Showing posts from May, 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 Lewi


(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 Cart

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