Friendly Advice to the African Headed to Liberal Arts College America


Congratulations on your acceptance letter my friend. You must now tap into the deep rivers of American survival craft that I, with the help of the wise ones, have fashioned for the better part of a dozen years. You have struggled mightily to gain that visa, found just the right angle to pitch your proposal for a grant (‘I was a child soldier before I went for a sex-change operation and I shed tears for the environment every night’) and you are very clever and have read many books. But, and indulge me in saying this, you are a babe in nappies when it comes to the Herculean challenges facing the African man in his first year at an American liberal arts campus. The bigger your scholarship, the more prestigious the school, the more you need me. For a one-time fee of beers, which I will collect when I next see you, I will let you in on a few of my many secrets of how to keep the winter darkness at bay and your sanity intact. Here are some basics that you may want to keep in mind:

1. Black Man Rage: This is unavoidable on the whole and should be managed carefully. Every once in a while, you will feel a massive surge of anger at a very reasonable stance or action by a white person. Breathe deeply when you feel it coming on and let rip when it first appears. Allowing it to build will only guarantee its nuclear-like proportions when it eventually explodes; better to let it go at grenade stage. BMR, which is a clinically proven state, is brought on by mercy, understanding and a certain slow nodding motion that has been perfected by the white denizens of liberal arts colleges. I could tell you more grasshopper, but you will learn as you feel. There is only one situation in which you must avoid BMR: when you are inevitably stopped by the cops. You will have generously suppressed it earlier only to see it emerge in the presence of an armed man with little compunction shooting terrorists and angry black men.

2. The Drought: You must forget sex for three-six months after your arrival on campus. You will discover that your language of sex (unless it is monetary) sounds like Martian to the co-eds around you. Being a writer and having dreads might allow you to cut some of the Drought period but make no mistake, there shall be a drought. What this will do is increase BMR and can potentially be demoralizing. There is nothing quite like disrespecting people who then refuse to be seduced by you. It crushes even the strongest egos. Even those that the owner did not know they possessed. The Drought will lead you down several wrong paths. It will make you believe for instance that the slow-nodding liberal girl from a small town in California is about to give you action. Nothing could be further from the truth, she is likely of the opinion that you are a diseased pet placed on campus for her entertainment (and here I stop to collect my breath and swallow a sudden, bitter spike of BMR).

3. Collegiality: this is a biggie. The fact that you are going to a college town means that the faculty sets great store by this word, and that they are supposedly proud and committed to teaching. Nothing could be further from the truth. Small towns breed intense jealousies and rivalries that use weapons of exceeding pettiness to win the day. The spoils? You would hardly recognize them but everyone around you will be attuned to nuances that you can barely guess at. My dear, you are a collegial fellow and so this itself might be your saving grace since you will appear to fall straight into line. And a line is what it is. My advice for what it is worth is that you must do occasional writerly huffs and adopt a few eccentricities. Walking barefoot on a snowy day for example will go a long way to excusing your every absence from collegial gatherings.

4. The Smile: the slight movement of the lips that you will confuse with a smile and that will eventually make you wish that you could punch through it. The Smile is a very great danger to the African who is suffering from the Drought and is therefore partial to BMR. You, being collegial, will no doubt initially respond to this movement of the lips with a Sambo type smile that shows a delight that you can hardly explain at the sight of this almost-stranger. When you finally realize that they are not smiling and that it is at best merely a courtesy and at worst a sign of nervousness or fear at your screaming blackness, you will be liable to losing it and going down a particularly bad path. I heard one African scream for a whole afternoon at anyone who moved their lips in said fashion to him.

Let me leave you with just those four items. There will be others should you need or want them. Remember, there is no spoon, it is you that must bend… Peace African, have a good trip. I’ll see you when I come to bail you out.

The Wisdom of Homer

Homer: Are you saying you’re never going to eat any animal again? What about bacon?
Lisa: No.
Homer: Ham?
Lisa: No.
Homer: Pork chops?
Lisa: Dad, those all come from the same animal.
Homer: Heh heh heh. Ooh, yeah, right, Lisa. A wonderful, magical animal.

Marge: Homer, the plant called. They said if you don’t show up tomorrow don’t bother showing up on Monday.
Homer: Woo-hoo. Four-day weekend.

Homer: How is education supposed to make me feel smarter? Besides, every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain. Remember when I took that home winemaking course, and I forgot how to drive?

Homer: Aw, twenty dollars! I wanted a peanut!
Homer’s Brain: Twenty dollars can buy many peanuts!
Homer: Explain how!
Homer’s Brain: Money can be exchanged for goods and services!
Homer: Woo-hoo!

‘How to write about Africa’ by Binyavanga Wainaina

some tips: sunsets and starvation are good
Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’. Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.

Find the rest of this hilarious and cutting essay here.

AB&H Dictionary: Is History a god?


Late last week, I visited the Public Records Office in Kew Gardens here in the UK for some archival research. The building – which is pictured above – feels and looks so much like a church that I suspect many visitors feel impelled to speak in hushed tones once they drive into the compound. After a few hours of browsing the records, I was struck by how common phrases regarding history’s opinions were: History will judge; it will absolve; condemn; favor; and even love…

This topic came up at my dinner with English acquaintances who regularly rub shoulders with their countrymen in high office. One of them revealed that the frequently issued media warnings of ‘History condemning’ one politician or the other are actually felt as a weighty moral judgment on a personal level. I tried to imagine a Kenyan politician suffering sleepless nights worrying about History’s judgment (maybe for ordering commando raids on a newspaper) and found it impossible to believe that it would even count as a mild concern. So let me suggest this: History in these Isles is a kind of god who influences behavior and condemns or praises with the Historian as priest or prophet. By contrast, for us in Kenya, and much of Africa, academic (written and stored) history is mostly an act of ideological recovery that attempts to break away from the European orbit (‘We are human too’ it says; ‘we also had kings and queens’; ‘look, here are the records of how badly you treated me’). It seems to me to be purely reactive, especially since most of our historians’ obsession with the history that they are trying to erect is merely a rebellion against the history as deity that they encountered in the Makereres and the Cambridges.

The PRO contains public records that span an unbroken period from the 11th century to the present. It is this mountain of paper, which of course represents an exceedingly small proportion of the human actions that occurred during those 1000 years that looms over today’s official actions. Its foundational assumption is of a linear progression, in which every (super)man has a role to play ushering a trans-generational narrative onward, higher, toward the end of the world (a heaven or a hell.) As has increasingly become the case, everywhere I look and much of what I hear in this most secular of societies is deeply religious; this being the case as well in socialist systems that retained the very same sense of an unerring march toward an end-point. How else could one justify such teleology when a truly secular system of intellectual inquiry would I think more accurately regard history as characterized by discontinuity, rupture and lacking in an inherent direction?

What of those who have ‘no history’ in the sense that their archives only carry records spanning a couple of hundred years, if that, and even the efforts of the oral traditions investigator yield little knowledge of life a few centuries ago? How fitting it should be that it is in the very societies lacking the massive backlog of records that religious feeling is at its most intense. Perhaps all those prayer sessions in Jeevanjee Gardens and in the thousands of Kenyan churches are about building a history and even a nation. ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…’ says the book of Genesis rushing onward to the creation of the world, of man and eventually of the nation of Israel which has been the idealized model for Christendom’s nations.

Whether indeed we Gentiles can graft ourselves into this history is supported by the epistle of Paul and Galatians which promise that Kenyan Christians can in fact become a ‘new Israel’. Perhaps this is why when I visit my grandma’s digs in Nyeri I encounter frequent signage on churches and roadside posters proclaiming a New Israel to be at hand. These in the context of history as a narrative with its spiritual beginnings and endings (parallel – and so perhaps inspired by – the birth and death of the individual) imply that the popular history of Kenya mostly exists in the charismatic and not bureaucratic-rational realm. Why I am saying all this? To merely suggest that the drive and the need for history in Kenya has found biblical soil to be more fertile than the archive and furthermore that this is what history has always been about anyway.

(I may also have written this post because I wish this to be so, so that I can stay out of the archives:-))

BTW: If you are not a Eastern European mercenary leading commando raids on the Standard Newspaper, and therefore frown on such antics, please send an email to State House Kenya (president@statehousekenya.go.ke) expressing your opposition to the events of recent days. Also, take a look at a great post in Thinker’s Room on the subject.

The bitter tears shed when I compare my trip from home to Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta Airport and from London’s Heathrow to my flat.

Back to the African Bullets & Honey monster after more than a month away from its ravenous hunger. I only got back to London early this morning after a month in Nairobi. Allow me to once again – because I believe I have blogged about this before – give you a glimpse of the inevitable culture shock that I always have when I compare the trip from our Nairobi home to Jomo Kenyatta Airport and then from Heathrow to my London apartment.

Nairobi 28th February:

Flight leaving at 23:25 meaning that I am meant to check in at 21.25 latest. But of course I only leave the house at 21.15 in a two-car convoy carrying friend, sister and mother – well three cars when you include my other buddy meeting us at the airport. This little posse is not only an outpouring of love; the airport trip to the middle class Kenyan, since the economic hard times of the 1990s, is like a confirmation that an escape route exists to hope, to a rebirth, a fresh start. The first time you are escorted to it, there are tears of sorrow at your departure, others of envy at the supposedly better life you will have abroad. We get to the airport at 21.45 and spend the next 15 minutes or so chatting by the curbside and saying repeated goodbyes that are interrupted by some comment. Then the hugs, the misty eyes (none by yours truly; I am a tear-less ninja except when it is time to blog when I shed with the sheer frustration caused by the AB&H monster’s cruel hold of me) and the final shouted goodbyes. Naturally, being the African-with-a-chip-on-his-shoulder, I hate flying British Airways and avoid it whenever I can. Not this time though, revolutionary principles must after all yield to cheap internet fares. Imagine my surprise – and disappointment – when with my teeth bared to attack any sign of British condescension, the manager instead decides to upgrade me to premium economy. Next stop: the friendly immigration officer who admonishes me not to stay ‘out there’ too long. After a cup of java coffee and a slice of carrot cake, I move to my seat next to a development consultant who (I swear this) spends the eight hours of the flight reading a long, hair-pullingly boring development report. He must be worth every penny, that poor SOB. But this is a story for another day…

London 1st March:

Pilot:

‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain, thank you for flying British Airways.’

‘London today is quite cold, under zero degrees.’

‘We hope you have enjoyed our service and that you will enjoy your stay (you poor suckers hahahahahahaha…)’

THE IMMIGRATION INTERVIEW:

‘Where are you from?’ (peering intently at old stamps and visas. You are one of them: the illegal immigrant, the African with a behind crammed with ecstasy…or at least cocaine or heroin.)

‘What do you do here?’

‘I am a student’

‘Of what?’

‘War studies.’

‘What? Did you say war, like fighting?’

‘Yes, I study how to yank out immigration eyeballs with the peace sign…I bet you always thought the sign (as in ‘peace dude’) was … like, um, peaceful. Right? Well let me tell you something you poor, 5.30AM African harassing, passport caressing, squinty eyed, nose picking-with finger-that-then-touches-my-passport-photo-bureaucrat, the peace sign is kung fu for the eye-stab move. Bet you didn’t know that. And yes, I have no intention of remaining in your country forever when there is a three-car convoy filled with beery people waiting to pick me up at JKA.’

I wish that is what I had said because the European IMMIGRATION INTERVIEW is an absurd, hypocrisy by a west that speaks the talk of open boundaries to goods and capital when it cannot stand the same for people. The 21st century meeting point between African Livingstones and Lugards and Europe’s petty gate-keeping chiefs. Just beyond the immigration officer’s shoulder are little offices which if you ever have the misfortune of visiting always have a scared looking African seated patiently awaiting some grim fate. You don’t make conversation since it is clear to both of you that the other is a criminal and must be consorted with. But I digress.

‘How long were you away?’

‘Too briefly, I wish it had been forever.’

‘When does your doctoral course end?’

‘When the sun burns itself out; when the hens come home to roost; when the Fat Woman sings; just a moment before the grim reaper strikes me down; (sobbing) why must you ask such hurtful questions?’

‘Welcome.’

Illegal Nigerian Taxi Driver at Arrivals Terminal:

‘Taxi? Looking for taxi?’ (whispered with averted gaze that immediately pulls you into the kind of conspiracy that the IMMIGRATION OFFICER suspected you of being mixed up in.)

‘Yes. I want to go to Elephant and Castle. How much will it be?’

‘Forty pounds alone, thirty pounds if you wait for me to pick up another passenger.’

(I realise why this negotiation always discomfits me: it feels like I am a john trying to pick up a prostitute so – not that I would know what that is all about by the way.)

As I stand trying to decide whether this is a better deal than lugging two large suitcases up and down stairways, seating for an hour in a cold tube train and the ten minutes walk from the station to my door, another taxi driver sidles up to me, trying not to be noticed by the first one who is shouting into his mobile phone.

‘Where are you going?’ he asks ‘I will be cheap, cheap.’

‘Elephant and Castle’

‘Ok, thirty five pounds. We go?’

‘Sure, but only for thirty’

‘Fine, fine. Go to that elevator there and I will meet you inside. Don’t tell him that you are coming with me.’

Struck by guilt, reeling from the cold, bumping shoulders with angry looking people who never meet your eye and lugging my massive bags, I limp after him to the taxi. A traitor and a cheat within 30 minutes of getting to London, and feeling what a john must feel: tawdry, embarrassed and broke.

The ride takes an hour in traffic and I read a newspaper whose headline announces that the European Union has just introduced legislation that kids as old as eleven will have to be in car safety seats or fines of upto £500 can be levied on the driver. I have arrived. Back to the fire.