She Never Imitates, Never Does The Same Thing Twice....

Volume 17, Issue 1  | 
Published 07/07/2020
  |

By Ali Zaidi

My wife is black, beautiful and strong. I was born and grew up in India, and am none of the above. My wife is a Sculptor. Her name is Irene Wanjiru she makes big, bold, fierce carvings in wood. When she attacks a virgin log with an adze, you had better stand back as the chips fly. She rocks back on her heels, adze flung back as far as her arms will stretch, then slams it down into the wood in a swooping arc that takes your breath away. Poetry in motion, violent and alive!

My wife cannot sit still. She loves to work - the harder and more demanding the work the better. Having brought up three children under the usual circumstances - never enough money for their needs, essential purchases always being put off till the end of the month, husband always in the bar - she became restless and did a modest catering business for a few months.

But she soon found that while you can take a pound of love and cook it in the stew if you are doing it for family and friends, it just isn’t fun cooking for total strangers. Then she discovered sculpture more or less by accident, enrolling in a workshop in the Kuona studio in Nairobi’s National museum.

Almost immediately, she made a name for herself for the speed of her technical development and the originality of her work. She never imitates, never does the same thing twice, yet her work seems to tap a deep historical well, a sort of collective African unconsciousness. A collector said that a carving of a pregnant woman reminded him irresistibly of the Yoruba carvings of three centuries ago, so then we had to rush out and buy a book of African carvings, because she hadn’t actually seen any Yoruba carving.

But she has yet to acquire any airs or graces. Nor does she have the faintest idea of how to talk arty or suck up to important, rich people. She grew up on the shamba and, By God, she means to keep her feet planted firmly on the ground.

She has an uncanny ability to detect bullshit and pretentiousness, to see through the kind of people who mask calculating self-interest under a veneer of condescending charm. Hard work, unfailing hospitality and respect for others, no matter their station in life, are the values she has been taught to live by.

Through my wife, I can ‘access’ the mystery of Africa. The continent that today is drowning in war and thuggery, injustice and cruelty, has, I have come to realise a secret history of courage and fortitude.

Marriage across racial, ethnic and religious boundaries is as old as history, yet it still gets a bad press. In the past decade, in Rwanda and Bosnia, thousands of such marriages were forcibly broken up in blood and bitterness. No one mourned them, as far as I know, but for a Canadian friend married to a Sierra Leonean, who said plaintively over a beer one night in 1994, ‘But these were people who loved each other, who had children they loved.....’

When we married, 15years ago, there was no shortage of people saying, ‘But Asians don’t marry Africans!’ To which we’d reply that someone forgot to tell us. Still, had I been born a Kenya Asian, I would probably have gone through hell. So settled is racial prejudice in this multiracial society, I could have lost family, friends and self-esteem. And taken it all out on my wife, most likely!

The unashamed racism we encountered when we first came here appalled me and other Indian expatriates from similar big-city backgrounds. We jumped to the conclusion that the Kenya Asian community, with its wealth and aloofness, was to blame.

I still burn with embarrassment when I recall how we would go out of our way to distance ourselves from ‘the Asians’, telling African acquaintances who brought up the subject that Indians from India were different, that we had a history of opposition to racism, that India was the country that first brought a motion in the UN condemning apartheid in South Africa, and so on.

Until someone would say, ‘But tell me, why can’t we have your women?’ or ‘Why do you people wag your heads like that?’ We learnt, slowly and painfully, that it takes two hands to clap.

There is no accommodation possible with racism. You cannot pass yourself off as a ‘good Mhindi’ to the people who hate wahindi, or a good mwafrika to the other sort. Prejudice is all about lumping individuals together into the Other, who is by definition strange and bad. To insecure minds, exceptions do not prove the rule, so they are not welcome.

So, racism is a disease, pity and avoid the person afflicted with it as you would someone with halitosis. But it isn’t as simple as that. You may not actively despise or fear people who are different from you, you may have the most enlightened and politically correct attitudes on the whole subject, but in your secret racist heart you can still deny them full humanity, be unable to acknowledge their emotional integrity, to see them as people exactly like yourself with the same capacity to feel joy and sorrow. In short, did you know that the Africans love their children too?

A desire to do the right thing by your fellow men and women is not, of course, a good enough reason to go out and marry someone with a different skin colour or religious or ethnic affiliation. An Indian friend, irritated with a party bore who kept praising him for being enlightened and brave enough to marry an African, finally snapped, ‘Look here, I didn’t marry my wife to win a gold medal for cultural understanding, I married her because I wanted to!’

Nevertheless, the fact of being married to someone from another tribe, religion or race does force you to look their humanity - and that of ‘their people’- in the face without flinching.... It’s good for the gene pool, too.

First published in Daily Nation, March 28 2000.

 

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