Jamhuri Day Party in Addis Ababa

Last night I attended the Jamhuri Day party at the Kenyan Embassy in Addis Ababa, an event which is on every diplomat’s and Ethiopian taxi driver’s calendar. There were at least five hundred people who attended and the food and the tusker were in full flow. So much so that I heard myself, as if from afar, roaring all manner of greetings to people that I knew. ‘Welcome to Kenya,’ I would find myself shouting repeatedly to every Ethiopian acquaintance or friend who attended the event. I steered them this way and that, pointed out the banana trees and asked, ‘do you like those Kenyan banana trees? how about this Kenyan building? And Kenyan food, do you like the food? Isn’t the music lovely? Hey how about that ambassador? Coolest diplomat in town right?

It went on this way, fuelled by the generous portions of tusker that I was pouring into myself, and I fear that I was probably the most fearful bore of the party. I was having fun though and I think in some way I was revenging for being made to answer all the foreigner/ferenji questions that come at me on a daily basis. For instance, not a day or two pass without my being asked whether I like injera. Now the answer, and not just for the sake of politeness, is yes. But this question, I think, is really not about injera but about what I, a foreigner, think of this country. There is no option to say no because if there is one thing that some months of being here have taught me is that non-Ethiopians walk on egg-shells around Ethiopian pride. It’s all good though. Pride is good. I guess.

Anyway, back to the party. A young Kenyan who I suspect is a student at the university sauntered up to the bar and stood alongside me. He had short dreadlocks, and had a dark sweater with green, yellow and red stripes worn over a squat, powerful frame. He was very drunk as became apparent when he slurringly and quite belligerently ordered the bartender to pour him a drink. But the bar, he was told, was closed even though the bartender was busy serving me and others – who were all to a man in ties unlike this young revolutionary. He did not take it lying down: ‘Pour me a fucking drink,’ he shouted. The drink, gin, was poured with him insisting that it be filled to the brim. Once it was in his hand, he dashed it to the ground and screamed, screamed is the exact word, ‘to Dedan Kimathi!’

The bartender, a peaceable man till just then shouted back, ‘why you pour drink? Who is this Kimathi?’ Their back and fro, full of outraged explanations by the student and complete confusion on the bartender’s part, entertained me for a full fifteen minutes before we all staggered away to dance to Lingala.

A couple of hours later, this young Dedan Kimathi was spotted fast asleep on embassy grounds. One of the Kenyan diplomats took the opportunity to deliver a lecture on the importance of handling your liquor well – met by slow nods from Kenyans in the circle who were too drunk to do more than mutter guilty agreement. But this group of inebriates came alive in protest when the diplomat made to wake the young man up and kick him out. ‘He is in Kenya,’ ‘how can you kick him out of his own house?’ These and similar remarks came fast and furious so that the diplomat eventually backed down, probably having decided to do the kicking out more discreetly. But the incident seemed to me to speak to a certain, increasing Kenyan ownership of our spaces, and an unwillingness to accept the official point of view. Or am I romanticizing and over-interpreting a small, meaningless incident?

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.

Is my cucu’s cucu guilty of participating in the slave trade?

Is my cucu’s cucu guilty of benefiting from the slave trade? Do I carry the guilt of those that did? I just read a great post by Keguro and may have forever annoyed him by writing such a long comment that I have made it into a post here.

I am confused about how to apportion guilt over the slave trade accurately so I do not let myself off the hook when I should be on it or hang myself when I shouldn’t. I lived in the States for a dozen years and in that time was closest to black folks in terms of my politics and my social life. Every once in a while the slavery question would come up emotionally: why had Africans such as my ancestors sold our brothers to plantation hell? It is obviously an issue that even today evokes pain in some descendents of slaves so let me try delicately offering some thoughts that I have.

My family hails from central Kenya, most of it is Gikuyu and a few are Maasai. As best as I know, neither of these two groups participated in the slave trade, either as captives or capturers. Of course tribes were never the isolated, static groupings that we think them today so it is well possible some Gikuyus or Maasais did participate. But we do know that the peoples living in the Mt. Kenya region could not be compared to the Kingdom of Dahomey – in present-day Benin – which aggressively captured and sold neighbouring people to slavers. Among the Gikuyu-speaking people, slavery was rare; it was unlike parts of Sudan or Angola or the Congo where slavery, both for internal exploitation and export, was widely practiced. What are we to do about those peoples that did not raid others for slaves or even those whose sole addition to the trade were as victims? Are their descendents also guilty of slavery since they are African? This is the reason that the words Africa and African have become increasingly confusing to me.

During the period of the slave trade, the only people who constantly referred to the African were Europeans – they were also the ones that had invented the word. Few people on the continent at that time had the notion of belonging to such a political or cultural community. Yet the debate over guilt revolves around questions such as, ‘should Africans apologise for their role in the slave trade?’ What confuses further is that the people who were captured – to use our all-encompassing language –were themselves African. For every soldier acting on the orders of Dahomey’s kings to capture slaves, there was a family that lost a son, a father or a mother. There were those who died during the raid, on the march, in the holds of a ship plying the Middle Passage and on the plantations of the Americas, Middle Eastern homes and European farms. Victims of a brutality whose painful echo still reverberates not only in the Americas, but also in the vast stretches of the Congo and Angola that remain depopulated to this day.

How exactly should this debate over guilt proceed? What would help bring closure to the descendents of slaves who demand a reckoning? I do not know. But I suggest that one of the actions that the present day people in Africa (I think we are stuck with this word at least in my lifetime) can do is to ensure that the slavery that is still alive and well across some of the Sahel zone countries like Mauritania is done away with. Surely there are few ways of demonstrating our opposition to this evil better than ensuring that it is wiped out in our time.

For better or worse, nationalists and anticolonialists adopted the African label from the very people that they were struggling against. In their desire for a unity that would further their cause, they took up the word European imperialists used to simplify the enormous diversity of the continent into a few useful stereotypes (the Romans came first, saying of the continent: Ex Africa semper aliquid novi – there is always something new out of Africa.) The African to the European of the slave trade was stupid, childlike, savage or docile, and lacked a soul. He could not be counted a member of the human race, and was due none of its civilised considerations or the grace of the Christian God (btw, the anti slavery movement in Britain acquired momentum only after its lobby argued that Africans had souls too.) The Africans to the Panafricanists were also a single community with a few (positive) stereotypes that allowed them to wage a struggle against colonial notions of European superiority. Yet since Europeans surrendered the reins of government, the idea of African exceptionalism has had power-crazed autocrats as its self-appointed guardians. Removed from the needs of an anti-colonial struggle, the idea has been used to promote a bloody-minded vision of nationhood at odds with its citizens. I refer here to the Mobutus, the later Nkrumah and the beat-them-and-truck-them Nyerere, not to mention the present ‘African revolution’ of Mugabe which involves destroying the homes of poor folks in Harare and torturing the ones who dare protest. Whoever said sticks and stones but not words may break bones apparently never felt the outcome of tear-the-flesh-off-bone words like Africa and Africans. But, I digress.

My point is that we are stuck with this African identity as a good, at least at the height of the anti-colonial movements, and a bad when it comes to the historical guilt of the slave trade and the postcolonial period. What I wonder about is how to reconcile these contradictory Africas of the mind (to paraphrase Lonsdale’s ‘Mau Maus of the mind’.) Which Africa was guilty of the slave trade? Is it possible that there were communities in Africa that did not participate in the trade? What position should their descendents adopt in the present debate? Do Africans think they are Africans when they are away from the microphone and the page or when they are not speaking to Europe or in reference to it? Can you create a pan-nation united by its past and present oppression and deprivation? Does being chained in Benin by the kings of Dahomey; whipped in apartheid South Africa by Afrikaners; shot at in Darfur by Janjaweed militias; enjoying Fela Kuti’s music; patronised by Tony ‘scar of humanity’ Blair’s Commission for Africa; and being governed by a dictator who attends African Union meetings make you an African? Is there a moral dimension to African citizenship when it is not protesting European action?

Where is the common moral and memory thread that will allow us to consider the tragedy of the slave trade from a moral perspective that offers answers to the descendents of slaves and slavers?

Super Mum: The London Years

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Read on for more on the ‘brain drain’ and the peerless mama mbugua…and then go to this link for another story on her.

Nursing a problem

Salil Tripathi

Tuesday August 9, 2005

Guardian Unlimited

Charity Kirigo worked long hours as a nurse at the national hospital in Kenya, finding it extremely difficult to make ends meet.
A mother of three, she did not see a bright future for her children if she stayed in Kenya – so she applied to the NHS, which was looking for nurses.

“Salaries in Kenya were very little,” she said. “Everyone had to have some side business – selling cotton wool, cooking, doing some other work at home – and it was very difficult to make a living. I had to take action.”

Ms Kirigo came to England in 1995, just as staff shortages were beginning to hit the NHS. Between 1990 and 1997, the number of people coming into the nursing profession in Britain fell from 18,980 to just over 12,000.

Nurses recruited from abroad accounted for 26% of the 16,000 nurses registered in 1997, and five years later that figure had grown to 43% of the registered total of 37,000.

Many came from the Philippines, South Africa and India. Even though the number of African nurses was relatively small, it nevertheless represented a large proportion of the health workers in their countries.

Life wasn’t easy for Ms Kirigo when she came to Britain, but she had access to a superior infrastructure and modern techniques.

She had to endure some humiliation from patients, who questioned her competence because she had come from Africa, but she saved enough money to send her children to university and to buy property in both the UK and Kenya.

Last year, Ms Kirigo moved back to Kenya. “I had a target to help my children get a good education,” she said. “Once I knew they could stand on their own, I decided to go back.”

Now in Nairobi, she is working to raise £437,000 to set up a telephone-based counselling service, HIV Helpline, to offer advice to families living with HIV, and plans to recruit 20 workers.

Her story humanises the debate about healthcare professionals in Britain. It shows what is happening at the micro level at a time when the macro outlook appears so dismal.

Nevertheless, organisations such as Save the Children are critical of the influx of nurses from developing countries.

“Many African countries have limited funds available for health,” Mike Aaronson, the charity’s director general, said. “Vulnerable children suffer disproportionately when these services are failing. It is shameful that many poor countries are spending millions of pounds training nurses and doctors to prop up the NHS.”

The crisis is acute – around 36 African countries do not meet targets of one doctor per 5,000 people, according to the World Health Organisation.

Even in non-conflict affected countries such as Zambia and Ghana, there is only one doctor per more than 10,000 people, while disparities are evident within a country such as Kenya. In Nairobi, there is one doctor for 500 people, but in Turkana district the ratio is 1:160,000.

Aware of the criticism, the NHS has adapted a code of practice that bans it from actively recruiting staff from developing countries. But it needs workers – and thousands of people living in poor countries want to work in a better environment.

It is true that Africa’s health sector needs more resources, but those resources will not become available by preventing skilled workers such as Ms Kirigo from coming to Britain.

What’s often left unsaid in this debate is the role of emigrating British nurses. That poses the moral dilemma that if a UK-trained nurse is free to leave for the US, Canada, or Ireland (the three most desired destinations) – and even beyond, to the Middle East, Australia and New Zealand – why shouldn’t Ms Kirigo and her compatriots come to Britain?

There has been a remarkable increase in the number of British nurses moving overseas. More than 2,000 left for the US last year, a quarter of the 8,000 who left the country overall. In 1997, the number of nurses who went overseas was half that.

Overseas recruitment is not the only reason African health workers leave their home countries. For many, there are simply no available jobs.

“When I was studying in Kenya, we were absorbed automatically,” Ms Kirigo said. “Now there are more nurses than the country needs or can pay for. If all the Kenyan nurses who work in the UK were to return to Kenya, there won’t be enough jobs for them … I am not betraying my country.”

Forcing people to stay at home will not work. As Kwadwo Mensah, Maureen Mackintosh and Leroi Henry write in The Skills Drain of Health Professionals from the Developing World, a paper published by the UK charity Med-Act: “Coercive measures to prevent departure work poorly; worse, they can intensify pressures to leave.”

There are inequities in this dilemma, but remittances partly mitigate the situation. According to the World Bank, migrant workers send more than $90bn (£44.7bn) to their home countries, the second-largest source of funds for poor countries after foreign direct investment. It is a significantly higher amount of money than that provided by development aid.

Health charities acknowledge the power of remittances, but remain critical because such flows go direct to families and do not replenish the loss suffered by the state in providing the subsidy in the first place.

With that in mind, the economist Jagdish Bhagwati, of Columbia University in the US, says states should tax their citizens who work and live abroad – something the US already does.

Several charities have argued that the UK should provide financial restitution and fresh development aid to Africa so that it can bolster its health sector. However, developing a grand plan would take time.

That is why individuals such as Ms Kirigo are so important. Granted, all emigrant health workers may not return home, but their remittances lift their families out of poverty.

What can be done about the skills gap? “Skilled Africans are going to emigrate. I would propose a Grey Peace Corps, where our ageing and early-retired skilled professionals can be tapped for two and three-year stints to work in Africa,” Dr Bhagwati said.

“While Africans, whom we must train in vastly increased numbers at our universities, will work here, our people must work in Africa until the need for skills can be met meaningfully.”

• Salil Tripathi is a London-based writer who specialises in Asian and international economic affairs. The article can be found here.

SocietyGuardian.co.uk © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005

Gannibal: the Moor of St. Petersburg

On the right is Ibrahim Abram Petrovich Gannibal flanked by his great grandson, Aleksandr Pushkin.
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The extraordinary Gannibal was the African great-grandfather of Aleksandr Pushkin, Russia’s greatest poet, who spoke proudly of his own inherited “blackamoor profile”. Read a review of Hugh Barnes’ extraordinary biography about this Chadian who changed the face of Russian history.

Martin Luther King and Hope

I have just watched a BBC program called ‘Days That Shook the World’ which today explored the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. Whenever I have encountered MLK in the media, I have always come away newly struck by his power and the hope that he faced the world with. I was not born when he was killed, and am far too prone to indulge in a kind of cynical politics that never survives a single sentence he uttered. I went looking for what I think was his greatest speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”, which was made the night before he was murdered by James Earl Ray. Listening to it, I am left to wonder about what place hope has the collective of individuals and communities that are Kenya. It makes me ponder what social spaces we own that allow us to create transcendent communities in the sense that they can exist in a spirit of fairness and justice despite all the obstacles in our paths. It is quite soppy to write in this fashion but as always, after listening to MLK I felt deeply the suffering and hope that attended black people in their awful march through American history. It gave me a sense of the scale of the revolutionary triumph that the Civil Rights Movement represented. And the extent to which in those years – and perhaps even in these – black people became a community made holy by its being larger than the sum of its oppressions and disadvantages. If only I could dare hope that Kenya too is marching in similar fashion through its dark days but toward brightness and with hope a constant companion. I suspect this is the case or at the very least I pray it is.

Listen to Martin Luther King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.”

The Indian Shopkeeper

This morning, I went to my local corner store here in London which is run by a family of Indian immigrants. Since it closes at 2pm every Sunday, I asked whether it was because of some government regulation. ‘No’, came the answer,’ I work everyday of the week and take Sunday afternoons off to relax’. He has been following the same routine for the past 15 years he added. Other than being awed at the level of commitment and persistence this implied, I was struck by the fact that most of the shop’s clients live in a large council estate nearby. I asked what he thought of working so hard to serve people who in the main do not work and are taken care of by the state. His answer was very brief and all the more profound because of it: ‘People here have been destroyed, there are druggies in here all the time shouting and abusing me. But we just ignore them, agree with them and continue working’. That is the difference between people owning themselves and building their lives on that understanding and those who are owned by the state.