see clouds below you for the first time ever, it's quite a thrilling feeling.
Sadly, my joyous bubble was burst when I glanced up and realized that there were still clouds up there. I felt cheated. We shall always be above you Bwak. One of those fluffy clouds whispered and I stopped gazing wondrously outside the tiny, oval window of the Ethiopian Airlines that was taking me to Frankfurt, Germany.
Thank God that at that precise moment, Malaika, the Ethiopian hostess asked me if I would be having chicken or fish. I had baptized her Malaika, Angel, because she honestly looked like an angel especially with clouds whispering things outside my window. Her sight and the sweet nature of her question rekindled my joy. Fish or chicken? Until that moment, no one beautiful or ugly had ever asked me whether I would be having fish or chicken.
But forget that first experience in the air. This particular first time was like both swimming and flying combined.
It was better than I had hoped. The sunset was like a friend, cheering me from far away. My hand, probably the left one was sweating but I didn't feel its wetness. The right hand was in a world of its own, its fingers racing faster than Usain Bolt.
When I was a child and it was Christmas dinner and mama had cooked soft, warm chapatis together with soft, hot chicken, my tongue would sing Hallelujah and I would melt in the delicious beauty of the moment. That first instant that this heavenly combination of chapatis and chicken would meet in my mouth, I would come back from a yearlong slumber and wake up to the kind of life God meant for me to live. Really, can there be anything in this big vast world that can taste better than chapati and chicken? Apparently yes.
This particular first time was actually better than that Christmas treat.
My mouth swung open and a short cough shot from my dry mouth, followed by a clearing of the throat. I was conscious of my heavy breathing as my heart took off and ran so fast that it stumbled and fell, leaving my chest pounding like those loud Sukuti drums that belong to the Luhya people from western Kenya.
If you are a mother or a father, do you remember the first time you held that tiny little angel in your sweaty hands? Remember that feeling that you can’t quite put into words. It felt like heaven had opened and out of the seven billion people in the world, God had picked you and sent you a special package.
My feelings at that moment were just as heavenly. They were twice as ecstatic as that thrill that used to race down your spine in that first month of your brand new relationship. Every time the phone rang and the name, ‘baby lion’ wasn't on your phone’s eager screen, you felt like throwing the Samsung phone at the wall. But whenever this South Korean phone sweetly informed you on the screen that baby lion was calling, the ‘hi sweety’ that you whispered made you feel like the only woman in this crazy world. Love was in the air, in your phone and most importantly, in your heart.
As for you, the guy on the other end of the phone, the moment she uttered those words, ‘Hi sweety,’ you felt like Adam did when he first saw Eve in the garden of Eden. When the poor guy woke from his long sleep and saw Eve smiling down at him, his heart smiled back at her as he finally felt complete.
It seems to you that a piano resides in her chest, because her voice is like music to your ears. When you have coffee with her later that evening, you keep quiet as much as possible so that she can just talk and talk and talk. That voice… oh my God. As for the rest of her, it will be your great joy to discover it in the coming weeks.
That utter, sweet joy of the first month of a relationship wasn't what I was feeling. It was more than that. Much more.
At the age of eighteen, I was about to do it for the first time.
My fingers continued wrapping themselves around the steering wheel as I pressed the accelerator and drove for the first time in my life.
P/S when was the first time you planted a tree?
My thigh was shaking as I pressed the accelerator. Truth be told, I was very, very scared.
Next to me in the co-driver seat of The Growler, as my friends refers to my Subaru Forester, was Mutua a young Red Cross volunteer who was also fleeing from Lamu.
Flee. I love the power of this word although I don’t like its implications. Flee. Even if you don’t understand English, you will suspect that it has something to do with running away from somewhere as fast as you can.
Flee. That’s what Mutua and I together with hundreds of others were doing that morning and for subsequent days after that. We were fleeing Lamu because we had been warned that we would be met with dire consequences if we didn’t do so. This warning came through leaflets that were dropped randomly on the island the previous night.
About a week earlier, heavily armed militia, alleged to be al shabaab, had raided the nearby Mpeketoni town and shot dead at least sixty people, most of them christians.
Within less than a minute, The Growler roared into Mokowe town. Mpeketoni was now less than thirty minutes away and I dreaded the fact that we would soon drive by the town.
‘Oh my God!’
I was about to ask Mutua why he was crying to God but the sight in front of us answered my unspoken question. Just a few meters in front of us was a restless crowd. Some were holding machetes while others were cuddling big stones. They were blocking the road, burning huge logs that they had placed in the center of the road.
‘This is it,’ I told myself, ‘this is the day that I will become a TV news statistic.’
I was wearing my black T-shirt with the word Kenya emblazoned at the front. I wasn't really making a patriotic statement since it was the only clean top I could find as I fled from Yellow House that morning. This Kenya T-shirt was sticking to my skin as if pulled by some invisible magnet in my chest. But it was sweat, dripping from a spirit full of fear and a morning full of heat.
‘Rowdy Mokowe crowd burns a helpless Subaru,’ I could already see the beautiful Victoria Rubadiri, the NTV news anchor, uttering these fateful words just before images of my burning vehicle come onto the screen.
I was determined not to be in the vehicle when it caught flames and as I creaked to a halt, I had already released my seat belt and was in exit mode. Am no Usain Bolt but I was sure that at that moment, my 85 kilos would have given the Jamaican a run for his money.
Dozens of stony faced young men were inches away from the car. One of them approached my window. He was wearing black jeans and brown open shoes. On his head was a faded cap with the words, ‘Kenya’ emblazoned at the front.
At least he loves Kenya, I thought to myself. Hopefully that means he loves all Kenyans equally. Tough luck. After all, my own Kenya attire had nothing to do with undying love for the country.
As I rolled down my window, my mind was racing. What words should I say to show him that I was in fact on their side? He must be one of those people who had been displaced from their homes in Mokowe and Hindi, the towns that neighbor Mpeketoni.
Unlike my racing heart, my face was calm, genes inherited from my papa. Nothing seems to move papa. He is always the picture of calmness, especially when storms of life rage all around him.
‘Mambo vipi bro,’ How are things bro, I smiled at the young man as I greeted him.
It occurred to me that my greeting was rather stupid because there was no way things were fine. But in my defense, I couldn’t think of any Swahili greeting that has the neutrality of ‘hi.’ Every Swahili greeting demands to know the state of your life at that particular moment.
‘Mzuri tu,’ just okay. He answered in a surprisingly cordial voice.
My heart instantly stopped racing. I knew then that Victoria Rubadiri wouldn’t be reading news about my car going up in flames.
The crowd meant no harm. They had blocked the road as a protest at what they perceived as slow action from the government in protecting them and providing them with relief supplies. After the cold blooded killings in Mpeketoni, scores more had been killed in Hindi, Mokowe, Witu and neighboring smaller villages.
The marauding terrorists would show up and shoot unharmed villagers dead at point blank range, or slit their throats.
I had felt safe in Lamu Island until earlier that morning. The beauty of an island is also its tragedy. The fact that islands are isolated from mainlands means that they can be isolated in both safety and danger. They can be islands of calm or turmoil.
The previous night, papa had called and virtually ordered me to leave the island as soon as possible. I was taken aback, because ordering is not his style. He often lays out options and leaves the decision to someone. But not this time.
‘Take the next flight out of Lamu!’ Papa had ordered me in a brief phone conversation.
I had listened politely but in my heart, I wasn't planning to leave anytime soon. I loved the serenity of the island, not to mention its delicious Swahili cuisine. I couldn't find original Swahili pilau in Nairobi. Or biryani and mahamari. Or vitu vya ngano and matobosho. Or the Oh my God delicious sea food like fresh prawns and equally fresh parrot fish.
Of course such food could be bought in select Nairobi restaurants but they just didn't taste the same as they did on the island especially when cooked by Ilhamita, my immensely talented housekeeper and chef. Do not imagine for one minute that because I can afford to write, ‘my housekeeper and chef’ then I must have some good dinero, chapaa, money. Not at all. Ilhamita loves to cook so much that she is more than happy to make these mouth watering coastal dishes for me whenever I request, which is practically daily.
Ilhamita was in the kitchen cooking a king size parrot fish when I hurriedly entered the house. She was humming a catchy taarab tune.
‘David asalaam aleykum?’
She interrupted her humming and greeted me in her usual jovial manner.
‘Waleykum Salaam,’ I replied but could barely hear myself.
I was terrified. Terror had visited my being through leaflets.
When Ilhamita learnt about the leaflets, she dropped the dhania leaves that were in her hands.
Aaaaaaaah! She exclaimed as her face fell. It was as if someone had pricked her and let out all joy from her. She was like a big sister to me and her two kids, Tuma and Omar were simply adorable.
As she escorted me to the jetty to catch my boat, barely a word was exchanged between us.
I was fleeing, unable to stay in my second home as it was no longer safe to do so.
I had never fled before. In fact, in 2007, when Nairobi descended into a pit of turmoil following the 2007 post election violence, I often went where the danger was to prepare radio reports for Free Speech Radio News in the U.S.
But this particular Saturday morning, I was fleeing from terrorism. Terror. Although the terrorists were not on the island they were in my mind. The memory of what they had done in Mpeketoni was knocking violently at the door of my mind and shaking my heart vigorously. The bullets that they had fired, snuffing out the lives of at least sixty Kenyans kept bombarding my mind even as I boarded the speed boat and waved bye to a sorrowful Ilhamita.
Earlier that morning, I had walked from Yellow House, as my house is nicknamed owing to its yellow walls, to the sea shore. A few minutes before 8AM, I met up with Mzee Ali, an old fisherman. We met at a rugged sea wall that sits a few feet from his palm-leaf thatched house. I wanted him to start supplying me wholesale fish and sea food on a regular basis. I was so in love with sea food that I wanted the rest of the country and world to have a taste of it and make me money in the process.
After Mzee Ali and I had agreed on the way forward, I started walking along the sea shore marveling at the rustling sound of of the ocean and its galloping waves. This beautiful sight never grows old.
My phone rung and I almost ignored it as I sometimes did when I was fellowshipping with God through His wondrous nature. But on second thought,a I dipped my hand into the pocket of my big shorts and answered.
I said to Mama Ana. She is one of the people who had welcomed me to the island a few years earlier in 2011 and together with her two university going children, they had become like my Lamu family.
‘The leaflets were dropped in the town square at night,’ Mama Ana continued.
The leaflets she was talking about had been scattered overnight and they were allegedly from al shabaab warning all non-muslims to vacate the island or face consequences.
It suddenly occurred to me that people around me seemed to be rather tense, talking in small groups, in low tones. I had just reached the jetty and I noticed that the boats were full of people with heavy luggages like chairs, mattresses and the like. It was obvious that they were fleeing.
I felt suddenly sick, like a fever had enveloped me instantly. It was the terror fever and there was no medical prescription for it.
This fever was still weighing me down but it was the least of my worries as 140 kilometers per hour rocketed The Growler past a deserted Mkunumbi town. I might have been fleeing from terror but at that moment, I knew that there was a very real possibility of jumping from the frying pan right into the fire. I was now driving past a vast forest that the terrorists are said to have retreated into.
Within moments, we approached the two vehicles that the terrorists had abandoned after their cowardly, yet deathly acts on the innocent people of Mpeketoni. I slowed down, the writer in me keen on observing the scene closely and taking some photos. Mutua, the Red Cross volunteer gave me a stern, shocked and scared look that caused me to drive off after taking only two photos.
Who does this?!
I said angrily, loudly.
Who kills harmless, innocent people in cold blood?!
150 kilometers per hour. 151..152, 159…
A racing car, two racing hearts, hundreds of fleeing people.
Fleeing from evil men who hide behind guns and ideologies.
To these men and women who hide behind terror, I have one message, “you cannot take what is not yours. We all belong to God so stop stealing from Him or you will face His wrath.”
To the government of Kenya and other African leaders my message is simple, “I know that terrorism is a global problem but I also know that people are dying locally. This must stop. Raise your game, change your tactics, fight the ideological warfare too, protect your citizens.”
To my fellow Kenyans, Africans and human beings, I have words for you, ‘don’t turn a blind eye to terror because then you will not see it coming. Lets us take care of one another.’
When The Growler finally made it to Malindi in record time, I felt like crying then cried.
Tears of joy that we had fled successfully. Tears of sorrow for those who had lost their lives.
Tears of anger and pain for the terrorists who lost their lives already even though they live.
Tears of hope that tomorrow will be safer for all.
‘The international community failed Rwanda and that must leave us always with a sense of bitter regret.’ These were the words of the then United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan in 2004 during a genocide memorial conference.
In April 1994, Juvénal Habyarimana , the then Rwandan Hutu president was killed when his plane was shot down. This triggered a genocide that took place between April and July, leaving an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus killed. Later that July, the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) captured Rwanda's capital Kigali and proceeded to take over power.
With the shadow of the genocide hanging heavily over it, Rwanda began the painful and difficult rebuilding process. But how do you rebuild a country whose very social, economic and political foundations had been demolished during the genocide? Every new day in Rwanda provides different answers to this question.
Twenty years after the genocide, rebuilding is still ongoing in a halting, yet steady manner. Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame once addressed this complex interaction between his country’s past and future during a State banquet in honor of Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni.
“I think all people are shaped by their own life experiences and have within them the motivation and wisdom to deal with challenging situations, something that allows them to chose fight over flight. They fight not only for their survival but also for a better life. It is also true that by confronting extreme adversity as we did, people draw lessons that help them find solutions to daunting problems.”
So what lessons has Rwanda learnt?
According to President Kagame, some key lessons are to be found in governance and leadership. Before 1994, the Rwanda Patriotic Front had a singular, overriding goal of liberating the nation. Once liberation was attained, the president transferred his sense of mission and intensely focused approach to governing. It is a vindication of his decisive leadership that Rwanda is now standing head to head with its older, bigger neighbours like Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
Some fault President Kagame’s approach as dictatorial. The Guardian Newspaper’s Chris McGreal interviewed President Kagame and unearthed some very interesting insights into the fifty-six year old Rwandan President.
Despite the misgivings, grave or otherwise that one may have of President Kagame, there is no denying the fact that Rwanda has made strides that would have been unimaginable in the aftermath of the genocide. Apart from the national strides, Rwanda is now a key player in East Africa. The fact that the East African Community is now being led by Dr. Richard Sezibera, a Rwandan national, has thrust Rwanda right into the heart of the regional body. On a bilateral level, Rwanda continues to cultivate mutually beneficial relations with all the other four East African Countries.
Particularly special is the relationship with Uganda, which occupies a unique place in Rwanda’s history. Uganda hosted thousands of Rwandans before and during the genocide, many of whom were involved in President Museveni’s own struggle to oust the dictatorship in his country at the time.
Indeed, President Kagame has credited this particular Uganda struggle for having inspired and strengthened the resolve of Rwandans in their own subsequent struggle.
Rwanda is miles ahead of other African countries in gender equality and parity. In 2008, Rwanda’s parliament became the first in the world to elect a majority of women. One third of cabinet positions are also held by women. On the legislative front, Rwanda has put in place land reforms that include gender parity in ownership of communal land.
In the private sector, Rwanda has a one-stop center for investors and has made investing in the country an efficient, seamless experience. Because of changes implemented in 2008 and 2009, the World Bank recognized Rwanda as the world’s top reformer in adopting business regulation reforms. Consequently, the Bank raised Rwanda’s ranking in the World Bank “Ease of Doing Business” indicators from 143 in the world to 67, the largest single year increase by any country since the World Bank first published the rankings in 2003. Rwanda now ranks 58 in the world, first in Eastern Africa and fifth in Africa.
But when the coin is flipped, the conflicting realities of today’s Rwanda begin to take shape. It is undeniable that the country has made great strides on the path of reconstruction, development and governance. However, this victory strides seem to have left bits and pieces of failure in their track.
The United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Report of 2013 ranks Rwanda 151 in the world, consigning it in the category of countries with low human development. This ranking uses the Human Development Index (HDI), which is a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education and general standards of living.
As per this report, many Rwandans are still not reaping the fruits of their country’s growth and progress.
These conflicting realities must however be viewed through the lens of pragmatism. For starters, Rwanda has had the twin challenge of addressing reconstruction and development at the same time. Within reconstruction, is the complex matter of reconciliation. Explicit ethnic identity has no place in this climate of reconciliation. Although some say that criminalizing or suppressing ethnic identity has the potential of backfiring years or even decades down the road and resulting in recrimination.
Such difficult crossroads are not uncommon in Rwanda. Black or white is a luxury that the country just doesn’t have, leaving it with many grey zones. It’s never really this or that. Prosperity and justice for all is neither here nor there.
Just like any other country, Rwanda has both rich and poor citizens. Just like the United States keeps reaching out for a more perfect union, Rwanda too has fallen short of perfection on many fronts, more so in the sensitive matter of media and political freedom together with the pressing issues that that have left it in the bottom tier of UNDP’s Human Development Report. Since this report focuses on the overall wellbeing of a people and the sustainability of that wellbeing, Rwanda still has a long struggle ahead. However, the same report ranks Libya as the top country in Africa. What?! Exactly..
President Kagame touched on Rwanda’s long struggle in a previous July 4th Rwanda Liberation day address, ‘the struggle to reclaim our dignity, the struggle for progress, the struggle for Rwandans to live in security, peace and tranquillity, to be in good health, to earn a good education, to work and develop; such struggle is not, and has never been, easy. In such a struggle we must expect to encounter many hurdles.’
Hurdles. Indeed, this is the one word that sums up Rwanda’s conflicting realities. Gender parity at top levels yet gender empowerment at grassroots level struggles. An investment boom in urban areas even as rural folks struggle for basic needs. For external observers, these realities may be a vindication of failed policies. Yet they are just examples of hurdles – difficult problems – that Rwanda has to address in an honest and decisive manner.
As Miguel de Cervantes the sixteenth century Spanish writer said, ‘the worst reconciliation is better than the best divorce.’ Rwanda’s reconciliation, reconstruction and development efforts may be falling short but at least they are being undertaken. For every word that points out Rwanda's problems, there must be two that provide solutions.
Muhamadi bin Abu Bakari aka Kijuma. This is the name of a man who is Kenya’s answer to Leonardo da Vinci, the legendary Italian polymath, a person who is skilled in many things. Leonardo was a painter, sculptor, architect, scientist, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, astronomer, cartographer, botanist, historian and writer.
Like Leonardo, Kijuma could do it all. He could sing in a clear, melodic voice as he played the kibangala stringed instrument; write analytically on different topics like religion and Swahili culture; draw letters that seemed to dance like Lamu’s coconut trees; recite mashairi (poetry) effortlessly; dance like the waves that slammed Lamu’s shores every moment and carve wood as if he could touch the soul of trees.
Born in Lamu Island around 1850, his mama nicknamed him Kijuma. As she thanked God for a son and held him in her hands, she couldn’t have known that she was holding a legend.
She couldn’t have known that the little baby with his tiny eyes closed as he slept peacefully after suckling, would open the eyes of the world to Swahili art and culture in its spoken, written and carved form.
Kijuma believed that the Swahili culture was so precious that it should be preserved for future generations and the world to benefit from it. Armed with this belief, his songs, poetry and carvings were not just for entertainment but also for preservation.
But have we preserved Kijuma’s memory and legacy fully? Do we celebrate him as our very own legend?
I remember when I visited Uffizi Gallery in Florence Italy, one of my main motivations was to see original paintings by Leonardo da Vinci. In fact, I only got to know that a town named Florence existed when I read that that Leonardo was born there.
When I finally entered Uffizi Gallery, my heart beat faster than sukuti drums as I stood before Adorazione del magi, one of Leonardo’s paintings. It features a baby in the delicate, protective arms of a young woman with a chubby face.
She is gazing at the baby lovingly and is surrounded by a crowd of people whose big brown beards and flowing robes are accentuated by the gentle hues of the painter’s brush. The more I looked at the painting, the more I began to notice things that are not visible at first glances. To the extreme left are horses that seem to be flowing into and out of the crowd of people.
What an incredible painting.
I exclaimed when an aide at the Gallery told me that Leonardo had been dead for almost five hundred years.
Then how come everyone talks about him and his paintings look totally fresh?
Just like Leonardo Kijuma was talented in many, many ways. He could sing in a clear, melodic voice as he played the kibangala stringed instrument; write analytically on different topics like religion and Swahili culture; draw letters that seemed to dance like Lamu’s coconut trees; recite mashairi (poetry) effortlessly; dance like the waves that slammed Lamu’s shores every moment and carve wood as if he could touch the soul of trees.
He was true to his Muslim faith and travelled to Mecca four times. But he also embraced people of other faiths, races and cultures. Some of his closest friends were the European Christians who travelled thousands of miles to come and learn from him. They include Ernst Damman, a German scholar who was a close friend of his.
Just as I travelled all the way to Florence Italy, with the main motivation being to see Leonardo da Vinci’s birth town and feast on his original paintings, what would happen if someone travelled from Italy to Lamu to see Kijuma’s birth place and feast on his artistic works?
Would that person be able to listen to the music that he played? Maybe not the actual music but an example of that music.
Would that person be able to see the doors that he carved, not in a photo but live and easily?
Would that person be able to read some of Kijuma’s writings and even see original copies?
The Lamu museum has done a good job of sharing some information about Kijuma. But more can be done to remember and celebrate him. Almost everyone celebrates the skills of Messi and Ronaldo because they are consistently reminded of these skills most weekends through live football games.
Similarly, Lamu needs constant and well organized reminders of Kijuma’s genius and indeed, all other heroes of this great island.
Remembering Kijuma doesn’t mean exalting him above others because it is God who gives talents. All the more reason why Kijuma’s talents should be celebrated as they remind us of the great potential that God has placed in each one of us.
“Can you believe that guy just did that?” I said to myself in utter disbelief. My mouth hung ajar, my anger was rising, yet a sense of helplessness came over me. Yesterday on my walk back home from the market, I saw one of the most disturbing things I had ever witnessed in my 24 years of life. A grown man who seemed to have no relationship with a street child I saw attempting to cross the road, grabbed the young boy of no more than 10 or 11, taunted him, and then threw him to the ground with no more thought than one would give a piece of litter. And, I might mention that this was all done during rush hour on one of Kigali’s busiest streets and in the presence of one of the man’s accompanying friends at that.
Why I asked myself? What had this little boy ever done to this grown man? Could they possibly have history that I knew nothing of? And if so, does that merit a grown man throwing a young boy to the ground? No, I defiantly told myself yet my steps, riddled with guilt, dictated otherwise as I walked in the opposing direction. I longed to reach out to the little boy who with the same ease as he was thrown to the ground, got up and proceeded on his quest to cross this busy Kigali street, probably not even realizing why what had happened to him was not only wrong, but unacceptable. And, that is where the discomfort of yesterday continues to emanate from.
The young man, too, saw himself as being worthless yet worthy of such treatment because he was a street child. He didn’t have fine clothes, his day to day survival came from panhandling and lending himself to the mercy of unknown powers on a day-to-day basis. And for him, the future was unsure. Sound familiar?
I cannot help but find myself thinking of the continent’s economic development, as I reflect on the horror I saw yesterday. Like a street child, we have been ingrained with a notion of being less than and seemed to have more than willingly accepted it. Instead of us starting our own humanitarian missions to our respective countries, we eagerly send in our CVs to works with foreign organizations who then get to call the shots as to how our respective countries develop. For those of us who can afford it, we head west further solidifying the belief that our countries are hopeless. And like a street child, our efforts focus too much on immediate gain instead of laying down framework to design for long term impact.
This is not to dismiss those of us who are working towards change in foreign owned non-profits or who went to school abroad, but to cause each and every single one of us to ask ourselves why. Why is it that few African men and women are starting projects to change the state of their countries? Why is it that to make it, we must head abroad to receive a good education although there are schools in our own countries? Why have we accepted, for so long, that the continent wasn’t enough although all the attributes of success are already present in our communities?
It is time for the continent to be present in its development. Being present means consulting first with fellow compatriots for ideas, working with international actors but in a way that is collaborative, a partnership and not just Westerners dictating to African men and women as to how their countries should develop.
I understand that what I am proposing is easier said than done. Currently, there are many African countries plagued by security issues (Nigeria, Kenya, etc). Endemic corruption makes it impossible for not only foreign aid but the taxes paid by hard working African men and women in their respective countries to even be reinvested back in their local economies, just to end up in the pocket of an avaricious politician or big man. But still, there has been no better time than now to take ownership over the future of the continent.
If we continue to state the above problems, which are very real and require multilateral efforts to combat, we will be singing the same tune for decades to come, making marginal gains in the development of our respective countries. The answer to some of Africa’s most pressing dilemmas lies in the capacity of her people. Period. There are too many brilliant African medical professionals, lawyers, teachers, artists, and entrepreneurs adding to the development of Western countries who economically speaking, are already quite far ahead of most African countries.
Some of the most prominent and influential members of governing global bodies in Western countries are African men and women. Clearly that is an obvious indication that the talent, commitment, and passion the continent needs to truly shake off the cobwebs of colonialism and to destroy its everlasting structures lies in the people, however, when will we as Africans start to see that ourselves?
When will we start to ask ourselves, why not me? Why can’t I think of a solutions to HIV/AIDS? Solutions to the lack of infrastructure present in the education system of many African countries? Why can’t I aspire to be a president neutral of the influence of the West? When we start asking ourselves those hard questions and working collaboratively with all interested parties, then might we make progress and then might the continent become what she was destined to be: great.
I want to imagine an Africa where years from now, we speak of her progress and innovation the way we do the West and Asia. I want to imagine an Africa where when speaking of models of democracy (that is respective of African cultural norms) we cite an African country as an example. And, I want to imagine an Africa where its collective human capital genuinely believes that their countries have more to offer and that greatness is a part of their national destiny.
Until then, I find myself very much troubled as to what I saw yesterday and by the continent’s lack of progress. But even with the feelings of unsettlement, I still have hope for a continent that will one day realise that she was destined for greatness just as I have hope for the street child who in the present might appear to be nothing to many people, entrenched in endemic poverty due to structural instability, and someone who people can help when guilt consumes them, when they have an extra dollar to spare, or when it is in their interest to give to, but an individual nonetheless who has the potential to be at his best for in all of us lies greatness that manifests itself at different times, but is present nonetheless.