Westgate: There must be more than grief

Westgate. There must be more, something more human, than reports of smoke and explosions and flying bullets and destruction and carnage. There must be more than `eye witness accounts’ and there must be more than smart analyses of why Kenya, why now.

There must be more than, other than, grief to unite a people, a nation. Kenyans have responded not only with horror at the violence. They have responded with support, with blood, money, sweat and tears, and prayers.  But there must be more …

Last year, Kenyan poet Njeri Wangari performed part of her poem, “When Change Comes”, to a gathering in Nairobi. The poem begins:

“When villages grow into towns
Towns into cities
Shops into malls
Spaces into estates,
When streets turn into avenues
Avenues into highways, super highways
Subways and runways
Then things change.

Villages become old frail women deserted by their offspring
All gone to the cities with big lights,
Who, unlike prodigal sons, only return in coffins.”

Wangari’s reading omits the last part of the poem:

“When you realize that your fate was sealed in that moment of conception
Even before you took your first breath in this cosmic space
You then know, it takes more than yourself to survive.

When you are born in a small dark room
In the slum-ghettos of Nairobi,
The wrong side of town
Born in the wrong side of jobs
Wrong side of school
Wrong side of life
Wrong side of everything good in life
Except life itself
Then you know it takes more than yourself to be on the right side

It takes governments that are willing to accept the growing gap
The gap between those with and those without
It takes bridging that gap with informal jobs, equal opportunities
With Youth, women, men empowerment bridges
Bridges that seek to empower minds, endanger idlers
Bridges that recapture people’s dream of equal opportunities
And put them back into peoples’ hearts

It takes more than corrupt officials
It takes more than paying taxes for more government officials
It takes more than policemen gunning down innocent youth
It takes more than black men looking down upon their brothers as lesser mortals

It takes leaders willing to listen to the cries of their people
It takes systems that will help its people come out of mental slavery, self pity, oppressed lives
It takes everyman to make that change.
you, me, him, her, them,
Us.”

That was July 2012. A few months later, a poem by Kenyan poets Shailja Patel and Wambui Mwanji wrote a poem, “Our Camera Has Come Home: A Found Poem”. Here it is in its entirety:

Our Camera Has Come Home: A Found Poem

in her absence we could not see properly
a way of being
engendered by her presence
was denied us

we did not die
we were not sick
or even depressed
just newly prone
to random piercings
of grief

she allowed us
to quarrel
with ways of reading the world
she explained
why our eyes stop
where they stop

other cameras
work well
we have nothing against them

other cameras
sit badly in our hands
like borrowed reading glasses

only she who has come home
is ours

The world mourns. The world mourns the loss of poets, such as Kofi Awoonor, and presenters, such as Ruhila Adutia-Sood. The world mourns the loss of those connected to people with names, such as Mbugua Mwangi, nephew to Kenya’s President, Uhuru Kenyatta. The world mourns the children, and the adults. Around the world, the national news media report on `their own’ who were killed in the massacre. The Westgate Mall has been a popular, and safe, place for many in Nairobi.

The world mourns, and world leaders and their messengers claim `We all stand with Kenya.’ We don’t. Instead, we watch the spectacle of grief at a distance, as a distance. After the post-election violence of 2007, Kenyan poet Sitawa Namwalie understood this. She understood that a first, decisive step in creating a road to peace would be to scramble the map. When they ask you where you come from, answer “I come from everywhere.”

I come from everywhere

you, me, him, her, them,
Us

only she who has come home
is ours

There must be more to grief, and life, than reports of smoke and carnage and loss in the distance.

 

(Image credit: A Mishmash Life!

The State expresses its grief, and Felani is dead

 

Children, girls and boys, are being killed by Indian soldiers on the India-Bangladeshi border. Each time it happens, the State claims grief and promises never again. The most recent girl to suffer this indignity, last week, was a fifteen-year-old girl named Felani:

“Indian border forces have handed over to Bangladesh Rifles (BDR) the body of ‘Felani’, 15, who was shot dead on Friday as she had gotten entangled in barbed-wire while crossing the border.… In the meeting, BDR condemned the brutal killing of the teenaged girl. BSF had expressed its grief over the incident and assured that such incident will not take place in future.”

What is to done with the grief of States expressed each time border troops kill or maim someone? What is the worth of their repeated assurances? Where is the future in which border guards will not shoot at children caught on barbed wire? And what is the name of the space that separates the dead body of 15 year old Felani, about whom the State is silent, and `the incident’ over which the State expresses its grief?

Apparently Felani and her father left their home in Bangladesh ten years ago and crossed into India. They were on their way home because a marriage to a local boy had been settled. Felani’s father successfully scaled the border fence. Felani got tangled up in the barbed wire and started to scream. The Indian Border Security Forces heard the screams, saw the girl, came, shot her and waited for her to die. Some say she bled and screamed for four hours, others say for less time. Whatever the duration, Felani, a fifteen- year-old girl, hanging upside down from the border fence, riddled with bullets, bleeding and screaming, died. The BSF then waited and finally cut her down and carried her away, hands and feet bound to a pole, like so much animal carcass. A day or so later, they arranged the meeting where they returned the body and expressed grief … over the incident.

Bangladeshis, and Indians, have expressed outrage at the incident and shock and disgust at the photographs. But who expresses grief at the border fence?

According to a Human Rights Watch report issued just last month, the Border Security Forces at that particular border are `trigger happy’. Children, such as 12-year-old Rumi Akhter Nipa, are routinely, randomly and indiscriminately shot. What do girls, like Rumi, want? According to Dr. Abdus Samad who treated her, she simply wants a daily life, to start school. What do children, like Rumi Akhter Nipa, get? “A pattern of grave abuses”. And, as Felani’s story suggests, they are to be considered the lucky ones.

The borderland is a graveyard. As long as the State, any State, is ruled by security first, as long as the borders are considered primary and the crossers, with or without documents, are secondary, the borderland will remain a graveyard. That is the reason that “despite numerous complaints no member of the BSF has been arrested, much less held to account in civilian courts.” Hundreds of Bangladeshis and of Indians have been killed and not a single member of the BSF has been arrested. Felani is not alone.

Grief emerges from graves, not from incidents. Apologies cover incidents, shrouds cover the bodies of the dead. The State of India expresses its grief? And Felani is dead.

 

(Photo Credit: BDNews24)