We have these walks, Abdelfatah and I. Began once a week, became once in 6 months, and lately, exceedingly infrequent as our days become more governed by routine—their onslaught more identical. We now count them from the bill paid to when we have to pay the next.
Inside this mundane yet overwhelming quest for survival, it’s no surprise life feels a little more constricting. At times, more cripplingly labyrinthine, say a threaded sweater, sown by the very warped thread of reality that has everyone succumb to the elusive material fictions of what it has become about—’form ni kuomoka’, the slogan we remind ourselves. In irony, noting how we’ve become the same things we used to see fit to be escaped from. I think that is the reason we stayed friends. Our stumbled-upon enlightenment of modernity being society’s poison of choosing, and our freedom to only be found in breaking away from it. Lest we succumb to a similar fate, these little walks affirmed that we just might be the last two sane people in this unquestioning time.
There we were, en route to Lighthouse, the air suffused with political tension. If Baba doesn’t win, I’m afraid of what might happen. The strong Indian ocean winds ballooned our shirts. The moon interspersed its light into silvery patches on the roadside golf courses. There, under the brightest lamp in the skies, even brighter against the reflective water surface where it paved, our thoughts became exhumed, and our tongues lashed onto all the now normative ideologies; all the -isms you can think of: feminism, modernism, capitalism, nationalism, secularism, atheism and all the particularities that contributes to what we deemed the worship of the self. This regiment had become part of our coping mechanism, our counter to an ailing society. We deconstructed where needed and critiqued all that we could critique.
And amidst all the inquisitions we made, one stayed buried in our minds, buried in the subtext, for we didn’t have to make it, and that was the bewilderment every modern man has to confront one day, every day. Is this really the life we kicked our mothers’ wombs for?
We followed a trail that was now routine. If it were any other day, we would’ve ended this walk at our usual mishakiki joint after ishaa, where after we wash our embittered hearts, cool our frustrations with some Mountain Dew, before bottling up our conclusions and return to society, closeted, resume right where we left off, masquerading as one of its submissive members. But with the joint closed this time, hushed tones that spoke of looming election violence, with the time remaindered on our hands, Abdelfatah countered with ending up on a hot note this time, coffee, told of a certain Ethiopian woman, Adal, selling it nearby that I had to try.
When the time came to bid Adal farewell, Abdelfatah delivered his gratitude. Adal would tell us how coffee was treated where she was from. “Coffee needs time. It needs not be rushed,” she’d say. It plays the rubric that binds our social fabric. Where she’s from, coffee played all forms of mediation and diplomacy; it elicited honesty and this almost unbearable lightness of being. We hadn’t thought of that then. Even after we’d walked away speaking of the specialness of such inexpensive little experiences. But the overall experience did prove just what she posed.
It was 2000hrs on a slow day where even this often most packed Mama Ngina drive lay desolate. Just me and Abdelfatah, moonlighted, Adal setting up an incense burner first; from it, oud; wisps of agarwood that just elevated the bare ambience of public benches to a material feeling that had us feel like honoured guests in her home. She brought forth a plate with upturned miniature cups missing arms. At the heart of it is a bowl of dates guarded by another bowl of sugar, and beside it is a shaker of ginger. Out she poured our coffee from a traditional gourd. “Enjoy,” she said, her final vowels elongated and left us spotting dorky smiles at the service we witnessed.
There’s a warmth to Adal. The kind you need to step out of the tumultuous flow of the everyday. “My dear…” she seemed drawn to that endearing term. Most of her statements began that way. It seemed she didn’t speak Kiswahili; maybe that’s what prompted my companion to ask her. “Habesh?” and she’d shake her head with that smile that seemed to never vacate her face, and with resigned submission, she’d say, “Eritrea.” And the mood was set for conversation.
I don’t feel I have the right to tell her story, which was my intention as I began this. I’d rather it remain in the backdrop as an overcast shadow of what I’m about to say. Against the glaciers that border us in this fiction we call our nation. Are lines drawn on our maps suddenly supposed to make us different from those on the other side?
What stood out to me was her meticulous articulation of the dynamic nature of our natural world. Things that felt incorrigible when I attempted their articulation, she ultimately swooped in and said them with an apt coherence. We spoke of our countries, our continent, the way Africans always speak, a proclivity towards the reactionary. Yet, we tried to enforce it with an infringed upon objectivity; like a parent’s idealism seeing so much potentiality for its fathered destiny; like a child, aware of their parents’ failings, fully versed with the injustices subject to them by those who now proclaim themselves the benchmark of human rights. That patronising eye we deal with daily.
We spoke about the pitiful nature of Libya after the fall of Ghaddafi. We spoke of Katanga, Sudan and Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and the awakened nature of her countrymen in Eritrea. We traversed through the dark despotisms of colonialism, this open secret history that our betters seem adamant on erasing. Things lose their lustre once they’re not spoken of, and maybe in not speaking, it can be deemed justifiable, like look at all this progress we brought them. We spoke the British, the Germans and the Italians. And threw our hearts out to the French in Algeria. And somehow, almost unmentioned in continued African colonialism, we talked the Americans. A consensus reached like those many before that they perhaps were…are the most strategic and terrorising country in the modern world. Even back then, we weren’t blinded of the quandary they were in on whether to venture into their imperial pursuits. A fact now properly established, that with Nixon’s abolition of the Gold Standard, the world’s economy was only held by American militarism, the unmentioned power of the dollar. And Eritreans as well had learnt that a very long time ago, Adal would say. There were sighs amid our smiles, and one of us, I think me, would say how all of this is done in the name of democracy and progress. “I feel they justify this with the excuse that by the end, we’ll end up democratic.” Then Adal turned to me and began the way she began all her statements, her voice shrill, warmed by a rasp enveloped about it, “My dear…democracy is not a commodity.” A statement we’d echo to each other on our way back, our main takeaway, as we empathised with the nature of our world. Democracy is never something someone can deliver to you, and anyone who ever says that should be suspect, and their matter looked into. Indeed, Democracy is not a commodity.
The queen is dead. The people are celebrating. The memes are fire. God forgive me for all the tweets I’m going to laugh at this weekend, goes a tweet. Have you not the common decency? Comes a rebuttal. Then an uncovered tweet of the rebutter who, when Africa was mourning one of her fallen sons, seemed to have forgotten about the decency he feels the dead is now owed, mocked their sorrow, apparently justifying it in a twisted moral sense for they were mourning a murderous dictator. There are no premier league matches, so we have a whole weekend to brace ourselves for double standards as we push to the public platform, all matters decolonising. The violence required to counter the violence that was colonialism. Franz Fanon would have been proud.
It is a strange relationship that the colonised and coloniser share. Not carrying with it the capacity for hate, but there’s a passionate indifference which must cause some cognitive dissonance to our colonisers who saw these civilising missions as a white man’s burden and ultimately would wake up one day to a grateful world. The relationship is prominent in a country like ours where the scars of colonialism still exist in some of our old. Not a decade even since Britain acknowledged their atrocities through the colonial period, a more recent reminder being the E4 produced, A Very British Way of Torture.
I was with a group of friends that same weekend, one of us an American, and when the conversation had gone stale, I imposed that we were all in mourning that day, when the Africanness came out strongly from one of my friends to condemn the blasphemy I’d just uttered. But they laughed it off, knowing me for reckless comments just to get the room’s reaction. The American was rather dumbfounded by the discourse surrounding the queen’s death, the lack of remorse and the air of indifference, and our disclosure of how the news was taken all around the world. The Irish chanting in stadiums, ‘Lizzy’s in a box, Lizzy’s in a box.’
“I mean, I get that her country colonised you, but that doesn’t make it right to celebrate?”
And that’s accurate. No amount of pain caused in the past can be undone by these reactions, but also, the wages of colonialism are not to patronise us with how we get to feel about it. My American friend means well, but you must have seen the look on my other two friends on her obliviousness to the facts. They went on about the queen being an enabler of all that we went through and, despite her awareness, wilfully did nothing about it. We weren’t complacent like our fathers who lowered their heads when Kenyatta said, ‘We all fought for Uhuru; let us now build the nation.’ We can’t put the past in the past when we’re constantly confronted with its effects. An elaborate scheme to look towards their benevolence to keep us afloat. The self-awareness has us see this malevolence for what it is.
“You talk about her like she’s Hitler.” My American friend says.
“Well,” I come in quietly, “what is the difference?”
She looked at me in horror, taken aback. Given the moment, she might have thought me a holocaust denier.
“We did also have concentration camps,” I added, and now she just looked away.
“Oh sorry,” She said under her breath, “I didn’t know that.”
No one does, though. The stories of these last ruins of empire remain a footnote in world history. Our colonial-based education waters down the effects of colonialism, and it’s only with growing up and uncovering quintessential works like Caroline Elkin’s Imperial Reckoning that the picture sort of begins to make sense. It has stayed with me and sort of pushed me towards decolonisation polemics. So much so that my Twitter echo chamber within the past years, or maybe it’s one of those you uncover something and then cannot stop seeing it everywhere, but my Twitter feed had been infiltrated with the polemic of fed-up coloured people with Western Imperialism, continued colonialism in all its manifested forms, American exceptionalism, the white gaze and rewriting all these single-stories, taking up spaces that were before unawarded to minorities. Conversations not only driven by emotions but very strong academic backing that it’s just a sight to behold. This witnessing of a renaissance.
From the colonial eye, Cromer, let’s say, or the breakdown of it as done by Frantz Fanon, we come face to face with the fact that the aim was never to stay here. Take Egypt. The goal was always to shove their superiority down our throats, strip us of our language, values, sentimentalities and have us bear theirs; that’s why schools became the best tools for indoctrination. And if we’re honest, colonialism was a success; the end was the leaving of the European and replacing him with a Europeanised African. Black skins and white masks. In the end, they achieved just that, stripped him of his religion as well. Empowered Egyptian women, Iranians, and Algerians tossed away the hijab, the most visible symbol of their civilisation. There’s a statement in one of Frantz Fanon’s essays that goes, ‘This woman who sees without being seen bothers the coloniser.’ Fully embraced nationalism, the oriental look was wiped, civilising missions were successful. Or were they?
Something interesting happened in the ‘80s. A new generation, not even all of them driven by embracing religiosity, some of them just out of rebellion of this forced way on their fathers, a surprising percentage of women put the hijab back on, alarming their colonisers. This relic of the past wiped from the streets was now everywhere again. How could they choose to go back to that? That which they sold as a tool of oppression? How could they forsake liberalism for such backward ideals? How?
And now, watching my generation excavating their own languages, forsaking the secular gods, and identity politics viewed as an actual thing, the antithesis forms. To cut the trunk of a tree might seem like good work done, giving the impression of a psychological warfare won, but the roots run deep, the stem grows firm again, its branches spread and leaves cluster and talk. And just about time, the ensuing discomfort doesn’t spare anybody. And in these conversations with friends, with strangers over coffee and in what I deem the best use of black Twitter, we are taking bolder strides to where we want to be. As conflated and conflicted as identity is, as long as we get to define it ourselves, as long as we’re reclaiming these pens again, we are walking towards somewhere.
Hassan Kassim is a Kenyan writer and Kiswahili literary translator. He was a beneficiary of the PenPen residency by African writers Development Trust, with whom he published his first two non-fiction essays in the anthology Twaweza. His other publications appear or are forthcoming in Lolwe, In the Sands of Time anthology from the inaugural Toyin Falola Prize, Sahifa Journal, Hekaya Initiative for which he won the Mozilla Common-voice essay competition, among others. His translation of Jalada’s Mgeni is set to appear in Two Lines Press’ No Edges in April, 2023.”