Onyango Oloo Remembers
I am among the multitudes of Africans around the world who are thrilled that Kenya's own Lupita Nyong'o
is among the 2014 Oscar nominees for her star turn in 12 Years a Slave. I am rooting for her to grab a statuette in the upcoming big night in Hollywood.
Long before she became the buzz of Tinsel Town however, Lupita Nyong'o was a successful model in Nairobi.
It is in the course of her modelling career, that our paths first crossed in a manner of speaking.
Let me hasten to add that NO, she did not help Onyango Oloo off the cat walk during a night dedicated to Afro-Centric haute couture.
It was much more mundane than that.
I was living in Montreal, Quebec at the time. Being the frenetic scribe that I am, I had just fired off this letter to the editor of the New York Times on April, 22, 2003:
Apr 25, 2003Dear Mr. Oloo,I enjoyed reading your email to The New York Times. It was very well-writ and very entertaining. My name is Lupita Nyong'o and I am a beauty queen here in Kenya, Miss Malaika. I agree with a lot of your sentiments. I personally know both Mark Lacey and Lindsey McIntyre. However, I feel your outrage is towards the wrong person; it sounds like you are lethargically upset at the fact that Ms. McIntyre even thought of going to the Kenyan 'bush'. Mark Lacey had no control over what Lindsey chose to do; his job is to cover interesting stories. And from your own reaction, you cannot deny that Lindsey's quest was indeed interesting!All the same, I hope you got the answers you were looking for.
PS: Mark Lacey is not Caucasian and Lindsey is co-owner of Surazuri.
I was intrigued at the quick and cerebral response. No prizes for guessing Onyango Oloo's next move:
Dear Lupita:First of all, I would like to thank you for taking the time to read the letter I wrote to the New York Times and communicate your feedback. You are a very good writer yourself and we hope to be reading more from you in the public domain.Secondly, I am glad you clarified a few things for me, for instance the fact that Marc Lacey is not Caucasian and that Lyndsey McIntyre is a co-owner of the Surazuri Modeling Agency in Nairobi. Actually, regarding this latter fact, I had already dug up the same information, albeit very unexpectedly. Abandoning myself to my natural curiosity and penchant for ferreting around the gold and silver mines of cyberspace, I placed Ms. McIntyre within quotation marks, eased her into the window of a popular search engine and clicked on the go button. The results were certainly startling to me, because I did not expect the person I encountered in the New York Times to have any connection with the Nairobi based modeling agency. But more on that latter.It is also nice to realize that you do happen to know both Mr. Lacey and Ms. McIntyre personally, and no doubt, there are nuances to their layered personalities that will not bounce off a computer monitor for someone who is reading that New York Times article online here in Quebec.Having said all that, let me be direct and tell you that I disagree with the gist of your defence of both Mr. Lacey and Ms. McIntyre. In doing this, let me stress that since I do not know the two individuals, I can only assess them based on how they come across in print.You say that my “outrage is towards the wrong person”. You further observe that “it sounds like you are lethargically upset at the fact that Ms. McIntyre even thought of going to the Kenyan “bush'”.No, no, my outrage, if one can call it that, is NOT directed toward the “wrong person”. Ultimately, it is not even PERSONAL. I wrote to the New York Times to complain about a racist depiction of African realities and used an actual article written by one of their scribes to make my point. It is quite possible that away from the printed page, Mr. Lacey is a warm, caring and compassionate human being. And it is also entirely plausible that Ms. McIntyre is a down to earth, hard working professional who is committed to kicking open more doors for young Kenyan women anxious to get into the fashion and modeling industry.But that is not the point.I was reacting to what Mr. Lacey wrote and analyzing Ms McIntyre based on the quotations and depictions attributed to her or made of her by the author of that article. Being a writer myself I know it is entirely within the realms of probability that a sub-editor in New York and an unscrupulous editor may have slanted the story or otherwise manipulated the content to end up with the racist result that I was commenting on.Even though this is theoretical possibility, I doubt very much if the New York Times would do this to a writer of Mr. Lacey’s stature.Again it could be that the person portrayed by Mr. Lacey has very little connection to the woman you know personally as Lyndsey in Nairobi. There are countless examples where after an interview the person who was the subject of the whole exercise can barely recognize themselves after the writer and the publication they write for are done with embellishing the original quotes.Well, if this is what happened, Lyndsey McIntyre has certainly not come forward to clarify the picture or cry foul. I wrote her an e-mail a day after I sent that letter, asking her to comment on my message to the New York Times and also on the different depictions of her that jump at you when one reads her PR material on the Surazuri website. As of this writing, Ms. McIntyre has not yet responded to my message in any way shape or fom.I would therefore assume, until I hear a compelling argument to the contrary, that the quotes attributed to Lyndsey were accurate and that the article by Lacey is largely his own creative effort with only minor editorial technical improvements here and there.The fact that Mr. Lacey is not Caucasian (as I had originally thought) does NOT invalidate or diminishing my central point that the article is racist, sexist and trite. If anything, it goes a long way to reinforce my original views.A person of colour can have internalized racism and express racist ideas and act in a racist fashion towards their own people. A certain prominent Kenyan, who was a very powerful minister in the seventies and eighties, was so openly racist towards Black Africans that many wananchi scornfully referred to him with one of those pretentious British aristocratic titles. In the United States we saw Clarence Thomas, a conservative African-American in the US Supreme Court rail against affirmative action, even though this was one of the key factors in assisting him to overcome systemic racist barriers and eventually ascend to the highest court in the USA. Chief Gatsha Buthelezi collaborated with the Apartheid regime in organizing massacres against his own South African people, including thousands of his fellow Zulus. So, the colour of one’s skin or the shape of one’s physical features or even the membership within a community that has been the target of racist oppression does not in itself prevent the same person from being MORE virulently dismissive of their own cultural and historical legacies than someone who comes from the dominant culture. Another case in point involves Dinesh D’souza, an infamous American neo-conservative pundit with roots in the country where the word pundit originally comes from-India. Dinesh D’souza is often so off the wall in his overtly racist comments that he even embarrasses some sober minded Republicans!I therefore stand by every coma, every semi-colon and every paragraph I wrote in that letter to the New York Times. Since you already have it, I think it is not necessary for me to waste your time in rehashing it, point by point.Let me however ease towards the conclusion with another observation.I love stories.I fell in love with story telling a long time ago, when we used to exchange tales just before bed time in western Kenya.Someone would kick off a story by saying something like,“Hamne?”And the listeners would respond:“Kwithe!”And then the story teller for that night, or that round would embark on their tale with the preface:“Chon gi lala…..”And it could be a story about Liech the elephant or Sibuor the Lion or Otenga the kite or Oyundi the little red bird or Haniafu the Chameleon or Otoyo the Hyena or Ngielno the python or Jajuok the night runner or Ajuoga the traditional healer.Or it could be one of the myths of origin about the brothers Gem and Ugenya and Agola and her other sisters and how they founded the various clans in Gem.Or it could be a legend like Lwanda Magere or Gor Mahia.Sometimes it was a horrifying cautionary folkloric yarn about the beautiful Anyango Nyar Loka who came from the other side of the Lake and how she lured horny and unsuspecting men to their untimely demise.Yes, I did fall in love with stories at a very early age. I remember my late father, who had a wicked sense of humour, taking considerable liberties with stories that his own mother (a Luhyia woman from Manyuria) told him. There was this Luhyia one about this old Musumba (calling him an old bachelor who never married does not quite capture the essence of the Luo word) who used to live alone and sleep in his Duol together with his Jamni (livestock) like his cows, goats, sheep etc. And how the old man loved eating what the Luos (at least of North Gem where I come from) call Aboka and what the Luhyias (of the neighbouring Kisa Location) called Lipokha (could be a wrong spelling) - basically unsalted, boiled vegetables. So the old man used to be a bit greedy you see, at least that is what my dad said. And he had this habit of boiling the Aboka (Lipokha) and stuffing it down his throat hungrily without offering even a leaf to his goats, sheep, cows and oxen. This went on for awhile, while the livestock salivated, missing out on the late night snacks of this selfish Jaduong’. So. One day, one of the sheep in that Duol decided to be strategic. It (was not clear whether my dad was talking about an ewe or a ram) waited until the old man was chomping a mouthful of the unsalted boiled vegetables. From what my dad said it was obvious that this sheep was not bilingual because it uttered the following plea in Luhyia (and may the native speakers of this dialect from Kisa forgive me, because unlike my dad and my grandma, I do not speak the language):“Mmmmeeeeee!!! Mbekhwe Olipokha! Mmmmeeeeee!!! Mbekhwe Olipokha! Mmmmeeeeee!!! Mbekhwe Olipokha!!!!!”Rough translation:“Give me some of that too!”Now, depending on whether we kids were too drowsy or completely wide awake, my dad would have one of two endings to the story.Either the old man would drop dead from shock and awe having been spoken to by a domesticated animal or an animated conversation involving all the other animals in the duol would ensue with the old man pledging to use a bigger pot so that they could be more to go around next time…..Now, just a sec, where was I going with that thread….yes…. I remember, to make the point that I like stories, even when they develop a mind of their own and take off on a tangent.And I also wanted to tell a story to reinforce some of my views about the New York Times article…More seriously, I wanted to tell you a story- only this one is an actual recollection of a real incident that happened in a crowded westbound streetcar along Parliament and Carlton in Toronto about eight or nine years ago.There I was, minding my own business, my face buried in a magazine, as it so often is. But I could not help overhearing the loud chatter in Chinese happening one double seat behind me. After another minute, there is this angry shout followed by a stream of not very complimentary sounding rapid fire delivery in Chinese from a third person sitting behind these two Chinese friends. I looked around and was shocked to see that the third person who was speaking as a native Chinese speaker WAS NOT himself Chinese, more “Indian” looking, definitely of South Asian heritage.Noticing the perplexed looks from many of the streetcar’s passengers like myself, Chinese Speaker Number Three identified himself as a Malaysian of South Asian heritage and informed us that he got very angry when he eavesdropped on the two Chinese men making racist and unflattering ethnic jokes against the person they assumed was a non-Chinese speaking “Indian”. The Malaysian gave us a quick tour of the multi-cultural history of Malaysia saying loudly in English to the Chinese men, now cowering with embarrassment to be careful next time before they started speaking behind other people’s backs.In a weird kind of way, I think the incident I just described is very close to the saga around the New York Times article.Essentially Lacey (whatever his cultural and racial background) and Lyndsey were talking behind our backs as Kenyans in a space ( the confines of the snobby New York Times) where they did not expect to be accosted by outraged ordinary wananchi like Onyango Oloo who understand the coded and overt language of genteel racism. They certainly did not expect a Kenyan in Montreal(who seems to know how to construct at least one English sentence) to notice the piece and not only react to it, but go further and loudly inform thousands of other Kenyans via the internet. As the Luos would say: “Wigi okuot nikech wamako gi ka gikuodho wa” (they are embarrassed because we caught them red handed backbiting us).Living in Canada, I have come, over the years to notice the main difference between how racism manifests itself in this country as opposed to down south in the United Snakes. The Anglo-Canadians are closer to their English forbears. They are not in your face like the brash Americans or the frank Quebecois who will tell you openly what they think of you, not caring whether you take offence at their racist insults.The Anglo-Canadians like using very coded language when they are trying to express their racist thoughts. It is all euphemism, innuendo and insinuation cloaked with politeness, pseudo-intellectualism and fake liberalism. The same Anglo-Canadian co-worker who comes to pick your brains clean when they are stuck in the middle of a project will secretly denounce you when they know you are due for a promotion. These same Anglo-Canadians will quote Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Andrew Young while secretly voting for the far right Canadian Alliance party and its anti-immigration agenda come election time. Some of these Anglo-Canadian are even married to people of colour of African, Asian and Latino heritage- all the while filling auditoriums to enthusiastically applaud controversial academics like Philip Rushton when they peddle their pseudoscientific theories about the inferiority of Blacks to Whites.The closest thing to the Anglo-Canadian racist in the United States is a liberal sounding “educated” racist who either reads or writes for the New York Times. Using the veneer of liberalism, I have seen many examples of hate speech and hate literature, particularly directed at Arabs, Muslims and African-Americans appear in the pages of the New York Times over the years. Remember New York, a city of millions (is it ten, I am not sure) has the same class, racial and cultural cleavages that exist throughout America. The New York Times is the mouthpiece of that part of the bourgeoisie(not just in N.Y, N,Y.) who consider themselves sophisticated, educated, world wise even when its ideas of people from the South is permeated through and through with blinkered and twisted racist and reductionist anthropological caricatures of Third World people.The New York Times is “sophisticated” enough to assign a story like the one I complained about to a writer who is not Caucasian so that later, when Oloo pens his letter, the Executive Editor of the New York Times can whip around and say, shrugging their shoulders: “We think YOU PEOPLE have a CHIP on YOUR SHOULDERS because you always PLAY THE RACE CARD, you see RACISM everywhere. RELAX it is just a VERY INTERESTING EXOTIC PIECE!!”But I am not taking the bait on this one.There is something that people do when they think no one is looking.Have you ever witnessed an adult, thinking they are on a deserted street, stop and proceed to FART LOUDLY, thinking there is no one behind them, or no one in front of them-before they hear the derisive guffaws from the cackling kids watching in shocked amusement from an open window by the side of the street, almost about to wet themselves with mirth?Rich people sometimes talk in very insulting terms about their own servants when they think that the menials have left the room.Men, including supposedly VERY PROGRESSIVE SOUNDING men, will revert back to sharing the most BLATANT SEXIST jokes and MISOGYNIST put downs they think that there is no woman to be seen for miles-until one of their own breaks ranks and refuses to laugh at these so called jokes.And yes, RACISTS, especially closeted ones (including those who, like Clarence Thomas, have internalized racism), RACISTS will openly say RACIST things about Africans if they think they can get away with it.I am not accusing anyone of anything except to say that if I was a White racist who had grown up and lived in Kenya most of my life, of course I would mask my prejudices when I interacted with the very Black Kenyans that I despise. But my guard may slip a little if I sense an affinity with the jaundiced North American journalist sharing herbal tea with me at the New Stanley.Lupita, nimepita kiwango.Wacha Nikomee hapa.Onyango OlooMontreal