Sunday, 12 February 2012

Reading Chimamanda

I almost do it everyday when I pass by the small second-hand bookstore in Sunningdale. I  give a glance to those two baskets laying by the mobile wooden shelves outside. Two baskets, one green and one yellow.  When you come in the mall, where the bookstore is just the second on your left,  you can  start having a view of the shop windows but until you get close to its door, you won’t see the two precious baskets… There are just two of them but to me they always look like two treasure boxes, the ones you can often encounter in fairy tales. When I first see the yellow one I bend and start looking inside, slowly my eyes goes through the title on the back of the books….till finally I find the book. That particular book which I wanted to have in my library or the book I never knew was ever written but sure now  it will open me towards enchanting worlds and will make me do an important encounter.  Then I do a step ahead and I see if also the green basket has a small treasure for me. Sometimes I’m lucky even the green basket has a book for me!

In one of those ordinary days where my eyes gazed at those tiny baskets, I found for just 5 Rand (almost 0.50 cents of a euro) a short story collection by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I had already read a Half of a yellow sun and loved it.  I admit I don’t read often short stories, there are few writers whose short stories I like. But when it comes to choose I rather would choose a novel to read than a collection of short fiction. Also about my writing I always asked myself why haven’t I produced yet a short story collection, having explored different kind of writing, from novel to drama, from poetry to youth. I have told myself that short stories can’t fit my style, can’t give me enough “space”… but maybe it’s just an excuse, their “time” is too tight. Maybe short stories are there inside me but is not the right time for them to come and breath on their own, because we writers know that stories need strong characters to be able to part and live on their own… a weak character will soon call from far away asking help, saying he/she has failed and you will start feeling like a distorted  mother who wasn’t able to grow her ….. self sufficient in a world full of challenges and traps too.

Anyway, back to Chimamanda, I found The thing around your neck, which I didn’t’ even know it was ever published, and started reading it after a couple of days I bought it. Sometimes I intentionally wait . I put the new book on a shelf of the library, while maybe I still have one or two more to finish on my bedside table. I wait until the time my curiosity will be too much pressing me that I ‘d go to take it from the shelf and start listening to its voices.

I read the stories one by one, following the order in which they are in the book, and I just simply added it in the list of short stories I like . As I expected deep inside me, I made many encounters in the book,  some new some old ones.  I encountered many people I’ve stumbled upon in my life... that is one of the magic literature creates in its hidden corners . Friends, colleagues, students, fiancés from African countries who had just come back from the past (far and recent) through Chimamanda’s pages, reminding me how the world meets in small places sharing similar experiences in different latitudes.

Set between Nigeria and Usa, the stories underline a world full of stereotypes. On one side, the provincialism that American people show when it comes to relate to African people, thinking they all come from the same country, speaking the same language and eating the same food, thinking that Africa is only “one country”. That same provincialism that requires from migrants, especially those from the African continent, an unfair adaptation to the new life… more than an adaptation is like a forced conversion… changing name, changing, language, changing fashion, changing food, changing family history… a change that worth only one thing, the most important to migrants: being accepted.  So the question rises, is to be accepted has a so high price? Is that the only way? And if someone is not ready to pay that rice what will happen then? It’s a risk that Chimamanda leaves to her characters (especially women), they know that price is unequal and they start considering the time and way to change and break the deal which compromise their identity. After reading it, I once more reflected on how it becomes useless talking about integration, multiculturalism, interculture, cross cultural exchange, when host societies still have a problem with their own history and cultural identity. If the is a distortion rooted in their culture we can’t expect to speak about being across borders. I think once the distortion in mended we can start afresh thinking at how is being, living, writing, speaking, reading, across borders. In my life in Europe I met many migrants full of that anxiety of being “accepted”; ready to change their tribal names in Christian names, ready to hang their caftans and suits made with hand-made fabrics, to wear cheap clothes “made in China” that makes everyone resemble to one another; ready to convert to fast food instead of their delicious yassa, byriani, pilau, zighinì, matoke because the smell reaches the houses at the end of the road; ready to hide some particulars of their family history such has your father works in the bank in Dar es-Salaam while is a farmer in Lunga Lunga, saying your father has only one wife while you are the first born of his third, saying your brother is studying in secondary school while he has stopped going to school and started working as a mechanic on the outskirts of Nairobi. And without forgetting that most people consider Africa a “one country”, I start numbering all the times I had to explain that Africa is a continent, that in Africa there are thousands of different languages and that when someone start asking if I know the African language as my daughter’s father is African, I have to precise that I don’t know African language, I just know Kiswahili because Kiswahili is the language my daughters’ father speaks and he is not just African, he is Kenyan.. where people speak Kiswahili. It’s hard to say, but if the first time it get’s funny and a smile stretches your lips, after a while you get tired of explaining trying to let people percept things the way they are, with their own precise identity.

On the other side I encountered characters who live in Nigeria and here too, stereotypes proliferate  especially when it comes on gender issue where women are supposed to be the symbol of a passive acceptance on men’s rule, but Chimamanda narrates about how they react, how they just leave… turn the page, no matter what,  tired to be submitted to a old fashion corrupted and contaminated society. Also in my life in Africa (in some countries), I saw people reacting to what the common habit says, I witnessed people rising their voice and opening a breach in a corrupted system and leaving the main road for a secondary one.

I would recommend this book to all those who think Africa is a “one country” (One Monday of last week, Jumping Monkey Hill, The thing around my neck), to all those who think that we  have to be accepted so we have to forget who we are (is never like that… it’s an illusion and not the truth – The arrangers of Marriage) to all those who think that we have to stand without complains by the side of rule even if the rule is wrong (The American Embassy, Cell one), to those who believe that prejudices on Africa and Africans are over (you can’t imagine how many people believe so!).

Monday, 6 February 2012

Knowledge is Power. A chat with artist Sitawa Wafula.

Sitawa Wafula
Sitawa has many stories to tell, she has a strong voice and at the same time she is soft and delicate when it’s time to talk about important and difficult issues. She has learnt how powerful words are and how they should be used to convey more than an idea, words has to blow, like a wind sometimes strong sometimes smooth just like a breeze, feelings and moods, emotions and dreams. Just few words can heal pain and mend the interior atlas made of paths and rocky slopes. 
Sitawa is a Kenyan poet based in Nairobi and activist for human rights, she is Ambassador of Menthal Health Awareness in Kenya. Poetry has been since almost 10 years  a keyword of her life, and it is a so important part of her life that she also teaches poetry in workshops that herself organizes for who believe in the power of words.
No speculation should be made on her personal life as the first imperative of her whole mission as a poet, blogger and teacher and first of all as a woman, is awareness and  commitment. Through her own experience she is a role model for many who don’t believe in what can be after a huge dramatic experience. Sometimes it doesn’t matter to define which experience we are talking about, sometimes the same experience looks different from person to person, and leaves a different injury,  the important thing is that there is always a chance which can define back our identity after a loss. A loss of respect, a loss of serenity and happiness, a loss of innocence, a loss of whatever makes us feel we are not anymore entire and complete to ourselves. Here a chat with Sitawa who invites her readers to take always in mind that “knowledge is power” and that the same words which everyday build up stereotypes and prejudices can be used to break them and invent a new imaginary,a new language where sharing experiences can be a resource  to confront one another and grow dialoguing together.
Meeting Sitawa let me think about  all the youth I met in my life, throughout  Africa and Europe, youth that sometimes feel lost and without a future, a youth that needs to be inspired and let its voice raise. Sitawa Wafula can be one of those extraordinary people able to inspire them.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - Sitawa would you like to choose a metaphor you like to define what is poetry for you and what it means in your life?
SITAWA WAFULA - Poetry is a reincarnation- through it I was able to live life again after my rape ordeal plus when dealing with my mental illness.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - What is your poetry about?
SITAWA WAFULA - It is a mix of my life experiences and social ills which I do not just highlight but also talk about.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - Who are your literary models?
SITAWA WAFULA It is a cocktail of them based on different pieces and articles; Ngugi wa Thiong’o ‘s A Grain of Wheat and Chinua Achib’s A man of the people really provoked my thought on leadership and governance not just on a national scale but down to the basic/primary level and have played a role in shaping things I  stand/advocate for and have influenced some of my pieces, Maya Angelou, two pieces I love, Still I rise and definitely Phenomenal Woman, some Chimamanda and Benjamin Zechariah who really blew me away when he refused a prize from the queen. Last but not least, The Bible… I have written a few pieces after my QT, my popular piece, A little more, was heavy in my heart after a time spent in devotion.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - How is to be a thinker, an artist, a blogger in modern Kenya?
SITAWA WAFULA - Wow, a thinker, an artist, a blogger…well I guess it boils down to the foundation one has and the influences in someone’s life. Not everyone blogs or writes or thinks about rape, sexual and reproductive rights, mental health rights and all the other stuff I am all about but that does not make them less thinkers, less artists or less blogger. It is all about what are you on about, how long are you holding on to it. If your foundation is to be seen and heard, as the Bible says, you will be seen and heard but if you keep at it, you will receive the prize you truly deserve, for me it is emancipation…when people write in and say an article influenced them positively or my rape piece helped them open up to their husbands or my suicide piece made them confront some demons, I am home.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - I see you are also prolific in organizing poetry workshops, let’s talk about them first on a technical level.. Do you organize them by yourself? How do you find venues, publicizing-sponsoring them etc….? And how long a workshop last and what do you teach?
SITAWA WAFULA - Well I organize all my workshops alone but sometime invite guest poets to share just to add more spice to the sessions after I have worked on the curriculum for the sessions. I then get the venues and use my own money for other projects to pay for any expenses I may incur, publicity is normally through social media and sometimes I hold sessions by request of groups so there may be no need to publicise the event. Based on what the curriculum is, I do three sessions which translates to three Saturdays. We do basic poetry writing, presentation, analysis other poems and class corrections. I am proud to say some of the names in the scene now attended my workshops, seeing invites from them really makes me proud…keep up the good work beautiful souls.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - I saw from your blog that some of these workshops are free of charge, where do people who attend them usually come from? I mean people living in the Eastlands or you have participants also from the Westlands?
SITAWA WAFULA - It is a whole range of people, as a teacher social class should not be in your vocabulary, once I started sharing my life stories I learnt that people need an avenue and these people where from both sides on town, so when I do my illustrations, I use illustrations from both sides of the world just to make everyone feel at home and also to teach each of the groups of the other’s world.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA  - We know how books are expensive in most African countries compared to the standard of living, and often libraries are not very well distributed especially in the slums. I see you are also involved in providing books for disadvantaged people. How is it important to promote reading and how is it possible to promote reading in those areas where books are not available?
SITAWA WAFULA  - Again I will refer to my own experience and I have a poem titled I know things to this effect, we perish because we know not, ignorance most of the time is not bliss. We have solutions for our problems, Africa is a mine but we need to sit and acquire knowledge, digest that knowledge and translate it to your situation. There is a debate about the quality of education in Kenya and what system to use, but as that is happening, children need novels and stories from Kenya and across the world to allow them to dream, to allow them to know there is more to life. Recently there have been suicide cases of kids because they have been made to believe exams are the end so if they do not pass, they have failed in life. Every house has books they are ‘done’ with, books they would like do away with, those are the books my project books and blogs took to Baba Dogo and the children really appreciated them.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - There is one of your poem called Sunday 15th, where you remind your personal experience as a rape’s survivor. Does poetry can be also a therapy, a way to heal from painful experiences and also a way of exploring one’s identity?
SITAWA WAFULA  -Poetry did more than therapy for me, it introduced me to Sitawa as I am today of course coupled by God’s love for me.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA – Sitawa you’ve been taking part of the events organized in Kenya the last 17th December, which is the International Day against sex work abuses. What does it mean to mark such a day on our calendar? What should we do to raise awareness about sex abuses 365 days a year?
SITAWA WAFULA  - I support Human rights actions especially when it is about Sex/ reproductive rights and Mental rights which are also issues sex workers face, they are physically abused and psychologically abused which affects their mental well being. If we stand aside and point fingers at the ‘immorality’ we let them suffer in silence. Standing with them when they celebrate their day is my way of being an advocate in my area because once advocacy starts being picky, it stops being advocacy.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA -Unfortunately women rape is one of the most diffused crime in all over the world. In some of your scripts you mention the feeling of dirt and the fear to be recognized (from outside) as a victim of rape. What should a victim of rape do at first to start getting rid of that feeling?
SITAWA WAFULA  -Self acceptance and love. You cannot receive or give that which you do not possess. If I do not understand love, I will not be able to love myself, I will not be able to offer it to anyone. Knowledge comes in handy here and that is why I tell my story whenever I can, you need to know about the 72 hours period, about getting checked, you need to know there are people who have been there before and lived beyond it. This calls for a collective effort from those of us who have been there playing our role and educating our sisters and brothers at home.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - You’re also an active blogger, Sitawa, Booksnblogs, Runway254. Would you like to say more about your blogs and why do you write them?
SITAWA WAFULA - Well Sitawa is my personal blog where I write about Sitawa, her rape ordeal, her mental issues, her role as mental health ambassador, her events, her ‘gospel’ it is one roll of Sitawa-ness.
Booksnblogs is about the reading club which has gone under for a while but will soon be back in the lime light
Runway254 is a platform I began for upcoming designers to showcase their work, meet clients and network, basically create an avenue for them. It started as a simple event on a rooftop and well we have done collaborations with other events, among other things.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA- Sitawa blog is also a panel where you discuss about a wide range of themes such has sexual violence, suicide, mental health… do you believe talking about difficult realities, the raises awareness and more capacity to prevent them?
SITAWA WAFULA  -I believe Knowledge is power, I know people find solace and strength from hearing other people’s stories, from knowing they are not alone, that they will see the Sun if they just believed and didn’t give up. It gives them a channel through which to voice what they or their loved ones go through in silence. It makes some fight hard and sometimes that is all they need, a stepping stone and the blog purposes to be that for them, catapult for God did not put us in this world to fail or to cry every night to bed.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - A book, or writer /poet, or a poem that had been very important to you in your healing process that you would suggest to any other person who had the same experience
SITAWA WAFULA And still I rise by Maya Angelou and Labri Siffre’s Something inside so strong(My dad always sang the Kenny Rogers version a lot that the words stuck)

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA - Among your several activities such as organizing cultural events, being a poet you are also an Ambassador of Mental Health Awareness in Kenya. When and how did you started being part of this important project and also can you tell us how is the state of people in Kenya effected by mental illness, are their rights protected and how do they live? Are there prejudices in Kenyan society for who is mentally ill?
SITAWA WAFULA  -I hosted a poetry night dubbed Poetry at Discovery and it was a channel through which I talked openly about my own issues from rape to my mental wellbeing. At one time a representative from an NGO that deals with Mental health and fighting for rights of persons with mental illnesses was in the audience and loved how open I was about something people would rather die that profess. They had also gone through my blog and read how I recounted my good and bad days and they called me for a meeting and here I am two years down the line. We are currently at the Draft Stage of the Mental Health Care Bill Kenya 2012 which highlights how persons with mental illnesses should be treated, how their families should handle them and their property if any, the responsibilities of the government in their well-being, if they have to be secluded what the conditions should be, they are people and they need to be treated as such. There is a lot of stigma hence a lot of awareness needs to be done. We have a group, one mind lend your voice with which we go round creating awareness but more needs to be done by all stake holders. Mental illnesses are illnesses like any other.

VALENTINA ACAVA MMAKA – Man prejudices are there related to mental illness, can you define in poetic words who a mental ill person is?
SITAWA WAFULA - First of all they are persons with mental illnesses not mentally ill person. The person comes first. By definition, they are persons needing love, needing care, needing support, do not call them by the label, call them by their names.