Carrying our own burdens

Do you remember when we used to laugh at the “nose brigades”? They had read or heard (more likely they only heard) Ngugi wa Thiongo’s satire on people who want to send their children to expensive schools where they will be taught “to speak through their nose like a real Englishman”.


Unfortunately, those people had no sense of humour, so they wouldn’t recognise a satire if it slapped them in the face with a wet fish. They thought it would be marvellous and gain them great respect if they started speaking through their noses like real Englishmen.

The current version of denying our own identity comes from a similar misunderstanding. Somebody seems to have told our people, especially the young, that in some African country (I forget whether it is Rwanda or Cameroon), the word for murungu means literally “One who barks like a dog”. So our self-despising youth and other misguided individuals don’t speak or greet politely any more; they bark like dogs.

To compound their self-inflicted injury they try not only to be varungu who bark like dogs, but to do it with a Jamaican accent. I thought being Zimbabwean gave us problems enough; why should we want to be Jamaican and add their problems to our own.

Yes, we had a bad colonial history, but taking on the burden of Jamaican and north American history as well as our own makes no sense to me.

At least we know that, however much they suffered, our ancestors were free people. Theirs were slaves. In my own family history there were some heroes and some sell-outs. I expect every family is similar if they are really honest. But neither the hero nor the sell-out was so completely a helpless victim as a slave is.

At a party thrown by some local Kenyans to celebrate Obama’s election in 2008, somebody reminded the company that it was well known in Kenya that a Luo would become President of the USA before one became President of Kenya. That had been proved right, which says something about politics in Kenya. But didn’t this suggest that when it came to being elected President of the United States of America, a Luo had a better chance than the grandson of a slave? The Luo, the Shona, the Tonga, the San – name any you like – all have that advantage; their ancestors were not slaves.

Our own ancestral victimhood is enough for us to carry. We don’t need to pretend to share the victimhood of the black American or the Jamaican. We can be of more use to other victims, including Jamaicans and black Americans, if we can just be supportive friends to them, friends who can cope with our own historical burdens.

Obama was able to do more for the grandsons of slaves because he admitted he was the son of a Luo father and a white American mother. That makes him enough like a black American, nearly all of whom have some white genes in them, often from a great-grandfather slave owner. Obama didn’t have to pretend to share in all of that history, whether in Alabama or in the Chicago ghetto. Whether he made the most of his chances is another question, but he’s not afraid to be himself.

Cassius Clay may have so completely lost his own original name that he had to call himself Muhammad Ali, another foreign name, but that was his way of asserting that he wanted to be the self who lost his roots somewhere back in a history he doesn’t know.

I would hate to lose that much of what I am. If you know that much about who you are, be grateful for that and use it to strengthen yourself in the struggles to assert your humanity in the difficulties of the life you have to live. We can’t carry other people’s burdens, but if we can carry our own, we help others to be people who can carry theirs.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis
  1. diasporanic

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