Tuesday, December 28, 2010

For the two of you


All those times now long ago
When my young fingers ran along the curtain folds,
Searching for that airy slit
To slip away from the frightening role
Carved and etched into the wood
Of our travelling chest that is painted maroon.

Dear love did you know even then
though you were barely twenty-one
My heart had come to wait upon
The sound of your solo applause;
A steady clap coming out of the dark
After each closing scene.

All those star-strewn black skies now gone
That hung like umbrellas
Above my childlike thoughts.
My small leaning back against the yellow balcony bars
And I a barefoot voyager on deck
Desired shores of warm, dry ground.

But instead I awake in a story book land
Drawn here by the little crawling guide
Whose forehead against my shoulder leans
And his restless knees upon my lap
Becomes the constant draw
That leads to my cheerful stay.

Sitting here this night my fingers conduct
A lively dance of three:
One pair of quick wood needles and a ball of green wool.
I travel through stage curtains and starry umbrellas
Then return home to the onward swinging knit,
And to the two of you.

I think often of our old paintbrush holder
Who sits unseen and in a gallery antique;
He spreads colours and coats on canvas pages
Of beautiful books that tell the tale of our lives
And places each one in our travelling chest
That is painted maroon.



A poem for the boys
written on quiet Epiphany nights
following Christmas day.


Friday, December 3, 2010

a drawing of a woman facing the light





Woman facing the light
I have not given you all that you are due,
I have gruffly pulled you out of my chest and smeared you onto newsprint
The dishes on my counter are starting to smell funny
The baby will be up from his nap
And whatever it takes, I swear there will be delicious chicken Alfredo and broccoli to feast on tonight,
I will light a candle and buy some white wine, and make desert in the toaster oven because the oven is
Toast and because my patient husband has patiently borne one too many scrap and leftover dinners
For most of the week.

Woman facing the light
I have not given you all that you are due
Frankly because I don’t know how, I have never been one to tame and refine skill.
I just wanted you here quickly, like an impatient toddler waiting
To be loved and nursed and released back to her business

Woman facing the light
I feel like in your far away home,
That lives deep in the earthy core of my center
God is a lovely lady
That is dignified and strong and picks up our scattered prayers
And breaks down when the babies are crying
Perhaps even wears an intense expression
Like this Woman facing the light.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

raining

Tonight it's raining raining raining. Don't be saddened by my sadness, I swear tomorrow I'll be hopeful and strong. For tonight the streets are wet, wet, wet. There is a big twinkly tree in the square. The teens are laughing and jumping in the paddle rink. What the hell is this place? So much love and joy and shit and agony. There is a boy in the bus shelter, he has long straggly hair. She pretends to understand him and he carries on about studying film and loving Westerns, American Self-Determination, he loves the style, he has to catch the bus, she is standing there, left soaking in all of it. I feel tired by it all. Not just the long haired student, all of it, the whole scene, the tree, the teens, myself, it all seems kind of pathetic, and I know I am sad. This city is drenched tonight. I'm thinking of a Gandhi-style hunger strike. A fast, I guess. Until all the dark water dries up and we are laughing and spinning, spinning, spinning, in the sun, our fingers grasped, our palms clasped. Do you remember the rings I bought for us, when we were teenage girls? "Best friends" engraved in blue petals. There were flowers everywhere that year. On the jean pockets, on the print t-shirts, on the purses, bell-bottoms reminiscent of the 60s. Mummy thought they were so funny. Do you remember how we were going to get an apartment together? When we were twenty, in the far far future. I can't make this fucking rain stop. I had to say it, I am sorry. But standing here, in this bus shelter, pretending not to care that everything is getting ruined by the water; fighting to save them when I can't do a thing to salvage our fabrics. And all the while listening to the oblivious chatter about nothing. Do you remember that "midsummer night's dream" play by the Older Girls at Potch? What about the night we sang "Shepard of My Soul?". We harmonized and it was our moment to feel special. Do you remember hiking at Ngong Hills? Or the Stop over in Amsterdam? Do you remember Mummy drawing the cross in the flour before mixing it into the boiling water? Do you remember our room with the big window and the bright yellow walls? And laughing, at night, before bed, until our belly's hurt and we got into trouble. Look outside, I think, It's stopped raining for the night.



"By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion."



Psalm 137:1

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

autumn and a garden







From the last two weeks of August I have had an unexpected gift of being home with my darling one and a half year old son daily. Today during his nap I had some thirty minutes of standing around our young wild looking vegetable garden that consists of some herbs, twigs, weeds, two determined strawberry plants, a cheerful crowding of cherry tomatoes, and a few leafy plants of Kale permited to grow by protective thistles that triumphed over little hungry garden visitors.

In months of mid-summer, when the afternoon is very quiet, one can find herself swatting away at boredom, or even less welcome, the looming buzz of lonliness. But solitude and quiet in the Fall is a comforting mug of cider. The earth is a cathedral of orange and red stainglass and silence calls the heart to mystery and adoration. Things are whole in the Fall, beauty and death have found each other in a lovely mandola and we know that if the earth has done it, it is okay to surrender.

I also have been appreciating the way in which this small vegetable patch crouched beside the deck has grown a personality in recent weeks. It's expanded beyond an amature attempt to grow something in the suburbs, or hasty trips to the garden centre, or even kind advice at the office. With foilege drying up in preperation for the sacred ritual of dying, it has taken a kind of enchanted posture toward the world, one of having always been, knowing old secrets.

I am thankful for this garden and the manner in which caring for it invites me to a greater awe for the beauty that surrounds me. Beauty that is a Good Creator, and the loving man in my life. Beauty that is in my little son, his wild looking curls. He too has grown a personality in recent weeks and taken an enchanted posture towards his world. My heart is filled with mystery and adoration.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

red, insatiate


Should we not now be emerging
From that merciful sustaining fog
That allowed us enough sagacity
to bring jerry cans and cooking pots to the pump
To care for toddlers.
To vote.
To rush about and build this our Land and Nation.
To roll out the red cloth for the dignitaries
with arms full of capital investments.

For when the rooster called out that
the night had walked away and day had come to this village.
There were tasks that had to be done.
It was 1957, it was 1963,
The dark had been long, and it was good to be standing.
Dashing about, fighting, churching
and sleepwalking to keep this village running.

But now we are awaking,
One by one, group by group
We are emerging to the pounding shriek,
There has been a rape!

Intruder in our village,
Moved through windy dark air
Ravaged, Stole, Stabbed.
Took stories from the chests of dreaming children,
Placed Jerry cans in the grip of sleeping mothers,

We are awaking,
Rising and falling,
Harrowing wails,
Steadily fastened hands and souls,
Pouring red
Insatiate.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Shaking Hands

Shaking hands,
We have talked and passed each other by,
But yet to have a formal greeting
I am the grandchild, the child of the postcolonial generation!

All grown up, all by myself.
We won’t touch on my father and mother.
Funny we should meet here though…on your playground, with your rules.

It’s fitting that we should be watching your children on the swings,
Me and you standing here, hands clasped behind our backs,
exchanging ideas….
Yes, I do speak eloquently! Never-mind that scar, it shouldn’t be a problem.

Don’t look so uneasy, I’m not here to destroy you.
Have a sit. Look me in the eye.
That’s a good idea, let us appeal to the dead and bring them to the table.
Let us talk to my dead as well.

Look at the time, my brother and sister will be waiting for me.
He is posted at the Corrections Centre and Studies at your University, She lives at Social Services and eats at the Church on Smith and Mill, He works at the Reserve and she frequents Immigration, we thought we were strangers, connected only by systems and institutions, until it was clear that I am the child, we are the grandchildren of the postcolonial generation. All grown up. All by ourselves.

You have a strange look in your eye, you must be remembering,

My mother

and my father.

Well, same time tomorrow!


Read

Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child Lyrics

here.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

I simply come

okay, i'm going to keep it raw on this one, there is no drawing or pretty poem. Just me sitting on my living room floor during Babu's nap time listening to Matt Redman's Heart of Worship, a long time favorite song. It's all in the second lyrics of the first verse:

"When the music fades, and all is stripped away, and I simply come.."


That is something of what I feel right now, not because I'm in the depths of despair or suffering. Quite the contrary I know I'm blessed. I have a wonderful son, a good husband, an air conditioned living space, a dishwasher and a B.A from a private University (I'm still working out if the private university part is blessing or a curse seeing as i am up to my neck in debt) but I guess the point is that for all the shit that is out of place, I know that I am blessed.

However, there is the small and big things (depending on my mood and perspective from day to day) that are in fact seemingly out of place. I still can't seem to get hired in my area of passion and training, I'm struggling to get through a post B.A degree while juggling child care, bills, etc. I can't stay on top of the dishes or my debt and God knows I'm trying.

I'm living in two realities right now, on one hand I'm blessed and at shalom. On the other hand I feel anguish and frustration at messed up plans and deep disappointments in relationship, convictions, and aspirations. A Woman Guide and Professor that I had during undergrad would describe this as "holding the tension of the opposites". It sucks but apparently produces some kind of significant insight...we'll see!

The thing that makes me crazy is that sometimes I feel that I have all the answers. I mean, I don't even know what to ask, because the answer seems obvious. There was a time that I just thought I could be happy if all my problems were solved. If my husband didn't disappoint me anymore and I learned to be a better wife. If I became a better mom and mastered a healthy routine and got Babu to eat a pea or a carrot (God help that child), if I finally woke up before Izaka did and jogged around the pond by the park, if I got my long awaited amazing job changing the world, cleaned the basement, paid my debt....

and then the good creator just kind of showed me that the list was endless and that live was short. So now it seems my whole effort is trying not to get tangled by the list.

And some days are a success...sunshine, peace, contentment, shalom and a sense of being one with the Creator. I love my boys and I'm thankful for my life....

Here's the problem, something from that list always seems to still creep up...it's not as easy as doing away with the list, the list matters, I do have to clean the house and think up creative ways to make my one year old develop a deep appreciation for veggies, and I will always want to get that dream job as a community worker...it would be much easier if I could shut myself up in a monastery of profound drawings and serene prose....(and from time to time I can and I'm glad I do) But sooner or later I have to exist in this here garden in which the creator has placed me...it is a cursed place and a ransomed place.

It's like my flower bed out front...sooner or later the weeds always push out of the soil and threaten it's beauty and the wellness of the plants.

To be quite frank in recent weeks I've kind of taken a break from maintaining the flower bed upfront, I'm too tired and at this point it's not a priority. I'm glad our Good Gardener doesn't get tired or demotivated. He always thinks me beautiful and sees much reason to till away and strip away.....until, I simply come.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Whom Shall I Fear?


"The feeling remains that God is in the journey, too". (Saint Teresa of Avila)

When I was very small I used to take the early bus home. The school day ended at Lunch for young pupils in standard one and two. I would ride alone in the hour long Nairobi city bus and then alight at the white gates of the Seminary school where my parents worked and studied. There was a long red dusty road between the gates of the school and the living accommodation compounds, as the years went by and I got bigger I learned to brave the walk on the dusty long red road, but at five and six, the dread of missionary dogs in compounds that lined the road and aggressive cow herds that often shared the road and forced little children into the ditches was far to intimidating.

My mother was sensitive to my fears and always sent our live-in-care-giver that we knew and loved as our Auntee to meet me at the bus stop. In the heat of midday, I can still picture a uniformed smaller me, with a canvas knapsack hanging from both shoulders. I remember taking a rather high jump from the bus into a cloud of red dust that was created from the aggressive giant wheels of a bus starting off. The bus would soon disappear down toward Dagoretti Market, taking with it a heavy smell of metal and petrol.

Auntee leaning against a fence just beyond the white gates could always quicken my tired feet, she was home and Shalom, a sight of protection after being small and overlooked in the harsh bustle and push of the crowded city.

If we are blessed (and I hope most of us have to some extent been blessed in this way) we have known the magic persistence of a womanly kind of guardianship. You can feel it in the firm hold of a kanga that wraps a toddler to the chest of a mother or perhaps from the fingertips of an aggressive typist in some building uptown at 6pm on a weekday, mothering community change.

Chinua Achebe, the notable African (Nigerian) writer argues that "stories create people create stories". I would agree. My narrative has formed who I am becoming and that which I choose to invite the world to share in through story. My story has included the persistent guardianship of a Womanly Creator who has met me on this healing path, and She has held me.

Whom shall I fear?









Matt Redman - You Never Let Go .mp3
Found at bee mp3 search engine

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

by the river





If nothing
near or far
could untie
your love from me

Then I will wait
by the river
I will wait

If nothing
here or later
could make you flee
and ran for from me

Then I will stand
by the water
I will stand

I've never really felt so broken. I've never really been so free.
Seems like all my happy endings fell through
But all your stories they were true.

There's nothing
in this traveling bag
the straw man god
has blown away.

So I will wait
by the river
I will wait


Your promised me
that it was good
and that the flow
would heal my wounds

So I will stand
by the water
I will stand

I've never really felt so broken. I've never really been so free.
Seems like all my happy endings fell through
But all your stories they were true.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

the resistance is here



Sauda,
He has been shaped not to hear you.
Don’t let your words ran like blood down to his shoes,
Gather your skirt and stories,
Raise up the youth and tie him close to your breast.
And begin to walk Sauda

The way you did on those interlocking hot red bricks of Noordbrug
Past the well kept rugby fields,
But this time your spirit will not fail you.

Walk Sauda, run if you must!
And when you arrive at that shaded place of trees outside the city,
Begin to thump your heel with a dance,
Thunder the ground with the consistency of a production line machine.
That sound you know too well
That filled a large building
Now sitting empty in the county of wellington.

Dance Sauda!
Dance till the suburban blinds and pulled back up.
And your father’s mother’s memory returns!
Dance and loosen the handshakes made in the dark Bretton Woods of New Hampshire!

Sauda, your heart is waning with the felt demand of resistance,
But from here on my doorstep, I can see the signal dust rising.
With hope in my tears
And my hands clasped above my head,
I quietly insist, Sauda,
Dance!


For those that boarded a bus this morning at the Waterloo Town Square
For the Movement Defense Committee, the Toronto Community Mobilization, KW People's Summit, and the Toronto People's Summit

For the undying demand that "Canada" sign and implement the UN Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

and for Migrant Rights.

Monday, June 14, 2010

my grace




my grace, wasn't it you that gathered me up under your wing?
What was it? oh yeah, as a mother hen gathers her chicks.



We had one of our traditional family dinners. Mumee made Chapati and Dengu.
I made chilli from my sisters recipe. It was my father's birthday, we think he is turning 52, but non of us are quite sure. His mother could tell you the season of his birth, if it was raining or if it was night, the rest of the details are for us to fill in. Somehow the eating, laughing, and story telling turns into a kind of bible charades. My mother and father were swept up in the 1970s revivals in East Africa that resulted in the shift of Christendom from Cities of Europe and North America to cities like Kampala and Nairobi. We were raised on scripture as if it was a daily staple....and that's why it is fun to see who can still get through a psalm from memory.


So, I love Jesus. It's just a fact of my existence. Yesu Christo is my Wounded Healer. So while I hate colonialism and the oppressive missionary context through which Christianity was brought to my people, and while I feel it is my calling to recover the narratives, mythos, and indigenous spiritual expression of my people....I try to live my journey as a follower of Christ.

In my walk I find myself in a constant, deep, sometimes overwhelming and immediate interaction with people who are vulnerable to societal suffering or oppression. Sometimes I'm broken, other times I'm filled with anger and resolve, and more often than I like, I have like an arrogant passion.

My Grace!

When this drawing first came to me, I was thinking about the struggle between gratitude and suffering. They pull towards each other and push against each other, like the dance of a tide. Sometimes when I'm lost in post-colonial literature or preparing a report for local politicians, I forget the ways in which my own voice can oppress. And I forget to honor the suffering of those very close to me, to allow it sacred space. But today my father reminded me, "Fanis, we must remember to show grace"

My father joins the game of charades and throws in John 14:1.

My father was a preacher and very harsh when we were young. Once I was having a nightmare when I was a child and called out loud. In a temper he locked me outside in the night. I have never slept in total darkness since then. Today I wanted to plant a vegetable garden so he handed me his tools. I told him that I missed my best friend, I'm sad and angry. "Fanis, we must remember to show grace".

My father was a preacher, I am more of a story-teller, and I do like the story near the end of the Book of St John the Apostle.

First you call them "My Children"

This is not so typical of you My Grace! But it does make me feel like that time you gathered me under your wing, remember, how did you put it again? Like a hen gathers her chicks.

You continue:
"My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, Where I am going, you cannot come.

"A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."


And then I ask you My Grace:
"Lord, where are you going?"

And you say:
"Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later."

My grace, when you walk past me like this, even though I know I am your child, when your skirts brush up briskly against my fingers, and then you are gone, I become scared of the dark, so please, before you go, give me gratitude.

You talk a little bit more, but I want to get to the part that I love. Now it's only a few more chapters before the end, but first you say:

"Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. "

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Talking on the bus


My earliest experience with race that I can remember was sitting in a pew in church in Kibera, Nairobi. My father was the pastor and a missionary family was visiting the Church. The girl had golden hair and she was sitting on the other side of my mother. I must have been three years old. She turned and my eyes met hers. I clutched my mother's arm.


 

"Mumee, her eyes are blue (in Swahili)" My mom smiled and replied in Swahili "Yes, white people (Muzungus) have peach skin, blue eyes and long noses. She would deny it now but I swear she that was her explanation. I remember also asking why my skin was darker than my sisters Flavia's, she told me it was bitter chocolate. I had tasted chocolate once or twice and I think to memory that is perhaps the prettiest I have ever felt. The bitter part didn't' really register, but at three years old, the world was mostly beautiful.


 


 

Walked up to the bus stop by the university last week, where I catch # 13

It was hot. He was standing in the glass bus shelter. We notice each other. I have never seen him before, but frankly we always notice each other. It's the blackness! It's a special kind that almost glistens in the sun's heat. Mostly you walk around completely oblivious to it, until you encounter it walking into a typically Caucasian restaurant in rural Ontario, or you bump into it in a bus stop, and the only question left to ask is: Where in Africa are you from? Because you know that this is the kind of blackness has not been diluted by slave ancestry, the intermingling of genes, or decades of separation from the Motherland. And so he asked!


 

Me: No….not Nigeria, Kenya! You?

Him: Me? Oh, me am from Ghana! But I have lived in Guyana for…15 years.


 

Me: Guyana, West Africa? (I was thinking of Guinea, like I said, it was hot)

Him: No, no, Guyana, you know, South America!


 

Me: Oh, by the Caribbean?

Him: Yes, yes!


 

Me: Black people?

Him: Yes, yes, and the…Indian, yes, but they speak English. But we are originally from Ghana!



 

Dark black as he may have been, He actually stood out more for his attire. Encountering my kind of blackness is still scarce but not all together shocking in my city anymore. Being the fourth largest receiver region for immigrants and refugees nationally, there has been an almost influx of newcomers from places like the Congo, and Sudan.


 


 


 

Talking about race [or my race in its particular shade] in this way almost feels a bit taboo and depending on the reader weird or unnecessary or uncomfortable. Or to others it might be even insulting; perhaps more so within black culture than outside of it, but it is anything but a "black" issue. I was darker than my sisters, not by much, but enough to feel it and hear about it in the playground. When I was little being lighter in tone, even by the smallest, slightest measure, was in fact being prettier. And of course for a young girl, prettiness is next to godliness. In my early childhood Nairobi, I may have been far from being the lightest girl, but I was not quite the darkest.


 

No such luck in South Africa 1995, we moved there when I was eleven years old. Understand this as a rule of thumb (proven by my personal observation not research): The closer in proximity to white people that black people live, the lighter they become over time. Such was my observation in Kenya society, people of the Kikuyu tribe, which had the closest contact with White Colonizers, happened to be demographically lighter skinned and the women had longer hair. So imagine the case in multi-racial South Africa, let's just say, we stood out!! It's really just a matter of biology, not magic. When we left South Africa, we settled in a small rural town in South Western Ontario, Canada. One of the whitest places on earth (except for the odd foster child) when my son was born, he was paler than his white father!


 

But going back to South Africa in the 90's, it was a special kind of psychological persecution for an eleven year old dark skinned Kenyan girl. Here we were in the new Apartheid free South Africa! It was a highly racialized South Africa. Nothing in comparison to my post-colonial Kenya; The only Whites I knew back home were nice bearded missionaries with spoiled children that gave us dirty looks [although we resented the children, it didn't matter much because the adults were always nice, they gave us candy, and gifts from America, and baked delicious cakes].


 

But S.A was a whole different thing. Like I mentioned it was a racialized society and even with Mandela in power, blacks were still low on the socio-economic hierarchy. And as for us, dark skinned foreigner blacks, we were at the very bottom. We felt stigmatization from White South Africans, Colored South Africans and Black South African's. We talked funny. We were untrained in the arts of living in proximity to whites in a way that I guess makes everyone comfortable, like hair relaxation. So we had what my current Jamaican hair lady would call a "wild woman" look. It was baptism by fire, but children have a way of catching things…they call it adaptation; in this case I call it something very different.


 

We were sponsored by missionaries to attend a rather privileged girl's boarding school in South Africa while my parents worked toward their doctorate degrees in Potchefstroom University. The School had recently begun enrolling black students but was mostly an English white school. We were day scholars as we couldn't afford the boarding school fees. I made one or two curious white friends, who were usually from the dork category or out-casted for some other pre-teen socially unacceptable reason.


 

The black girls on the other hand, would all but run in the opposite direction if they saw us coming. Sometimes they would snicker, or make comments about the hair. It was like we reminded them of something they much preferred to forget. I started to notice it too if I saw one of my sisters across the quad or at a parade, I thought to myself, is it just me or has Fla always been that dark? It too wanted to hide from it.


 


 

In S.A, I also quickly learned that whites are not friendly English speaking, bearded Muzungus with candy, gifts, and bratty children. From the perspective of an eleven year old they became mean Afrikaners, they became the woman at the store who looked at you mean for not knowing their language, the head mistress who embarrassed you at the school parade for not having relaxed hair, the group of teens on the other side of the fence who were rich and inaccessible, the boy on the bike who ran me down and called me a kefir (Afrikaans equivalent for niger) after spitting on me and the people at the Church who had us sitting in the back pews, and the woman who ran my small sister down with her car and didn't wait for help. When my nine year old sister was sent to Jo burg in an ambulance with a blood clot in her brain after the accident, we had some members of our Church who were also white bring us food, money, and sit with us. So it was never an uncomplicated and clear dynamic. But leaving South Africa in 1997 with my mother and sisters, I knew the world was something very different from what I had thought.


 

I learned something about race in South Africa, it was no longer a harmless or curious thing, it was a subtle barrier. I learned that society could be cruel.


 

While we lived in Kenya for 8 months after S.A, awaiting visas to join my father in Canada, I stole some change from a relative and went down to a canteen for a skin bleaching cream that sold for ten shillings. I remember rubbing it on my forehead at the age of 13 as if in some rite of passage into black womanhood. Looking back I now know that more than anything, in those two years, I had learned to hate myself…..to hate my blackness.


 

We board the bus. Like I said, it was his attire that made him stand out among the crowd of University aged students. It looked like a day's long work of general labor. He was at least middle aged. He sat on the same row.


 

Me: Are you going to watch the World Cup, we are cheering for Ghana.

Him: Yes, haha, we will see how we do; they went very far in Germany.


 


 

Life in Ontario Canada was far less racially tense for a young teenager, or so it seemed at least in the early years. We settled in the small rural town of Harriston, Ontario. We were a novelty and a curiosity more than anything else. Whenever we encountered ignorance it was more comical than offensive. We quickly transitioned into North American teenagers; we made frequent trips to the city to transform our hair into long braids. A boy I liked even once referred to me as Brandy from Moesha; this was to my great delight. To some rural teens we were a manifestation of a distant and enticing pop culture reality, some old folks were glad for the opportunity to recite their radical progressive ideas "why, I have no problem with Negroes, now my father was not too friendly with negroes, we once had a negro man from….now, where was he from…Jamaica, no..no…" [long pause...] "well…anyway, it wasn't Africa, I know he wasn't as dark as you…."


 

We would often nod politely and help them along, even affirm their warmth toward negroes, and then walk away in giggles. After all, these rural whites, with the crazy talk were a breath of fresh air in comparison to bratty missionary kids and mean South African headmistresses. So I grew up a bit more, accepting the social backdrop of a convenient interplay of happy ignorance, polite compliance. But Toni Morrison speaks truth when she writes that "All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was"


 

"The types of challenges facing newcomer youth are often grounded in socioeconomic disadvantage
and include such stressors as poverty, discrimination, and unemployment. The "at-risk" label is therefore a relative term, resulting from environmental as well as individual factors. The positive growth and adaptation of newcomer youth are dependent on the personal, social, and economic resources available to the individual, as well as to his or her family and community" (To Build Hope: Overcoming the Challenges Facing Newcomer Youth At-Risk in Ontario, Kilbride & Anisef, 2001)


 

My mother is dark skinned, she is tall and beautiful. We liked to watch her roll dough when we were children. My mother was the administrative assistant at a theological school when we were children. Her job was very busy, but she was always home to make super for us after school; even though we had Aunties living with us to help out with household duties. My mother always said that it was her job to bathe us and feed us. My mother was fourteen years old when she was told that there was only enough fees to put her two brothers through school. My mother worked as a house maid to put herself through night school. My mother loved to learn. My mother earned a PhD from Potchefstroom University in South Africa. My mother was told that her credentials did not transfer in Canada. My mother worked the night shift at the Campbell Soup Factory in Listowel for eight years. She was sleeping when we came home from school because she stayed up all day with my baby sister. My mother went back to school and got her Master's in Education at The University of Western Ontario, while working the nightshift. My mother was tired from working the nightshift and going to school when she was in a car accident on her way home. My mother could still not access the Canadian job market. She was told she needed to work on computer skills and communication skills because of her accent. My mother volunteered at the immigration agency in Waterloo Ontario. My mother applied for many jobs. My mother gained a diploma from Conestoga College to update her computer and communication skills. My mother called me on my cell phone. I'm driving home from school. It's my last year of undergrad and my first year of marriage. She had a job. A Christian Organization. I go home, my husband is sleeping, I get on my knees, I cry, I thank God. My mother is fired. They say that they can't understand her accent on the phone. They ask her if she has seen the movie Pretty Woman. She says no, she asks us about the movie. I don't know how to tell her it's about a prostitute. They tell her that although the lady in the movie had new clothes there is no way of changing who she really is. They tell her that she may have a PhD, but there is no way of changing the fact that she is from Africa. My mother is currently enrolled at Wilfred Laurier University, training to be a chaplain. My mother is dark skinned, she is tall and beautiful.


 

Me: Are you a student?

Him: No, no, I'm fifty-eight. I live with my daughter, my wife and I. I just came here; it's hard you know, a big (older) man like…to find work. I just work in the industry, you know, extra money, haha.


 

Me: Yes I know. The same with my parents.

Him: Yes, have to start over; I just get my license you know. G1! Then I have to get G2, G…..Agh!


 

Me: Did you drive in Guyana?

Him: Oh yes, haha, many years! They only take license from you know, England, Australia, they have arrangement. But we do what we can, haha, it's better than sitting at home. My wife and I, so we can give my daughter some space, get a place, you know. She has a family.


 

Me: I understand. I taught my father to drive. They didn't drive though when we came. But they had education; it's hard to get employment.

Him: Oh yes, a big man like me….you just come, do some work, make little money, go home. Haha. Waste of time, to try getting work. Now I leave that for my daughters, I have four daughters. One in the university. You go to the university?


 

Me: Yes, I study social work. My father also has five daughters

Him: Oh yes? How long you've been here?


 

Me: Almost ten years, first we lived in South Africa.

Him: I see. Yes I was a pastor, my church sent me to Guyana to do Church planting, you know. Have you been back?


 

Me: No, it's expensive.

Him: Yes, it's expensive.


 

Me: This is my stop coming up, it was nice meeting you.

Him: Yes, yes, thank you.


 

We shake hands. I alight.


 

I cross the highway toward our unit. My mind trails, Ghana…World Cup….South Africa…Immigrants…..my father still looking for a job…..I wonder if he can do childcare tomorrow…….My husband is not home yet....I wonder when he will return from work….he works hard, a bit longer, I will be done school, he can go back…..my little son…I wonder if he had his nap today, he has been teething…..My blackness talking on the bus.











Note: I use general language with regards to people groups to give an honest depiction of real childhood experience from childhood position/perspective/social location. Also in my journey I have benefited from loving community and friends of diverse racial/creed/lifestyle backgrounds.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Mzigo



Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear . . .

I was born but had minimal lived experience in a fishing town on the banks of the majestic African lake inappropriately named Victoria.

The shores of these vast waters are shared by three nations one of which is my home country Kenya. The town of Kisumu where I was born shortly before my family moved and settled in Kenya's capital Nairobi in my first year has since grown into a port city.

Most of my childhood memories of Kenya reflect our life in the capital Nairobi, I do recall though that during December holidays, when school was out and the Christmas sun was blazing, it was an annual practice for families living in the capital to travel to the rural parts of the country referred to by nationals as ushago.

We would go to ushago to see grandmother cook on open fire, to laugh at grandfather's fables told in broken swahili, to eat mangoes and roasted groundnuts, chew on sugar canes, and try not to contract malaria, it was the best time of the year.

The long trip to ushago was often half the battle and experience. We would board on of the special buses that traveled outside the city. As a child I could tell them apart them from ordinary city buses in the Nairobi station because the buses were painted in brighter colors and had the travelers' mzigo (load/luggage) piled and tied to the roofs of vehicles.

Squeezed on a bus seat next to my sisters and mother, I remember bracing myself for a long and tiring journey across the country. I remember between naps frequently inquiring where we were more times than I'm sure my mother desired to respond. My persistent inquiries were in anticipation of a special and longer stop made in Kisumu by buses traveling up country. Over the years I had come to recognize the station, even in the thick of night by the bustle and market noise, however this did not stop me from inquiring: "Where are we now? Are we there?".
And my mother would smile and answer, "Yes, we are in Kisumu, where you were born". At this my sisters and I would lean our foreheads against the bus window.

The experience was even more exciting if the stop was made before the sun had set. Kisumu was established as a market port in the early part of the twentieth century because of it's prime location on the Great African Lake; the very name Kisumu means "to barter trade". We would watch the market women approach the buses. The image remains strong in my mind of these women, recognizable by the mzigo they had balanced on their heads.

They would walk right up to the bus windows that were now open in anticipation of transactions that were delightful for the traveling children. Immediately my mother was subjected to a chorus of requests for sweet bananas, or passion fruits, or whatever traveling snacks were on the baskets resting on the heads of the market women.

As the engine of the loud and colorful buses would start up, and the driver would call out the name of the next destination, snack in hand, I remember staring out the window in admiration, as these magical market women drifted away from the bus and back into their day's activities, livelihoods carried on their heads.


I would describe my season right now as being an eclectic one; I thank God for this, because I'm still very much that agitated girl on the bus, restlessly content.

In my day to day experience and in the spaces and systems that I find myself weaving in and out of, I am becoming increasingly conscious of the overlaps and disparities. In this eclectic season I can say that mostly I mother and more and more I am learning to wife. I also write and think quite a bit. As a student of social work I spend practicum days in an office uptown trying to contribute to policy change, talking about social justice, wearing uncomfortable shoes, talking to politicians and social agency representatives at meetings I can't believe I'm in and more or less just not getting paid.

Just a few days ago I had to attend a Justice Dinner in my community that is organized by the Council office of my practicum and frankly I was dreading it a bit (mostly because I hadn't won a formal dress since my one year old Babu was born and I was not in any particular hurry). But in reluctant anticipation, I planned to at least get my hair done. For this purpose I needed to navigate away from my pretty and clean uptown space.

So I arrive at the small salon by an old and narrow city street appropriately named Pandora. I like this place, the area is a bit grungier than my previous location but my lady's prices are cheap and the conversation is life giving.

Business is slow, the white prostitutes are still part of her clientele. She's an intelligent English born daughter of a Jamaican immigrant. We talk about it all, the shit about immigration, the black boys getting locked up, baby madness, her biracial grandson, my biracial son, her two dead sons. I need to get my hair done more often she says. I want her to shave off the sides, maybe the whole head, I want to wear it shorter, she won't do it, you still have to look like a woman she says. She wants to know about my work again, she feels she can be a social worker she says, I know all about it, the Children's Aid, all of it. I tell her she would be brilliant. I pay her and leave her broom in hand, balancing it all on her head.

I weave back into my space, through the pretty uptown, back to our suburban rented space. There he is, my beautiful boy. Your hair looks good, doesn't mommy's hair look good? I smile. How was your day. . . start the evening routine, restlessly content.

In 1994, I was ten years old and the Motherland was screaming out as tens and thousands of her sons and daughters were slain in the Rwandan genocide. Her majestic waters carried and cradled some of them, as if trying to draw them back to her womb. My family had gotten our first small television set the previous year. I remember the images of fisherman on the banks of Lake Victoria, arranging the bodies washed ashore for burial.

I also remember images of mass crowds on dusty roads, refugees, fleeing to the Congo. There were the women, so much like the dark skinned Kisumu market women that we watched from our bus window, but there wasn't bustle or the smell of fruit; just a slow steady progression on my television screen. I sat there, understanding enough but not all, and wondering still how it was that they could carry their mzigo on their heads.


So I went to the Justice Dinner and was rather surprised by all the biblical references made by the keynote speaker. It is more typical in my field to appeal to Alinsky, Dominelli, or other kinds of anti-oppressive thinkers. But as well as integrating insights from Islam and Aboriginal spirituality, John Calhoun seemed to feel that the prophet Isaiah had something to say about public policy.

Calhoun says pain is valuable, don't waist your pain he says. Sitting there I feel I have to agree, It is valuable, not to be hidden, but to be announced and raised high, to be shared, to be carried like a crown, maybe thorny crown, a mzigo, balanced on your head. And then he reads from the book of Isaiah, he reads it like poetry:

Is this the kind of fasting I have chosen?

He stops. He looks at the crowd of socialist types, feminists, LGBTQ rights advocates. "By fasting Isaiah is talking about religious stuff" he explains.

Only a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it only for bowing one's head like a read and lying on sackloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen:
To loose the chains of injustice,
To untie the cords of the yoke,
To set the oppressed free and break every yoke.

Is it not to share your food with the hungry,
And to provide the poor wanderer with shelter.
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to turn away from your own flesh and blood.

Then your light will break forth like the dawn,

He stops again "You see, he is talking about your light" He points at the crowd, the very likely non-religious crowd. He points at the wounded healers. He points at me. "The prophet is talking about your light" He repeats.

Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
And your healing will quickly appear.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Mama Awendo's Afternoon




Heal me, oh Lord, and I will be healed....
A good leader that recently entered my journey in a season of hardship drew my attention to a biblical author (Jeremiah) that writes rather nakedly about his inner thoughts and tensions about the place of the Creator in his sufferings. Among the curses, ramblings, laments, complaints, and random declarations of praise and faith, the following statement in the Book of Jeremiah captured my attention; "Heal me, oh Lord, and I will be healed..."(Jer 17:14).

I am in one of those spaces where a piece of charcoal between my fingers is like a cigarette to the smoker, I pretty much know I will feel a bit better when I'm through, and once I get the nudge, I can't shake it.

Sitting on my kitchen table, while they boys were napping, I could feel that inner ache that we all know to well, that accompanies a season of darkness, creeping in. You may know the feeling: It's like as soon as you stop laughing or working, or chatting with a friend on the phone, and your mind is still, suddenly your thoughts return to the loss, or painful event. The feeling is like an unwanted visitor that sits at your table, sipping his tea and never leaving....

Well anyway, this is the space that I was in and I knew I needed some "art therapy" which comes these days in the form of newsprint and charcoal. I pictured in my head a place of serenity, which took me back to childhood, watching my mother, or an Aunt, or a friend's mother hanging clothes on a line. "Mama Awendo's Afternoon" is being occupied by this task; so tedious, and routine and necessary and beautiful, it's almost spiritual.... it is spiritual. From childhood, to this day, I always loved the smell of clean laundry drying in the sun, and I wanted to capture the simplicity and stillness of the task, to give my aching soul relief and magically return to this place in my childhood past when all was safe and happy. Life however in seldom simple or still, and even in this creative process, I found my fingers frantically bending the shape of the stalks of maize, moving the wind to blow just a little stronger than I had planned for Mama Awendo's afternoon.

When I was a younger girl I believed that my pain, and the pain of those around me would be healed by the Creator, this was the deepest expression of my faith. When I was an older girl, like Jeremiah, I felt deceived (Jer 20:1) by the creator, I was not healed, those around me were also still in pain. And so the lesson, I felt was that the deepest expression of my faith was to continue to worship the Creator, in-spite of the pain. And now as a young woman, again in the company of this unwanted visitor, I am drawn to this prayer by the honest Jeremiah "Heal me, Oh Lord, and I will be healed" My heart cannot help but feel that I cannot walk that path again, I cannot trust the Creator to take away the pain only to be failed, deceived and disappointed.

But I don't know, maybe it's like doing the damn laundry. The repetitiveness of the task sometimes feels like it's in vain. I mean, Let's face it, the clothes are going to be soiled again in no time.

Kaskitémahikan (Micheal Hart) is a citizen of Fish River Cree Nation and a social work practitioner. He has written an incredible book about an Aboriginal Approach to Practice, in it he has the following to say about healing:

"Healing is not only seen as the process of recoving from a problem or an illness. Healing is also viewed as a journey; it is something that people practice daily throughout their lives. it is the broad transitional process that restores the person, community and nation to wholeness, connectedness and balance," (Hart, 2002).

So maybe I had it right as a child when I saw Mama Awendo's work as being beautiful for what it was, maybe the clothes will get dirty again, but that's not the point. Maybe the purpose of clotheslines and breezy days wasn't to keep clothes clean but rather to capture the imagination and senses of those around and to inspire charcoal drawings on Sunday afternoons.

Maybe like Jeremiah, I will ask you to heal me, to heal us, Creator, simply because I feel a bit held when I do, and maybe I will be healed.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Abantu

Chris Abani muses on humanity | Video on TED.com


ABANTU

Eh Mwana, sitting on the red soil,
Rise to your feet,
Why are you crying?

My hair is tough
And dry like sisal
I cannot pull it straight.

Pull it straight, whatever for? Forgive your mama, I failed to disclose,
You have abantu in you.
You can love it, hate it,
Hide it or shave it,
You cannot rid yourself of it,
You can grow it, explain it, relax it or burn it,
You can braid a new shape into it,
You can proclaim it or deny it but understand
You have abantu in you.

Eh Mwana, on the city street
The sun has slept,
Why are you dancing?

This city is a slum,
But I hear the drums,
And my will and feet keep moving,

Ha! That’s no surprise, Listen to your mama, I’ll tell you
You have abantu in you.
You can fight it, minimize it,
Syncretize it and analyze it,
But you can’t rid yourself of it.
You can demonize it, criticize it,
Christianize it or colonize it, but recognize
You have abantu in you.

Eh Babu, under the tree,
Can I sit at your feet?
Why are you smiling?

Come my daughter, don’t you see it? It’s coiled right in this dry hair,
I have abantu in me.
I heard they came and renamed it,
They call it dark, they call it Africa,
I heard they took some of it with them
I heard it’s scattered and starving,
I heard it’s still brave and proud and rising,
Rest your head Nafoyo,
Just like me,
You have abantu in you.


~ Awiti: for my son

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

For Many Nights



On many evenings, for many nights,
I have sat on this jacaranda tree branch,
Watching you in your shanty town
Just over the hills

I remember when the nest was warm,
Surrounded by the purple flowers
You could here our morning singing
You always asked for more
We always gave you more.

Perched right here I haven’t blinked once,
Even after the kerosene lamps went out,
And suddenly I was alone,
Vulnerable to this Nairobi night wind,
My greatest allies are the soft feathers on my chest.

These hills that grow between us,
Are made by man and God
Are made of red earth and trash

On many evenings, for many nights,
I have sat on this jacaranda tree branch,
You could never tell by looking at me,
But I feel I’m about to fly.


~For Fla, Fan, Foyo, Faith, and Flora
For our mother
And even for our father