The artist is the director of a company that focuses on skills development. She comes from a family that played an integral role in the history of Kenya, especially during the Emergency Period. This is her story:
"We lived with my grandfather in his palatial home in Parklands. This house also has memories of Margaret Kenyatta the late Kenyatta's sister and other siblings who often sought asylum in S.G. Amin's home – my grandfather's home."
Though I was born in Kampala, Uganda my mother wanted to have me in the presence of her cousin whose family owned a company Uganda Hunting and Fishing. Returning back to Nairobi with my father, mother and uncle who drove the whole five hundred miles plus. My birth and early childhood was just before Kenya's independence. We lived with my grandfather in his palatial home in Parklands, previously known as Pratap Road and now called Bhanderi Road. We were located behind MP Shah Hospital and there was only a forest surrounding the area. This old stone home was built on stilts and one could enter a hide out from the floor boards in the house. The area down below was my favorite place to play had 'hide and seek'.
This house also has memories of Margaret Kenyatta the late Kenyatta's sister and other siblings who often sought asylum in S.G. Amin's home – my grandfather's home. If the British authorities raided homes suspected of hiding political people, then we would hide them below the house. S.G. Amin was the only lawyer in pre-independent Kenya and was the president of the Indian Congress in the early 60's. He represented the rights of Kenyans and Indians regarding discrimination, land ownership, unreasonable taxes levied by the British and secured scholarships for Kenyans to study at Indian universities. Some of his close friends were Achroo Kapila, Makhan Singh, Pio Da Gama Pinto, and many others who fiercely fought the British colonizers. It is in this environment I grew up, attending political rallies with my grandfather, with a family album of pictures of the young Mzee Kenyatta, Senior Odinga, Daniel Arap Moi at a political speech in honor of the young Mrs. Gandhi. My grandmother a strong woman who only wore the Indian white cotton sarees as a sign of solidarity for Indian fabric, fearlessly walked the grounds of the home firing bullets from a shotgun to frighten away intruders, leopards and animals. I am proud to have the history of Kenya in my early childhood, listening to Mzee Kenyatta's charismatic voice and speeches on the local radio.
The coming of Moi into power represented the attempted coup and an incidence where my brother was pushed into a military truck to be taken to some unknown destination. This is when my mother fought like a lioness refusing to allow them to take my brother. However the experience of having to part with Ksh.3000 shillings, which was all our income of the month as "kitu kidogo" to the GSU, was painful. She pleaded and reasoned with the officers that we were praying for peace in Kenya and had no intention of committing any anti-Kenyan activities and after a long struggle they released my brother.
I am proud that my father was a high school teacher. This meant we did not grow up with the kind of affluence that many of the other Indian families had. We struggled to make ends meet, I watched my mother as a kid stitching curtains, teaching French to adults and later running her own nursery school in Nairobi West, as well as taking food and catering orders.
My father's home in Nairobi West, Tysons Maisonettes on Swara Crescent, held another equally important set of beautiful memories from 1972 onwards. We were privileged to live with the different Kenyan African neighbors, Indians, Ismailis, and many young Kenyans who had brought home wives from Yugoslavia, Russia, Czechoslovakia and Somalia. Without realizing this, I grew up accepting Kenyan Africans and Indians as one people. Some of my life changing and fondest memories come from living in Nairobi West.
Having grown with struggles to make our livelihood through sheer hard work, I always felt different, as the wealth of my family did not compare with other typical Indian families. Many Indians were business owners, doctors, engineers or accountants while we were teachers. Still I am privileged for not having a financial inheritance. Instead I gained a rich experience of the variety of people we interacted with in Kenya – the black, brown, white or yellow – whichever label we may call it.
"I am Kenyan. For a long time I have said I am a Kenyan Indian and this was a huge growth curve for me. I do not want to be called a Kenyan Indian or for it to be said that I am not an "indigenous" Kenyan."
Some of the differences I experienced growing up were that many of my classmates had access to international education as they had the financial means. Secondly, the different backgrounds of my parents – my father being a Punjabi and my mother being a Patel was a big taboo back then. These communities were good at keeping you outside their social and developmental activities, which we strongly experienced from the early 60s to late 70s. Fortunately, by the time we got into our 20s things started to change and mixed marriages became more acceptable within the larger Indian community.
I am proud of "who I am" today and the decisions I have taken to make changes both in my personal and professional life. I have learnt much from my growing children and their views and opinions and how their definition of being Kenyan is different from mine. The only regret I have in raising them is that they do not read or write our Indian languages that is a loss for them. Like any language they would lose the richness of the Indian literature, poetry, music because much is lost in translation.
As Kenyans we are too accepting of many wrong doings, which we laugh at, we don't question actions of leaders, or discrimination exercised in work places, rampant corruption and insecurity. We are so complacent and continuously say, "If God wills then this is how it is..." No one says, "If God wills then do the right thing." We are driven by the need for money, we find it easy to create justifications to corrupt and allow wrong actions to be taken. As Kenyans we are hypocrites who then say "We are god fearing people."
I am Kenyan. For a long time I have said I am a Kenyan Indian and this was a huge growth curve for me. I do not want to be called a Kenyan Indian or for it to be said that I am not an "indigenous" Kenyan.
About My BodyMap – "Rise Oh Phoenix"
"I beckon all of us to fight for the right things, build on strong virtues and to take right actions as a growing country – Kenya."
My feelings are reflected in the choice of colors and how I was responding from my heart and not my head. I chose dark colors for my early childhood and a memory of a figure in white reminding me of a godlike memory. My grandfather's spectacles reminded me of many memories which shaped my growth as a person and as an artist. The change of colors from dark murky colors to green depict the various periods of challenges and growth both for Kenya as well as in my life. The red flowers represent anger at being helpless or at the mercy of circumstances. Luminous blues, whites yellow and purple reflect my inner journey and search for meaning of life, leading to a spiritual growth which is white similar to the meaning of my name. The face is white because it does not matter what color we are we must strive to become enlightened and thus the gold color for the hair and eyes.
I beckon all of us to fight for the right things, build on strong virtues and to take right actions as a growing country – Kenya.
In the last issue of Awaaz, we introduced the "Who I Am, Who We Are" project and our work on looking for a common Kenyan identity. The project run by Xavier Verhoest and Wambui Kamiru, both artists affiliated with the Kuona Trust, seeks to create spaces for expression on responsible citizenship through art. One of the ways we explore identity is through the creation of bodymaps. These are life-size paintings created by the participants and they are reflections of their thoughts of themselves as individuals in society and as members of a society.
Please visit the project online: www.WhoWeAreKE.wordpress.com