I was recently again in London for a brief moment for my graduation. It’s summer and sunny and warm – the best time to be in London because you can be outside for longer periods of time. And yes indeed, summer means picnics, walks in parks, swims in ponds, lunches in parks, games in neighbourhood greens, full outdoors enjoyment of life. So much so that I thought visitors to London (I was with my parents so seeing London through multiple eyes) might think it was all leisure in this city. And truly in some ways it is (for some more than others for sure). London is a major city and very urban concrete, but I have always noticed how each neighbourhood has some green space – a garden, a parklet, a playground, a park, a heath – so much green space it is glorious! And when I’m in London I fully enjoy it.
When I am looking for a house in and around Nairobi, I’m always looking for somewhere with trees and grass, something I got from my dad whose first action when we moved into a new house was always to plant trees. My mum too with her wanting to have “a green thing” whenever she takes photos. My earliest childhood memories are of observing and learning from the garden around our house, swinging from trees, and just being with the Earth.
But that garden is no more, and has become a row of low-cost housing absorbing the ever increasing urbanising population. Years back I was house hunting in Lang’ata and had given my grass and trees specification to the agent helping me, he called me back and said, “Heh! Hizi miti zako…..” He was finding it hard to find a place where there was grass and trees around. Living in Ongata Rongai (where I was born!) I am acutely aware of it. Apartment flats go up quickly in spaces where trees and grass had been, and even in personal homes, the rush to concrete, cabro and ballast over the Earth is painfully visible. In our urbanising selves, are we running away from any reminders of contact with the soil, with the Earth? Is the equation city = money winning unchallenged and we’ll do whatever it takes to get that money? And then?
Still pondering this difference and sure there was something more, we visited my friend Femi in Brighton. While we walked to the sea through the lovely Queen Anne’s park and Brunswick Square, she gave us a small history of some of the grand houses we were passing: some of them were former homes of enslavers and plantation owners. My eyes rested on the green space outside of the row of 5 story houses and it clicked. Because the sugar and cotton and rice and cocoa and tea plantations were elsewhere, these spaces could stay with their grass and trees, kept beautifully open. Pretty had hidden very well. My dad’s comments about how well-organised London is, and how the trees in Hyde Park must have been standing for decades or centuries, compared to how we cut trees or witness elite landgrabs in Nairobi had a history. Work was outsourced so leisure could be enjoyed, literally on others’ backs. Pretty keeps hiding, and I had almost not noticed, taken in with the green spaces that I desire, living in Nairobi.
Someone commented to me recently that Kenyans work very hard. And indeed they/we do. SO hard. The grind takes on a new meaning, especially in Nairobi. Children are up by 5 am to get to school by 6.30 or 7 am where they will study till 6.00 pm with a smattering of short breaks in between. Better get good grades at primary level so you can get to a ‘good’ highschool, where you might be getting up at 4 am spending most of the day in class and going to bed at 10 pm (after self study time in the evening). DO NOT be caught sleeping at any point lest you suffer a punishment (echoes of slavery in this)!!! All this in the hopes of getting to university and the increasingly illusive office job that will mean success in a recipe sold to our parents pre-structural adjustment programmes when it still could deliver a hearty meal. As world systems have broken down, we’ve worked even harder to squeeze life out of this system. But many, not least our families, don’t realise it’s been broken for a while (since inception?).
But why do we work so hard? Samir Amin, Egyptian economist (RIP) was clear about the fact that Africa is not lacking integration in the world economy, but rather it is integrated in a way that deliberately keeps it at the bottom. Producing for others’ prowess and pleasure. That describes several other regions of the world too who are raw material (suppliers) to a local and foreign elite. So we concrete and cabro over everything as we heave more wood into a machine that is already sputtering to its death – capitalism – and little realise that we are being finished along with the wood. Maybe that is the point of the machine…?
I recently read this title for a talk: “Reparations for Black people should include rest” and I thought how true, and in my context, gender reparations must also include rest. What would happen if we were to choose to fugiar? Become fugitive to this global (world nations) and local (family gender dynamics) system that keeps us working so hard for so little? So hard we don’t have time or energy for ourselves, or each other, so hard we don’t have time to enjoy life, so hard we don’t have time to know ourselves and to be?
I have this idea that were we to stop, all our unlooked at pain and trauma would catch up with us and we would have to reckon with it. We would also have to reckon with our selves. The selves we have been conditioned to not give space to, to vacate so that God inhabits, to put at non-reciprocal service to others, to believe to be inherently inferior, valueless, stupid… But maybe if we did, we could also lay down the burdens we carry on our shoulders that someone else placed there. What relief! We would have time to think, to create, to organise in more radical and expansive ways. We could restore our selves to their robbed humanity. That yes includes leisure, and pleasure, and rest. Not just work, work, work for someone else’s pleasure. We could rest.
Flying out of London I looked down on all the lovely green spaces dotted around the city and thought, That would’ve been the sugar plantation. That would’ve been the rice plantation. That would’ve been the tea plantation. That would’ve been the cotton plantation. That would’ve been the cocoa plantation…..*. And that they exist as lovely enjoyable green spaces is thanks to the other spaces that were made spaces of painful restless displacing deadening work in the Americas, in Asia, in Africa.
*[to be clear I don’t mean that they should* have been. In my ideal world, undiverse, monocrop forced labour and low-wage plantations and the hierarchies to keep them this way would not exist to begin with]
I could end there. But I am practising generative indigenous/spiritual methodologies. So what do I do after that reframing? I actually mean I, as in me.
Like I say in this article, seeing and feeling the pain and loss of that reality has become a practice of resilience and reclaiming. Feelings are not entertained in a work/action only oriented paradigm, and most certainly not in a world where my energies should be making someone else (not me) happy and comfortable. So I feel and feel through my pain, my restlessness and get to my desire for rest.
I engage with the few green spaces around me. Even when it takes me 1 to 2 travelling hours to get to these spaces, being in them restores my soul and that of the space. Arboretum, Ololua, Ngong Road and Karura Forests are all indigenous forests within and around the city. Make a date of it and go for a long walk or a picnic.
Uhuru Gardens, Uhuru Park, Jamhuri Park, City Park are urban open spaces that you can sit in, have a picnic at, etc. The forests have entry fees, but the parks don’t. Additionally, Uhuru Gardens and the Nairobi Museum’s botanical gardens both have labyrinths set up by the NGO TICAH that you can walk for some meditative practice.
Create green spaces around you, even on a small scale is another potential. I am thinking here about those small nooks and crannies of spaces that have survived concrete and cabro…there’s a couple I have come across in Rongai, and if their ownership is public, how about creating small gardens in these places with a group of friends. If you get trees from the roadsides ask for indigenous trees or fruit trees. I am at the moment, finally growing a garden on my balcony, and learning how to all stay alive together…
Create opportunities for community rest, enjoyment and rejuvenation, and spaces to be with the Earth. I host somewhat regular community dance classes in the park, that are pay what you decide so more people can have access to them. Dancing barefoot, massaging the Earth, breathing deep (and sometimes fast) is a healing therapeutic practice, and doing so with others even more so. Come dance together on the 31st of August at Uhuru Gardens.
Cancel the clock… Or as you can, make steps towards cancelling the clock – maybe start with the alarm clock, and experiment with tuning into yours and the Earth’s flows and rhythms, waking more slowly, and even remembering your dreams. (This may be one of the few places I am all for cancellation). While we often think of colonisation as territorial primarily, it is also majorly temporal – time. How we measure time (measurement itself??), are afraid of running out of time, even the idea of time as a thing itself is colonial. When I was asked to vision my perfect day at an activist training, the first thing that came was ‘cancel the clock’. And since then I did. And I breathe much easier.
Reclaiming space and time to breathe and be as a personal and organisational practice. This may seem counter-intuitive to be actively setting aside a time to be, but when the paradigm and culture you’re steeped in (urban, Western) is actively against it, then it is necessary to be active in the opposite direction. The collective I am convening and hearth keeping, Afrika hai, for example will have bimonthly meetings, one focused on being and the other on doing, held on new and full moons.
What are you doing to reclaim time and space to be you, be well, and be with the Earth and all our embodied and unembodied relations?