Sunday 27 December 2020



Just finished this. Such a good book:

From the first time he was stopped and searched as a child, to the day he realised his mum was white, to his first encounters with racist teachers - race and class have shaped Akala's life and outlook. In this unique book he takes his own experiences and widens them out to look at the social, historical and political factors that have left us where we are today.

Covering everything from the police, education and identity to politics, sexual objectification and the far right, Natives speaks directly to British denial and squeamishness when it comes to confronting issues of race and class that are at the heart of the legacy of Britain's racialised empire.

Though it took me a moment to get into because he started out by mentioning his sister is Ms. Dynamite, so I had to work through that earworm first.

This is going to be a waffle-out-loud sort of post, as race is a fascinating subject. I had quite an interesting upbringing, spending my early years in Leicester, which has the largest Diwali celebration outside India. My school was fairly evenly split between Caucasian and Indian British, predominantly Gujarati. At that time, I believe public schools were all obliged by law to deliver a Christian assembly once a week, but although we did the Nativity play each Christmas, we also celebrated Diwali just as much, making little diva lamps and colourful mandala patterns. There was a huge fireworks display in the park, with sweets, jewellery and saris everywhere. So, I grew up with a really positive experience of mixed cultures.

I later moved to a little village in the Midlands, with a CofE primary school. It was a lot less colourful in every sense. Then I went to an upper school of around 1,000 students, but only remember one black student, who, like Akala, had a white mother. Years later, when I came back from Africa for a visit, I remember stopping in my tracks when I saw a Rasta with dreadlocks walking across the village green. We ended up drinking down the pub later on and laughing about why I'd been so surprised. I mean, it really is a very white village. 

Though, with the Black Lives Matter movement, I have to say, as white as our school was, I do need to give a shout out to one particular teacher, Mr. Ditchburn. He was our humanities teacher and it's only now that I've come to realise how different he was. I was surprised, during BLM, how many people were saying they'd never learnt about slavery in school. I was puzzled by this, because I thought the national curriculum was universal across Britain and that other people must have had the same lessons as I had. But, when I talked to my friend Jo, she confirmed that she had never learnt about slavery in school. Whereas, I had. I very clearly remember Mr. Ditchburn rolling in the TV so that we could all watch Roots, and devoting a lesson to slavery, in which he unrolled large diagrams of the inside of a slave ship to show how close together everyone was packed and how uncomfortable it would have been. I was really surprised when I found out that my friends from other schools hadn't been taught this.

Growing up, I remember my dad taking me to Trafalgar Square to see Nelson Mandela appear on the balcony of South Africa House. I must have been about fifteen, and didn't really understand the significance at the time, but really glad to say I was there now. It was a very historic moment. My dad later went on to visit Robben Island and Khayelitsha.

I also remember a very awkward meal, where a friend of the family, for some reason still unknown to me today, decided to go on a paternalistic rant that went something like, 'What would your dad do if you ever came home with a black man, eh? You'd be out on your ear.' I was only about thirteen, and mortified to talk about sex in front of adults in any context, but he really didn't know my parents. They wouldn't care what colour or gender my partner was, so long as I was happy. But I couldn't understand at the time why my dad didn't stand up and tell him that. Later on, my dad explained that he didn't want to spoil the meal because the guy was a close friend of the host, whose birthday it was. Then he told me about the guy's life and it hadn't been a happy one. So, although I never warmed to the guy after those comments, I guess I understood not wanting to add to his unhappiness and picking the right time for a battle.

This book was also excellent at giving a history of racism and immigration in the UK, and dispelling myths such as  William Wilberforce and the British Empire ceasing slavery for purely altruistic, humanitarian reasons. There was a lot in there I didn't know.

Over the past several years, living in Rwanda, I've had some interesting experiences related to colour. Things, as a white person, I wouldn't have experienced in the UK, but I'm glad to have done because it's given me more perspective and opportunity to discuss race.

I was twenty-six when I first arrived and worried that people might hate me because of slavery, without fully comprehending that Rwanda remained an independent kingdom during that part of history. There wasn't a legacy of western slave traders here. People were much more concerned about western participation in the genocide. Someone once stopped a bus to move seats away from my friend when they realised she was French. If you don't understand that one, Google 'Turquoise Zone'. I was once asked, by a guy with a megaphone, whether  I was German, after Germany detained Rose Kabuye, and I was also once asked to stand up at a community meeting to explain 'my' government's actions after the UK very undiplomatically detained Emmanuel Karake, head of the Rwandan secret service. Obviously, there wasn't much I could say except, 'yeah, it doesn't make sense.' But those were much more specific, and justifiable, political gripes rather than racial ones.  

I do remember the first time I ever stepped out onto a busy street in Kigali and realised I was the only white person there. It was a strange feeling. I'd never experienced that before.

Back then, you used to get mzungu shouted a lot. It means 'foreigner' or 'white person'. People sometimes reached out to touch you or pinch you, and you often attracted a crowd of onlookers. You hardly ever hear mzungu in Kigali anymore, as it's a very cosmopolitan city now, but you still do in remote and rural areas. Sometimes it's just a statement, but sometimes you can tell by the way someone says it that it isn't meant kindly.  

Years ago, I was trying to catch a moto outside a club, very late at night, when a young Rwandan man, who was very drunk, leaned back on his moto and shouted, 'muzungu, go back where you came from.' His much more sober friend looked round in panic and apologised, but I laughed. It was such a strange experience, and one I think every white person should have at some point in their life - being the racial minority in another country. I was able to laugh it off because he was drunk and mouthing off. I think I would have been more offended if he'd shouted something misogynistic or homophobic, whereas it was just a weird experience for me to receive a racial slur like that, one used by white people towards black people so often. I strangely appreciated having had that experience. I often wonder what his own life experience had been that he said that to me, a complete stranger he didn't even know.

There's another interesting part in the book that talks about the sexualisation of African people by white people. Malcolm X also talks about it in his biography. Especially in terms of white women having sexual expectations of black men. Whereas, in Africa, there's a monitisation of white people, especially of black men towards white women. Though, that might be because more unmarried white women than men arrive as teachers and volunteers. It isn't uncommon to be sitting at a bus stop and have a guy ask you to find him a 'white wife.' The laugh is, many African men who think they want a white wife, soon find themselves woefully unprepared for a lippy British or American woman who speaks her mind openly, takes charge of the family finances and often a dominant role in decision-making. The point where dream and reality meet often collide with unpleasant consequences.

After over a decade of watching relationships, a huge number have broken down when it became apparent that the man had unrealistic financial expectations of the woman, based on skin colour. And, whereas it's true that poor white people in Africa are almost always financially better off than poor black people in Africa, it was the level of financial expectation that became problematic. See further down, where I mention Henri's book. He explains that unrealistic expectation brilliantly in My African Dream. Seriously, if you want a decent introduction to the race and culture gap between East Africa and America, check that out.

But be it sexual expectation, money, or both, a relationship founded on these stereotypes always tends to lead to a catastrophic breakdown in trust and self-confidence for at least one party. 

Which was another part of the book that I liked, it really looked at class systems and how race and class are so strongly intertwined. How the poor in any community, regardless of colour, have more in common with each other than the poor have with the elite. It's all horribly complex, and why there's never been a straightforward solution to ending either poverty or racism. It's a very long, ongoing conversation that many people still feel too insecure in their personal or national identities to engage in.

I've had some really interesting discussions about race with friends. I mentioned Henri, who wrote about his experiences first as a Rwandan refugee in Burundi, then spending seventeen years in the US, and having no clue what the KKK was, or that there even was racial tension in America, before arriving in Stone Mountain, Georgia. Like Akala's grandfather, it was a shock to him to discover that poor white people existed. He wrote an excellent book about it

There was a really interesting passage in Natives about the difference between African American and African identity:

While the physical legacies of white supremacy in Africa are clear enough, from the skin bleaching, to the colonial borders, to the languages of government, or from the segregation that is still so apparent in the former settler colonies, the state of spiritual and cultural crisis that [Richard] Pryor denotes with the appellation 'nigger' simply does not seem to exist in the same way for Africans... It's a quality that cannot be explained unless you have experienced both states. People who have experienced niggarisation, or lifelong racism, often walk as if they are apologising for their existence. It was only when I saw black people that did not walk that way that this became clear to me. To a degree, I also feel this same unquantifiable phenomenon in the Caribbean. There is a cultural and spiritual freedom that people have growing up in a place that they feel belongs to them and they belong to, however severe the material challenges in that place may be.

That's something I noticed immediately on arrival in Africa - the music. There used to be a club called Cadillac, and in my first week in-country I went dancing with friends. It struck me that there was Ugandan pop, Congolese rumba and plenty of Reggae being played, but not a single American rap song. I didn't hear the word 'nigger' once. Which gives some idea of what I associated with modern black music in the UK. Of course, there's blues and jazz, and plenty of reggae: Bob Marley, Eddy Grant and Macka B, but also a whole lot of rap, where women are bitches and hos and everyone sounds angry all of the time. But nothing in any club I've been to in either East or West Africa has ever been angry. Not like so much of the American rap music. 

There was another interesting bit in the book where Akala mentioned that heavy metal is huge in India, but almost unheard of among British Indian diaspora. The idea being that diaspora often cling to more traditional music and culture than those back home. I used to date a guy from Assam and he was a huge Metallica fan. We met at Rwanda's first rock night. I remember being surprised when he showed me photos of him and his friends at a Metallica concert in India and told me how big metal is over there. I don't recall any Indian friends in the UK having mentioned a love of metal before or seeing an Indian presence at the rock clubs I used to go to.

It is also true that talking about race in Africa is different to talking about it in the UK. Trevor Noah puts it really well: 


I've had so many open conversations here over a beer, that it would be hard to imagine having in the UK. It's usually a much more relaxed and often very intellectual and retrospective discussion about history and world politics. As Trevor Noah says, it's more about figuring out how we all got here and where we're all going. 

Often, when you get a group of expats together, they'll take the piss out of each other's cultures and countries, but it's a way of breaking the ice, and beneath that you do find a lot of respect for each person's individual background. When you're travelling around the world you implicitly understand that a person is not their country, or their political system, or personally responsible for their national history. So, conversations are easier to start and people are a lot less quick to take offense at an honest question. There's an objectivity that comes to a lot of people when they're a few thousand miles from their native country.

Not everybody, obviously, but a lot of them.

On a random note, something that surprised me a couple of years ago. A white American lady was staying with me and she wanted to get her hair braided, which is something many women do here. She liked the way it looked and her Rwandan colleagues wanted to do it for her before she went back to the States, but she said no because her brother-in-law was African American and she knew that he wouldn't approve of her having her hair braided in the African style, because he'd see it as cultural appropriation. This made me kind of sad. I could see how he might think of it that way, but at the same time, her friends wanted to do that for her, because it didn't even cross their minds that there would be a problem with this. So, she didn't get her hair done, and her friends didn't get to share that experience with her, because of a perception of racism that existed in America but not here.

I really enjoyed the book, The Silk Roads. I don't think it's ever really stopped, this flow of people, ideas, art, culture, languages and religions. It just makes me sad to see the introversion of places like the UK at the moment, closing down its borders and curtailing freedom of movement, when East Africa is doing the opposite and opening up free trade and movement. The UK is going to back itself into a very lonely corner. 

Never mind that Britain has a German royal family, a Norman ruling elite, a Greek patron saint, a Roman Middle-eastern religion, Indian food is its national cuisine, an Arabic-Indian numeral system, a Latin alphabet, and an identity predicated on a multi-ethnic, global-spanning empire. Fuck the bloody foreigners. 

I had a lovely moment the other day. I teach at a university, with a group of young Rwandan medical students. We were doing an introduction to critical thinking, in which - I am sorry to say - I did inflict the Rule Britania! debate on them and Piers Morgan. Thankfully, they survived. But we were having a debate about colonialism and racism, and one of our students started her point by saying:

"I've never experienced racism..."

What a lovely thing to hear. And you might think, why would she experience racism as an African woman living in Africa, but Rwanda has had its share of division in the past. So, it was just a really encouraging thing to hear this student say, and I wondered, after reading this book, how many black British students could say the same?

Anyway, I've waffled on. This was just a really good book. I would say that it should be compulsory reading in British schools, only I know there's no quicker way to put kids off reading something than to make it compulsory. Still, definitely should be on there.

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