Saturday, May 22, 2010


I learned the meaning of “déjà vu” when I was thirteen years old, thanks to Uncle James. With striking clarity and detail, before his car appeared, tires rolling on the jacaranda-strewn gravel driveway, I knew that he was coming to visit: every, single, time.

My father would have picked him as brother, if we could choose relatives. He settled for Best Friend: and their souls married into the spiritual and intellectual strivings of their day. One fed the other in endless conversations driven by an intense urge to survive stagnating aspects of neo-colonial Kenya. They were concerned about culture and life in Africa, about reviving indigenous forms of East African art.

My father Elimo Njau, an educator-artist, Uncle James Kangwana, a communications guru who began his career with the British Broadcasting Corporation in the 1960s. The two were co-founders of Paa Ya Paa in 1965, along with Sarah Kangwana, Rebeka Njau, Terry Hirst, Jonathan Kariara, Pheroze Nowjoree, Primila Lewis and Hilary Ngweno.

When all of them congregated in our sitting room there was certain buoyancy in the Present they were unfolding.

I was a careful eavesdropper back then: children were not allowed to remain with the adults in the sitting room. When guests arrived, you showed up to curtsy and say Shikamoh, and then dutifully retreated to a bedroom, to the gallery area, or to the garden. I am so thankful, that as an adult, I can tap into the bits and pieces I monitored in my youth.

I felt intelligent around Uncle James Kangwana. The force of his gaze was like a torch, shining out the darker recesses of my heart. I felt like an evolving young one, already vital enough to carry the baton. The way he’d say, “Vizuri sana, Hana,” [good job, Hana], commending my efforts as tour guide of the gallery, as sweeper of the crushed jacaranda leaves…

His voice is etched into my consciousness; like coconut water, clear and fluid, it quenches in baritone eloquent, melodious utterances intonated in Kiswahili.

I retrieve those memories with gratitude, to have been so closely linked to him, his family and with sadness because:
"Veteran broadcaster and former Kenya Broadcasting Corporation's (KBC) Board of Directors Chairman James Kangwana, died Tuesday night, May 18, 2010, at the age of 75…" The Daily Nation.
And I am here, living in America, not having had the opportunity to sit and talk to Uncle James and Auntie Sarah in the past two decades; my visits home controlled by stringent Paid Time Off (PTO) hours in corporate America; I selfishly guarded the time for my parents.

But with his passing, the promise of tomorrow emerges. I telephoned Auntie Sarah in Nairobi this week and offered my condolences. I reconnected with my 'cousins' Flora and Candy. We will reinforce our reconnection in the by and by, close the gaps, flesh out the truths in our history.

May His Soul Rest In Peace.

aka Mama Shujaa.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


(One of my Kangas bearing the Kiswahil saying:  Ukipenda Boga Upende Na Ua Lake [If you like the pumpkin you must like it's flower].  Photo:  Mama Shujaa) 

I am a junkie for people's faces. Last week I came across one that belonged to a woman. I had seen something in her face, somewhere before. I will call her Kisura, because I hold on to the hope that the content of her character will one day resonate with the Kiswahili meaning of her name: pretty, beautiful.

Kisura: the inconsiderate woman. I awarded her an All Star in Bad Behavior that day. In retrospect, however, I accept that social signals sometimes wrongfully indict a human being. An apple is not always rotten to the core.

There was a steady downpour of rain that morning. With every stop on our bus route, I prepared to receive a wet seatmate or, at the very least, collect a few drops of water from umbrellas, raincoats or book bags. Thankfully, a conscientious school girl took the seat next to me at Jimmy Carter Boulevard, the heaviest and most interesting loading stop on the route, where I routinely lift my eyes from the book in my lap to scrutinize faces and analyze bodies. Over fifteen people, a mix of white and blue-collar members of Atlanta's working class piled in.

Kisura was one of them. She did not sashay onto the bus, as was to be expected from her bendable mannequin body, which featured a soaked, fitted, zippered black raincoat, and a pair of skinny jeans, poking out from underneath. She carried six black bulging satchels, three on each shoulder and no umbrella. Her multi-racial hair was pulled back in a tight mass, the size of a pony's tail. Her glistening face was the color honey with barely visible lips wedged below her button nose; she was the perfect candidate for lip augmentation.

Planting one foot in front of the other, she crafted her way past the non-English speaking passenger engaged in sign language with the flushed bus driver. She slapped her magnetic MARTA smart card against the metered fare pad, emptying one ride's worth of the card's stored value; then dumped all six bags in the seat directly in front of me. It was marked RESERVED for the ELDERLY and HANDICAPPED. Next she began her solo in the now crowded bus.

As the bus lurched from the curb, she coughed several times, then squeezed her way back to the front of the bus, and made a spittoon out of the garbage back conveniently located at the door. She ejected phlegm, saliva or whatever other substance from her mouth.

For the rest of the ride to the final destination, there was no regulating Kisura. She coughed and spat to her heart's content.

It was revolting! No matter how hard I shoved my head into my book, or craned my neck towards the window, I could not escape her coughs, I visualized her lips pursing, gathering up the mucus, expectorating. And when she tired of the spittoon, she plucked a bus schedule (printed on glossy magazine-type paper), spread it open in earnest and used it as a receptacle. Ugh! Her actions stayed with me for the rest of the day, the week. Kisura, the inconsiderate woman will learn one day, maybe even the hard way. I just could not continue to suffer the memory alone. I had to share the misery with you on this beautiful day - Mothers Day. Am I the inconsiderate one today? Eh, kweli?

Happy Mother's Day!

Mama Shujaa.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Me and My Kangas


Here I am, at my front door, wrapped in my kanga; outerwear that binds me to my homeland. Pure cotton, long enough to cover the whole body comfortably, with a theme strong enough to enrich my soul, resuscitate childhood memories, and deepen my faith in the future.

I have a stack of these kangas, each one bold in design. They are works of art dazzling in their representation of an aspect of East African culture, where women and young girls wrap them around their bodies as skirts, head-ties, or nifty strapless dresses.

Lately, I’ve been pulling them out of my closet, one by one, indelible symbols of my youth, and purveyors of African tradition. They contribute to the power behind my voice. And I’ve been writing a lot lately; writing and rewriting, under the gathers of my brilliant prints.
And during each one of the solid forty days that have gone by, I’ve been making new habits stick, and I'll tell you more about them soon.

Mingi Love,
Mama Shujaa