Author: VOA Contributor

The implicit racism of ‘All lives matter’

Men holding signs reading "Black Lives Matter" march in the 30th annual Kingdom Day Parade in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on  January 19 2015 in Los Angeles. (Pic: AFP)
Men holding signs reading “Black Lives Matter” march in the 30th annual Kingdom Day Parade in honour of Dr Martin Luther King Jr. on January 19 2015 in Los Angeles. (Pic: AFP)

Last week, I stumbled across a BuzzFeed video of children from black families reminiscing about their parents’ struggles to put them through school and give them better lives. They talked of exceptional sacrifices: a mother who went without food to feed her sons, another who left a dancing career because of childbirth, or even the absentee father who made a point of always being there for his son. They spoke of retired parents rejoining the workforce to make enough money to get their children through college and of a mother sacrificing relationships because she wanted to avoid turmoil for her children. Like every normal person, I was moved by these stories and touched by the depth of sacrifice these parents made, as well as the gratitude their children exhibited. My disappointment in humanity however was awakened when I scrolled down to read the comments: “Are you going to make a thing about white families sacrificing for their kids too?” asked one user. “As parents we all make sacrifices for our children,” said another. There is something systemically off with these lines of thinking.

First, it is indisputable that all parents make some level of sacrifice for their children. Whether it is the discomfort of waking up in the middle of the night to check their crib, or forgoing something for the sake of their young ones. Nobody denies this. But the problem with the statements above lies in their complete ignorance of historical context. When the video showed black children remembering their parents’ struggles, it did not negate other people’s struggles. It does not mean that because they had difficult childhoods, then everyone else had it easy. When one story is told in positive light, it does not inevitably send everything else in darkness. Thus, the people who felt some level of bias in the story missed a crucial part of American history. History is not comparative in its telling, it is not linear in its production and neither is it singular in perspective.

This idea of sameness of struggle is usually echoed in response to the “Black Lives Matter” movement that sprung up after a number of police shootings in the United States. The same people who disregard America’s racial history want it to be said that “All Lives Matter.” But in reality, that statement in itself is an oxymoron and asserting it as true is nothing less than insincere on the part of its proponents. If all lives did matter, then the American justice system would be a completely different scene today. But all lives don’t matter, because American history is one of intended and completed racialisation of minority populations, especially black people.

Eric Garner and Tamir Rice are not victims of circumstance; they are a disclosure of successful policy implementation. American history is white history. The same country that declared “all men are created equal,” propagated slavery. If it was self-evident that some men were more equal than others in the founding of America, isn’t it logical that they still would not gain equality in the building of America? Whether it is America’s Prison Industrial Complex, or the Japanese Internment, whether COINTELPRO and the Black Panthers, or the Federal Housing Agency and Colour Coding (aka Redlining) which led to the rise of the Projects, American history was the active disenfranchisement of one racial group at the expense of another. The ideology of racial supremacy that founded the United States informed policy and led to the current injustices facing the black person.

If one is not a minority, they have probably benefited from the policies that allowed their families to own a home when other families could not because the FHA would not subsidise their mortgages since they lived in yellow or red lined zones. My point is not that people who are racialised as white are automatically racist, but they have benefited – whether intentionally or unwittingly – from the historical injustices of racism.

It is only in failing to understand this fact that you can hastily declare that all lives matter, and thereby repeat the incongruities in the founding documents of the American state. You will not understand that poverty breeds a social bubble in which violence is the only outpouring of economic frustration, because you have never needed to be violent. If you have only been on one side of history, you will never understand what it means to bend the arc of history toward justice when your opponent has power on their side. You will not easily wrap your head around the fact that at some point, this history shows itself in modern life; that this context paints the black life in all shades and hues. So, we could probably make a video of white children talking of their parent’s struggles after the housing bubble of 2008, or even of those white innocent people who die of police brutality. But we cannot account for their history because it has been the only history that has been told. What of that one police officer who likes black children? Or what of the fact that you have black friends? Or what of the fact that you have been to Africa? If you think these can erase the fundamental flaws and systemic injustices created in the writing and telling of American history, you are part of the problem.

Franklyn Odhiambo is an alumni of the African Leadership Academy, and a student of Political Science and Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He is a Kenyan.

Tell the African story – including corruption

(Pic: Flickr / DW Akademie)
(Pic: Flickr / DW Akademie)

Two weeks ago, one of Kenya’s leading newspapers, The Daily Nation, published the story of a county governor who had spent some $197 000 on accommodation at a high-end hotel while awaiting renovation of his official residence. Quoting a report by Kenya’s Auditor General however, the paper noted that the county’s government also spent some $5 300 on house rent for the same Governor, during the same time period he was living at the hotel (July 9th to August 1st 2015). If these numbers don’t speak for themselves already, then add some 1.2 billion shillings ($11 855 844) misappropriated by the same county in September of 2013. You get the picture?

What is worrying about such blatant corruption and outright impunity in Africa is not its existence; it is the recurrence. It is the fact that it is as systemic as the education sector or agriculture is to the common citizen. I worry that while a child’s disease and a region’s poverty will be well documented by some aid agency and paraded to solicit funds from some well-meaning individual, these incidences of corruption will not see the light of day in the western world. It seems as if, we Africans, would rather allow benevolent stereotypes to flourish than for our dirty linen to be aired in public. The narrative thus remains the same. Africa is poor because it is poor; and while we’re out fighting the poverty narrative, we fiercely defend the source of our poverty.

I know there is a lot of noise about ‘Africa Rising’ going around the web and in intellectual circles; I also know that this is complete hogwash. Africa is going nowhere – not yet at least. There cannot be any development on a continent that propagates and recycles the same ideals that have kept it from developing for the last 50 years. So, citizens having some internet with which to shout at western media will not in itself change the continent’s trajectory. The corruption will stay, terror attacks still go unattended and ethnic strife still pit us against each other. Just because we can tweet at CNN and get an apology does not mean we are better off as a people. While it is laudable that we are challenging stereotypes about our continent; and while we need to show things as they are, we must acknowledge that incidences of corruption too are a part of our social fabric. They might be undesirable alright; they might be shameful; but integrity to our continent and preparedness for real development implies (indeed requires) that we talk about these indecent characteristics too.

So what happens to our sandy beaches and wild animals and M-Pesa and the Savannah? Nothing. But if we want a complete story of us, we must be at the forefront of telling it. If any media speaks about corruption, or terrorism in Kenya, it has every right to. Granted, sensational reporting is below media ethics, the truth must nevertheless be spoken. It is pretentious of us Africans to imply that exposure of our continent’s weaknesses, or our politicians’ misdeeds, somehow blemishes our “good name”. Because it is this very identity that gets tarnished every time we want to keep the monopoly on talking about corruption within our borders.

There is no substitute for thinking.

Franklyn Odhiambo is an alumni of the African Leadership Academy and student of the university of California, Berkeley. Oh,and he’s Kenyan too.

Zimbabwe: Chasing the dream of an independent media

(Pic: Flickr / Loozrboy)
(Pic: Flickr)

My uncle, Lovemore Dexter Mushaka, died in 2000 before the age of Google and Facebook. He was 40. For many years he was a legend in the family. He only existed as an idea. All I knew about him was that he lived in America. He left Zimbabwe in the early 80s with his wife and their baby. I was too young and vaguely remembered him.

He spoke on the phone with his elder brother, my father, constantly. Our connection was through postcards he sent every Christmas, sometimes accompanied by a box of new clothes and some American memorabilia. Opening the box was always an occasion.

He returned to Zimbabwe in the late 90s but he was always on the move, chasing his dreams or looking for the next big deal. Uncle LDM, as we called him, had many business ventures of varying success. Then we heard in the news like everyone else that he was starting a TV station. He named the station after himself, LDM Broadcasting Systems.

The government of Zimbabwe had decided to rent out the second TV channel to independent companies to shake off pressure from civil rights groups to liberalise the airwaves. Unfortunately, the arrangement did not last. The new broadcasters – Joy TV, LDM Broadcasting and Munhumutapa African Broadcasting Corporation – were soon switched off air, apparently because they defaulted on their rent payments.

As Zimbabwe was proving to be a difficult operating environment, my uncle shifted his focus to neighbouring Zambia. His company was soon granted a satellite broadcasting licence by the Zambian government to establish a radio and TV multi-channel satellite facility that was to be built in Kafue, a town in the south-east of Lusaka. It was set to beam programmes to the entire SADC region. Two years after signing the agreement my uncle was dead. He certainly had foresight for what was to come, the proliferation of satellite TV.

In Zimbabwe, the broadcasting industry has not expanded in any significant manner since 1980. There has been only one state broadcaster that has dominated Zimbabwe’s airwaves, the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corporation. Instead of the popular acronymic name ZBC, many call the institution, Dead-BC. Some places in the border towns of Beitbridge and Binga have had no TV and radio signal since independence.  It is just recently that the Broadcasting Authority of Zimbabwe has awarded radio licences to ‘independent entities and individuals’ all of whom have strong links to the ruling party, Zanu-PF.

Under the stewardship of Jonathan Moyo, state media channels increasingly became propaganda platforms. Stringent media laws such as Public Order and Security Act (POSA) and Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act (AIPPA) were passed to frustrate independent media and protect state monopoly on access to and distribution of information.

The political and legal environment made it near impossible for the entry of divergent media players. Government introduced a 75 percent local content policy to shut out external influences. Zanu-PF jingles, talk shows on patriotism and one-sided political programmes bashing the West and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change became the agenda.

Zimbabweans tuned out en masse. People started using Wiztech and Philibao decoders to decrypt South African signals. The free-to-air decoders, despite their illegal transmission, offered millions of Zimbabweans with alternative views and perspectives. TV shows such as Generations, Muvhango and Isidingo gained cult-like followings.

It is estimated that more than three million Zimbabweans used the free-to-air decoders to access foreign channels rather than subject themselves to Zanu-PF propaganda and the general poor programming on ZBC. A few well-to-do families subscribed to Digital Satellite Television (DStv). According to the Information and Media Panel of Inquiry report on the state of media in Zimbabwe released in March,  Zimbabweans generally regard both public and private media as manifestly corrupt and designed for disinformation, propaganda and information cover-up.

The government’s reluctance to speed up the switch from analogue to digital has been widely viewed as political. In an ideal situation, digital migration will foster media pluralism or diversity by enabling the broadcasting of more channels with a wider range of programming. As a result viewers and listeners would be able to receive more diverse information and opinions.

My uncle’s TV station earned me a few points with girls at school. Its brief existence coincided with the time when I was finishing junior high school and slowly contemplating what to do with the rest of my life. I toyed with the idea of becoming a dentist or architect because I thought these professions would make me feel rich and important. But I had a natural affinity for writing and media and my uncle became an immediate example of the possibilities.

In January this year, I went to America for the first time to tread on the same ground as my uncle. Even though I have been a journalist for almost a decade, I felt it was time to step up and learn the business of media. It was no longer just enough to write but to come up with platforms that encourage and enable young people to participate in the national discourse.  I also believe that young media entrepreneurs who develop new business models and innovative projects will shape the future of journalism in Africa.

The legend of Lovemore Dexter Mushaka lives on even though he still feels like an idea, a dark-suited dream that briefly walked in the streets of my youth. I only got to know and interact with my uncle during the last two years of his life but his ideas to enable millions of Africans to have access to information and quality journalism have never been more potent. It is an ambition I will fulfill.

Tinashe Mushakavanhu is a writer and journalist from Zimbabwe. He was a Tow-Knight Entrepreneurial Journalism fellow at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in New York and currently building his own media start-up. Prior to that he was Online Editor at The Financial Gazette.

The religious war between my mother and a sangoma

(Pic: Flickr / Hanna Pritchett)
(Pic: Flickr / Hanna Pritchett)

I was born and bred in a one-street town in Nhlangano, Swaziland. Throughout my childhood, every Sunday started the same way: with a high-speed chase for a hen. The bird would be caught and slaughtered while the water was boiling on top of Mama’s Falkirk wood stove. Anyone still asleep in the house would be woken up by the aroma from the strong bush tea brewing on the stove. Fused with the burning charcoal from wattle trees that surrounded our house, the aroma filled the kitchen and spilled to the entire house.

Enter Mama’s kitchen on a Sunday morning and you would find her cooking both breakfast and lunch at the same time. She did that religiously every Sunday to save time. Mama was always in a hurry. She may have rubbed that off on me as I am defined by those who know me as a woman who seemed to be always pressed for time – it does not matter where I am hurrying to. Mama had to feed five children, clean the house, prepare our clothes and then drive her brood to church to conduct Sunday School classes. She was the Sunday School teacher at church and a school teacher during the week.

One particular Sunday, we left the chicken slowly simmering on the wood stove while we dashed for church as usual. I sat at the back row and listened attentively to Mama as she did the best she could to preach to a young congregation. Mama loved parables more than she did verses. She had some from her personal life too. That morning, she told one of her very colourful stories that occurred donkey’s years ago. She told the story to convince us of why our God is the most high of all others. Mama related how one day in her class a pupil had refused to accept punishment for failing to submit an assignment. The girl instead decided to walk out of the school premises and go home to fetch her mother, who was a sangoma.

In a short while there was a group of people gathered around the school administration block, watching the pupil and her sangoma mother sing and beat drums as they called upon the spirits to destroy the woman responsible for the unhappiness of the child. Another child was sent from the scene to tell Mama, the teacher, to run off through the back gate and never return. Mama shocked us all at Sunday School as she reported how she stubbornly went to the scene and confronted the sangoma and her daughter.

The crowd tried to stop her and urged her to apologise to the mighty sangoma. Mama backed down. She then started to dance in front of us, her Sunday School class, as she tried to imitate the sangoma. We all burst out laughing. Mama went on to say that the sangoma had a reputation. Everyone who had ever confronted the sangoma would be cursed. People in the village were terrified of her. They even worshipped the ground on which she walked to store favours in case they wronged her one day. There was talk that some people even gave her livestock for no reason at all. Now she was in a stand-off with a woman who not only had not bought a favor but needed one soon! The crowds managed to separate the two women. Soon thereafter Mama was married and left the village.

As I sat in the back row of the Sunday school class, I envisioned Mama in the days when she was still a size 6. I envisioned her dancing around against another woman. I had never seen her go up against anyone in my life; indeed I had thought of her as a meek person. I wondered what it would be like to see the real thing. My curiosity would be satisfied very soon! In fact it was as soon as at the end of the church service when we got home from church.

There we found that our gardener, Dlamini, who had remained in his room at the back of our house while we went to church, was in trouble. Dlamini was also my mother’s cousin. Unknown to us, he had a girlfriend who was much older than him, and who had children as old as Dlamini himself. She was also a sangoma.

What we saw in our yard that day gave me my first experience of what a sangoma initiation graduation ceremony must be like. She was clad in full sangoma attire. Her hair was smeared with red earth. She had long strands. She was topless and her breasts hung far below her belly. She had red and white beads across her bosom. Wrapped around her was a red cloth. Her wrists had red and write bead bracelets which shivered as she clapped her hands together, hard. Her feet hit the concrete ground so hard I thought she would bleed out from her already cracked heels.

Her teenage children were singing their lungs out as their mother continued to shout out to Dlamini to pay the children’s maintenance as he had promised. Dlamini was epileptic. He had long collapsed in a fit. Mama started shouting at the woman who had made our front yard her dancing ground. She rebuked the devil the same way that she had done for us at Sunday School. The woman replied. She called out some clan names and instructed the ancestors to curse Mama. It was only then that Mama recognised the sangoma to be the same woman she’d had a verbal showdown with some twenty years ago at the school.

I was left in a state of confusion as I tried to understand whether the revelation had angered or excited Mama. She erupted in chorus and tried to outdo the choir of teenage sangomas standing in front of her yard. As the sangoma danced moving closer to our house, Mama did the same and danced towards the sangoma. The war of words between the two women turned personal. It was no longer about Mama protecting her employee and cousin. It was a resurrection of an old animosity. Coincidentally the enemy Mama had evaded for so long and forgotten to tell us about was right at her doorstep.

Soon it was not very easy to tell the sangoma apart from the Sunday School teacher. Both women were dancing and singing and shouting profanities at each other. After two decades, it was a rendezvous. The women the gods had kept separate for so long had met again. Mama was once again face to face with the devil incarnate. And the devil was her cousin’s lover, who could become her family too if she had her way!

Cece Celestina is a lawyer based in Johannesburg. She was born, raised and educated in Swaziland.

The mlungu in the room

A mosaic of Leo and Makhosi. (Supplied)
A mosaic of Leo and Makhosi. (Supplied)

So this is the place she had always called home; a jumble of houses, shacks and unpaved roads in between the beautiful rolling green hills of KwaZulu-Natal. My parents and I are probably the only white people in a 20km radius. I feel like an intruder. Even at the burial, as I closed my eyes and listened to the singing of the choir coupled with the rhythmic sound of spades filling up the grave with sand, I felt their eyes watching me. Was it really my place to be here?

But as I stepped into the room, I forgot all that. It didn’t matter because this room smells exactly the way her room used to smell. The staff quarters at the back of our house and this room in the middle of Zululand, 300kms apart, are one and the same. I know how terrible it is to say this but I literally cannot describe the smell. It is simply a thousand memories of my other mother.

“This is Makhosi’s mfana”, Mabel tells the other gogos sitting in the room. I feel seven pairs of eyes looking at me, sizing me up. There’s a laugh and a smile and everyone waves at me. I feel a bit more relaxed and looking down I have to smile as well. Laid out on the floor are bowls of rice and dark purple beetroot, plates heaped with butternut and pumpkin and two big pots of stew. And this is just for seven old ladies; there are another fifty people outside all being served plates of food. Everything looks like it was made by her, everything smells like it was made by her; but of course it wasn’t.

We hand over the gifts we’ve brought for the family: a big bunch of flowers and a framed collage of photographs my mom had made. For the first time I really do have to cry. The four pictures of me and Makhosi are handed around the room for all the gogos to have a look at and everyone laughs, smiles and points at me again. No one can believe how big I’ve grown. The mood seems to sway between cheerful hopefulness and total sadness.

There’s someone hurrying around trying to organise a plate of food for me. I keep getting asked if I want some of this or some of that. I keep trying to explain that it doesn’t matter, that I’ll eat whatever I’m given. The Zulu whirls all around my head and of course I can’t understand it, but I do catch one word that I know: mlungu. I finally sit down and take a look at my plate: a mountain of rice covered in gravy and beef, large spoonfuls of mash and butternut and chakalaka. To top it all off, I am offered a chicken drumstick from a bowl that’s being passed around. It’s time to tuck in.

I hear the cow that’s walking around outside moo as I bite into a piece of beef and I feel kind of guilty. The feeling only lasts a few moments, because the stew is amazing. Every bite of rice covered in rich gravy reminds me of being asked to try whatever Makhosi was making, to tell her if it was all right. It was always better than all right and so was this. I turned to the mash and the butternut that had also been soaking in sauce. I was surprised by a sudden burst of sweetness as I discovered little peas tucked away every now and again. I remember the times she used to babysit me when my parents were out and ask me what I wanted for supper. Mashed potatoes were a popular response.

I remember her trying to convince me to eat my vegetables so that I could grow up big and strong. I didn’t need convincing this time as I attacked the bright orange butternut. It was warm and sweet and silky smooth. The rice, the gravy, the mash and the potatoes seem to conglomerate into one big ball of flavour that is chewy and smooth, sweet, savoury and a little bit spicy all at the same time. The spiciness I realise, is from the chakalaka that I haven’t even tried yet. Why is everything so good? The combination of beans, tomato and chili is an explosion of tangy flavour followed by a mild heat.

Someone has handed me a plastic cup filled with some bright yellow, fizzling drink and a sip of the cold, sweet juice is the perfect counter to the heavy, humid heat. I was never allowed this kind of thing as a child, but she sometimes let me take a sip of her coke when my mom wasn’t watching. The drink seems to accentuate the flavour of the food and the tastes are suddenly much sharper. My dad loves to tell me which two hundred rand wine pairs well with the perfect rump steak but I bet he doesn’t know how well Pine Nut Cream Soda goes with beef stew. I finish off the last bits of succulent fat and hunt down a couple of runaway peas until my plate is almost empty.

There’s just the drumstick left. I picked it up with my hands, ignoring the fork I had been using and ate my chicken the proper way; the way she taught me. The crispy skin, the tender flesh and even the knobbly bits on top; I ate everything. All I was left with was the bone and I knew what I had to do. Biting into the bone was my final goodbye. Exactly the way she used to, sitting in her room, with its wonderful aromas, and biting into chicken bones. I found the crumbling, dark brown marrow hidden inside and let the memories consume me.

I thought about everything I had experienced today and had to smile in amazement. The brightly coloured dresses, the beautiful singing and the abundance of food; this was not a mourning of death, but a celebration of life. It was not tea and sandwiches after a depressing service, it was love and warmth put into feeding a hundred people. They hardly have money to live, but there’s money for Makhosi’s umngcwabo. It truly was a special way to remember a special person.

Sibongile, Makhosi’s sister, is walking us to the car; it’s time to go home. “You’ve got a little one as well, don’t you?” my mom asked. A shout and a woza later a little albino boy is running up to us to say hello. “God gave me a mlungu, just like you!”

I’m not sure why I put the Lego man in my pocket this morning. I suppose it was some sort of keepsake. I’d wanted to put it at her grave, but it hadn’t felt right. I bent down onto one knee, “Makhosi and I used to play with these together. But I’m big now and I don’t need it anymore.” I placed the little yellow figure in the milky white hand.

I turned around one last time before getting into the car and saw the little albino boy running to show his friends the little yellow man.

Leo Karamanof is a Grade 12 student at the Deutsche Internationale Schule Johannesburg. This story was an English essay on the topic ‘A remembered meal’ , and was inspired by his visit to Makhosazana Dlamini’s family home in Newcastle for her funeral.