Over the past month, Kenya lost ‘two of its most formidable freedom fighters and justice seekers’ – feminist and political activist Wambui Otieno and environmental activist Wangari Maathai. Sokari Ekine looks at reactions to the passing away of these women across the continent, and to the execution of Troy Davis by the US State of Georgia a week ago.
In ‘Welcome Mourning’, Keguro Macharia (Gukira) writes on the collectivising power of mourning in bringing together a nation and a sense of belonging. Collective or national mourning can also exaggerate the sense of unbelonging, especially where the mourning centres around a person who is claimed by the nation as theirs. Or is claimed in death (for many, it is only in death that they become national icons to be memorialised in symbols of oneness).The question then arises as to how those of us, not part of ‘the nation in mourning’, are able or allowed to also mourn. For this we would have to go beyond the person as ‘nation’ to the person as an embodiment of those things we too struggle for, whose life we seek to emulate or has inspired us to take on our own personal and collective struggles Someone with whom we are able to empathise and stand in solidarity.
In the past month, nations and parts of nations, movements for economic, political social and environmental justice have come together in collective mourning, but in very different ways and different circumstances. Kenya lost two of its most formidable freedom fighters and justice seekers: On 30 August, Kenyan freedom fighter, feminist and political activist, Virginia Wambui Otieno passed away, and on 25 September, environmental activist and Nobel laureate, Wangari Maathai also passed away. Meanwhile, in the US, despite substantial doubts as to his guilt and his insistence on his innocence, Troy Davis was executed by the State of Georgia on 21 September.
Though we may mourn collectively, for each of us, death as it arrives has its own personal meaning. It is this understanding that helps us remember the one we mourn – but also they help us know or begin to know ourselves. At once we honour the loss as well as ourselves!
Kenyan performance poet, activist and writer of beautiful words, Shailja Patel wrote:
‘When I reflect on the meanings of Wambui Otieno’s life, I think about space. The taking up of. The speaking in. The taboo breaking. The contestation of. She showed generations of Kenyan women that we could redefine spaces - legal, political, communal - with our bodies, our voices.’
Shailja’s words help me to know better Wambui Otieno’s gift to Kenya and to women worldwide. They also help me know Shailja and that we both share a similar sense of what is possible. Keguro struggles to express his sense of loss on the death of Wambui Otieno but what he gives us, is a trajectory of his own formation as a critical thinker – we now have a more informed understanding of both him and Wambui Otieno:
‘In many ways, and I recognize this only now, Wambui’s life offered me (and others) one of the first opportunities to think about marriage and intimacy, about the claims of the couple as they intersect with the claims of the clan, about the importance of space, about rituals and performances of mourning.
‘Without Wambui, I would not have been able to come to feminism as I did. I would not have been able to understand the gendering of testimony, the acoustics of gender, the importance of bodies as they matter and mutter. Without Wambui, I would not have been able to appreciate how nations feel and act on their feelings.
‘There are the things I can enumerate in her name—and many others that I cannot, because I cannot know them.
‘Kenya mourns for Wambui Otieno Mbugua. I mourn for Wambui Otieno Mbugua.’
South African writer and academic, Pumla Gqola (Loudrastrass) takes us beyond ‘nationhood’ and universalises our mourning but still it is the personal that is most poignant. And it is the personal as political with which Pumla frames her own knowing of Wambui Otieno:
‘I have loved Wambui Otieno, feminist, unbowed woman ever since I have known about her.
‘[So"> I think of her more like a galaxy of possibilities. As she lived her life through increasingly unpredictable, but powerful choices, Wambui changed not just the world, but who we are in it too. When she joined Mau Mau as a teenager, and in later writing about this in ways that challenge expectations, she drove home the importance of living our convictions. Although she could have settled into a life cushioned by class in colonial Kenya, she chose radical politics rather than complicity or “safer” forms of resistance.
‘After independence, her principles often brought her into a collision path with her former comrades. Wambui spoke her truth regardless of the consequences. She stared danger in the face and not only spoke truth to power, but retained her revolutionary subjectivity in action. Consistently.
‘She epitomised the personal is political and loved who she wanted to, shamelessly and irregardless. Bless her. Ethnicity, class, age are all boundaries used to police who we may love on this continent, repeatedly. They are often ways of reminding women what our place is. These tools are sjamboks (whips) used to remind our spirits when we dare transgress the narrow limits of who society says we are.’
Pumla tries to make sense of her feelings of loss having witnessed those collective mourning rituals around Princess Diana and Michael Jackson with some scepticism:
‘As I battled to make sense of it all, I realised I was looking at the “wrong” places for explanation. Perhaps, looking at the meanings and experiences of loss closer to Wambui’s politics would help me out. I had remarked that the death of Albertina Sisulu marked the end of an era, so too Fatima Meer, Albertina Sisulu’s comrade and life partner, Walter Sisulu before that. The death of beloved revolutionaries is a bizarre experience. Watching them remembered afterwards, in ways that do not quite seem enough, just reinforces this feeling.
‘Then it hit me in the pit of my stomach. News of Wambui Otieno’s death felt like hearing news of Chris Hani’s death. While I had someone to direct my anger at – a system, and a series of faces – when Hani was brutally murdered, a similar rage was unleashed at the universe when Wambui died. But, without a clear target, for she died in hospital.’
In ‘Wambui Otieno - Circling and Scrutinising’ Kenne Mwikya (Kenne’s Blog) also sees the process of mourning as one where we ‘search for the imprint of their lives’ on ourselves or on nations. In examining the ‘increased surveillance’ on the lives of others by neighbours to governments, and how, in the case of gays and lesbians, this constant watching is tantamount to an act of violence and of repeatedly stripping one naked.
‘How do nations mourn a singular person? How do we come to this much contoured sensation? What does this say about national melancholia?
‘What is the meaning of the deep scrutiny of Wambui, pre and post-humus? What does it bring the whole nation to in knowing and searching within itself for the imprint of Wambui Otieno? This is a question that should be taken seriously in that it reveals a lot about the ways in which national mourning and watching singular figures operates. I don’t think there is ever anything conclusive or even productive that comes of out of surveillance. It is an authoritarian approach for a community or group of people to give a set of rules and then watch itself go around these rules. It is dangerously narcissistic. When Wambui stepped out of this sense of communal navel-gazing, she was given into more scrutiny, more personal details about her life.
‘I am wary of the actions that want to deem mourning as anything less than trying to place her in Kenya’s history and I am also wary of the evading of crucial topics such as feminism and Mau Mau and the blanket of patriarchy that is always circling above, the scrutiny that always looks deep within but has nothing to add to our sense of mourning or thinking on vulnerability.’
Keguro (Gukira) remembers and celebrates Wangari Maathai in a beautifully written piece honouring those women he calls ‘Wangari’s Daughters’:
‘Over the past few years, it has been my immense privilege to meet and come to know women I now think of as Wangari Maathai’s daughters: Sitawa Namwalie, Wambui Mwangi, Shailja Patel, Njeri Wangari, Muthoni Garland, Mshai Mwangola—there are many others. I mean daughters in a sense perhaps best expressed in the founding Gikuyu myth: women of consequence who have the power to move and shape nations. Women for whom nations will be named and re-named.
‘I think of these women today on learning that Wangari Maathai has died. I think of them not only because of the sense of loss they must be experiencing, but because they are, to my mind, one of Wangari’s most precious legacies to Kenya and to the world. These are, I confess, overly bold claims to make for my friends. But they are claims that need to be made.’
He continues by letting us know who Wangari Maathai was and her impact on Kenya and beyond:
‘Wangari Maathai was the crazy tree-planting woman. She was a tree-hugger extraordinaire. While we were learning that Kenya was an “agricultural country” and greedy developers were trying to “industrialize” Kenya, Wangari was a beacon, teaching us that our earth mattered. She captured our imaginations by directing us toward other possible eco-futures’.
In Two Hours Before, Mwangi S Muthiora provides an obituary which traces the life of Wangari Maathai as a feminist and environmental activist:
‘In 1989 Maathai's protests forced then President Daniel arap Moi to abandon a personal plan to erect a 62-storey office tower in a Nairobi park. In 1999 she was beaten and whipped by private security guards during a demonstration against the sale of forest land near the capital Nairobi. The famed Freedom Corner, now remains a sacred reference place where most protests are started or ended in Nairobi.
‘In 2004 while accepting and receiving her gold Nobel Peace Medallion, Prof Maathai moved the star studded audience with her near poetic speech that was aired live across the world and watched by billions on TV. "In the course of history, there comes a time when humanity is called to shift to a new level of consciousness, to reach a higher moral ground. A time when we have to shed our fear and give hope to each other. That time is now. I'm humbled by the recognition and uplifted by the honour," she said.”
‘Death is a unique experience in our progression through life - it happens to all of us at some point and it’s only supposed to happen once. There is no hierarchy of death. but knowing it is certain, there are ways we would hope to die and ways we would not. Death by the hands of another is one we would not wish on anyone. Troy had been brought to the brink of death by murder three times and each time he was given a stay during the last few hours. Each death process was torture and inhumane. This was as brutal and ugly a death as any murder can be.
It is exactly one week since the premeditated state murder of Troy Davis, one of 3,200 prisoners on death row in the US. For the last five hours of Troy Davis’s life, millions of people around the world experienced death as we waited hoping for a last minute stay of execution. Despite a petition with over a million signatures, ex Presidents, the Pope, Bishops and even death penalty supporters condemning the execution, to everyone’s shock, at around 10.30pm we received the news that the US Supreme Court refused to stop the execution. Troy Davis was poisoned to death by a lethal injection by the State of Georgia and pronounced dead at 11.08pm on Wednesday 21 September 2011. For many in the US generally and particularly in the Black community, Troy Davis’s execution was a legalised lynching. For millions across the world, the US’s hypocrisy and shame were held up for all to see.
Those of us who watched and listened to Amy Goodman’s live coverage of Troy Davis’s last five hours experienced a deep, deep sadness – both on a personal level and at the injustice of killing someone, especially where there was substantial doubt as to his guilt. For his family, close friends, his lawyers and activists who had worked tirelessly to obtain justice, the Supreme Court decision was devastating and unbearable. One of my many Tweets during the day was that the execution was now bigger than Troy Davis in the sense we all stood in solidarity with him and his family against an unjust racially biased judicial system and the wrongs of the death penalty. Troy Davis will live on as his death has become a catalyst for action to end the death penalty in the US and every other country where it is still in place. Troy Davis’s funeral will be held on Saturday 1 October at the Jonesville Baptist Church, Savannah, Georgia.
10 days ago social media in Nigeria became embroiled in the gang rape of a young woman at Abia State University. Black Looks examines the responses to sexual violence by what she describes as ‘Tabloid Bloggers and Online Vigilantes’:
‘In a recent blog post critiquing the 419 Reasons to Like Nigeria, I made the point that what is often most important in revealing who we are as a nation and people, is how we respond to our realities. How do we respond to the gang rape of a young woman and one which is subsequently broadcast on various online sites? Linda Ikeji gave enough graphic detail for all of us to know how the rape scene played out. Yet some people continue watching and or listening to the video and reporting details of what was said and done? To do this they would need to search online or ask someone privately for a copy to be sent by email or through their phone or for a link online. These are not small acts – they are calculated decisions to seek out a video of a gang rape. Unless you are in a position to possibly identify the rapists and take that information to someone who can act on it then what is your purpose in watching the video other than for self-gratification? Each time the video is watched or listened to or the text read it is a repeat of the rape, which is exactly the purpose of the video – to continue the humiliation, the subjugation and to relive the rape over and over.
It is not normal for women to be treated in this way. The way the video is being circulated is a way of normalising watching violence and playing it out as if it’s some kind of reality show whereby everyone can participate by absorbing and gorging on detail without any sense of social or ethical responsibility. I am not saying people are not genuinely outraged by the gang rape, they most certainly are but its a pretense to equate outrage with a justification for watching the video. This pornographic video has been downloaded 7000+ times from a Nigerian online site and was available until this morning. How about some outrage against this and the money that is being made from it? The site has be taken down but those downloads remain.’
‘Since Fungai Neni means “Think with me”, my blog discusses issues that make society think; issues that we may not want to talk about but that need to be addressed all the same. From love to life to death, Fungai Neni serves as an open diary for my mind; a space to say the unspeakable and a platform to challenge ‘conventional wisdom’ and the norms that society and culture dictate to us.
‘I am particularly vociferous in my views about women’s issues because I am a woman and I know about the double standards and challenges that come with being a person of my sex, particularly within a African cultural context where opposing the status quo is often seen as disrespect. Because of that, Fungai Neni has a distinct gendered voice to it. I talk about sex, sexuality, HIV, AIDS, relationships and the various plights of women because these are real things that we need to start discussing more and finding progressive solutions for.’
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