November 2014


a must must read

What I remember about that night were the sounds. The scraping of the bed being dragged across the floor. The insistent pounding of fists at the door. The thudding of my heart echoing in my ears. The muttering of prayer tumbling out of my mouth in a stream of whispering.

They had come after me.

Earlier that evening the driver of the matatu I was travelling in kicked us out slurring, ‘nimechoka. Tokeni.’ Though we tried to protest, his erratic swerving had left us jittery and we felt we were safer walking than being at the mercy of this drunken driver. So several hundred metres away from Oyugis, we started walking. I was on my way to a funeral and was carrying a huge white box overflowing with flowers, stuffed with the wreaths I had been asked to bring from Kisumu.

The walk is a blur to me, but I…

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Post 169.

If you parent a little girl, the amount of time you spend with her can be scientifically measured by how many songs you know from the movie ‘Frozen’. Disney has merchandised childhood, meaning the making of local memories can barely be conceived beyond its corporate monopoly on everything from birth to birthdays.

Zi turned four on Saturday, and her little celebration was only missing the ‘Frozen’ Elsa outfit and bouncy castle. You can fight Disney, as I tried, insisting for the first two birthdays on cake and other decorations that were not marketed by US media to us in the Caribbean. But, you will find yourself alone in the wilderness of Santa Cruz while your mother google maps the country for Dora or Elsa icing designers, your mother in law invests in customary birthday paraphernalia, and no one else actually cares about the intersections of capitalism, post-colonialism and childhood.

After all, generations of Caribbean people inherited Disney characters as globalized symbols of play and joy, just as we once inherited British ones, identifying ourselves as world citizens this way.

And, it’s all done in Ziya’s name as if only a bad mother would deny her harmless normality, and deprive her of the chance to be like her friends with their own Disney themed birthdays. Indeed, little girls are astute observers of childhood status markers, and pre-school playgrounds feature complex conversation about gender socialization, class belonging, modernity and conspicuous consumption.

Thus, Ziya’s birthday cake icing comprised expertly made (and delicious) blond Elsa, blue icicles, silver snowflakes and Olaf the snowman, all proudly displayed on a humid, tropical afternoon. My mother requested a brown girl with black plaits be crafted from icing and placed next to Elsa in an attempt to mediate between Franz Fanon and ‘Frozen’, and I kept my politics to myself for family requires compromise, fantasies are part of childhood and I survived much Disney-defined fun, parties, toys and clothes with critical consciousness mostly intact.

I looked at it all thinking that this is why Ziya insists on being a princess when I explain the power of African empresses. I thought about the far fewer options for Caribbean-themed birthdays, with our own icons, myths and landscape, and how we repeat an old colonial familiarity with daffodils and practicing ‘proper’ English through the reading of British colloquialisms in books by Beatrix Potter. We celebrate escape to elsewhere, TV, overseas or other selves.

Teaching what we have learnt, survived and fondly remember, we establish the connections that craft our children’s sense of themselves and place, the lens from which they assess what is presented as who they are, and their practices of validating their own bodies, ecology and stories. It makes sense for bleaching creams to line Pennywise shelves, for government officials to defend a leisure complex, which turns its back on the existence of the coast whose mangrove it decimated, and for the meanings of development to be determined by FDI, or foreign direct imagination.

Feminism offered some future consolation. Disney is now stirring sprinkles of independence, fearlessness and sisterhood into tales such as Sleeping Beauty and Alice in Wonderland. In ‘Frozen’, the story doesn’t end with a prince, hapless damsel rescue or marriage as the happily ever after. Thank goddess.

This is how the world of a just-turned four, sapodilla-brown girl is defined by media, US corporate power, family, femininity, Caribbean feminism and more. Like Frozen’s Elsa, may Zi find the freedom to not hide who she has grown up to be. Like Anna, may she celebrate each year she grows into the hero of her own story.

 

Post 168.

I was unapologetically proud when Kamla Persad-Bissessar became the country’s first woman Prime Minister. I loved her clean election campaign in comparison to the PNM’s labeling their opponents ‘skeletons’ and throwing insults for cheap political gain. I was completely excited that this astute politician could defeat lesser men and lead a complex coalition, unlike any other Caribbean leader before, and miles ahead of PNM’s go-it-alone politics. I’d watch Persad-Bissessar on TV and teach my daughter the name of the first Indian woman to crack that glass ceiling.

At one meeting, along with feminist grandmothers like Hazel Brown and Brenda Gopeesingh, I breastfed Ziya while the PM talked with us and I took notes. I wondered who before had breastfed while with a PM in a Cabinet meeting room, and of course Persad-Bissessar didn’t even blink, knowing that this is what women can do in boardrooms when grandmothers and mothers hold office.

I liked little decisions the People’s Partnership made, for example to ban hunting despite a myopic ‘no hunting, no vote’ campaign, to actually answer the parliamentary questions put to the government, and the initial choice to put the gender machinery in the ministry of planning. I took heat from all kinds of people because I was seen as too silent and too uncritical in Persad-Bissessar’s first years. It was because, perhaps naively, I had such hope.

Since then, I’ve found myself ending up and again on the side of citizens, led by other women, mothers and grandmothers, protesting through media and on the street. My hope has tumbled, knocked down by bad appointments, murky state spending, the homophobia of the Children’s Act, patron-clientelism, mishandled electoral changes, and reliance on PR and attacks.

In the PM’s showdown with Wayne Kublalsingh, popular sentiment that he is mere nuisance is on her side. Regardless, his death will leave no escape from unexpected kinds of regret. By first marching against the highway and then switching position once in power, the PM created the path that led to such reckoning. Her own supporters, or advisors with their own agendas who want her to fail, may spin around and say why not have chosen mediation, and why not just agree to properly done hydrology and cost-benefit analyses? What about compassion? As we grow more committed to accountability, which we will with each decade, the principles at stake here will grow less personalized to one man and become more publicly and historically clear.

I wish I could thank the PM for setting the standard for how development should best be done, through consensus rather than division. I wish I could ask her what her grandmother would advise. I wish I could congratulate her for ending this impasse as an informed, transformational leader would. After all, a patriot is one who wrestles for the Soul of her country. I wish that, as woman, she would roar at puppet master financiers. I wish her decisions meant no future struggle over the same issues, taking up time for committed, concerned citizens like you and me.

Being a woman is public and personal, for government sets the context for the intimate, for love spans ecology, neighbor and nation, justice and future, just as it does family. Knowing more than wishing is necessary, I wake up wondering which words and deeds can make the world right. These days I awake almost holding my breath, wondering how stories I’m telling are going to end. Knowing that every decision made for the country I love feels like a turning point, I wish the PM would inspire again the hope I felt in 2010.