This is a Thinkpiece on #MTVMAMA2016

I spent my evening attending the MTV Africa Music Awards (MAMAs) 2016 vicariously through (a bad) livestream, Snapchat, my Twitter timeline and Instagram stories. I have many thoughts. Here they are.

Highlights 

Stylish Red Carpet Moments 

https://www.instagram.com/p/BL37bjjhVD1/

I love a clean, classic look, exemplified here by Sarkodie in this simple button down shirt and black cape.

No-one does eccentric menswear like my Instagram Crush, Trevor Stuurman! Yum.

I love this velvet black Marchesa dress on Bonang- she’s always fly.

Sizwe Dhlomo giving us serious Mobutu vibes. Fire emoji(s).

 

Sauti Sol’s Win

Congratulations to our fave boy band on clinching the coveted Best Group award!

 

Yemi Alade’s Clapback to President Buhari 

A week ago we heard Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari saying his wife “belonged to his kitchen and his living room and his other room” after she criticised his political judgment in an interview with the BBC. There’s been widespread condemnation of his remarks from across the continent and Yemi Alade added her voice to the conversation during her speech for Best Female Artist.

And women don’t forget, we are not only good in the kitchen, good in the living room and good in the other room; we are also good at anything we want to be.”

Yaass Yemi. Yaaass!

Domez (a sheng word; short for the english word ‘domestics’; synonymous with problems/issues)

No Papa Wemba tribute?! 

The show also featured a beautiful tribute to Kwaito legend Mandoza, who passed way in mid-September following a long battle with cancer. As I watched the tribute, I couldn’t help but recall Papa Wemba’s death earlier this year and wonder- no Papa Wemba tribute?! They could surely have flown in DRC’s finest Fally Ipupa or organised for a group of artists from across the continent to sing a medley. At the very least, a slideshow or video montage! Papa Wemba is indisputably one of our continent’s most iconic artists. What a shame that a platform of this magnitude had no semblance of honour for his legacy.

Tour d’Afrique

In 2009, I accompanied my Mom and sisters to the MAMAs when it came to Nairobi. The show was in its’ second year and was seemingly making its way to a new location somewhere on the continent every year. But from 2014, the show has remained within South Africa’s borders. Clearly if Africa was a country, that country would be South Africa (or Nigeria, to be honest)There are probably valid reasons for this- South Africa’s entertainment scene (and economy, in general) has been one of the biggest on the continent. Both the breadth and depth of the industry (not just musicians, but producers, media personalities, designers, models) far exceeds most of the continent. It’s also probably cheaper for Viacom Networks (MTV’s holding company) to host in South Africa, because they won’t have to keep shuttling their staff up and down the continent. 

Still, a brand that prides itself in celebrating contemporary music from across Africa shouldn’t be firmly rooted in one region of the continent. MTV Base should lend it itself to broader calls for cross-continental collaboration by using the award show as a platform for celebrating travel, music, fashion and tech in different regions of the continent. And although this would be an expensive endeavour a) MTV’s probably got the money,  b) If they don’t, there are big brands who I’m sure would jump at the opportunity to use the appeal of entertainment as an entry point to other markets on the continent.

If we can host the World Economic Forum on Africa in Kigali (2016) and Global Entrepreneurship Summit in Nairobi (2015), then we know that there are venues across the continent that have the capacity to host a couple hundred entertainers and a few thousand fans.

Local (Band$) Brands

Looking at the list of this year’s sponsors, I wish there were more homegrown African brands investing in platforms like the MAMAs. Money is not a problem (Hi Aliko Dangote, Strive Masiyiwa, Mohammed Dewji, Tony Elumelu & friends). I would love to see Elumelu’s Africapitalism embrace underserved but promising sectors such as entertainment. The private sector too often overlook the entertainment industry by failing to recognise and understand how pop culture shape Africans’ current and future imaginations.

  

Nonetheless, the brilliant Alex Okosi and his team at Viacom Networks do a phenomenal job putting this show together. Well done!

T

© Tessy Maritim

Appreciating My Blackness As An African

The first time I was introduced to the Black, Minority and Ethnic (BME) identity was in my sabbatical year. Being the only black sabbatical officer during my tenure meant that I was the only full-time officer who could deal with the BME campaign. I was expected to work and support the elected part-time BME officers in furthering the aims of the campaign.

I was reluctant at first, for two reasons. I had only ever defined myself as an international student. Being black had never been part of my conscious identity. In Kenya, we are gender, tribe, class- but race? We don’t quite understand what it means to be black. Most poignantly, there was a stigma attached to being black- becoming black would also mean I had to embrace the burden of being black. I didn’t want that.

As a black international student, you quickly notice there’s a shame associated with being black. It’s apparent in the questions about where you’re from and who pays your fees. So whenever you have the chance, you want to disassociate yourself. You want to wriggle yourself out of the negative immigrant stereotype. That’s why you’ll hear so many international students boldly remind everyone how much they pay in fees whenever Teresa May announces new immigration rules. As if your deep pockets make you more worthy of crossing the border. I’m irritated by this school of thought but also reminded that I too, thought like this not too long ago.

This desire to place others beneath us to enhance our own status is a theme I remember reading about in The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, many years ago. In the book, light-skinned and black Maureen is placed a level above darker-skinned and black Pecola. In the hierarchy of immigration, international students are Maureen.

In Africa, our hierarchy is based on gender, tribe and class. The conversation on race is mostly irrelevant (with some exceptions- hi, South Africa). I’m still trying to figure out whether being black means anything to Africa.

Living abroad has helped me discover and appreciate new identities. Despite the fact that I was hesitant to identify as black, I finally did. I have the Black Students Winter Conference 2014 to credit for that. The conversations and interactions at the conference made me realize that the perceived shame and stigma associated with being black was externally imposed- through structural oppression, colonialism and reinforced stereotypes. They were not intrinsic characteristics of black people.

The conference helped me feel empowered and comfortable enough to be a representative and voice for BME students on campus, despite my previous feeling of inadequacy. Today when I look back at my sabbatical year, I am most proud of my work with BME students. I no longer feel embarrassed to speak up on increasing black representation, protecting black-only spaces and tackling structural oppression. My identity is multi-faceted and I feel proud to be a black, African woman!

 

T

© Tessy Maritim

Obama, I’d Love To Let You Finish But-

What a weekend. Obama touched down and brought home all the goodies- the entrepreneurship summit, praises for Kenya’s progress, promises of investment and (by default) a traffic-less Nairobi city.

Most poignantly, Obama blessed us with a message still ringing in the minds of Kenyans- work hard and you can do and be anything you want.

Let’s not lie- we’ve all heard this before. But coming from Obama? It sounded magical. So sexy. I wish it was that simple- for all of us.

I am privileged. I benefit from education, a loving family, food and shelter, global exposure and working parents. Each of these privileges in themselves come with their own set of fringe privileges. I don’t want to discredit the fact that I work hard. I do. But the environment I have grown up in has had a tremendous influence on my ability to do so. I am painfully aware of the role privilege plays in enabling me to work hard and flourish.

To his credit, Obama acknowledged this, and said as much. To say that you simply need to work hard to be successful is an insult to the many people who face social inequalities and structural oppression. These injustices fueled by tribalism, sexism, economic inequalities, among other issues, trounce the ability to work hard for many Kenyans.

People with privilege often have a very myopic view of how society works. I found this comic that puts my point across perfectly.

Being successful is not purely your own doing. The ability to work hard, in itself, is a privilege influenced by external circumstances.

This narrative of ‘hard work’ is a political tool used to maintain status quo and uphold the power structures that continue to oppress the marginalised in our society. This power play applies in a global context as well. Kenya, and Africa at large, can work hard to progress economically, socially and politically, but the playing field is definitely not level. We are still often at the mercy of the West. We have colonialism to thank for that.

This isn’t about Obama or privileged people- it’s the ideology I have a problem with. There are people who when reminded of their privilege begin a pretentious, ‘it’s not my fault I was born in wealth’ tirade to deny the fact that they benefit from these inequalities. Awh, poor you. Do me a favour please- check your privilege.

 

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© Tessy Maritim

New (Corporate) Slaves

I wrote about this a while ago. But I read an article recently that has reignited my feeling towards this issue, so here we go again- why are we so obsessed with overworking?

Corporations want to make us all slaves to the glorious corporate world. We tow the line- hook, line and sinker. Make no mistake- I’ve fallen victim to it before, and still do sometimes.

The generation(s) before us have cultivated a way of life that pushes the boundaries of what is humanly possible. And they want to ensure that we continue this trend of overworking. Sleeping at desks, working weekends and copious amounts of coffee have become key attributes of work life.

But I want to know- to what end? What are we slaving away for? Explain practically to me what we’re trying to achieve here. Is going to work supposed to be excruciatingly painful? I think not.

We need to stop the obsession with depleting ourselves as a badge of honour. For many of us, we are not working hard unless we are being seen by others to work hard. I see this as more prevalent amongst young people in Africa. There seems to be no other metric for life except for how much we can overwork ourselves. It’s almost a competition.

Redefining hard work means learning to value work that is carried out comfortably, reasonably and efficiently. We should be striving for meaningful, enjoyable work that challenges us in a qualitative way. This idea that we should twist and bend ourselves to fit the corporate mould with the hopes that we too can one day acquire wealth and power is elusive.

Can we have a corporate revolution? Can the generation before us who are now at the helm of these sought-after corporations redefine what it means to work at these firms?

I think this revolution also starts with us in our early and mid 20s- what are we teaching our younger siblings just joining university? Are we engraining in them the idea that slaving away at the library all year is what will get them that first degree? Are we encouraging them to learn about the world, teaching them to cultivate healthy habits and normalising self-care? If not, we must.

Parents have to understand too. There’s a fear that children that are not obsessively working, can’t be successful. But what we need to show them is that this enslavement doesn’t make us independent. It makes us dependent- dependent on careers, money, cars and success to validate the lives we live.

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation; and that is an act of political warfare.” – Audre Lorde

Overworking will not be my badge of honour- nimekataa!

 

T

© Tessy Maritim

 

A God Bigger Than Christianity

I’ve been going to church for as long as I can remember. Religion has always been a key aspect of my life; but it wasn’t until six years ago that I found God. Before then, going to church had been more of a chore. I didn’t have much of an understanding or appreciation for the role of God in my life.

My relationship with God has evolved over the past few years. When I left Kenya for university, I wondered whether my faith in God would change. I had been so sheltered by my (lovely) overprotective parents that I wondered whether I would go wild once I joined campus. Would my faith stand the university test?

After 4 years living abroad in a secular, liberal country, I’ve managed to maintain a strong relationship with God, but have become quite critical of Christianity. I guess, as you grow older there’s a natural curiosity that creeps in.

Being Christian, or religious for that matter, doesn’t automatically connect you to God. We fail to recognize that. I found God in Christianity, but that’s not the case for everyone. Faith, to me, is a personal connection with God. In fact, I think we can experience God and spirituality in many ways, even outside religion.

Rabbit vs Duck God image

I feel often that there’s a numbers game at play in religion. And the idea that people need to ‘turn their ways’ makes me quite uncomfortable. Can Christianity accept that other ideologies may be just as valid? Or does spreading the gospel come with the implicit denouncing of other beliefs?

I reflect on the fact that there are not enough women in Christian leadership. Where there are women, they tend to take up a submissive role. It worries me that the patriarchy is so entrenched in Christianity. I often wonder whether this is how God intended it be or whether, as with many other things, it is a human construct.

As I’ve become critical of Christianity, it’s occurred to me that many, myself included, selectively apply the bible. Aspects of the bible that fit nicely with how we live, take precedence over others that may be more difficult to practice in today’s society. It just makes me wonder how much scope there is for religion to be tailored to an ever-changing society and if so, where does it start and end? Because surely, if society influences how the bible is interpreted, doesn’t it cease to be Christianity? Bible interpretation is political. Interpretation of scripture will always be at the behest of the reader and so naturally will always be skewed.

From my experience of God in my life, it seems to me He is bigger than Christianity. Much, much bigger.

 

T

© Tessy Maritim

 

No patriarchy, no feminism

Last week, I shared a video on my timeline that opened up a very interesting conversation about feminism from an African perspective. As expected, there were many who agreed and many who disagreed- the most amusing criticism being that the equality of women be advocated for ‘to a certain limit’. Sigh.

I’m writing this post to highlight a few other points I didn’t manage to address in my video.

I’ve heard many make a claim that feminism unfairly advantages women over men. If you think about feminism in a vacuum, you would probably think that. But feminism is a response to a societal problem- it exists to counter the patriarchy. As I said in my video, there’s no better place to see the patriarchy play out than in African society(s). Stripping women on the streets- men having the prerogative to decide what is deemed decent or indecent for a woman and then proceeding to punish her publicly if they feel she violates this- is a symptom of the patriarchy. The legal system- that means that men can be sentenced to cutting grass for raping a woman– is a symptom of patriarchy. Cultural norms- such as FGM (female genital mutilation) and forced early marriage- are a symptom of the patriarchy. For years, women have been set back by structural oppression. So it’s a vacuous criticism to say that feminism is ‘unfair’.

This illustration says it all.

FullSizeRender (3)

The image on the left conveys many people’s idea of equality- giving all the same ‘leg-up’. But that changes nothing. You can’t continue to empower those who are already structurally privileged. This is why feminism is important- it provides a platform for women’s achievements, rights and struggles to be affirmed. For as long as the patriarchy exists, there must be a movement fighting against it- and it must be led by women.

The word ‘feminist’ isn’t saying that women are better than men. It’s an explicit and powerful acknowledgement of their oppression in society- it’s a political statement.

I’m a strong believer that there’s a place for men in feminism. To me, this means standing up and speaking against manifestations of patriarchy which could include catcalling, groping, rape, victim blaming, and most importantly, letting women lead their own liberation.

It’s difficult to be a feminist. There’s a lot of resistance. But its important that you make a political stance when taking on a monster like patriarchy. We can’t afford to be nonchalant- women’s lives are at stake.

For anyone who hasn’t already watched this (I doubt there’ll be many of you), please check out Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TEDx talk on feminism. She speaks about feminism from an African perspective with some hilarious and very relatable anecdotes.

 

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© Tessy Maritim

(UPDATE- As I edited this post yesterday, I read the best news I’ve seen in a while- three men have been convicted and found guilty of gang-rape and causing grievious bodily harm to ‘Liz’ and as a result sentenced to 15 and 7 years in jail respectively. They had previously been ordered to cut grass as punishment. Read more about that here. Also check out the petition and protests that pressured courts to catch the perpetrators- feminism and activism at its’ best!)

 

Natural Hair Politics

My mom never let me perm my hair. I remember begging my mom for the longest time but she was resolute- none of her three daughters would have relaxer in their hair. She had (and still does have) deep admiration for natural hair and how it grew on our heads- striking and glorious. Whenever I took my braids out in high school, I dreaded the few days before I braided it again, just in case someone from school saw my hair in its virgin state.

It’s only while in university that I finally adopted my mom’s perspective on hair and left it out in natural curls- comfortably. These days, I love watching people’s reaction when they see me after I take out my braids,

“Oh wow, you look so different!”

“You must be so comfortable with yourself, eh?”

“Are you going to comb your hair?”

and my absolute favourite,

“You look so humble and decent with your hair like that”

It’s a challenge to respond to these comments; to make people understand, so these days I just stick to a polite smile. I never quite understood Chimamanda when she said that hair is political. I never quite understood that by wearing your hair a certain way, you were making a statement about yourself. Not just to others, but to yourself too.

My perception on my natural hair became apparent when I was on a flight to Mombasa and someone seated next to me asked me where I was from,

Eldoret”, I said, with suspicion as to why he was asking

He looked shocked. “Eldoret? I thought you were Somali or something

Again, recently, I was identified as Somali and another time as Rwandese. Every time it happened, I got excited. I was being seen as exotic. Yet I often feel uncomfortable when someone says to me “You look very Kenyan”. What does that even mean?

And then there’s the male angle. I was recently having some quality time with a few of my friends when one of my guy friends said that he loves women with natural, curly hair. A female friend responded,

Oh, so like Tessy’s?

He hesitated. He didn’t mean my type of kinky natural hair. For him, and many guys, he was referring to the soft, natural, exotic type. You know, the type that doesn’t come naturally for many African girls.

I realize that there are levels to natural hair and its correlation with identity. You want to have your hair natural, but only if it can be identified as exotic. You’re not doing it right if it looks too natural or ‘too Kenyan’. Not forgetting the pressure to wear perfect make-up and dress to the nines to compensate for the way you wear your hair.

It’s just hair, isn’t it?

 

T

© Tessy Maritim

When Are You Getting Married?

So, when will you get a boyfriend??

My sister, best friend, and cousin all ask the same innocent question. I’ve heard it so many times I ask myself, when will I get a boyfriend??

It really would be the best time for me to be in a relationship, I’ve been told. I’m working; finished with my undergraduate degree- it just seems like the next natural step, you know? That’s the idea. That’s the vision for my life that is not my reality.

It won’t be long before I start to hear, “So, when are you getting married??” Marriage is apparently the gold standard of life. And therefore, we are constantly in pursuit of this dream that for some, will not materialize. And that’s not necessarily through an individual’s fault, but because some things just are. We’re still forcing this narrative of marriage down people’s throats. Not because they would be happy in it. But because we’ve been sold the idea that marriage is a magical place of happiness, love and success. Marriage is not a happy place because it’s marriage. It’s happy because two people make the commitment and effort in their relationship.

I get the sense that this pressure weighs heavier for women and is almost non-existent for men. That’s nothing we don’t already know though.

I would love to get married. But should I not, I would hate to feel like the life I live is lesser than those who share this union. Surely, if I’m happy and content, I’m enjoying a gold standard of life? We all live a gold standard life when we realize our own potential.

If you’re missing my point, let me simplify- these things aren’t forced. Find what’s for you. And as I’ve heard someone say before, if you find that you’re in a place that isn’t the best fit for you, I hope and pray you get the courage to start over again.

 

© Tessy Maritim

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Undressing Women, Undressing Society

Last week Uhuru Kenyatta finally responded to the outrageous undressing of women. And for once, I agree with him. He grasped and articulated well what most people have seemingly missed in this fiasco.

To me, it seems as we undressed women, we were also subconsciously undressing ourselves. We revealed what makes up the fabric of society- rape culture is rampant, misogyny is manifested everywhere.

I think I get why Uhuru Kenyatta’s words in this video make us extremely uncomfortable. It’s because we don’t want to be called out. I’m obvs not misogynistic; I don’t undress women on the streets. Yet, without flinching, you grope a woman in the club when she walks past you. Without flinching, you add alcohol to her drink to make it harder for her to say no to your sexual advances. Not as bad as those whose misogyny is publicly seen, right? It’s the classic case of the glasshouse.

Uhuru unapologetically and rightly calls us out for turning a blind eye to what happens in our own backyards and then turning around to yell at others for what they do in public. If you truly think undressing women in public is barbaric- you must identify the issue for what it truly is- rape culture and misogyny.

Rape culture manifests in our society deeply and widely. It’s the idea that male sexual violence has penetrated our society to the extent that it is normal. When a man makes comments about a woman’s body on the streets; when rape is blamed on how short your skirt is; when a man sexually assaults his niece- it’s because of rape culture.

I’d like us to deal with this issue for what it truly is. It has little, if anything, to do with safety and security, and more to do with how we view women. And that’s not something Uhuru Kenyatta can fix. We could have police presence on every street in Kenya and there will still be men beating their partners at home.

If you think you truly care about and respect women because you’ve condemned their public undressing, look at your own life and those around you critically. Because if you would still have sex with a girl when she’s drunk without consent, you might as well strip her in public.

 

T

© Tessy Maritim

Who’s Streets?

Sometime last summer I was walking home from visiting a friend when a man yelled “Uko na nyonyo poa” (Swahili for “You’ve got nice boobs”) as I walked past him. I turned around and gave him the dirtiest look I could. I felt so disgusted, so embarrased, so violated.

This was definitely not the first time this happened. Neither was it the last- unfortunately. Many of my friends have experienced the same- sometimes worse.

So I was delighted to see this video on my timeline last week.

There have been various criticisms of this video, which I won’t go into right now. But being a woman who’s been harrassed many times on the streets, I resonated deeply with this video. The main question for most people was “Is this really street harassment?” Sit back, that is not the point.

Rape and sexual harassment is rampant in this day and age. Because of this, you find yourself constantly looking around to see if you’re being followed. Most women have been taught to always be on the look-out. You are often scared. Mostly anxious.

So I’d like you to imagine what it’s like when a man makes loud, obnoxious comments about how you look or how you are dressed as you walk on the streets- you panic and wonder what he could do next. You pick up your pace. You repeatedly look behind. As if you are not uncomfortable enough.

Let me state categorically that I do not speak for all women- some comments are genuinely kind and I agree. However, it’s not about determining what counts as kind or what counts as harassment. It’s about an appreciation of the context and society we live in. It’s about respecting women and being aware of the fact that your comments could potentially make her (more) uncomfortable.

It upsets me that men are conditioned to think that they own the streets. That it’s okay to shout obscenities at a woman as she walks. That a woman must respond to your advances. That it’s okay to slow down your car and follow a woman as she walks. As if you are not uncomfortable enough.

Grrr.

T

© Tessy Maritim