by Braz Menezes
History

Race Colour Hope Peace Love

170116-barack-obama

On January 10, I was in the transit lounge in Chicago waiting to board a flight to Toronto, just as President Barack Obama, also in Chicago, started his final farewell speech to the American nation – no not only to his voters – but also to the world. Like many, I too was moved, as I was that day in July 2004 as Obama delivered his keynote speech at the Democratic Convention in Boston.

“This night there is not a liberal America and a conservative America, but the United Sates of America. There is not a black America, a white America, a Latino and Asiatic America, but the United States of America.”

It seems for now the dream of change, for hope, for peace and love has suffered a setback. This remarkable man has inspired me. I reproduce below in its entirety, the prologue I wrote for More Matata –Love After the Mau Mau, my second book of the Matata Trilogy (2012).

‘As I write, the 2012 US Elections are underway, but it is the 2008 Presidential Election that is foremost in my mind.

“Please, Lando, I must see this with you,” Saboti in England had asked me to wake her up as the US election results start to come in at about 8:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. From my condo perched three hundred feet up in a concrete tower, I gaze down at Lake Ontario, and the thin dark shadow — like a Chinese brush stroke painting — against a mottled red-orange and mauve sky to the southwest. It is the distant New York State shoreline. What happens behind that black line tonight may forever transform the way people view skin colour.

Today is November 4, 2008. This is the night the world will change. Of this I have no doubt. He is intelligent and well educated — a calm, composed candidate with a beautiful family. For me he stands tall and confident – way above the competition. Surely everyone must realise that Barack Obama is a natural born leader. He is bound to be successful. For the millions around the world who have experienced racism at first hand, it will mark a symbolic end to that chapter in our history.

But just like lake flies in a Canadian summer, swarms of gloom and doom experts are buzzing around the media. Talking heads and their invited pundits have clogged the airwaves almost to gridlock. Radio and TV stations fill in the time between mindless commercial breaks with meaningless disjointed sound bites and admonitions on the risks of the unknown. There are predictions and innuendos of Obama being no more than a black common garden snake-oil salesman peddling Nirvana.

Obama — like my friend Saboti — is of mixed race: the result of a liaison between a white parent and a black Kenyan partner. But America is not yet a colour-blind society. The pundits say many whites will vote with their eyes and not with their brain. Each ethnic minority in this alleged melting pot will be looking out for its own narrow interests. They will, in doing so, split the vote. It can go either way.

More Matata

There is high tension and excitement on Planet Earth. Random polls in countries around the globe report that if their citizens could vote for an American President, Barack Obama would be their man. Eight years of the disastrous George W. Bush administration in the White House has left the world desperate, depressed and desolate. The economy of the USA and that of countries around the world is on the brink of the greatest financial crisis in a century, even as America fights two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without an exit plan.

The minutes pass slowly as darkness sets in. I anxiously pace from room to room, trying to control my excitement or else my blood pressure will shoot through my head like a burst water pipe in the street. I glance outside into a blackness pierced by dots of lights, as the inhabitants of nearby buildings return from work to crouch with take-away dinners around their TV sets. I feel like time has stopped. It is nearly 7:00 p.m. as I press the mute button on the TV and turn to a music channel. They are playing my favourite, ‘As Time Goes By’ from the hit movie Casablanca –‘The world will always welcome lovers, as time goes by’. How very appropriate, I think! But no… on second thoughts, not so in my experience!

It is just over an hour before the polls close. Already it is a new day in London, five hours ahead of Toronto and the part of the United States I can see from my window. I press the mute button again. The pundits are still waffling. Unable to control my restlessness, I stop by the fridge and drop a few ice cubes into my special 60-year old crystal glass, which I now use only on special occasions. I absent-mindedly place it on the table. I turn on the TVs in each bedroom — both tuned to different channels in case I have to second-guess the results projected by CNN. God help me if I have to explain to Saboti the electoral system in the USA that I know many American voters themselves don’t fully understand, even as they choose a candidate who promises to fulfil their dreams.

Back in the living room, I pour myself a healthy dose of Scotch. My thoughts drift to other people’s dreams and to the ‘what if’ scenarios if Obama wins tonight. Obama’s only living relative in the USA, his maternal grandmother, has passed away only 24 hours ago. What if Obama’s father, from Kenya’s second most populous Luo ethnic tribe, could have been alive today to see his son complete his most unlikely and arduous safari to the White House? The older Barack Obama Sr. was of my generation. We both grew up in Kenya’s colonial era, when everyone was classified by colour, race and tribe, and labelled, just like the rodents and reptiles at the nearby Coryndon Memorial Museum that I visited so often as a boy. We both lived through the Mau Mau liberation struggle. We both went to university abroad in the Sixties, and returned to do our best for a newly independent Kenya led by its first President, Jomo Kenyatta. We both were promised a share of Kenyatta’s dream for an economically strong, multi-racial Kenya.

Yet, within the hierarchy of established racial barriers and privileges in Kenya Colony, our lives were so different and were shaped by our fathers.
In contrast to Barack Obama Sr., I had a privileged childhood. My father Pedro Francisco (Chico) was born in 1902 in Goa, a Portuguese colony on India’s west coast. Orphaned at the age of 15, Chico decided to follow the route taken by his two older brothers — he would seek a new life in Mozambique, Portuguese East Africa, where it was rumoured there were plenty of jobs for young men willing to adventure into the unknown.

In 1928, a lean, handsome young man and his friends set sail on a steamer for Africa — with a deep azure ocean below and a cloudless blue sky above. But Chico and his three friends never made it to Portuguese East Africa; they jumped ship at Mombasa and settled instead in British-ruled Kenya. The small Goan community that had already established itself in Mombasa welcomed him. He found clerical work with the National Bank of India, and within a couple of months literally shot to the top — 5,450 feet above sea level, to be exact — he was transferred to NBI’s head office in Nairobi, over three hundred miles away.

Dad often spoke to us of that first train journey, lying awake, listening to the clanging of metal on metal; and the hissing of steam and the chatter of voices in the darkness as the steam locomotive would pull up at every station to take on more water for its thirsty boilers. He talked of the exhilaration the next morning as the ‘iron snake’ as it was called cut through the vast swathes of barren land and the vast panoramic expanse of the Athi Plains with its teeming herds of deer and antelope, giraffe and zebra; and finally of his first view of the blue grey hills that seemed to be intentionally placed in the path ahead; these hills that had forced the railway builders to stop and set up camp before tackling the arduous climb to the rim of the Rift Valley – the camp that later grew into Nairobi. From those early days, Nairobi had grown into a dusty, bustling town lined with a few stone buildings and many corrugated iron clad structures and wood plank shacks. This was the administrative capital of Kenya Colony.

Chico joined the ranks of hundreds of Goans who had been enticed by the British, or by relatives already in East Africa. There were administrators, tailors, clerks, cashiers, and cooks; bakers and barmen, lawyers, doctors and engineers, and they had organised themselves in community organisations and at least four clubs to fill their social needs.

One social need was harder to satisfy because of a shortage of suitable wives. Seven years after arriving in Nairobi, Chico did what almost all single Goan men did, with the help of a vibrant matchmaker network. He sailed to Goa to seek a bride. Much to the chagrin of some matrons, Chico, within a couple of days after his arrival in Goa, fell in love with the 17-year-old daughter of his host at a poker card playing evening in Margao. Angela Alice (Anja), fair skinned, with dark eyelashes and silken black hair was beautiful and intelligent. Within six months they were married and back in Africa and had started a family. I was the second born after Linda. Fatima and Joachim followed at three-year intervals, and Niven arrived after a gap of six years. Chico and Anja continued in love.

Thinking about love, my thoughts turn to Saboti and how we first met, when I was 10 and she was 7 and how we found each other again many years after– but more of that later.

I return to watching the election results. A breaking news headline flashes across the TV screen, as I grab the remote and raise the volume on the set: ‘Agreement has been reached on the next steps for Truth, Justice, and Reconciliation Commission in Kenya.’ I feel a pang of anger in my throat. Almost 55 years after Kenya’s brutal conflict pitting the mainly Kikuyu Mau Mau fighters against European farmers — a struggle that evolved into a national struggle for political independence from Britain, the country is again going through an upheaval – only now it is from within — two corrupt tribal factions fighting each other for political and economic dominance, while that beautiful country bleeds. Last December, accusations and counter accusations of fraud during the Presidential elections sparked a wave of violent clashes, along ethnic lines. Nearly 1,600 people were killed and over 300,000 were forced to flee their homes, sowing seeds of further civic unrest. Eventually a brokered peace was restored and a power sharing coalition government came into effect.

This is why the American elections have riveted Saboti and me to the news. Can a successful win for Obama help bring his message of Hope and Change to Kenya? Can America regain its leadership in the world, with an Obama win?

The channels interrupt with more breaking news. ‘Somali based pirates have hijacked another super-tanker in the Arabian Sea’. Who can stop the wave of piracy now sweeping the oceans? I remember stories of how our forefathers had traveled relatively safely in dhows and steamships across the same waters for centuries that today are infested with dangerous and poverty-stricken pirates off the coast of Somalia.

I glance at the time and phone Saboti to tell her the polls will close in 10 minutes.

“Lando, I was about to call you,” she says. “I’m too wound up to sleep tonight.” We agree to call each other every 15 minutes.

Photo source: SAPO 24

Photo source: SAPO 24

At three minutes past 8:00 p.m. CNN calls Pennsylvania for Obama, as our hopes rise. Saboti and I have spoken twice. Shortly after 9:00 p.m. CNN calls Ohio for Obama. It is a close race in the early results. As New Hampshire goes to Obama shortly thereafter, I smell victory in the air. I call Saboti in London and she is screaming with joy; it’s so contagious that I begin screaming in Toronto.

CNN switches scenes to a jubilant Kenya awaiting history being made by one of their own, albeit only ‘partly’ of their own. Change is coming to America, which may transform the world by example and leadership.

At precisely 11:00 p.m., (4:00 a.m. in London), CNN calls the results as final. Barack Obama is declared President-Elect of the United States of America. Thousands on the Chicago Lakefront explode with joy. O-BA-MA! O-BA-MA! They chant. The world stops and gasps in collective relief. Saboti and I are already choking with emotion. Words do not come out. My eyes fill with tears. Saboti says she is weeping too. We hang up.

I turn the sound off the TV; outside, every window in sight is illuminated with flickering screens tuned into the US election results. I think of Saboti as I caress the texture of the cut glass tumbler with its few surviving ice cubes. There was plenty of matata in our lives! So much has happened since I first met her in 1949.

As Time Goes By is humming in my head. No, the world does not always welcome lovers…not when you have to cut across racial barriers.

Those barriers played a large role in my life and that of Kenya while I was growing up. Let me explain…’

Excerpt from More Matata- Love After the Mau Mau

Author Braz Menezes now lives in Burlington, Ontario, Canada.