By Washington Osiro,
I recently reconnected with a group of childhood friends from back in the days and to say that the reunion was a massive disappointment would be a massive understatement.
In less than two weeks beginning November 11, 2020 after the reunion, exchanges (via texts) degenerated into acrimonious name-calling, accusations, demonization, and outright puerility – all from men in the sixth decade of their lives. Seemingly benign back-n-forth that begun as long-lost buddies rekindling childhood joshes grew darker at every turn.
The jokes, ever a window into how someone genuinely feels about another or about an issue, developed decidedly sharp and acerbic edges.
Philosophical differences, including those that were easily bridged if not compromised away, were personalized, then weaponized to bludgeon one another with. Even the simple act of riding a bicycle, a decidedly better exercise for our sexagenarian bones and joints was characterized as classist – by someone whose physical presentation reflects a lifestyle devoid of any exercise and too much nyama choma and alcohol.
To be clear, I did not know what to expect when I got the initial invitation to join the group. After all, it had been over four decades since I last interacted – face-to-face or otherwise – with any of the group’s membership. However, I honestly did not expect such vitriol or jealousy from people I grew up with (and respected) during my formative years. I certainly did not expect to be judged for the choices I and others in the diaspora, the US in particular, had made and the resultant paths our respective lives had taken – good or bad. I did not understand why I had to explain America’s foreign policy decisions to people with obvious axes to grind with the erstwhile sole superpower whose limitations and underbelly had recently been exposed.
Frankly, some of the exchanges reflected an expectation among some in the group that my twenty years in Kenya should have trumped the forty-plus years I have spent in these United States, i.e., that I should eschew recognition or celebration of some American traditions such as Thanksgiving and its attendant partaking in food, lots of food. Someone mocked the image of a friend’s Thanksgiving spread – questioning how “real African men” can, shudder the thought, post photos of food on social media. Another one proceeded to offer a tutorial on the history of Black Friday. Unfortunately, this individual just regurgitated a since-debunked myth about the event – that in the 1800s, Southern plantation owners could buy slaves at a discount after Thanksgiving.
To be honest, the ongoing shit-show that is America’s post-November 3rd conduct has allowed the world to turn tables on the self-styled “world’s leading democracy” and mock its bumbling stumbling stagger towards declaring a winner in its just-concluded presidential elections. Africans and Kenyans, including commentator and satirist Patrick Gathara, have gleefully described the aftermath of America’s 2020 General Elections using the same language and condescending tone the US and Great Britain usually reserve for Kenya and other “third world dictatorships.” Added to this global outflow of schadenfreude is the memory that the out-going Trump Administration famously referred to these same African countries as “shitholes.” Erstwhile admirers of America such as South Korea, a country that owes its prosperity and security to an America it warmly referred to as a miguk (“beautiful country”) and “older sibling” were alarmed at the election of Donald Trump in 2016. The country was aghast at the man’s (and America’s) incomprehensible mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Lee Hyun-song, professor of interpretation and translation at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies sums up what is arguably a global sentiment: The world now realizes that “the US is no longer a more ‘developed’ country than us” – “us” in the professor’s view is South Korea, but he may as well have been referring to the entire world.
Notwithstanding, hoisting America’s ongoing electoral comedy of errors, her imperialistic tendencies, maltreatment of its minorities, or wasteful and gluttonous ethos onto those from the Motherland who choose to call it home is a cheap and unfair shot. It is a lazy (effort at comeuppance) that reeks of unbridled jealousy doused with a healthy serving of regret – at choices one has made over their life.
Questioning the patriotism, nationalism, and Pan-Africanism of those of us who have chosen to go in-and-out of the Motherland while maintaining strong or familial ties in the diaspora and simultaneously navigating the often perilous cultures in either is the fake patriotism and convenient nationalism that William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham described to as the “last refuge of the scoundrels.” It is also hypocritical when one considers the deafening silence of these self-appointed arbiters of who is a “real” Kenyan or “real” African when individuals with “Africanized” last name sell the Motherland’s resources to foreigners and salt away the proceeds in Swiss bank accounts.
Africanizing one’s name or their culinary choices does not make one any more “authentic” or “African” than their brethren who opt to retain their Christian/Western “colonial” or “slave” names while enjoying an order of hamburgers, fries, and ‘shake. As already mentioned, last I checked, two of the most thieving and authoritarian post-independence African leaders Africanized their names. One changed his name from the benign-sounding Joseph-Désiré to the eight-worded polysyllabic mouthful – Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga while the other one concocted an “l’etat c’est moi” moniker – adding a suffix “tta” to the name of the country he (along with family and friends) now treat as their personal piggy bank. And the clincher? These two men were agents or tools of the very western powers they supposedly loathed and whose culture they claimed to shun.
As much as I am proud of my Kenyan (and Luo) heritage, I have also lived my entire adult life among non-Kenyans and non-Luos in America. The idea that I would not have adopted and internalized some Americana – idioms, culinary peculiarities, tradition, and yes, even the much prized “American accent,” etc. – is absurd and laughable. Similarly, COMPLETELY forgetting my Kenyan-Luo upbringing would be, at a minimum, strange.
However, even more absurd and outright idiotic is blaming those in the diaspora for the foreign policy screw-ups of their adopted country.