Tuning off the Tone

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Colourism, Safe Spaces, Spaces International, Inclusion, Mixed Race, Interracial, Experience

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Can you tell us a bit about yourself? (Age, gender, country, colour, and other stuff)

Fredrick is a son, husband, and father. Professionally, I am a scientist (bioinformatician for those who like specifics ☺) using genome sequencing data to study fungal diseases in Pulses and the underlying interaction between the pathogen and the host. I was born in a small village in Kisii highlands, Kenya, and became a global citizen through science.
I have a passion for music and performing arts, having studied Music in high school and securing admission to study a first degree in Music and completing two semesters. I was a regular in National drama and music festivals throughout my high school years. Back then, music wasn’t paying much. It was as a hobby reserved for children from wealthy families that could afford it. My parents wanted an employable career path as a “thank you” for their sacrifices in educating me. I loved natural sciences in high school; Biochemistry felt like a safe choice. So really, am more of an accidental scientist.

What was your earliest memory of becoming aware of your ‘race’ or ‘colour’?

My early childhood days were an identity struggle. My father had just been discharged from the ‘air force’ and imprisoned after the failed 1982 Kenyan coup d’état attempt. His military training as an Aircraft Technician was useless in the outside world without the relevant certificates which the state had withheld. As fate could have it, a presidential pardon and two healthy and handsome sons later, my parents had to move to the coastal city of Mombasa to try and secure a future for their kids. My dad will later be employed as a transport fleet manager with the now-defunct Nyayo Bus and my mum was privileged with obtaining imported merchandise directly at the port and selling them upcountry (in person). My dad’s job was so demanding; keeping track of over 50 buses and about 20 routes. My mother was always on the road between the coast and upcountry taking care of business. Life was comfortable, but, apart from the safe bubbles at Miritini primary school and a home with perpetually preoccupied parents, the rest of this “foreign land” was full of strange men in sparkling white robes, women with covered faces and even more strange kids who persistently maltreated us. “Kafiri wa bara- infidels from upcountry” the black kids will call us! Some others just called us “Kallu”; loosely translated as “the black one or blackie”. My elder brother and I spent most of our free time fending off verbal and physical attacks. When we weren’t being accused of causing a “blackout” during the daytime, some kid was rubbing a coin on my hair to see if the ‘steel-wool’ actually works. Most of the time they were disappointed. Our attempts to report to the parents and teachers fell on deaf ears. You know what they say about an apple not falling far from the tree! We couldn’t comprehend then why these people, most of whom looked like us in many traits, were perturbed by our presence in their town. A cosmopolitan metropolis. We will later understand that our misdeed was colourism and religion. Catholics in a primarily Muslim city where political and socio-economic systems were dominated by the light-skinned descendants of the early Arab, European, and Indian settlers. The native Mijikenda and Swahili are also lighter-toned compared to the National average. As a young child, it was quite revealing to be frequently “unfriended” without truly understanding what I did wrong. It made me question my entire existence as a human being. Besides, in the early 90’s, colourism and discrimination were not in the list of matters a middle-class or working-poor African parent will help their child to navigate. They were trivial compared to the alternative reality of raggedy school uniforms, trekking shoeless to school, or having “one meal a day”. We kept our heads down and enjoyed the newfound fortunes. Al least “while they lasted”. It was agonising.

Can you give us an example of colourism from your experience?

As a young boy, there comes a time when you must be initiated into manhood. In my community, this rite of passage involved a circumcision ceremony. This was a coveted end-of-the-year celebration where several boys of the same age-group were hoarded half-naked into the forest and made to wrestle and race their way back to the rendezvous before initiation began. The winners will get the best accommodation in the healing camp. Losers shared the remaining spaces and took turns watching over the ‘sacred fire’ that was supposed to stay alight round-the-clock for the three weeks or so at the camp. Mothers were forbidden from visiting but fathers and village elders could visit to download their wisdom to the fresh-initiates. These ceremonies are supposed to be fun and educational when the trainees share common cultures. Fate had a few more surprises to serve my brother and I.

Our initiation took place at the coast. Although we shared the culture of initiation with the Mijikenda Bantu at the coast, we were novice in pretty much every other aspect of their lives and creeds. Remember we hadn’t even graduated from being “blackie” or “infidels from upcountry”. We couldn’t say “Duha” or enjoy “Biryani” and “Haluwa” as much as we did “Ugali” and “Githeri”. Worse even, we couldn’t masquerade as Mijikenda (whom we looked similar to) because our accents and broken Swahili betrayed us. Eating “panya buku”, a common delicacy for my fellow initiation-graduates, was taboo in my community. The simple aspects of life, such as a shared meal, which were meant to unite us with the rest of the camp divided us even further. The whole initiation process felt like a torture camp to me. My mother was always my comforter against the denigrates which were directed to my skin; she was not allowed to visit. I was struggling with this burdensome part of me that I couldn’t shed off. My very identity as a person became this constant source of pain. All I had was my perseverance, my elder brother, and a few kids who were slowly starting to embrace and protect us. These little moments presented a glimmer of hope and made life at the coast worthwhile.

How do you feel your colour has shaped your life so far? (Examples?)

Every now and then, “we all need to get into alien spaces that make us feel small so that we can grow in life”. Often, these spaces present the best and the worst of mankind. For me, I am grateful for these moments; both good and bad. They forged the very person I am today. From learning to speak for the voiceless and help those in need to learning how to stand for myself and for what is right.

In some sense, the relentless torture we endured hardened me and set me up for the realities of the world today. Living and working in a foreign county isn’t easy. Every expatriate you encounter has been bruised or scarred and healed. For me, the scarring came a little early on, such that when the second wave came, I was well-prepared to confront it. I had survived colourism from the people whose names and physique were similar to mine, tribalism and nepotism from my race; racism was just another flat tyre that I could seal, inflate and keep moving forward.

What advice would you give to ordinary people who want to counter colourism?

My advice will specifically be directed to working parents who have immigrated to new places. Beware of what your children are going through outside their comfort zone. Recognise and discuss the prejudicial or preferential treatment by people of your own race and address the implicit biases you may have about other people with darker skin. By doing so, it will be easier to appreciate the privileges or disadvantages or your complexional uniqueness and be in the fore to providing genuine mentorship to those affected.

What are your hopes for the future as you raise your beautiful children in a flawed system?

Am not an advocate of a perfect world because I know perfection doesn’t exist in real-life. Nevertheless, the imperfections in the world today have strengthened my resolve to work for a world where mankind coexists; am hopeful that sooner rather than later, man will be able to live alongside his brother in peace and harmony.

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