Michael

Extraodinaire Extraodinaire

Telegrams on Air

Hewa is the sheng word for loud music. The phrase kupewa hewa that is used to describe how good the music sounds literally translates into giving air. When someone plays you music you are literally telling them that they have given you air.

That you can now breath.

Stop.

I’ve been thinking about language recently (see here, for example). Language does a work of gathering and of alienation. Imagine being with a group of friends. All of them are from one ethnic group – you aren’t. At some point they begin to speak their language. Immediately you are placed outside the scope. Suddenly you have moved from being the participator in a conversation to an observer of culture. As an observer you realise that even nuances change. Intonations are all over the place (in Kisii, for example, everyone will suddenly be speaking in a higher register). As an observer you realise that, even if you learn the language, you’ll still be on the outside looking in.

Stop.

In the 2007/2008 post election violence Eric Wainana’s “Daima mimi mkenya” became the social stopgap. It was used by the media to try and erase the notion of ethnicity and focus on nationalism. (We are all Kenyans, we should stop killing each other). It was played in two languages – English and Swahili.

Stop.

Language moves in different ways. I know songs in several languages. I sing words whose meanings I do not know. I sing “Ndikhangela izulwana…. Lilelam” with Simphiwe Dana and “kuon wang e kendo” with Dela. In Soobax, Knaan talks about translating the vibe of a song.  When you don’t understand a language but just go with the flow.

Stop.

“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

-          Audre Lorde

Stop

The act of giving someone air could be seen as a life saving one. I sit silently as Asa breathes in the background “Orè ti mo mu bi aburo/ Orè, orè ti mo sé daara dara.” I inhale her pain and create my own worlds.

Stop.

Dead Messengers

A paper floats from the skies.

From a distance its falling looks graceful. Up close, however, we can see it flutter. It struggles with winds that threaten to tear it apart.

It is racing.

Being the bearer of bad prophecies it must arrive before the  prophecy it bears is fulfilled. Already the jets are warming up. Preparing to take off. Final checks are in order. Fuel tanks are being refilled. A group of pilots chat idly. Another stands in a corner, watching –  filling his lungs with sweet nicotine.

The paper knows. The paper knows that this is happening. It saw it as the man pushed the stack of papers towards the first jet. It felt it as the ink slowly seeped its way into its fiber.

(who said the prophets died?)

 Altitude is being lost way too slowly. The paper flutters, fights, struggles to increase the speed at which the ground moves up to meet it. Out of the top right corner the paper can see some children playing football. Way across the field a mother is breastfeeding. Directly below the paper some men sit, passing around a waft of smoke.

(If only they knew)

The ground steadily makes its way up – not nearly as fast as it should. The paper is panicking. A hand grabs it out of the air. It can feel the sweat dripping from the palms of this human. As the seconds pass the grip on the paper gets tighter.

“No…. No…”

“YES!” it wants to scream. “This is true!” But, being a paper and having no other means of communication but showing itself, it only sits in silent despair. The hand crumples it and throws it to a corner of the room.

There are footsteps, many of them. People are shouting. Things are being thrown apart. Drawers are being emptied. Clothes are dumped on sheets and sheets are tied up. In the corner a child cries for an explanation. None is given. There is no time.

(If only I’d fallen faster)

Then, as suddenly as the noise began, there is silence. Outside crowds in the street are frantic. Inside is the paper and the leftovers of already forgotten lives. Way up above – a bomb drops.

P.S – As I write this 227 Palestinians have died, 1685 wounded. Of the dead 47 are children. And 1660 homes have been destroyed. #FreeGaza

On speaking

But who is the little person who,

with a little voice

changed the world?

 

But who is the

lit-ul

person?

 

But who is the

lee-tu-hl

person?

 

But who is the

lethal

person?

Language does interesting things. Nourbese Phillips reminds me that language is a pushing and pulling of tongues. A struggle in alienation and acceptance. A bringing together of people and a tool of oppression. “Speak English damn it!”

Language as a gathering tool is not new. The pronounciation of words has been used for a long time to tell which one is “us” and which one is “the other.” This ties in to why people who travel, particularly to the US, get accents. It’s born from a need to stop being the other. Another other or the other’s other.

Muuubeeyaaa mono

the words

heavily fall off

my tongue.

 

My tongue

is heavy

as the words fall

out.

 

The words

fall off

my tongue.

I am heavy.

 

I cannot

remember

whose mother

gave me

her tongue.

 

My Kisii is horrible. I know enough of the language to follow a conversation. Enough that listening to people speaking Kisii is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle of ifs and buts. Enough that I speak 3 words and everyone else is impressed. My Swahili is better. I move through that language with an ease.

I still sound different though.

I’m best when I’m speaking English. It is the language whose corners I have practiced turning. It is also a language a lot of people I know struggle with. My language alienates me from my people.

My people.

Already creating a “not my people”

Which, with a little modification can be “not people.”

 

Your surname betrays you

-          Kalonzo Musyoka

 

There is nobody in Kasarani

-          William Ruto

 

Must I cut off my tongue?

-          Sitawa Namwalie

 

There is something symbolic about the tongue. We cling to it as a bodily organ. We assign it much responsibility even if, most times, the real perpetrator is the mind. The idea of the ability to communicate being taken away brings shudders.

Being silenced is scary.

The letter r

is just that.

A letter.

 

It was the wrong time

for it

to be anything more.

 

Yet, under threat,

his r was rebellious

rebellious

re-bel-lious

 

le-ber-rious.

 

Leberrious.

 

The cut

was messy.

There are many things I don’t know how to talk about. There is a scampering that is happening that I do not know how to think about. Lines are being drawn in the sand and feet are itching to step over them.

 John Berger wrote a book on visual art called “ways of seeing.”

I’m wondering about ways of speaking.

There is a struggle in language. A pulling and pushing. A pushing and pulling.

Narorire na amaiso ane…

Aneni gi wang’a…

Nindona na maitho makwa…

Dzaona na matso gangu…

I have seen with my eyes…

Nabone khu kimomoni kyase…

Nali mona na menso yandi….

_Ndaona nemeso angu…

Mein apne aankhon se dekha hoon…

karo ak konyekchuk…

He visto con mis ojos…

Ndakulola ne tsimoni tsiange…

Aneno ki wang’a…

… and it is not pretty

We have exchanged

tongues.

She searched for

meaning on the back

of  the palms

of my poetry.

 

Instead she found

misplaced

line breaks and

lost letters.

Post Note:

I’m collecting languages. You can help me by posting “I have seen with my eyes” in the language you speak in the comments below and I’ll add it to the post.

(Un)Kenya

 She wants to know

what it feels like

to be broken.

“It feels like dying,

but not getting to

dead”

-          Unlike Myself

I have begun to withdraw from the world. It’s easier to stay in bed and stare at the ceiling than to face the sky. The days are bright and full of responsibility. In the coast another bullet ripples through another body. In the north another grenade drops. In Nairobi another armed robbery happens. Stories of leaflets in Nakuru warning Luos to leave get to me.

Kasarani is still a concentration camp.

 In an email Shailja Patel writes:

 This is our city. This is our collective crime against humanity.

There are many like it, but only this one is ours. 

It feels like a Rube Goldberg machine and the ball has been set rolling. With the increasing acceleration of evidence and news from all over the city/country/continent/world it becomes more difficult to write. It becomes more difficult to think.

It becomes easier to withdraw from the world.

Teju Cole reminds me that most people don’t have the emotional filters to handle how quickly bad news gets to us. Every time I leave the house I see broken bodies. Buses are the most depressing. Faces, bent in frustration stare out windows without really seeing anything. There are smiles, too. But they are fleeting.

Or, perhaps, I am projecting my own misery.

In Witu another 11 people are killed. There is no list. We do not know their names.

Some lives are more grievable than others

 Some part of me wanted to write this with facts, statistics, histories and tie it all up in a little bow. But there’s something about Kenya that demands to be written differently:

something of the soul is broken in us

we don’t even know enough to miss it, or to mourn

-          Wambui Mwangi

 And we’re running out of duct tape. One day we’ll look up and all we’ll have is a place we used to call home.

Give this Essay a Fighting Chance

Here,

where the smell of charred flesh

dances in the wind

and lingers before ascending

into forgotten dreams.

 

Here

where fists of men

meet fists of men

and women and children

are marked as battlefields.

 

Here

where ideologies are nothing

but reasons to die.

No,

excuses to kill.

 

Here

where gutters have seen

so much deoxygenated blood

that they call them veins

 

Here

where a knock on the door means

the approaching of death,

news of death

or the ambulance.

 

Here

where they told me,

he died a hero.

 

They didn’t know that

 

here

 

there are no heroes

only dead bodies.

 

I’ve never known how to think about war. I’ve never known how to write about war. Partly this is because I’ve never directly experienced a full scale war. Although, even writing this, I don’t know what “full scale war” is meant to mean. It’s more about not knowing how to package grief and, not just grief but the relentless onslaught of it.

Particularly poetry about war has baffled me. I’ve read a lot of war poetry. I’ve listened to a lot too. Rafeef Ziadah’s we teach life captures the anger. It captures how deep this thing that we call war cuts people. How lives that lie within the “collateral damage” zone are affected by this easily disposable status.

An unexpected guest

in the middle of the night

is rarely under an obligation to knock

politely.

 

The nature of the midnight guest often

involves some sort of emergency

and bypasses any obligation of

kindness.

Usalama, security, is very important

more so than the ten seconds it takes to

turn a key and avoid breaking down a

door.

 

The most important thing you could

give such a guest is tea.

The second most important thing is a

bribe.

Kenya is at war. This is what I have been told severally whenever I talk about the ethnic targeting of Kenyan Somalis. It seems to be a justification for anything and everything. The idea that, because we are killing people elsewhere we can do whatever we will to people here as well. I’m wondering about war as a justification for war.

I’ve been a pacifist for a large chunk of my life. I’ve never really seen the value in a fight and, even though I’ve told stories of fights and laughed at stories of fights a part of me has always found them silly. Many people find this inconsistent with me playing rugby. That’s fine. Life is inconsistent.

And so is poetry.

Capturing the entire ethno-ubaguzistic operation usalama and bringing it down to 50 or so words seems to simplify it. Seems to bring it down to a bite sized nugget of injustice.

And

when the

mother

of the mother

lets her grief

escape;

catch

her tears.

 

They are a

story

that cannot be

told.

 

There’s something about the re-telling of a story that makes it lose its essence. There’s something about the re-packaging of grief that makes it lose its essence. There is, what I’d like to call, a purity of grief in moments that, even when described by the best, cannot be duplicated. This is not to say that we can’t try. The imagination has been known to fill the gaps. This is to say that, no matter how deeply a poem/essay/prose piece makes you feel about a situation the actual experience was several times what you are imagining. There is more poetry in a single tear than there is in the entire world.

55

is

11 times 5

is

7 weeks 6 days

is

45 less than 100

is

5 bullets short of 2 AK 47 clips

is

Almost, but not yet, an hour

is

a  new born child,

an umbilical cord

and bloody fingernails.

Even though I’ve spoken about how we can never do this, I think it is important that we try. I’ve been trying to imagine what the situation is like for the people stuck in Kasarani now. Rounded up like cattle and led to – what might as well be- an abattoir.  Some part of my imagination is skeptical. “It can’t really be that bad, can it?” I’ve learned not to listen to this part. I’ve learned to believe what people say they experienced even when my mind is trying to doubt. Especially when my mind is trying to doubt

Do you have enough bone broken limbs

to cover the sun?

Hand me over your dead and

Give me the list of their names

In 1200 word limits.

-          Rafeef Ziadah, We teach life

To be disposable means we can never be casual about our ongoing vulnerability

-          Keguro Macharia

 

A few days ago I was walking to the shops late at night when a friend called me. On hearing I was out at night she got angry and demanded I go back into the house “don’t you know you are in the wrong body to be out at night? You’ll be shot.” She was right. Young black men in Kenya are “suspects” we are shot, every day. We are shot for “resisting” for being “suspicious” or just because they needed a body that can, believably, be a gangster. I’m thinking about the bonoko story of a man who was just shot, and how easily we laughed it off and even made a dance track.

I’m wondering about how we can stretch form to capture the realities of government that is waging war against its citizens.

He had heard

rumours

of a war

seven hundred

and fifty kilometres

away.

 

He had followed

the news

his mind

willing victory

to his country.

Even he

wasn’t spared.

I spent some time with a Somali Kenyan who largely supported Kenyan troops in Kismaiyo on a bus a while back. He seemed interesting. I hope the soldiers in Eastleigh didn’t get to him but I can’t help but think of the irony if they did. I wish I could reach him to have another conversation.

The thing about writing poetry about war is that these small moments can’t be missed. They are not recalled with a chuckle or with sadness they are just recalled. And, maybe that’s what I was getting at in the first poem. There is no glory in war – only death. And death is something the imagination has problems capturing. Whatever your imagination tells you #KasaraniConcentrationCamp is like – it’s worse.