Kenyans are angry; Kenyans deserve to be angry; I am Kenyan, so I am, and deserve to be, angry.
Just before I unpack all this anger, allow me to make a couple of quick disclaimers:
This here is a discussion of racism as what it really is: a black and (not necessarily versus) white issue with very little grey. TIA: This is Africa, and not America, and so we have no bushes to beat about —even if some folks out there would rather have you think that Africa is full of bushes and jungles and lions. When it comes to pertinent issues like this one, we have to talk bluntly and unequivocally; if you are looking for soothing, you better look elsewhere. Not to say that you should read everything herein with a face resembling a rock; for crying out loud I do not write dirges.
This is not a direct attack on ArtCaffe. It doesn’t take a PhD from majuu to know that a poor African who cannot afford two croissants (leave alone the controversial, magical number: eight) will certainly not afford the legal fees and clout to battle it out in court with the financial biceps and mazigwembes of this blue-chip. Instead, this is a commentary on a social issue that is rearing its very ugly head at an alarming rate yet only a few are finding the courage to face it head on. My mentor told me the other day when I argued that Africa does not currently need leaders with the kind of revolutionary spirit embodied by the Mau Mau fighters and espoused by the likes of Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Frantz Fanon, “My friend, the Bible was written over two thousand years ago and it is as relevant today as when it was first written. Let nobody cheat you, battles like fighting corruption, poverty and racism need even stronger revolutionaries, it’s a pity that these revolutionaries who are willing to die for what they believe in are no more.” I bet giving it a try will hurt, but not too much
I understand that ‘African’ is not a synonym for ‘black’ but, for no solid reason, I have used the two terms interchangeably in this piece.
So, the other day, my colleague, Sylvia, and I were taking a break at work, and like a good number of Kenyans occupying the offices in Nairobi nowadays, this included a visit to that micro-blogging site that gives people eggs for faces when they sign up. Like any patriotic Tweep, my trends map was set to display topics that Kenyans (especially those in the Great City under the Sun–or is it under shit as our Governor once wanted us to believe) were wasting their valuable employers’ time yammering on and on about. “What’s this #racistArtCaffe trend?” I enquired from Sylvia, who at this point was simultaneously laughing at the hilarious responses of the ever creative #KenyansonTwitter and shouting her mouth hoarse about how “this cannot happen to us in our own country.” Now, I won’t lie: I was among the many Kenyans that hitherto knew not what ArtCaffe was (despite working near Westgate Mall and frequenting the Nakumatt in there for yoghurt and peanuts for lunch) and would also not laugh at the lass who infamously advised that the aggrieved man “should have poured the croissants at them” because my best guess for what a croissant is, before Google Imaging it, was a French wine brand.
Digging deeper into the tweets and their hyperlinks, I found out that, allegedly, a patron had been arrested by a diplomatic officer for causing commotion after being kindly asked, by a black ArtCaffe attendant, why he had ordered more than eight croissants on the spot yet he was black! My first reaction was: Eish Pitaa, its either you are dreaming or you just smoked ten rolls of marijuana (which I don’t do in real life) because this cannot be true. My suspicions that it might have been a joke were quickly allayed by a cursory glance at my calendar which revealed that we were already past April Fools Day. As a Psychologist, I am not normally shocked by the strange things humans do because the major takeaway from my Social Psychology class was that any human being can be influenced by situational factors to do almost anything, ranging from altruistic to disastrous. In this case however, I was shell-shocked. The whole saga reminded me of an experience I had in Uganda that earned me the nickname ‘The Driver’ amongst some of my friends. Narrating it in my pretty hilarious style (maringo nayo!), it comes through as the funniest story ever told but in truth, it is one of the most painful moments I have ever had to endure. A summary of it goes:
During one fine afternoon while on a trip to a village in South Western Uganda, I, together with fifteen of my Colgate University schoolmates and two professors (all of whom were not black) visited a local primary school. To my biggest surprise, we were accorded a welcoming reminiscent to one we had given to a Permanent Secretary of Education when he visited Nakuru High School when I was a student there: the kids performed for us traditional dances with all the energy from their matoke lunch meals, thunderously thumping their feet to the cement floor that I almost feared the classroom would collapse on us. Once they were done, and were sweating like mjengo men under the January sun, the Headmaster took to the stage. With a characteristic Ugandan accent–yes, that Museveni one–he started, “Children, please clap for our visitors.” He gestured towards all my colleagues, making a conscious effort to avoid gesturing at me, and the children burst into a cocktail of clapping, thumping and cheering. When silence resumed, the Headteacher proceeded. He suddenly turned towards me, slowly raised his right-hand index finger, pointed it directly at me and confidently declared, “Children, clap for the driver for bringing our visitors to our school!” The oblivious children obliged and gave ‘the driver’ a loud round of applause. I was devastated. But I quickly faked an appreciative, sheepish smile, which I now regret. The Headteacher would later apologize through my professor claiming that he was too embarrassed to talk to me and that he was not racist.
What do these two stories have in common? It should be obvious: they are both cases of an African, discriminating against a fellow African, in Africa, because of his skin colour. Let me repeat that: an African, discriminating against a fellow African, in Africa, because of his skin colour. Feel the impact? Now to my invented term in the title: re-reloaded racism. While studying discrimination in my Social Psychology class, it was typically an ingroup versus outgroup phenomenon and history corroborates this fact, for instance, apartheid in South Africa was whites versus blacks and therefore thinking of the strange ArtCaffe incident, I came up with three levels of racism, with the intensity of psychological impact increasing with each level:
racism: somebody, or a group, of a certain race discriminating against that of a different race based on skin colour e.g. in the world’s single superpower, people with skins the colour of crude oil were not allowed to cast their ballots until about less than half a century ago;
Reloaded racism: somebody, or a group, of a certain race discriminating against that of a different race in the latter’s own land based on skin colour. The perfect example is colonization of Africans by the Europeans;
Re-reloaded racism: somebody, or a group, of a certain race discriminating against another of the same race based on skin colour in their own land. The ArtCaffe case and the ‘driver’ story are perfect cases of re-reloaded racism. (Feel free to share more in the comments section because I am sure there is a plethora of them).
Re-reloaded racism hurts excruciatingly because one cannot simply imagine its occurrence. Personally, my strong repulsion against life in the West, especially in the US, stems from racism, particularly in its camouflaged form, and therefore the thought of experiencing racism from a Kenyan in Kenya is just untenable. A discussion with a section of my family members on this topic reached a consensus that black attendants normally ignore black clients in high-end joints because of two major reasons: they do not tip (or tip well) and because they are psychologically conditioned not to expect black people to afford visiting these kind of places. On the tipping question, I am sorry I am not going to part with more money than the figure on the bill soon, but I am going to give you a hearty smile and a genuine “thank you, I really enjoyed your service.” On pathologically viewing Africans as people who cannot afford to visit your establishment, yet you paradoxically operate in Africa, why don’t you put up a humongous signboard “NO BLACKS ALLOWED” instead of just going cold on all hardworking, dark-skinned people who choose to peacefully spend their shillings at your business? That way, you will not be distracted by low quality clients thus leaving you with adequate time and attention to serve your ‘target market’ and probably Johnson Mwakazi will say to you “now, that, makes sense.” Not so fast though: you might be in for a rude shock because I have recently observed a surge in the numbers of people of your ‘tipping colour’ sitting alongside me in matatus and bargaining harder than I can for three tomatoes in the wakulima market. Moreover, I must say that if a one thousand shilling note owned by a white person is more valuable than a one thousand shilling note owned by a black person, Mr Kangami, my Economics teacher, must have done a very lousy job.
As I said in the disclaimers, this has very little to do with individuals or companies, it is all about us, as a society. We must ask ourselves these and more tough questions, think critically and seek practical solutions kabla maji yazidi unga: Why is re-reloaded racism happening on our continent? Why can’t we, together, celebrate the success of each of our brothers and sisters? What policies do we have in place to deal against this emerging form of discrimination? And ultimately, what do we do to ensure that the root causes of this evil are resolved? Waseiya, I rest my case.
@Muturi_Njeri, Co-Founder and Publisher of The African Youth Journals, loves writing, telling stories and pushing people to think critically about issues. The third year Psychology student at Colgate University is currently interning at Kuza Biashara in Nairobi. He is an alumnus of The African Leadership Academy and a member of The Equity African Leaders Program.