Spoken Like A Child: Wisdoms from the Heart

I just began my summer vacation here and I have had some time to think about life, to meet with friends new and old, and to create memories from camera moments some which I can laugh at and others which make me long for a simpler time, like when I was a child. I want to talk a little about children, and why I believe that the world can be changed through the eyes of a child.

Aime Cesaire, writer, activist and Africanist, among other accolades once said, wisely,” “Out of the sky, the birds, the parrots, the bells, silk, cloth, and drums, out of Sundays dancing, children’s words and love words, out of love for the little fists of children, I will build a world, my world with round shoulders.” Aime Cesaire who passed on this year holds a dear place in my heart for expressing the dreams of Africans everywhere, who dared to hope for freedoms that many in other parts of the world only whispered in their sleep, when the colonial master was not listening. I see the mother of two generations nursing her child in the middle of the Emergency in 1952 knowing that this child would have a better future, because we would be certainly free.

But this post is about more than just Cesaire, and thinking further on that quote, I wandered back to my own relatively idyllic childhood, filled with space to dream and imagine and achieve, where there was Whitney Houston singing, ” I am every Woman” and happy birthday songs and singing games. My earliest memories are fairly recent to many friends, I was a child of the 1990s, and schooled before the traffic congestion in Nairobi grew to its current mammoth state. We could cross town to go to school and I remember being on the bus, I must have been eight or nine, and thinking, “What am I doing in school, I need to be out there, doing a real thing, taking a place in society.” But the bus lumbered on to school, and little did I know that the years would indeed take me far away into multiple societies.

A dream brought me farther into the world than I have ever dreamed to date, where I am three continents and sixteen hours plane ride away from Kenya, where I started to dream.”Out of love for the little fists of children…I will build a world, my world with round shoulders.”My radio alarm wakes me in the morning now, and I roll out of the house going to my workplace. I sometimes wake up with a track playing that inevitably have a line urging people to ‘raise your fists in the air…keep your head up” and as I pen this post, I see a sea of children from all over the world lost in childhood games clutching at their toys and running amok, building hope that the future will be this simple, where the games they play have a fair outcome, that is what I think when I see a world with round round shoulders. I see children with a shoulder to lean on always. A shoulder you can put your arms around and hug, where you can feel secure. Yes, I see all these things at the crack of dawn when the sun creeps in through the blinds and Corinne Bailey Rae sings ‘Like a Bird’ and croons ‘when everything else is au fait, without a doubt you’re on my side,”

Aside from what the morning makes me think of, I do believe that educating children is key to the making of the world with round shoulders. I sought nothing but a story on a school in the memory of a mother, in Sukuma Kenya’s blog, when a passerby’s comment led me to Gabriela Mistral’s quote “We are guilty of many errors and many faults but our worst crime is abandoning the children, neglecting the fountain of life. Many of the things we need can wait. The child cannot. Right now is the time his bones are being formed, his blood is being made, and his senses are being developed. To him we cannot answer ‘Tomorrow.’ His name is ‘Today.’”Did you know that the Chilean was the first Latin American to win the Nobel Prize in Literature? When we silence children or fail to discipline them, we steal their future.

I had an early start to the day talking to two African American friends, separately about the Philadelphia school system and the cycle of despair. Two scenarios came to mind. That of the children of many of the black families here, whose homes are serially broken; whose siblings may be from different fathers, who may or may not be part of their lives; whose chances of completing high school are slim. The other scenario was of their demoralized teachers, paid so little to impart a world of wisdom on children whose frustrations with a culturally insensitive educational system made them feel like outsiders before they even began. We also spoke of the reasons why many children of color from lower middle class and poor backgrounds stop school and enter the workforce, too young to develop a critical mind and too jaded to consider the possibilities of pursuing a college education.

The coffee in my hand seemed colder after these conversations, and the comfort of a warm breakfast doing little to soother the intense sensation of looking into a very deep problem with no bottom, whose waters were so murky you dared not let your mind imagine the possibilities. What of children in the developing world, who woke every day to gnawing hunger for food, who watched their parents eke out a bare-bones living, a stripped down version of living poor in the west, which they only knew from the second hand clothes they wore that came from there. The children’s world, such as in Africa where they were oblivious to the fact that their future was being decided in Japan, people in suits discussing how much Africa would have from the global cake of resources.

After all the talking, and breakfast, and thinking, I turned to another wise quote, this time from a letter my Pa sent me: “In a world of scarcity you continue enjoying abundance that is not threatened. You enjoy health that many in the world will only dream about. You have hope that knows no boundaries.” I am truly fortunate to have these dreams, these ‘dreams from my father’ to paraphrase the title of Obama’s book. Where there could have been much despair, I have been blessed, and I appreciate every ounce of love, every drop of sweat from the village that raised me and got me to where I am now.

So today, love your children, your nieces and nephews, your students, your future. Let them know they can dream, and push them to the best they can be. Bless them with love, do not withhold your correction. Teach them to be independent. Reclaim your own childhood years, you came from two parents and have half of yourself from each, but your destiny does not lie in your birthright, you are 100 percent you.

And because I love encouraging women, I leave you with the lyrics to India Arie’s ‘Beautiful Flower’ – paraphrased and emphasis mine.

This is a song for every girl who’s
Ever been through something she thought she couldn’t make it through
I sing these words because
I was that girl too
Wanting something better than this
But who do I turn to

Now we’re moving from the darkness into the light
This is the defining moment of our lives

‘Cause you’re beautiful like a flower
More valuable than a diamond
You are powerful like a fire
You can heal the world with your mind

There is nothing in the world that you cannot do
When you believe in you, who are beautiful
Yeah, you, who are brilliant
Yeah, you, who are powerful
Yeah, you, who are resilient

This is a song for every girl who
Feels like she is not special
‘Cause she don’t look like a supermodel Coke bottle
The next time the radio tells you to shake your moneymaker
Shake your head and tell them, tell them you’re a leader

Now we’re moving from the darkness into the light
This is the defining moment of our lives

(song continues on…go fetch more lyrics online)


Creating a Black Eye : Gender Violence (Home & Abroad)

Wondering what happened after all the ruckus I raised over gender violence? Read on…

After the women’s month kicked off last month, I and many other students in school began to ask questions not only of the world, which has watched so many women be victims of modern atrocities in the systematic rape and abuse of women and children. One colleague started a campus wide dialogue on the Congo and Sierra Leone and the violence there, and we were fortunate to have Dr Sam Thenya visit and give a talk on gender violence in post-elections Kenya and the work of the Nairobi Womens Hospital.

Apart from acquiring a sense of conversation about the issue of international violence, women here started to talk about on-campus and around campus events of attacks from guys in the community, and how some were afraid to press charges. When does it become alright to hit your girlfriend, or to spike drinks and even the issue of date rape, among campus students. as if that were not enough, when will people start to say, “It is enough!”

In informal coffee house conversations and campus wide forums, many of the stories that women here shared involved the fact that nobody stood up for them when something bad happened, that they were often blamed or disbelieved,that their attackers were known to local authorities. I wish we could put up signs like “Beware of Human Dogs!” whenever we have an event in these sleepy suburbs.

I sense there is a wider dialog looking to open up. I always ask why people do not put pictures on their blogs. is it simply for the anonymity or are there some among the blogging community who blog because online they do not have to cover up black eye or otherwise explain to the rest of us why they are limping. Will we ever know their stories?

I have not even started sorting through the attitudes that people have towards violence in domestic issues. While my focus is on gender violence in post-elections Kenya, I have to look around where I am, where my sisters from all over the world walk around with their heads ringing from those humiliating slaps, kicks and punches, and where opposition to these abuses is masked by some misguided cultural notions.

Know something I have not highlighted, feel free to comment.

Autobiography of this Kenyan Computer User

Greetings salutations, and spring greetings! I am back.

In the last week or so, I have been learning a tremendous amount of info on the explosion of the internet in Africa, and have heard leapfrogging heralded as the next frontier for our continent. I could not help but reflect on my own evolution in the last few years.

So after looking at some of the reference articles on the subject, I heartily concluded that there is a great need to tap into the fastest growing tech spots on the market. Mobile phones and the internet. When I returned home last year, I found that many of the computers and gadgets that many of my classmates and friends have here are available on the Kenyan market. So much is the infiltration of these products, but there are the chargers and adapters that make the differing electric specs fluid. Pretty standard stuff. I also found that very many people had internet email access, or at least went online to check their messages and to keep in touch with people abroad.

Before I get into that, however, I have to add that there has been more than just a small attempt to kill our traditional values such as self reliance in society, through the development project, that is meant to rid Africa of its poverty. Dont get me wrong, we need the aid like a thirsty man needs his water, but Africa and other developing regions, affectionately referred to as the Third World, have to see that we have lost our ability to self regenerate.Like this blogger, who has started many posts and left them mid sentence, so are many of the projects that development aid began. They sounded like a great idea when they were started, but they went into two and then three paragraphs(years and decades) and now they are all the way in the pipelines, the seeds of great plans that just fell off by the wayside. I am guilty or abandonment,a nd neglect, even though nobody pays me to air my opinions to the world, let alone to the tune of the millions that the West paid out to African governments to build dreams.

To many of those who are fortunate enough to breathe the fresh air and eat the yummy organic food in Kenya right now, I suppose rehashing these facts is rather redundant, but would you be surprised to know that up to date, people still ask whether I have access to the internet back home in Africa, and whether I know about global events.This information, is for the many who have questions about that.

I shall attempt to build a profile of an internet user in Nairobi, based on my previous experiences.

Pre-1999 Watching other kids at school play Tombraider Version 1 and wishing I had a clue how to use a keyboard to type. Dream for when I grow up, learn to be a fast typist, maybe administrative assistant.

I was finishing primary school and found it fascinating that a few entrepreneurs had started internet cafes in the neighborhood charging KSh 2.50 a minute.  My first question going into these cafes was whether I would have to pay to get an internet address. At the time, I had a cafe assistant help me to login and get my first Yahoo account. I am thrilled, after all, I am on top of the tech world. I see $$$$ in one day opening a cyber too, with wireless no less.

High school days. So now, I have an internet address, but no way to access the internet from boarding school, so I am limited to the breaks in between school terms. My first attempts to program in my high school computer class. C++ decidedly makes me cry. I continue to program theoretically.On the outside world, access charges per minute drop between KShs 1 and less in certain cafes. Dream for future career is much larger, perhaps to be an advocate for intellectual property rights, having seen an abundance of pirated CDs and movies trade hands. Most prolific are the cyber cafes with resident music burning youth who charge Ksh 100 for almost a GB of music.

Post 2003.
I learn that all websites open differently in cybercafes depending on the browser. My typing speed increases, as I spend all my ‘chips’ money on checking email. There is never enough time to do all that I want online. I notice the increase in the number of cafes in the city center that have private booths. In my naivety I assume, that like me, many people do not like the inbuilt nature of people at the cybercafe to read over their shoulder to the windows to the left and the right of them. Not wanting to be an advocate any longer. I pen this blog response about how I want to work in a cyber and there are few people who take women in computing seriously if at all.

FForward to 2007: I met more than a few people in KE  who proved me otherwise when I sat down to hear about their innovation; from Kenya-centric client side applications; the urgency of understanding IPv6 and migrating by the new dates. There are trained and passionate people in tech in Kenya. Here in the US, everyone with a M$oft frontpage thinks that they can create websites, but at home, I saw that not only are many designers working without many of the pricey software applications, but being innovative, but more than adept as open source software creation and integration.

My pride about being Kenyan is those working tirelessly to make those technology ideas come out of the discussion rooms and the thoughts to the forefront. And yes, few are willing to pay the initial costs, but we will reap a certain reward. Hongera!(Congrats) Kenya

Reflective: So there has been a marked hiatus from blogging, but I am happy to report that I am back. I realized when I do not blog there has to be an outlet, and I have yelled at trees for many many weeks without a few typekeys for my beloved blog.

I have to thank M for the poem on “Beginnings” that truly reflects how I went through a very positive reflective moment thinking of how life is precious. I regret nothing. I have opportunities and I will be the first to admit that I will be there, counting my blessings!

Woman Against Violence: A Beginning Should Be More Than A Start

Toni Morrison said, ” Beginnings must do more than simply just start.” Thinking over the last two months and the changes in Kenya, I see so much more in her words. Sitting, phoning, lying awake late into the night, I thought of the real victims in the post-elections violence, women. Since we have determined that Kenya will never be the same, this year 2008 is a new beginning for us. We must decide how to approach Kenyans once again, and relearn how to talk around tribe and ethnicity, and of course politics.

I must go beyond my anger with the politicians, who have much more in common with each other and with mutual political survival, and focus on how to do something tangible to empower( note that I cannot really help the situation if I aim just to hand out things and words of kindness) If we have to start donating, then this beginning is not yet mature, because our co-operation for the humanitarian crisis in Kenya cannot end there. This beginning is a call to re-build. As an African, as a Kenyan and as a woman, my activism has barely begun.

My angst one night in January knew no bounds and reached a crisis when I heard from female family members, and while I was so relieved that are all well, caught myself about to sigh for relief, until I thought of the other women who went to women’s group meetings with my mother, my grandmothers and my aunts. Ruefully, I reflected on my own efforts and saw the stark reality that I was doing nothing but sitting at a computer reading the news.

It seemed obvious to an outsider, but I did not realize how powerful an African woman’s voice is in the call to action. The pictures and the presence of those women and their children who had been displaced kept me up at night and kept my eyes wet with tears. It dawned on me that there was nothing that I had done that qualified me for my safety, my travel and my education. Any of them could have been me, and it could have been my cracked heels that dodged arrows, machetes and my wails could have pierced the night sky at the loss of a child, a sibling, a spouse or a neighbor.

Come February first, I had not taken any real steps to do anything about the story, the one of the silent rape of women, blamed on their tribe, being in the path of a gang, and those attacks on men, forcibly circumcised or sodomized, that those were my brothers, were leaders, my countrymen. Living in a nation now, where there are still not enough women in leadership, I remembered all the great women who had served as my mentors, and as my teachers, who believed that I was good enough.

I remember going to visit a Kericho family who had hosted me when I was ten and on a school trip to Kericho. Or those women who eked out a living as in Mombasa and Malindi, whose livelihoods depended on the tourist visits in the peak season, who would be laid off from their jobs and have to take to the streets. I remember taking a fourteen hour bus ride both ways to Kampala and back to Nairobi last summer, when I passed through Eldoret and Kisumu and across the border to Uganda, and all at night, since I prefer to travel. Was it true that if I took the same trip now, I may be pulled from a bus and killed for being from the wrong part of Kenya? Woman, girl and child, my memories of a happier time were not, unfortunately, the same as those of the children taken out of school to return to their homeland, with not a shred of their tribe language to their memory. But the violence was not mine this year, I could opt out of it.

The United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Violence against Women (1993) identified three main areas where violence against women occurs, namely in the family, the general community, and perpetrated or condoned by the State, clarifying that such violence can take physical, sexual and psychological forms.” The violence on ones emotional state has yet to find a scientific measurement that counts the level of abuse women take on a daily basis.

I believe that gender violence activism is the most under-reported effect of the recent violence in Kenya. Outside of Nairobi, where the harshest news emerged, amid the uprooting, women were still expected to continue their roles as nurturers and care-givers in the internally displaced camps. If she was the one who was from the minority community, she had to leave, and if he was the one who was a minority, he had to leave or worse yet, was beaten within an inch of his life, or killed. She still had to get up the next morning and fetch water and make a meal and take care of their home.

Was the violence perpetrated or condoned by the state? As policy makers debate these questions and broker peace, I am not alone in assuming that she did not have a choice as to whether the group of armed men could enter her homestead and ransack everything including her dignity and her body. Nor do I think that now, as the family sits in the camp waiting for the next inadequate ration of meals, that she can avoid the pressure to go and sell her body for a little more posho(ground cereal) for her baby. As I sit in my cushy seat trying to see who from the U.S is sending things in a container, I doubt that she can afford to wait for my secondhand clothes nor my canned string beans, or even sit to think about whether the peace will make our wealthy leaders more considerate, or not.

I doubt that the girl whose early marriage has been speeded up for more money to salvage the family will pen a letter to our overpaid members of parliament to buy her freedom, nor will the fresh wound of a newly initiated female genital mutilation(fgm) survivor cover the hole in her heart from the brutal rite carried out to prepare her for the new school year. Still yet, it is unlikely that the woman whose partner welcomes her return to their tent with a shower of patronizing slaps will stop because Kofi Annan and his team got our esteemed leaders to sign to a solution.

You can learn that one in three women is a victim of abuse. Yes, one in three,
If you do not know already, March 8 is International Womens’ Day, look for events in your area and attend.
If you have sisters, daughters, partners, spouses, mothers and other relatives, imagine how you would feel if anyone harmed them, and think about what has been keeping you from activism, from speaking to men about gender violence.
When you next read a story about Kenya, if you see a picture of a child, remember its mother, the siblings, and the future for a woman in rural Kenya today.

I dedicate this post to the women who have endured violence in war zones and conflict areas. Darfur, Bosnia, Kenya, Democratic Republic of Congo and here in the United States

Chai and Ngwaci(Sweet Potato) Hospitality

Here is one way i have been chasing home-style food. It is a story about breakfast and me. This particular selection works for any meal however…

My favourite breakfast for the longest time was hot, sweet ginger tea and a baked sweet potato. It has been a long time since i last ate this meal. I just had to put out this recipe for the greater palate to appreciate.

How to Make the TEA
(Disclaimer: To each his own tea making recipe)
Grate raw ginger. You need just but a pinch so dont go overboard.
Boil water with ginger as per the number of cups of tea, as in, three cups for three ‘chais’.
Let the mix boil for about 10-15 mins depending on how strong you want the tea.
Add tea leaves to your taste.
Allow the mix to boil for another 7-12 minutes.
Turn off the heat
Sieve the mixture into cups and fill up each cup 3/4 of the way. The other room is for milk, which you heat separately and add, or add cold for an instant cuppa!

The Baked NGWACI(Sweet Potato)
Wash the potato(s) scrubbing them clean.
Bake/Grill/Roast the potato until you can pass a knife through its skin to the flesh

Ideally do these two cooking things simultaneously.

In the absence of the ‘kienyeji'(commonly available and non standard ingredients) as i now find myself doing.

For the TEA
Use a ginger tea brand like Peet’s and use a teaspoon or two for the boiling water.
For the NGWACI
Look for local equivalents. Be warned that some varieties cook faster than others so watch out.

Enjoy this meal with others.

What’s in a Name?

Recently i had a visit to my childhood memories as i sat reminiscing with family. I recalled with no small nostalgia how i wished i had names like some of my friends, Cherop, Mwende and Adhiambo when i was younger and we all went by our English names. As per custom, i was named for my grandmother as she was named for hers, ad infinitum. I wouldn’t want to change that, what with the crazy mess at the registrar’s office if you want to change your name.

Nevertheless, i want to see change in the way we name our kids. Why do we insist of names that are from so far, like Alphonse and Stephanie(no beef with any bearers of those names), but we cannot have, for instance, a Kikuyu child named Moraa, even though both her parents are Kikuyu? I mean, arent beautiful names locally born and bred.

I applaud those who name their children in Swahili, as that trend is exactly what we need. Every time i hear a Baraka or a Neema, a smile spreads across my face. I feel that our African names are widespread in the west. We hear of Kenyattas and Kenyas among populations here, so why don’t we do the same for our own families and communities?

I have a unique African name and spend time teaching people how it is pronounced. In the US, people want names like ours, so why don’t we want them for ourselves?

African hospitality

Whenever you go to visit an African home, here are things that you must find in abundance, sweet hot tea and warmth.

Having lived in the US for almost a year I can count the number of times i have felt genuinely welcomed. Maybe the East Coast is not the place to look for the streetwalk greetings and communal atmosphere that i grew up with.

Mostly i do not mind. I just always have to remember not to think of the people here like they are African. What this means is that i have to remember that not everyone will.

-Greet me with a genuine smile(i dont even need to see teeth)
-Offer me anything, except banter for conversation
-See my smile for what it is worth, a real glimpse into a happy life, fulfilled,enriched and open for the sharing.

Maybe i judge people too harshly. I am yet to go to the South, whose people are very different.

I am happy to say that there are gross exceptions to this rule.
Not everybody wants to be the cold Easterner…