Several weeks ago, ‘Black Panther’ opened in cinemas across Nairobi and people flooded auditoriums. We called it “the first epic black superhero film”. One that “finally represented our Africa positively…”. Days later, some of us even went back to the cinemas a second time. We dressed in our traditional African fashion, painted our faces as if Marvel had finally given us a license to feel pride in ourselves.
It’s sad that this past month, Kenya’s own super-hero film titled ‘Super Modo’ opened in cinemas and only about 20 people watched it with me this past weekend.
I’m not going to debate which movie is better, that’s up to perspective and taste. But the one thing we cannot deny is that ‘Super Modo’ is blatantly and wholeheartedly KENYAN… it has the one thing that Black Panther does not. And that is CONTEXT. Whilst the miracle land of Wakanda is far, far, far away from our current reality here in Nairobi, the village of Super Modo is where most of us grew up. Whilst the people of Wakanda are poorly adapting accents of African tribes, the actors in Super Modo are purely Kenyan; they speak our language, they look like us, they are not acting, nor pretending, they are depicting a story which we can all relate to.
That begs the question why? Why are we packing cinemas to watch a film that is not ‘ours’ — and does not truly represent us — whilst forsaking the beautiful films which are made in our image? What has happened to us that we would lack so much pride ourselves and what we produce? Why do we put our faith so strongly in that which comes from outside ourselves and not that which is within?
But maybe this is only one facet of a more serious problem. What pillaged us so heavily of our self-love and patriotism that we find solace and comfort in the ideas and stories of the western world and forsake our own?
Why do we hate ourselves?!
But I suppose one could use this premise to question many things that happen in this country, like;
Why are the Chinese building our roads for us… don’t we have engineers here in Kenya?
Why are our youth listening to American Trap Music?
Why are the best schools in the country the ‘white schools’?
Colonialism was bad. But to think it is over and that we are an independent country is just as delusional as believing that Wakanda actually exists. We need to empower ourselves. We need to see pride in who we are. We can’t wait on some fictional Black Panther to show us that we are actually special, powerful, strong and that we have always been superheroes…
Just consider, Black Panther is not the first time ‘We’ — as Africans — have been represented well, it’s just the first time most of us have noticed. We have Kenyan actors giving their lives to tell our stories here at home… it’s time we put our faith and pride in them. Go and watch Super Modo. Trust me.
–Yours Truly (Kimathi Kaumbutho) is a Spoken Word/Poetry writer/performer, and a Hip-Hop artist from Nairobi, Kenya.
The truth is I couldn’t help but feel pride when I watched ‘my people’ (or at least people that looked like me) appear so powerful and breathtakingly admirable. It was so refreshing to see our Africa depicted as rich and beautiful for once — such a stark contrast to the impoverished and poverty-stricken image of our continent we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in Hollywood films. As my family and I sat in our cinema chairs spewing over the credits at the end of the film, we had this tangible aura of positivity radiating off us. The fantasy world of Wakanda had inspired us.
But that feeling didn’t last though. As we exited the cinema, walked out into the foyer and looked through the tall glass windows of Prestige Plaza, I came to the realization; we are not in ‘Wakanda’. We are in Nairobi. And on that day, my city looked much like it did the day before. Tall buildings, walking ‘wananchi’ amongst the rich people’s cars that float above the pockets of poverty we’ve learned to live with.
I want to feel inspired by Black Panther, I truly do. I hope that children watch that film and carry that sense of pride with them wherever they go — God knows we need it. But at the same time, I have removed my rosy sunglasses and seen that movie for what it actually is.
A marketing power play.
“Why would the same people of the west — the ‘wazungus’ who continue to pillage and impoverish our countries — want to tell our story all of a sudden?”
“Why should they care about us at all when they haven’t in the past?”
This isn’t the western world trying to empower Africans, this is them profiting from the appropriation of our culture. Making Millions of dollars that don’t go into the betterment of African people, but rather into the pockets of the same countries that steal from our nations.
Its quite clever on their part — I’ll credit them for that. They’ve managed to take a people who have been bitterly misrepresented in the past and generate a story that those same people want to believe in (despite how far-fetched it seems from our current reality). And now the world has turned out in droves to see something ‘new’. A new narrative about a ‘new Africa’. And whilst the Africans see a picture of inspiration and empowerment, the west gets the profit and all the credit.
Oh, how it reminds me of a time when we closed our eyes to pray to Jesus, whilst the white man stole all our land from us. It begs the question, who’s really benefiting from this story of Wakanda?
I must admit though; most Africans are loving all this new attention. Even us who live in the cities of this continent are smiling at this “new narrative”. But let’s take off our blinder for a bit. Is this really a new narrative?
We make films in Nairobi. There are films in Uganda, in Tanzania, there is Nollywood in Nigeria — we tell our own stories all the time.So the question we should be asking is why — why is it that only when Marvel brands a story that is not our own, that the world turns out in droves to watch ‘us’. Why does it seem that our culture is now in fashion but only cool when someone else ‘wears it’? Why is the African story only selling when someone else tells it? Why did we need the West to tell us a fake story about a magical land named Wakanda, for us to feel empowered and inspired when we have filmmakers of our own telling us real stories?What’s really going on here?
I noticed a few weeks ago that Kendrick Lamar made on of the soundtracks for Black Panther and it plays through the credits. The video is on YouTube and its got over 60 MIllion Views. Watch it and maybe you’ll have the same reaction I did. Like… “wait… Isn’t this guy from Compton, California? How has he suddenly become African? Why’d the pick him to do the soundtrack, we have artists here in Africa too?”
But I suppose when you really think critically about this film, it all makes sense. If I could make 100 million Dollars from pretending to be African, I would do it too (and I wouldn’t be pretending). But we don’t get the same publicity, nor profit that these artists get from being African.
I feel like I need to affirm that I’m not mad. I just want my people to see this film for what it actually is. Go ahead, feel inspired, feel empowered, feel that African is cool now, but at the same time, realize that we always had the ability to empower ourselves. We don’t need the west to represent us. We can tell our own stories. Being an African isn’t suddenly cool, it’s always been cool, it’s just a shame we needed the west to prove that to us.
They say you can’t force love,
You’ll most likely find it
when you’re not looking,
I would believe that;
If you couldn’t say the same
for tinder matches and syphilis,
We compare love to anything.
Roses, Rivers, Oceans,
Boxes of chocolate, and everything in between.
Why do we make ‘Falling in love’ look so easy?
When most of us are
too afraid to jump,
too cautious to trip,
too busy putting our lives in balance
to fall for someone else,
It’s like, It’s all pretentious, …we’re all searching for the same thing…
You want the type of love where
you get lost in someone else,
Where she’ll call you at 2 am, and
you can’t hang up the phone,
Because at that moment she’s with you and
you’re too afraid
to fall asleep by yourself.
The type of love where
there are no awkward silences.
Your conversations make for music
that makes safe your insecurities.
that makes you melt
in each other’s eyes,
sleep in each other’s arms.
every kiss feels like a dream,
is worth the fright
if you wake up to him.
The type of love that
makes you blush when you’re alone,
That has you cheesing in the mirror
watching movies of your memories
like a Netflix account.
That’s love right? “Real love”
The type that honestly,
I’m not sure even exists,
We paint it so beautifully in our minds
Because the fear of being alone
is something we can’t admit to.
But what if:
‘Love’ isn’t everything we compare it to?
What if it isn’t roses or rivers, and oceans,
And we’re just swimming
in seas of shallow metaphors we don’t want to drown in
That Love is deeper,
But most of us like the surface.
Most of us like the dates,
Most of us like the rings
Most of us like the sex,
Most us like the weddings,
Love is everything we look for
but we don’t really see,
like an Instagram of smiles covering up its scars,
with pictures captioned in a language
that we don’t understand.
A canvas colored with emotions,
that we’ve never learned to notice.
Is standing on the top of your faith,
jumping to fall into a relationship with a man,
who you don’t know will catch you.
Is how you’ve fallen for her already
but you’re never going to say it,
Cuz the fear of being alone,
is worse than being in the friend-zone.
Is losing your temper,
And wanting to say I hate you,
But you’re two in the same person
and the other half of you
is holding your tongue.
Is my parents’ marriage,
I never hear them say I love you,
but I guess 27 years of being together,
makes you know that already.
Is knowing that the sunsets,
Appreciating the light
but still expecting the darkness
Long ago in my country, a prophecy from a ‘Gikuyu Seer’ stated; “there shall come a people with eyes like the sky and clothes like the butterflies…”
At that time, ‘Gikuyu’ would have represented my tribe; as a Kenyan born near the Mountain formerly known as ‘Mt. Kirinyaga’.
The people the seer spoke of were the ‘white men’. The ‘missionaries’; the ‘evangelists’, or the ‘colonialists’. Though those terms may not be too different. I know even theft can be disguised as charity sometimes.
It turns out the prophecy was true. The white men did eventually come. They came in the name of a black book — a black book which, though foreign to us then, is now all too familiar. Their mission was to redeem us; to ‘show us the light’. And it didn’t take long for them to ‘save’ us.
“They said “Let us pray.” We closed our eyes. When we opened them, we had the Bible and they had the land.” — Desmond Tutu
The white man had the technology; forms of power that were all too marvelous for our ‘primitive’ existence. And with the “power of the canon”, the white man would fire the bullets that would carry the contradictions of his teachings. They would defame our ‘God’ and preach only of their own. A ‘White God’ one who was all-loving and peaceful…
I still do not know what happened to the God of my past. I did not grow up with him. Perhaps it would suffice to say that he was forced out of his dwelling place on Mt Kirinyaga, the same way my ancestors were. Maybe he never even existed.
Instead, I have grown up with the ‘white’ God. I visit his house on Sundays and listen to his teachings. I see him nailed to a cross, ravaged and plundered, much like my ancestors were, but he does not look like me. He has, long ‘Wazungu’ hair, lighter skin, and a crown of thorns placed upon his head… his name is ‘Jesus’. And though the situation of my people is marginally better since we freed ourselves from the white man, how is it that the white man’s God is still our vision of hope?
A few Sunday’s ago, I sat in Church, my mind probably lost somewhere between boredom and indifference. I was staring off into the distance. “If you do not believe in Jesus, YOU WILL DIE!” is what the pastor screamed alarmingly through the microphone. I look up, evidently distracted. Immediately, the congregation moans in agreement, nodding their heads like they’re shaking off the past of their ancestors. “Amen,” they say.
Am I the only one who sees this? I ask myself. How has our faith been stolen so easily?
In the space of 100 years, the Kenyan people have gone from primitive and crude, to ‘Christian’ and saved. Perhaps I want to believe that’s a good thing, but I also wonder, what was wrong with our God before? I mean, didn’t we have miracles. Didn’t we pray? Weren’t our prays answered?
Yet we find ourselves worshipping a God that was once so alien to us.
When I think of the past, and consider where we as a Kenyan people are now, I must give credit to the “people with eyes like the sky”. I mean, what better way to indoctrinate, oppress and control a people than religion? Isn’t the best way to get someone to do what you want them to do, to get them to believe what you believe?
I am no anthropologist, nor am a sociologist, but I have learned how to control, indoctrinate and dominate an entire people sheerly by my own first-hand experience. Here’s how it goes;
First, you must make them believe that they are ‘lost’, or victimized in some way. They may not be, but get them to believe that. Call them ‘sinners’ if you have to. Try to show them that their culture is archaic and crude, and get them to see that.
Next, present them with a solution. Your solution. A way to save themselves from the peril that their current state will bring them.
The important thing here is to present your solution as the only one. The right one. The ‘only way they’ll save themselves’.
“I am the way, the truth, and the life, no-one comes to the father except through me. (John 4:6)”
Once they have marveled at your greatness and grounded their faith in your ‘God’, tell them to “go and make disciples of all nations… (Matthew 28:19)”.
Yes, task them with indoctrinating everyone around them. They will do it. Irrationally presenting a case for your God everywhere they go.
At that point, sit back and watch. Watch as your work is done for you. Watch as the African forgets his own God and puts his faith, and that of his fellow countrymen, in your God; preaching on pulpits across his land and threatening all those who do not believe with death.
For once the African believes what you believe, he will do as you do.
–Yours Truly (Kimathi Kaumbutho) is a Spoken Word/Poetry writer/performer, and a Hip-Hop artist from Nairobi, Kenya.
“Some people build fences to keep people out, other’s build them to keep people in.”
‘Fences’ is a Hollywood film I recently watched for the second time. Partly because I was forced to, but also because I love Denzel Washington.
For me, any movie with Will Smith or Denzel Washington in a lead-role is a “must-watch”… and that’s not just because they’re both Black — though that is a major factor. But also because of how relatable their roles tend to be to me as an African man. The truth is, the Hollywood movies aren’t particularly good at telling the African narrative. So I, like many other Africans have had to ‘see myself’ in Black American stories. And though they are not always relatable, they are often close enough to spark my interest. I suppose that’s where my love for Will Smith and Denzel Washington stems from.
Anyway, Denzel’s Character in Fences portrays a black family man in 1950’s America. At face value, the movie could be considered completely foreign to me. Honestly, what does 1950’s America have to do with me as a Kenyan living in Nairobi?
My answer is; “Everything”.
There is a very strong metaphor in the film which I didn’t catch the first time. A metaphor that brings the movie closer to home. Denzel, though he is a black man in the 1950’s, reminds me of the many African fathers (or even mothers) I have come to know in my lifetime. The one trait that I have seen in many African parents, which is so reflective in Denzel Washington’s character in the movie, is this innate belief that they are being victimized.
Africans, just like black Americans, especially the older generations tend to believe that someone or something is always against them. They will blame the government, the environment, the past, anything and everything when things don’t happen the way they should. They will complain solely for the sake of complaining because to not complain is to have nothing to say at all. They will tell you stories of all they’ve have overcome, all the struggles they went through, just to prove to you how hard it has been for them, and how hard it continues to be.
Truth is I don’t blame them.
When Denzel spoke of how the ‘white man’ took everything from him, how he couldn’t play baseball because of the ‘white man’ or how he’s been paying back a loan to the ‘white man’ for 15 years, it reminded me so fervently of my own family. Though we are thousands of miles away on a different continent altogether, our complaints and our grievances echo back and forth so much so that Denzel’s character could easily have been my father.
Let me back-track a little.
My parents and grandparents grew up in a world that wasn’t about options or possibilities. “Go to school, excel, get a job, work hard, get money and provide for your family,” that was it. They grew up in survival mode. I suppose when you’ve lived through the colonization of your people and the pillaging of your “possibilities”, it’s hard to see life through any other lens.
Whereas white families, or Euro-American kids may have grown up believing in mass opportunity, plush possibilities, and parents throwing around phrases like “you can be whoever you want to be”, for us Africans, it has been very different.
I, like many other Kenyan kids, grew up in a ‘survival mentality household’. Study hard, finish school so you can make money — that was ‘life’. Now I give credit to my parents for somehow escaping from that mentality a few years back, but today I see many African people, households, families, kids, still stuck in that same mentality. And I’m not talking about ‘poor’ people: poor people have to survive before they can dream big or see opportunities. It’s a different life when you’re are solely worried about where your next meal will come from. I have no bone to pick with the poor.
Instead, I’m talking about those of us who grew up like I did. The Africans who went to school; who had food on the table when they came home, and a fresh pair of socks to wear in the morning. The Africans who were afforded the possibility to “dream big” and “be whoever they wanted to be” — even though it was never explicitly said. It hurts me to see Africans who are oblivious to the opportunities that not only they have but their sons and daughters too. I want today’s Africans to strive for something greater than ‘survival’ even if we are used to a culture, society, or environment that dictates a different narrative to us.
My fear is that we, as Africans, though being “freed”, still struggle to see the possibilities that our ‘new world’ is giving us — the possibilities granted by the sacrifices of our ancestors.
The movie Fences spoke to me so deeply because Africans — be it parents, kids, culture, or communities — are much like Denzel Washington’s character.
We are building fences around ourselves. Not the types that keep others out, but the types that keep us and our people in. It is about time that we emancipated ourselves and grasped that we do not need to feel victimized. Opportunities and possibilities exist. The colonialists and the white men left a long time ago, we cannot take off the shackles on our ankles and strap them voluntarily on our minds.
There are no fences anymore. Only the ones we have built ourselves.
Let me start by saying that when the topic of hard water was initially introduced to us — a classroom of teenage Kenyan students — we were gripped not by our interest in the subject, but by our curiosity as to why our teacher did not just say “ice”.
Little did we know that ‘Hard Water’ was actually a real ‘thing’. “Water that has a high mineral content and forms limescale in kettles…. Blah, blah blah”, as our school textbook would say.
Now, I don’t dismiss the importance of learning about hard water. And even though I much despised chemistry as a subject in my teens, I suppose it was important. ‘Important’, for the same reason my father sent me to school; “because education is the key…” Not because of any logical reason I could bring myself to believe as a young teenager.
Hard water is relevant — perhaps to students who have grown up seeing limescale in their kettles or experiencing this “strange water” first hand. But to kids from Kenya who are more likely to see Giraffes through the windows of our houses, than hard water spilling through our kitchen taps… it was all irrelevant. Learning about hard water only served to turn our education into an abstraction; a collection of lessons that were beyond our frame of reality.
There is a quote in Nelson Mandela’s very insightful book named “Long Walk To Freedom” that says;
“The educated Englishman was our model.; what we aspired to be were “black Englishmen” as we were sometimes derisively called. We were taught — and believed — that the best ideas were English ideas, the best Government was English government and the best men we Englishmen”.
The book was written over 20 years ago, but I struggle to see how anything has changed since, at least in my native country of Kenya.
As a teenager, I went to a British international school — what many, not by coincidence, would call one of the best schools in the country. And though I was the beneficiary of resources and means of education that few others got in Kenya, I don’t think I learned much. Not anything of real relevance anyway. Nothing that really ‘helped me’.
When I sat in that chemistry classroom as a teenager, listening to my English teacher ramble about hard water, I absorbed his words like I was sitting in the pews of his church; with unwavering faith, writing in my notebook as hastily as I could. Though, what I never noticed then, that I have been enlightened to since, was that I was actually a victim — a victim of colonialism in its most contemporary form.
A Voluntary Slave
Learning about subjects like ‘hard water’ in school, in Kenya, I was no longer learning about ‘my reality’, but someone else’s. As I scribbled in my notebooks in chemistry class, it never occurred to me that the things I spent night’s revising and cramming into my absent mind actually had no value to me. They did not serve to enable me to better navigate my country or better exist in Kenya.Instead, I was stuck in a system. A system which required me to seek the validation of those at its helm if I wished to get ahead. Instead of my education introducing me to an affixation with my environment, it taught me about somewhere else… somewhere far, far away, where the white people came from. I learned about the world from their perspective, and saw my country through their eyes…
“As I grew up and advanced academically, my reality was further separated from my education… I just knew my education was preparing me to go somewhere else… and give to another environment that it belonged to, it was not for my environment when and where I grew up.”
– Chika Ezeanya-Esiobu
We are Taught to Hate Ourselves
When I first learned about Mount Kenya — Kenya’s tallest mountain — I was a little boy, listening to my father’s words in the village where he grew up, at the foot of the mountain itself. Years later in primary school, I recall learning about Mount Kenya once again. Only this time, our textbooks told us of a man called Dr. Johann Ludwig Krapf.‘They’ say he discovered Mount Kenya on the 3rd of December 1849.It was written and stated as a fact by our teachers, and somehow, when I was a child, I did not think to question it. I probably scribbled it in my notebook like it was chemistry class, struggling to engrave the date in my memory just to pass the next test.
Though what never occurred to me at the time is that my grandparents — and my great-grandparents — had grown up right at the foot of the mountain. So, what the teacher was effectively saying was that it took a white man from Germany to travel thousands of miles to “discover” a mountain that was right in front of them…?
This was one of many of the paradoxes of my education. I grew up not believing that answers came from within the borders of my country or continent, but from outside. From the more intelligent white men who knew ‘everything’. From the ‘first world’ that we hoped to one day exist in.
It is this habit of thought that I have continually tried to remove from my mind but, at the same time, I’m terrified to I see it so deeply engraved in the minds of fellow Africans. We continue to see the ‘western world’ as ‘right’ or ‘superior’ or ‘further ahead’; we drink of their ‘hard water’ like we will one day taste it and never questioning why. It’s this same habit of thought that has kept us looking down upon ourselves, undermining our power and being told what to do.
It is about time that we, as Africans, empower ourselves!
The great Julius Nyerere once said;
“You cannot develop people. People will have to develop themselves.”
We as African’s cannot continue to voluntarily bow to the west. We cannot continue to see ourselves and our world through a ‘white’ lens. Let us see each other and our surroundings for who and what they are. Let us aspire to be ourselves and no longer need to be like ‘them’. Perhaps once we find pride in ourselves, we can slowly mold our continent into something that is really and truly our own.
I’ll never forget one day at work when I met with a co-worker in the staff room. She was complaining, the same way she had the day before, and the day before that. I listened, like I often did, or at least pretended to. It was the same mindless venting she was known for and quite frankly, I was tired of it.
I interrupted her mid-sentence, “If I gave you half a million shillings ($5000 roughly) right now, what would you do?”
She paused. And suddenly her eyes glazed over in suppressed excitement.
“Are you kidding me, I would go home and sleep!”
I’ve never forgotten that.
Her words may not even be remotely surprising to some people. I imagine there a lot of people who’d answer the same way she did.
But, to this day, the pity I felt for her in that moment still resonates in my mind. And after replaying that scene over and over again since, I’ve realized something very profound about how certain people think.
On that day, my coworker gave me a glimpse into her reality. She was working as a means to an end; as a way to ‘make money’, and the quicker she could make enough money to go home and ‘do nothing’, the better. Whatever job could make that happen, she was willing to do, no matter how discontented she felt.
That’s what she was really saying.
Poor Person’s mentality
At the beginning of this year I was broke. I was living in my parents’ home, I had no job prospects and for seemingly the first time, I felt poor. I wanted money. I wanted to move out of my parents’ home and start my own life — and money could make that happen.
So, unconsciously and blindly, I took a job working as a salesman… I hated it.It wasn’t that the job was hard, it wasn’t, I did really well my first month and they paid us really well too. Instead the reason I hated it was because it didn’t ‘feel right’. I had no desire to be like my bosses — or even my co-workers to be honest. I felt lost. I remember waking up every day trying to convince myself that a check at the end of the month was worth the sacrifice.
During that time, I had gone from making no money and being desperate for a job, to making good money and hating my job. It was as if the money didn’t help. It only made me realize what I really valued. It took the blinders off me per se.
When you are ‘poor’, you don’t think about what you’re passionate about, you don’t think about ‘career advancement’ or whether you even like your job; you just ‘work’.You ‘work’ to alleviate the pain of poverty (and that pain looks different for all kinds of people). To make enough money to feed yourself, pay your rent and keep the lights on — that’s all that matters.
But once you start making a bit of money in excess of your basic needs… something changes. You begin to look around and you begin to value other aspects of your ‘work’ that you may not have noticed before.
You begin to ask yourself “what’s really important to me?”, “Do I even enjoy my job?”, “is this where I want to be?”
Suddenly, money begins to ‘look’ a little different. Your needs change, and ‘money’ can’t really fulfill these new needs.
You begin to “value what you do for the money, even more than the money itself.” — Jane Hwango
I’ve come to realize that there is something even more elusive than money. We all search for it, whether subconsciously or knowingly. Some people call it ‘happiness’, ‘purpose’, but I like to refer to it as ‘fulfillment’.
A popular Greek myth, tells of a man named Sisyphus. Sisyphus was banished to a life of discontentment by the Greek Gods. He was to push a heavy boulder up a mountain and place it at the top. The problem was, every time he got to the top, the rock would stay there for a moment, before rolling back down the other side of the mountain. He did this over and over again; the rock continually rolled down and Sisyphus continually pushed it back up.
In this world, we are no different to Sisyphus.
We work, we travel, we buy things, all because we are seemingly getting closer to the top of the mountain. But unfortunately, when we finally get ‘there’… we grow discontent, unsatisfied, and the boulder falls back down the other side. We then go back down the mountain and habitually start all over, habitually picturing happiness and fulfillment at the top of the mountain.
The fact is, the fulfillment we search for — through, our possessions, our jobs, our lifestyle etc. is not at the top of some mountain that we can ‘arrive’ at. You can’t make ‘enough’ money to stay content and fulfilled. We, as humans are just not like that; even Warren Buffet has money problems.
Instead, what we find through our life experiences, is that fulfillment is but a feeling. Like happiness, it comes and it goes. Life becomes a journey of finding the things that bring you closer to the fulfillment and happiness you search for; without compromising all the other aspects of your life.
Fulfillment is not so much in the destination but in the path, itself.
Theodore Roosevelt once said; “the best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.”
There is no amount of money that will ‘buy’ your fulfillment or satisfaction. Instead, value what you’re actually doing for the money — that’s what truly matters. Because like Pico Lyer once said; “sometimes ‘making-a-living’ and ‘making-a-life’ point in very different directions.”
The opportunity for heroism exists in all the simple and benign things that we perceive as wrong and have a choice to do something about.
Last weekend my parents and I were driving into the city when we passed a burning tree.
Mindlessly staring out of the window, I noticed it immediately. I remember how it flashed by my eyes so unexpectedly, I took a second to question what I’d seen. Immediately I carelessly interrupted my parents’ conversation, “did you see that?! There was a tree that was on fire!”
We were driving along Limuru Road — a densely populated motorway into the city, in the middle of Karura forest (a forest that is as much a symbol of Nairobi as everything else we take pride in). As I elaborated on what I’d seen, my parents nonchalantly shrugged, as if we were going to dismiss the whole thing. I wouldn’t let them.
“We have to stop,” I said hesitantly.
Without turning uncomfortably to look at me, my mother replied; “what do you want us to do, turn and go back?”
I said yes, neither forcefully nor feebly, but with a lack of conviction that warranted them to pay me no mind. I wasn’t overly fretting about it.
A few minutes later arriving at our destination, something just didn’t sit well with me. The image of that burning tree just wouldn’t escape my mind, I said; “We have to go back, there is a tree on fire in Karura forest!”
Irritable and agitated, my parents agreed. We slowly drove back in the scanning the left side of the road searching for the burning tree. “There it is!” I shouted, affirming that I wasn’t crazy.
We stopped the car on the curb of the road and got out to get a closer look at the tree. It was only then I noticed the number of cars that were driving by — tens of them, no-one seemed to notice the tree. By then, the smoke was thick in the air and easily visible from the road, but it was like no one cared… They just drove past.
Immediately my dad began calling ‘999’ Kenya’s emergency number.
“It says “press one if this is an emergency”, then I press one and it goes off…” he said.
So much for the authorities. But then again, “This is Africa” as some will tell you.
Dad then proceeded to call every emergency number he had in his phone — Gigiri police, Runda Police… nothing.
Growing impatient, we decided to alarm a security guard at one of the houses nearby. He was standing outside a gate. “Have you seen the burning tree over there? Have you called anyone?”
He affirmed that he had noticed it, but he just idly glanced at it, looking just as careless and all the other people who were driving past it.
He then adamantly said; “My responsibility is this area here, not over there…”
We looked at him dumbfounded at first, followed by outrage.
This was a security man. He was looking at a burning tree and his first thought was “it’s not my responsibility”.
“Well, then who the hell’s is it then?!” I wanted to say.
Never mind the fact that we were in a forest and that fire could spread and burn the very home that was, in fact, his “responsibility”.
We later found that this security guard had actually seen the man who lit the tree on fire and did nothing. He stood by and watched a man commit arson but did nothing because it wasn’t his “responsibility”.
Looking back, I’m not so concerned about the what the security guard did, or didn’t do for that matter. What concerned me more was the hundreds of cars that drove past the smog of the burning tree without even stopping to take notice.
What does that say about us? Not just as Kenyans, or Africans, but as humans?
Several minutes later another security truck came by followed by the Kenya police. The story didn’t change. We all stood watching the tree burn deliberating on whether a fire truck was — in the words of the police — “really necessary”.
As we stood there staring at the tree, we noticed that trees tallest branch was now beginning to burn. This tall branch also happened to be hanging dangerously over some electricity lines and the nearby motorway where hundreds of cars were passing… but still, the police just watched the tree burn and every car continued to drive past carelessly.
It’s called the bystander effect; individuals are less likely to offer help when other people are present. Everyone assumes “someone else” will do something.
What I felt went deeper than that.
Humans are funny; we all hate to see the “wrong things” happen, yet at the same time, we hate to be held responsible for them. We would rather shift that responsibility to someone or something else.
That Saturday morning, as my family and I drove past that burning tree, we didn’t want to turn back. We almost wished we hadn’t noticed it because to notice something wrong is to also take on the responsibility of making it right; it is this responsibility that scares most people, so much so that everybody in their cars that morning, who drove past that tree, seemed to pretend that they hadn’t seen anything at all. “Someone else will take care of it, they will tell themselves. What is ironic is that everyone else is thinking the exact same thing, and no-one actually does anything about it.
We left soon after convincing the police to call the fire department. I do wonder what would have happened if we hadn’t stopped that day. If we were one of the hundred cars that drove past and did nothing… if that tree had fallen on the motorway before anyone thought to do anything about it… then this story would have been in the newspaper for all the wrong reasons.
I think we all have this perception of heroism as something grandiose and beyond ourselves; like starting a civil rights movement or saving someone in a burning building. But perhaps heroism is rarely that glamorous.Instead, the opportunity for heroism exists in all the simple and benign things that we perceive as wrong and have a choice to do something about. You may not be able to fly or walk through walls, but you can do ‘something’, and enough people doing ‘something’ is all we need to change our city, our country, and our world.
The premise of the book was to tell my story hoping that it would inspire kids to chase their dreams. For me, growing up in Nairobi, Kenya with the dream of becoming a professional footballer, I didn’t have a lot of role models. There wasn’t anyone truly telling me that it was possible, but what a difference it would have made if there was.
That’s where my idea came from.
I am very much an exception in Kenya. I am one of the few that realized my dream and played football all the way to the professional level — which I know is more than most can say. So when the ides for my book hit me earlier this year, I knew it was my duty to give back; to tell my story and give Kenyan kids the inspiration that I never had.
At the time, I had no idea what would come of the book, whether anyone would read it, or if it would even get published. Instead I tried to focus on what I did know. I know that there are millions of kids in Kenyan with the same dream that I once had, and maybe, just maybe, a book like mine from someone who has gone before them, will inspire them to do the same.
… Now, I know it all sounds great, but since that magical idea fell into my hands, I have tried anything and everything to second guess it.
Three months after I committed myself to writing the book, I hadn’t even written a single chapter. ‘I’m working a new job’, ‘Work is too busy’, ‘I don’t have time’… these were all excuses I told myself to justify why I hadn’t started. When my friends asked me about my ‘brilliant book idea’ I just shrugged or made up some generic excuse.
Looking back, I realize that I was in a place that most people are in life; between wanting to do something and convincing themselves that they can’t because it feels better.
About a month after the book idea, I dramatically quit my job. I realized I was only working for the money and I really had no passion to work there. It was at that point when I had an introspective period of thought. I questioned what was really important to me. Of course, the book jumped to the forefront of my mind and I told myself I had to stop procrastinating and get it done.
But for some reason, that scared the hell out of me.
After quitting my job, I was suddenly running out of excuses. I wasn’t busy, I had the time, and I had all the resources I needed. Still, for some strange reason, I absolutely loathed the thought of sitting down to begin writing the book. I procrastinated and procrastinated — which was immensely frustrating because I’m not a procrastinator; it wasn’t like ‘me’.
Whenever I would think of actually writing the book, there was this vivid fear that came over me and I was crippled. I remember telling myself; “I’ll write a chapter a week…” but as each week passed, it was the same old story. I had nothing.
At that point, I began to get angry with myself. I began to question where my fear was coming from. Why was it that I couldn’t even get started?
Then, I came across a quote by Mark Mason in a book I was reading. It read;
“People fear success for the same reason they fear failure. It threatens who they perceive themselves to be…”
That quote struck me like a dagger through my ribs and suddenly things became clear.
I wanted to write the book. I really did. Badly enough that the fear of regret was enough motivation, so I knew that wasn’t stopping me. I would even visualize myself going back to my old school to market the book and speak to all the younger kids, inspiring them to chase their dreams. I had the book’s title, an idea of the cover… so I really had nothing in my way. Just this very pungent fear.
But this wasn’t any regular type of fear. Not just some regular anxiety that I had to push past… It was different. A deeper, crippling type of fear.
Until then, I had prided myself in being someone who inspires people, that was who I believed I was, and the book was just another means to that end. I would think of myself as an established writer, a motivational speaker, a role model, all the great titles I wanted to wear. But what I didn’t realize was that writing the book would also threaten my perception of myself.
To sit and spend months writing the book was not only to become a writer, but also to invite the possibility that I wasn’t good enough, or the realization that I didn’t have a story worth telling, or that I’m actually not inspiring at all. And that’s what scared the daylight out of me.
That fear was so real that I was satisfied with just having the idea of writing the book, not actually sitting down and writing it. I wanted my friends to see me as ‘the guy who’s writing a book’, or ‘the guy who’s inspiring people’, not ‘the guy’ who wrote a book that didn’t sell… or ‘the guy’ who’s trying too hard to inspire people… That would threaten who I am.
So most days, I let the fear crippled me. I couldn’t sit and start writing the book because doing so was threatening who I believed myself to be. It was inviting fear; the fear that my story really isn’t that great and I’m not really that inspiring. It wasn’t just a fear of failure, it was a fear of the process and journey toward success.
Today (6 Months later)
Today, I’m grateful to find myself in the latter stages of completing the book. In all honesty, I have suffered through the process and I borderline hated it. But despite that, writing my book has also taught me a lot about life.
It has taught me that many people, just like I was, are stuck between wanting to do something and convincing themselves that they can’t because it feels better. It feels better to procrastinate in writing a book than to invite the possibility that you’re a terrible writer. It feels better to stay in a job you hate because to quit is to threaten your self-image as ‘the one who makes a lot of money’ or ‘has a good corporate job’. It feels better not to go on a diet than to try, and then have to admit to yourself that you have very little self-control…
“People fear success for the same reason they fear failure. It threatens who they perceive themselves to be.”
It was December 2013, the sun was slowly setting beneath the glaring horizon, and the balcony we sat on had this magnificent orange glow that garnished the smiles on our faces. Staring at the vibrant landscape, lost in empty thought, we didn’t talk much… like the silent sounds of nature stole our words from us. It was quiet. It was peaceful. It was perfect…
As papa, my brother and I lounged and gazed wondrously at the horizon, there wasn’t anything inherently special about that moment. The sun set, just as it did the day before, and the day before that… our family was together, just like we had been for most of my life, and the savannas of Nakuru were just as magnificent as any other park in Kenya’s rich countryside. Yet for some reason, that evening plays in the forefront of my mind when I recall one of the happiest moments of my life.
What made that moment so special, was not the emphatic beauty of the landscape, nor the amazing company of my family… Instead, what made that moment great, was that, for one of the first times in my life, I was completely and wholly content.
I wasn’t trying to change anything, I wasn’t wishing that any cloud in the sky looked different, nor was I trying to shade the glare of the sun from my face. I wasn’t thinking of the past, or recalling any memories, nor was I peering into the future with anxiety… I was just completely and absolutely present.
Knowing myself now, it’s no surprise that such a memory is so deeply etched into my mind. For, to this day, I still recall that beautiful afternoon. Yet even years after its passing, I still wonder why such experiences continuously escape me. Why does it take a trip up country and a beautiful sunset to make me be content with life? Can’t there be happiness, joy, and contentment, even in monotony, even right now?
We’re so Ungrateful
What I believe has become an integral part of our human condition is the ability to take things for granted. If I lived in that cottage in Nakuru, woke up to an emasculate sun rise every morning and gazed over the savanna every evening as the sun set, of course, I would feel that strong sense of contentment and joy — at least in the beginning. But just as all humans do, eventually, my mind would turn what was once a breathless view into just another sight in the banality of life. What was a thrilling and memorable experience would soon look to me like ‘just another day.’
And I believe, that is what we have done with the rest of our lives.
Imagine the first time you cooked the perfect breakfast, read your first novel, or built your first Lego. Those were amazing experiences. Yet today, these moments hold little relevance in the vast array of newer and more exciting things we do. It seems that somehow, we have turned, what were once blissful, exciting and happy moments of life into commonalities that feel benign and tedious.
But does it have to be like this?
What if we could experience all of life, even its monotony? What if we could see the hidden beauty in every experience we have? What if we could feel the banalest parts of life, just like I felt that sunset in Nakuru?
How Meditation Changed my Life…
Now a lot of people grapple with the idea of meditation. They tend to picture a Buddha sitting on top of a hill, completely still, cleansing his mind of all emotion… But I believe it isn’t that complicated.
I describe meditation as being mindful and being completely present in whatever you do. It’s that simple.
Be it having a meal, driving a car, or even doing the laundry, being completely mindful and present almost makes you lose yourself in the experience; it makes you see things that perhaps were always there, but you never really noticed them. It’s running through the woods and listening to the birds’ chirp and the crickets’ hiss, it’s driving and listening to the symphony of traffic, or having a meal and truly ‘feeling’ the food you’re eating… that’s what meditation is.
So, in a world where people eat whilst scrolling through Instagram, imagine how uniquely different it would feel to just do one thing and be completely present whilst you do it; not conscious of the past and not anxious about the future… just complete ‘here’. That, for me, is the true essence of meditation. And with that power of mindfulness and presence of mind, we can begin to see, even a dreary office space, just as beautifully as a sunset over the landscapes of Nakuru.