January of 2016, someone hosted a pretty cool thing at what was then called Juniper’s Kitchen, in Nairobi. The idea was to put your name into a bowl and he’d pick one out and ask you to tell a 5-minute story. He was collecting stories for his podcast.
My name was probably the 2nd or 3rd called out and I was pumped to get up there and tell my part.
I started with asking where people thought I was from… Based on my appearance, demeanor, accent and color. I could be Mexican? Spanish? Italian? Indian? Persian? I got nods of agreement as I looked around the room. And then said the following which left the room in complete silence that you could hear a pin drop… “I guess that’s why Al-Shabab would not have let me go, if I stood up and said I’m Muslim during the Westgate Mall attack in September of 2013.”
I genuinely don’t remember the entire 5 minutes I spoke, but that was the main gist of it (I don’t even know if it made it to the podcast).
That year SAMOSA Festival hosted their events in Eastleigh, which was a trigger, and I was on the committee that year. My main responsibility was the finale of the festival – a concert, which we hosted at SARAKASI Dome. Not many knew this then (and probably still don’t), but I was going through my worst phase of depression and had triggers after triggers and did everything possible to keep my head above water.
One of the other committee members, Narissa Alibhai, read a poem at the finale, and was based around what it was/meant to be Kenyan. At SAMOSA Fest 2018, Aleya Kassam also read a poem, based on what it’s like to be Kenyan-Indian.
SAMOSA is an acronym – South Asian Mosaic of Society and Arts. I joined the committee in 2012 and was on it till the 2018 edition. I loved the idea and concept that the directors, committee members and volunteers have been pushing – To bring Kenyan-Asians and Kenyans together through music and art.
Last week, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in months and we were talking about how she’s challenged by Kenyans. Her family’s from Kenya but she lived in Canada for most of her life and has been living here for 4-5 years now. She works with young women, to empower them, coach them, helping them achieve their goals. But she gets criticized for being a “foreigner” and not black, doing the work she’s doing.
I got interviewed for Africa Day in 2015 on the streets of Johannesburg by 5FM, and was asked what it meant to be African. It was probably the most liberating feeling, to speak as a Kenyan in South Africa. Also, the only place where I wasn’t once judged for being brown.
These are all little stories that I have witnessed, and been through as well. Now, the bigger story, that I have been wanting to share for the last 2 months…
I recently spent over a month in Zanzibar for some work and it was the most eye opening, life changing experience.
If you don’t know Zanzibar, two things, Google it and visit… So the following will make sense to you.
I felt like an alien on the island. It was challenging for Zanzibarians to figure out “my story”. She looks Indian, she has a Muslim name, she speaks Swahili, she has an American accent, she dresses like a Mzungu, she greets everyone around her in their language. Who is this woman?
So, Zanzibarians generally don’t like “Muhindi’s” and people from mainland. They LOVE foreigners, though. And I fell into no bracket. Which made it even more difficult to connect with the locals (I recently watched the movie Divergent and I so strongly related to it because my last trip to Zanzibar, it made so much sense – all the above made sense.)
While on beach walks – alone or with friends – I was constantly called – Italian, Spanish, Indian, Iranian, Ethiopian, Mexican and whatever type of brown you can think of. It is SUCH A THING on the island. Color, is such a thing. And it was weird for me because I never truly, fully ever felt that way at home or anywhere else during my travels.
They say it takes 3 weeks to create a habit and 3 months to create a lifestyle. Having been there for a little over a month, I didn’t realize I allowed all these things to get to me. I was frustrated and felt discriminated. One as a woman and two because of the color of my skin.
Mind you, I only and mainly faced and felt all these things in the North. Kendwa and Nungwi.
I left the island with a new nickname, which I actually genuinely like, because it was hilarious. I was walking on the beach in Paje, and I passed a beach boy, ignoring him, and he goes… “Hey, Cappuccino!”. I stopped in my trail, turned around and asked him “what did you call me?”, he said “cappuccino”. I burst out laughing and kept on walking in disbelief! It was genuinely hilarious. And I embraced it. It’s a new nickname and I’m keeping it!
Coming back to Nairobi was tough. I left the island feeling discriminated on many levels. I felt personally attacked. And I came back home with the same mindset. I was feeling attacked by people around me in my own city. And perhaps, we could argue that it was all in my mind, but I felt it and witnessed it but took my power back. And that was liberating. To not give up on my vision, mission and passion.
And then this popped up on my timeline and it blew my mind.
Over the last 6 years I have unlearned and learned and unlearned and learned. My belief system is constantly evolving and I too am constantly changing. And this little excerpt allowed me to release people’s opinions. I didn’t realize how I had let Zanzibar play with my mind, and I haven’t felt such relief since.
I do however still find myself saying I’m not Indian, I’m Kenyan, often. But it’s not out of defense, it comes from pride. To say I was Kenyan, while I was on the island, felt so great – and it should feel just as great saying it in my country. I was chatting with an Uber driver in Swahili the other day, whilst a friend of mine was in the car as well, and he was so baffled – he was amazed at my Swahili (thank you Zanzibar for the practice!!!) – And I felt really freaking good in that moment.
So I’ve been asked… How do we change the narrative? How do you fight the whole color situation, even though you’re born and raised in Kenya and are 2nd – 3rd – 4th – 5th – 6th generation Kenyan. You could be mixed, white, brown whatever… How do we stop people from discriminating?
Truth is. You can’t. There’s already a HUGE divide WITHIN the Asian community, and you want to start integrating yourself with Kenyans? I mean, I do everything possible to avoid my community and make sure they stay a thousand miles away from me. All communities are the same. It’s all about the level of education you’ve had, the kind of job you have, the sort of money you make, the kind of car you drive, the way you dress. It’s judgment and gossip, which I don’t have time for. Leaving radio was the best thing that ever happened to me because it disconnected me from what I didn’t even want to be part of in Nairobi. My life at work was 100% different from what I did in my own time. And everyone knew that. I even have evidence! (insert ROFL emoji). I mean, no one’s even in touch with me from that “life”, and it’s been over 4 years since I left. I guess I’m irrelevant to them now. And trust me, I only bring it up to make a point, not because I give a fuck.
We’re all individuals. We all have our own individual belief system. We all live for whatever we live for. I don’t live for you, you don’t live for me.
All I ever say is… Do good, be good. If you want to make a difference, then go do it. Don’t let other people’s judgements of your work, your race, your religion, your beliefs stop you from making that change you want to see.
Change begins with you. One person at a time.