NANJALA WRITES

"Emancipate yourself from mental slavery – none but ourselves can free our mind" – Bob Marley

Dispatches from Madagascar: 1

I moved to a country where no one knows my name. The reality of the decision is taking its sweet time to sink in. Every day I find a new crevice of sadness to explore. But there are joys too.

***

My neighbour has a statute of Our Lady in his front yard. It is large – probably about the same size as one you’d find in a medium sized church. He keeps it lit through the night, even when all the lights in the main house are off. It stands out against the darkness of a city with no street lights.

On Graduation

I guess I’ve always believed that it was important for people to realise that one doesn’t need to be great in order to change society. If I were to have a life’s work, I would like for it to be inspiration for ordinary people in ordinary life to aspire to be vehicles of change in their societies. Which is why I made a conscious decision to move away from the pursuit of accolades and really hone in on meaning – on finding and defining meaning in my life and on allowing other people to do the same. It’s not always an easy or comfortable process, but I am getting better at it. I am getting better at not feeling left out where accolades don’t come to me – at separating the things that I truly want from the things that I want because of the accolade value that I have. I guess that’s my fault. Wanting more is such a trap. You’re basically consigning yourself to a life of being on the outside looking in. 

—-

I’m increasingly of the opinion that the reason why depression is on the rise in the US and other parts of the “developed” world, is the inability of people to access their feelings. We’re told what we should be happy about and when, and feel guilty or conflicted when we deviate from that expectation. Maturity becomes a checklist of attainments, instead of an organic process of growth and self-discovery. What if we just allowed people to feel sad when they felt sad? Or unhappy when they were unhappy? Or dissatisfied when they were dissatisfied? What if we peeked behind the gloss of things we’re supposed to like and confronted the emptiness therein? What if we all just accepted that sometimes the things we’re supposed to like just aren’t that great? 

Reading Africa Week 1: Zeina

Zeina by Nawal el-Saadawi

I made a commitment to try and read one book by an African author every week for the next year. Why? Why not? I read a lot, and I’ve spent a great deal of time reading books from other parts of the world, so why not read African books. this is only week one, so the fervour may die out once the heat of exams hits, but I’m willing to take that chance, and buy myself some time by front-loading a lot of the reading.

Zeina Book Cover

 

 

“A woman novelist […] doesn’t taste happiness. And if she does, happiness will come from within her, from her writings. A woman novelist has no country, family, religion, native city, or tribe. Her homeland is the street the open road without our walls. Her life is a journey into the unknown.”

First up, Zeina, by Nawal el-Saadawi. I have to confess, it took me a minute to get into this one, but once I got in to el-Saadawi’s thought processes and rhythms, I loved it.Really and truly loved it. The content is a little difficult to come to grips with. It’s often unclear which of the characters are real and which ones are projections of other character’s psyches’ but broadly speaking, the central character, Bodour is a female literary critic trapped in an unhappy marriage, with a dark secret from her past related to the title character, Zeina.

For me, the real strength of this book is in the style. El-Saadawi crafts a beautiful, ethereal story that shifts effortlessly across time, space and realities, and if you allow yourself to go along for the ride, you find yourself really wondering what is “true” and what is not. It’s also a feminist text – there’s a lot of strong criticism of institutionalised patriarchy, whether by the state or by religion, and of the false moral superiority of the men who often run these institutions. The book really captures the fluidity and the emptiness of public personas and the progressive rot that comes from suppressing one – and mostly women’s – personalities. There are no saints in this text  – except maybe for the titular character, although she’s hardly the virginal, pure image of sainthood that we’re accustomed to expecting. Everyone comes with a significant amount of baggage and everyone has a lot of justified anger towards the rotting system and their own internal demons.

I’m not going to lie – it’s a difficult book in the sense that it deals with a lot of complex and painful themes in an unapologetic and uncompromising way. It’s not the kind of book you want to take on your summer holiday, but it’s definitely worth picking up if you love the lyricism of good writing, and if you want an insight into some of the hypocrisies of the many societies we live in.

I give this book five stars, because I read mostly for style, and the craft here is outstanding (hat tip to the translator Amira Nowaira).

KT.

On Kenya

“What’s it like, being a Kenyan and being so far away right now?”

“Well, on any day, being Kenyan feels like you’re juggling 12 fragile plates in the air, but you don’t mind so much, because the guy standing next to you has 16 plates in the air, or the woman next to him has 17 plates and a panga. When you leave, you realise that it doesn’t have to be that hard. You don’t have to be juggling all of that stuff in the air. So you come back and try and tell people – hey, guys! Life doesn’t have to be this hard! Shida hizi zingine ni za kujitafutia! And everyone looks at you like your crazy, because we’ve all lived this way for so long that we just don’t know how else to do it. And that, if anything, is the most frustrating part. Because unless you’re juggling those 15 or 16 plates with everyone else, you feel like you have no legitimacy to criticise people for the way they choose to deal with the stress. But then, you still know that life doesn’t have to be that hard. You can put some of those plates down. You can ask your government or your church or someone to take some of them away. There’s a tension there – a constant negotiation between looking the other way in empathy, and screaming your lungs out in criticism.”

On Syria

Thought experiment: Imagine if you had a weapon that you knew for a fact could thoroughly demoralise your opponent, instil an unshakable fear in half of their numbers and completely crush the morale of any troops opposing you. Imagine that this weapon was illegal but still widely in use, and rarely prosecuted wherever it was used. Imagine if the individuals deploying this weapon were virtually untraceable in peace time, never mind in the fog of war, even though the effects would continue to play out for generations. Imagine if societal pressure actually worked against victims of this weapon such that they were forced through some misguided sense of shame to deny that the weapon had been used against them, even though its effects were clearly palpable. As a potential third party entering a conflict, wouldn’t you ideally want to do everything in your power to prevent your opponent from deploying this stealthy and destructive instrument? As an institution claiming some kind of moral authority to respond with force, wouldn’t you consider the use of such a weapon an incredible impetus to act and protect civilians?

This “weapon” is rape. But the fact that the governments beating the war drums have said and done almost nothing as it has been used to devastating effect in Syria confirms my hypothesis: War is for men, their enormous egos and their tiny [fill in the blank]. Women and children are only consequences and afterthoughts.

Insomnia

I’m so tired, but I can’t sleep. Standing on the edge of something much too deep…

I’ve been suffering through the worst insomnia over this summer period. I don’t understand it, and I don’t like it. The ability to sleep through my problems has been one of my greatest assets – sleeping through hunger when there was no money for food, sleeping through loneliness, sleeping through heartbreak. Second to prayer, it’s one of the most awesome coping mechanisms I have. And now It’s nearly 3 a.m. and I’m lying on a mattress in my brother’s house, typing up a blog post about insomnia. 

Ugh. 

Things don’t keep me up. I’m not that person. Nothing is ever that serious. What’s happening to me?

Imminence. That sense that something new, different, big, unusual, unexpected is about to happen. The universe is holding it’s collective breath as I move myself into the next phase. 

Or, am I being kept up to pray for someone who doesn’t have anyone to pray for them? Sometimes life isn’t about you, is it?

2:37 a.m. Let me try and sleep again. 

Should I Tell This Story? (Or, Stealth Photography for Beginners)

I had my first negative, personal experience in Haiti today. I’m not sure if I should tell the story, because the whole goal of me blogging and writing from here has been to help change the image of Haiti overseas. And yet, it is what it is, right?

There have been a lot of little daily annoyances, but nothing personally alarming. To be fair, what happened today was partly my fault. I got a little cocky; I got a little careless.

I walked towards Champ de Mars in downtown Port-au-Prince to get photographs of the last preparations for Carnaval but also for photos of the other part of town which I had never been to. This is the rougher part of the downtown area – more people in the streets, fewer touristy spots. I especially wanted to photograph the ruins of the Notre Dame Cathedral, which I had seen out the corner of my eye when riding through Champ de Mars a few days earlier.

I walked through Champ de Mars and through the park towards the ruins with no problems. When I got there, the image was even more stark than I could have imagined. The entire roof of the Cathedral came down in the earthquake but you still have one or two stained glass windows almost perfectly intact. Several displaced people were still encamped around the ruins; a commentary on just how much reconstruction efforts had stalled. In its prime, I bet the Cathedral was an imposing building. Today, the only people worshipping there were an informal church on the wrong side of a high fence, under a USAID tarp – a congregation of about 30 led by a man but made almost entirely of women.

This is where I made my first mistake. I was so caught up in taking in the scenery and plotting out my next shot that I didn’t fully account for my whereabouts. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t waving my camera about – I’m still a Nairobian after all – but I wasn’t hurriedly putting it away either. Getting away with taking multiple pictures at Champ de Mars this weekend made me cocky. I paid so much attention to the church congregation that I didn’t fully account for all the displaced people, or noticing whether or not people were watching me.

My second mistake was that when I walked off the main street to take the shots, I communicated with the people there. You never want people to hear your accent. I was dressed pretty low key and no one would have paid attention to me if I had just kept my mouth shut. But I didn’t. Instead I said good morning in my bizarre, mixed up accent, instantly flagging my foreignness.

I walked around the other side of ruins, continuing to take pictures, and there I made my third mistake. Or rather, I made my first mistake a second time around. The place looked calm and chilled so I took that as an invitation to take pictures – there was after all, only a single old lady sitting by the doorway of the church. I kid you not, she was the only person there when I arrived. But by the time I was done taking photographs, there was a troop of people there.

First, there were three kids, all begging me for money, but I said no. Then their older sisters arrived. And then their older sisters older sisters’. And then their older brother. All in all, about 10 people who started out begging quietly for my money, but then it all escalated really quickly and they got super aggressive. They started asking for my watch, and (what sounded like) threatening me when I said no. I could literally sense the moment when the mood changed.

Look, I could have easily taken each of them individually, but collectively? I was out of my depth. Then I did the math on running out of there, recalling the crowd of men and boys who had been yelling around the outside. Add to that the fact that we were already in a dodgy part of town, layered with the fact that I’ve spent the last 10 weeks studying rape, and you get that I was already on edge.

I think I handled it well. Although I put up a significant amount of resistance, in the end, I offered them 50 gourdes (just over 1 USD) and told them they had to share it. Cheeky git that I am, I also left them with a lecture on why they had to share and cooperate, and that we all have to rebuild Haiti together. Saved once again by the stereotype of the poor African.

Cut to, me spending the afternoon skulking around Pétionville, taking sneaky photographs of the street art. Based on that experience, here are my tips for stealth photography in places where the safety of your camera and your person is not guaranteed:

1. Scout the location as far in advance as possible. Note the security situation – how quickly can you get into or out? Can you get help in a hurry? Is it a crowded street? Is it the kind of crowd that will help you if you are attacked, or your attacker?

2. Set up your shot before you take out your camera. (Implied in this is the point that you should know your camera very well. Figure out what tweaks need to be done before you have to do them).

3. Notice any open stores or alleys that you can hide in in order to take the shot. Use them.

4. This worked really well for me this afternoon. Find your spot, and then just stand there.  Spend time taking in the traffic flow, waiting for the perfect moment to swoop in. How long? Long enough to that anyone who noticed you arrive will lose interest, but not so long that you look creepy and regain their attention.

5. Don’t talk to the people around the area that you’re photographing. Just don’t draw attention to yourself. (Dress like a transient if you must).

6. I was photographing street art – the best time for this is during public holidays or during the weekend, when there’s low traffic in the streets and less chance of harassment.

7. Walk away quickly. Put your camera back in its nondescript bag (I carry one of those reusable shopping bags) and walk away at a fast but controlled pace. If there’s a store that you can go into a little down the ways, do it.

8. Get insurance. A camera is just a piece of property after all.

Remember that 90% of people in the world are good honest people, just trying to earn a decent buck. But don’t be like me and lose sight of the 10%. In the end, we can’t control everything that happens to us. But we can control how we react to this.

Street Art in Port Au Prince

Street Art in Port Au Prince