“Why can we never
about the blood.
the blood of our ancestors.
the blood of our history.
the blood between our legs.” – Nayyirah Waheed.
There was a woman who lived with my family between the time I was two and five. She stood behind the beige striped curtain that led to my mother’s room and played with my grandmother’s slick white hair when she sat at the dining table. I was the only one who saw her, who noticed the flicker in her eyes and her crooked one-sided smile. They took me for prayers in our church on a Friday evening after school. The church was dimly lit with two energy bulbs hanging from the ceiling. There were five of us kneeling by the pulpit: Martha Ojuri, whose pupils receded to the back of her head when she was sent on errands; Ifeko, who wet her bed; Samad, who stole meat from his mother’s pot; Kechi, who never did his homework; and I, the girl who saw a woman that was not there. I stared at them, studying the patterns on their house clothes. Someone smacked my cheeks and ordered me to close my eyes and say ‘Amen’. I bowed my head and left my eyes open to stare at the sturdy cemented ground below. The grownups prayed and sang hymns over us. They held hands to form a circle around us. In school, Ms. Agoro had just taught colours and every morning through the week, my classmates and I had to point out colours on various things in our environment: the board was black, our tables were brown, the swing set was yellow. I thought of colours as they prayed. I thought of the colour of grass in the school garden until it stretched my mind into a sandy field.
The first time I looked at the child was six years ago.
My right femur could no longer hold itself; as a child, it was always in constant competition with the left, a competition it lost repeatedly. When I was two, the left femur was only in the lead by a centimetre or so, and when I walked, my left foot planted on the ground whilst the right remained slightly elevated, as if it were accommodating invisible high heels. My mother’s friends used to think I did it on purpose.
By age ten, my left femur had emerged the clear winner; the right was behind by a good five centimetres. By then it was clear that my legs, through no fault of mine, had decided to grow at unequal paces.
So the shorter femur was broken by a team of doctors using a sterilised saw when I was seventeen.
The break was held in place by six metal rods that were like a family of five brothers, identical in weight shape and length, and a sixth; a sister who was slim where her brothers were wide and deft. So deft that she alone was selected to do what the others could not; while her brothers were arranged to support different parts of my femur, she was given a special task.
You can count on one hand the number of times you’ve breezed through passport control, with little beyond a cursory glance and a robotic stamp, sometimes even a “welcome home” that you never bothered to correct. That kind of ease is unusual.
From as early as 5 years old, you knew that the Zambian passport, black and gold, meant a separate line that grew quickly and moved slowly. At 13 you graduated from simply being a name, sex and date in your mother’s passport to having one of your own, and learnt about three month “visitor’s visas” to South Africa that were constantly renewed – necessary for Sunday mass, cross-border shopping trips, music classes, and anything else you couldn’t get while living in the strange, small country within a country.
Elsaphan Njora- © Japicha
January 11th, 2018. Members of the Too Early for Birds crew are seated inside Kenya National Theatre, just off the stage. They are unable to rehearse because of delays with the décor. There is a familiar reggae track playing in the background, a work song for the carpenters and painters onstage. The crew is talking, with Abu Sense (real name Abubakar Majid) using his phone as a microphone. Abu is a handsome man, with a small build and a light brown complexion. His face, about which a lot has been tweeted and posted on Facebook, and which is not-too-subtly used by the show as a marketing gimmick, meshes with his beard in a way that suggests a cute chubbiness when younger, and at the same time somehow confuses one as to whether he is Swahili, Arab or Barawa. Whenever he gets on stage, one is surprised at how loud he becomes, but at this point, neither his face nor his voice are important. What is important is the conversation that has developed this evening as an alternative to the full run of the play they were supposed to do. This conversation, which Ngartia J. Bryan, a cast member who alongside Abu is normally accepted as the public face of Too Early for Birds, keeps on interrupting with his puns, is supposed to be turned into a podcast later. The conversation, conducted in Sheng’, centres on domestic violence. Elsaphan Njora, another cast member, swears to stay out of other people’s fights. Brian Ogola, a cast member who plays Patrick Shaw, the extra-judicial-killing supporting, underage-student-recruiting white supremacist settler Patrick David Shaw, as loud and abrasive offstage as he is onstage, is regaling his listeners with tales of the fights he has witnessed. At one point, he talks about his parents. “That shit, it confuses you. And you end up hating your mother. On the one hand, she is telling you be strong, to be a man. On the other, she is staying in this violent relationship. Hii mambo ya we belong together is absolute nonsense.” Elsaphan asks, in a Ndii-esque manner, “Would you rather stay in that relationship and die? Because sometimes that’s the choice.”
I must have been nine years old when I first heard my mother scoff with derisive laughter at my inability to speak Kigiriama fluently. Warning me and my brother, she said that a marauding gang of strangers had appeared on the streets of Mombasa, and that it was going around at night carrying pangas and randomly knocking on people’s doors to find out whether they could speak Kigiriama, or one of the other Mijikenda languages. With a grin, she added that the gang would force people to open their doors and greet them in one of the Mijikenda languages. Violence, she emphasized, would instantly be dispensed at those who gave incorrect responses.
As a small, largely informal, artist collective, it would be easy to say we’re too busy working, too busy creating, too busy staying afloat to engage in a deliberate or consistent manner with any Big Issues™ that are not Art as such. We could say that, in fact, it really isn’t our place. We could suggest that we should act ‘neutral’, and stay silent. That would not only be foolish, it would also be false. It would be untrue to our proper work as artists, curators, and citizens. In various ways, we participate individually in large and small battles against these Big Issues. However, we are still working out how that fight and commitment is best translated in our work as a collective.