The Little Things in My Heart
Late last year, I was invited to a ceremony somewhere in my hometown. It was a kind gesture, but I couldn’t deny how prominently it stood out that there was about 10 people who were black at the event. The rest were, yeah, white. That wasn’t a problem, and it should not be. Well, that was until we had to sit down and something quite strange happened.
It was all of them black people together, and all of the white folk together. Save for two people — one of the guests (main guest) and a girlfriend to one of the expats who was Kenyan. But she also moved tables after about 20 minutes. I moved too, to a more convenient location to watch some crazy theatrics that were going on during the event. And that had nothing to do with black and white.
But as I sat at that all white table (save for me), I couldn’t shake this thought off my mind. “It’s 1936 and this is looking bad.” I mean, this is a daylong event, and we will just stay in our circles like that…
I kind of lost track of the surroundings for some time while watching what had made me move tables. Then I got bored and came alive to what was going on around me. Another stranger thing happened. So, I leave the table to go pick a drink. When I returned, I didn’t care so much for where I sat. I just sat on the bench I’d been sitting on before— and I didn’t think too much about where I had sat. Then the 11 or so-year old girl who was right next to me moved. Almost automatically as if triggered into action.
It drew my curiousity. She pushed further and further away until she changed positions to let her mom (who was watching her the whole time) sit between her and me. Now, I have denied this happened until this day. But I have the memory in my mind for a good reason. I felt it.
I can remember how that sweet little chubby face suspiciously looked at me after I sat down next to her, and how jittery she was until she moved. And her mama who was watching her all the while, almost encouraging her to do it.
Then there was her younger son who kept making demands; and whenever he lost favour with his mother, he’d turn to vent his frustrations to anyone caring to listen. Her older sister did actively try to keep her brother from making conversation; her mother in some way tolerating the little chats her 5 or 6-year old son kept making with me. The entire family did move away after about an hour.
There’s a good reason why I felt the way I did.
“That’s overstretched — you’re over-reading things.” May be, but I was the one who was there and felt it. So, I’m allowed to feel wrong.
Here’s a nugget of wisdom that a good friend shared with me sometime back. It stuck in my mind:
It’s not about what you the doer of the action intended, but how the recipient of the action feels.
It’s about them.
In the instance which I was getting advised on, I had to face it that my own way of handling situations made others around me uncomfortable. On my side, it was the reverse. Handling uncomfortable situations made me uncomfortable, so my bias was for the easy out — acting like the world was going on as it should. Yet, it wasn’t so much about my actions, as my inaction. Both were wrong in any case.
I didn’t judge the little girl for how she acted. Bias is not an easy thing to tackle. About her mother, she’s an adult. Her younger brother was clearly out of this, he’s too young to understand it. (And I hope he grows up that way, not having had this bad button passed on to him.)
All this was stirred by a discussion about race that I was tuned into. And I definitely discourage myself from acting like this episode (and another I had at a waiting lobby) represent my experience with cross-racial relations. Not at all, they just stand out. I mean, isn’t it the times you weren’t treated right that stick out in your memory? So, me too, pardon me. I’m a lot like you.
Here’s the thing though, and the reason why this moved me to interrogate my own experiences. Growing up, I was unaware of it all — like most children are. Then at about 5 or 6 I started hearing all this stuff. But may be, I didn’t pick anything until I was about 8 years old. I didn’t gather the difference; that ‘they were’ and ‘we were’. I think I didn’t see much to fuss about until I was 11 or 12. Really, you ask. Seriously, yes. I just knew he/she was white, Arab, Indian, that’s all. The much talked about superiority/inferiority battles, I came to understand much later in life.
Let’s take it to another level now. The tribe — Because that’s my every day. The thorn of Africa, and Kenya more so.
I was lucky that the people I grew up around didn’t directly teach me tribal differences. I learned from my history books — I knew who fished, who hunted and who was a nomad. And of course even that has been overtaken by the fast pace of urbanisation in many places.
This knowledge too didn’t remain like that for long. The more I hang around the older folks, the more the statements kept coming. All kinds of nonsense — who was this, that, good, bad. Basically, that being me was a blessing. You didn’t wanna be the Xs, or the Ys, the Zs. They were unpleasant, and I was pleasant.
I do not know, nor can I explain, how I decided to chose very early on to shut my ears to this crap. Some wisdom from beyond I believe. The little wisdom was, I don’t see what’s wrong with any of the people you talk so ill of. I see you talking to them everyday, why do you go to talk behind their backs? And as early as 14, I was starting to question the religions of the people who raised me. Just who was this God who allowed so much hatred? Don’t you all meet in church on Sunday and pray to the same God? Wait, the person you called a thief or whatever else you’ve labelled them, what do they think about you on their part?
I never understood how as a human being I could sit down and declare my own goodness as against all other, no less based on something I had no say in. I have found myself here, how do I justify that this is better than that? I can’t.
But lately, lately — I have been ceding to some dangerous things. I have to admit this much. Living in one of the most tribe obsessed times in Kenya has started influencing my judgment. I fight, been fighting, every day because it’s so pervasive. It’s everywhere I turn. How these ones are greed-driven and the others are conceited, or irrational… Who’s the irrational one here?
The one who subscribes to ‘privilege’ to lead or rule or political domination by birth, or the rest of everyone who cannot even try to hide their displeasure with your second name. How about the ones who are silent and act like it is nothing at all?
How do I stay grounded in the midst of all the hateful conversations? Do I keep quiet, and act like it isn’t about me? You know, like the episode above that I’ve been trying to disregard for months?
May be, just may be, I’ve been a little tired of all that ‘standing up for the gospel truth’ and the right that I believe in. I know, with all my heart, that no one is suited to lead Kenya by virtue of their tribe. I know that no one has standing claim to being good by the rightness of their second name. Opportunities that have not been worked hard for shouldn’t benefit names, but the people who prepared themselves for them. It is wrong.
But I’ve been getting tired of saying it, arguing against the belief that ‘we’ is better than ‘them’. And few get it especially when your name is not on the wrong side of the books. “You’re in, defend it.” “What’s your problem?”
I am in, but what happens to my heart while I stay in?
That little girl with her golden brown pony — she thinks she’s in. Somebody taught her ‘we’ is better than ‘them’. And she will live her life on the ‘inside’. But what about her heart? Who’s going to reach out to that cold suspicion that I saw in her eyes that day? Because I don’t see how she’s in. She’s in a cave.
And I would give up anything for her to come out. These little things we hide in our hearts —