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Obama in Kenya: Geographies of Diaspora in Four Movements

‘When we bury someone, cremate them, mark their grave, thousands of miles from their place of birth, we are in some ways promising that we will return to them and that we will return them.’

By Megan Fernandes

“In a society of migrants, what is important is not where you were born, but where you die. This, if nothing else, makes diaspora entirely different from a nation, both in concept and sentiment… Absence, rather than presence, everywhere shapes diasporic experience.”

—Engseng Ho, The Graves of Tarim: Genealogy and Mobility across the Indian Ocean

“I can live anywhere in the world, but it must be near an airport.”

—Chinese businessman to Aihwa Ong

March 2016
London, England

It is so cold in the church where her body lays.

Everything appears to you. Your father’s hand. The feeble church organ. The silk slip of your coat lining in the presence of a similarly outfitted casket. Jet lag can be a gift. Days unravel in ribbons, fragmented and outside of time. Even grief, arriving in waves, is muted by delirium—shifting the plasma of your hormones, your ability to regulate outside temperature and interpret noise around you, the anxiety of a body missing sunlight to prompt the regular circadian rhythms.

Jet lag can also be protective. The sorrow of my aunts and uncles is buoyed by the presence of my cousin’s children, mostly now a generation of half Indian kids that have a variety of blondish and brown hair and answer to the names James, Isabel, Charlotte, and Bronwyn. My Aunt Rose holds my hand for much of the day and tells me more about my grandmother and grandfather in one afternoon than my father has revealed in his lifetime. My father does not talk much about his parents or childhood unless pressed, and the details are mostly factual, rather than impressionistic.

Today, we are in London for a funeral. Just the two of us from my immediate family. My siblings and mother are not in attendance; the plans were made quickly as happens with death. The funeral is for my Aunt Bazeliza (Bessie), and I only bought the ticket the night before my flight. My father called me from the airport that evening to practice reading his sister’s eulogy. His soft voice on the other end of the phone, particularly his helplessness as a doctor in the face of his sister’s unrelenting cancer, cut through me. I got off the phone and booked a flight to London.

I barely made it to JFK after work, arriving only as the gate was boarding. The funeral was scheduled for 10 am sharp at St. Patricks Catholic Church in the southeast London district of Chislehurst, and calculating the arrival time, the Heathrow Express, the underground, and the uber ride, I am barely able to make it there at all.

At the cremation ritual after the funeral, held in a small room, only the family enters. It is my first time at a cremation and I don’t know what to expect. Somehow I end up in the first row. This doesn’t seem right to me; I am not important enough in the family to witness this descent or ascent, but really, I’m afraid of the wooden box looming just a few feet away from me. I saw my aunt just last year, her hands pressed against my face, her tiny 4’11” stature cradling my face in the orbit below me.

During my last visit, she shooed me into her living room where she was watching a soccer game and delighted in the bottle of port I had brought her from Portugal. In her kitchen, I sliced a cake for our dessert in her presence. She exclaimed cheekily: “You cut that cake so nicely, Megan! You will definitely make a good wife.” She herself was never a wife, never had children. She was in love with someone once, but the family had not approved. They hadn’t approved of her drinking either, but she didn’t seem to care much about approval when I knew her. Of all my aunts on both sides of my family (and there are many), she was the only modern woman. Independent. Intelligent. Insightful, but without judgement. I told her in her kitchen, “You make a good feminist, Aunty Bessie.” She laughed, and hurried me out to watch soccer, drink port, and eat cake.

The priest says some words, the casket is lowered into another chamber, presumably where the cremating process will begin, and the 30 or so members of family in attendance begin singing the Swahili love song, Malaika:

Malaika, nakupenda Malaika
Malaika, nakupenda Malaika
Ningekuoa mali we, ningekuoa dada
Nashindwa na mali sina we
Ningekuoa Malaika
Nashindwa na mali sina we
Ningekuoa Malaika

It’s a tune I grew up hearing our parents sing on happy and sad occasions, at weddings, Christmases, and of course, funerals. Listening to my father sing, singing it myself in my own inauthentic and clumsy Swahili, is the closest I feel to any connection to Tanzania. Swahili is a phonetic language and I am struck by the melodious pairing of “k”’s and “d”’s with the open vowel sounds of “a”’s and sometimes “i”’s as well. I listen to my father sing and try my hardest to mimic his accent, sounds that just spring to his voice as if an incantation or summoning of another history. When he speaks Swahili, it is as if he’s been keeping a secret from us his whole life. When my father dies, my sisters and I have sworn to tattoo the word “Malaika” across our forearms.

My father is a brilliant, eccentric eye surgeon hailing from Tanga, Tanzania, one of seventeen children, all from the same mother. While of Goan descent, he grew up in a small coastal town of Tanga (along with my mother) and was educated in England before hopping the Atlantic to Canada and, finally, the United States. He has four children, all of us alike and unlike, none of us quite rivaling his patience and intelligence. Some of us have his warmth, a few more his ambition, but I think in many ways, he remains a sweet and inscrutable mystery to us. My dad likes to play chess and talk politics with me. He is less silly with me than my other sisters and sometimes I wonder if he sees my academic career as a way to view me more as a surrogate son—a strange way that his old world gender politics sometimes presents itself. He once told me: “You know, Megan, men like to help a vulnerable woman.” He was trying to give me marital advice. I rolled my eyes. “Well, Dad, I guess we should just all cater to whatever makes you guys feel good… not like we haven’t been doing that since the beginning of time.” He laughed. My father likes to be challenged with a sense of humor. He likes women with contradictions.

Our goodbye, the day after the funeral, is abrupt. He disappears into the ground at Victoria Station and I watch him descend the stairs in his iconic fedora hat and black coat, wheeling his small carryon suitcase like a resilient toddler. I wonder if he will make it to Heathrow in one piece. My own flight doesn’t leave for another two days so I agree to meet a friend in Bethnal Green that night at a bar called the Typewriter and try out a few too many pistachio gin concoctions. Drunk and hungry, I decide on a small informal meal at a late night Turkish establishment around the corner. I watch the customers file in and out as I am the only person who is actually sitting down to eat. The owner brings me a mint tea. He is sizing me up, and asks, when I’m about to pay, “Where are you from?”

On the N108 bus home through the unholy god awful Oxford Circus nightmare, I keep thinking that in many ways, London, or rather, England at large is such an authoritative scene for my family. For Tanzanians, a British passport was the way out. On my father’s side, it is where much of my family still lives. It is where my father married his first wife, where my half-siblings were educated and lived, where my nieces and nephews was born.

From my stop at Hyde Park, I wander over to a restaurant in Notting Hill. I sit at the bar when a fight breaks out between a bus boy and a man making threatening, erratic gestures outside the glass window of the restaurant. The bartender quickly intervenes with his wide jolly smile and upon return, offers me two rounds on the house. He is Indian and has kind eyes and looks so much like my cousin, Savio, a Tanzanian transplant now living in London. “Friend of yours?” I gesture at the infuriated man still lurking outside who I had seen give the bartender a hug. He smiles. “One of my best mates, actually,” and offers a brotherly wink.

On the walk back to my hotel, all I keep thinking is what is this place. What is this place, where my father fell in and out of love, where my half-siblings were educated, where this bartender winks in fraternal affection, where the Turkish restaurateur is hoping I am Turkish, where I was once accosted outside of a mosque for dressing “indecently” in Whitechapel, where my father nearly got his ass kicked by a band of white Teddy Boys in the 60’s, where my friend told me three days before the Paris Batalcan attack that a terrorist act in Europe was imminent, where my young biracial cousins talk about their awkward parent teacher meetings when their dark bodied mother walks in the room, where my aunt has been slowly burned to the tune of a Tanzanian folk song.

What is this place. What is this place called London.

August 2015
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

“Your president is a war criminal.”

Obama is in Kenya and is talking about women’s rights.

I am sitting in a living room with Karim Hirji, a celebrated professor of medical statistics, fellow of the Tanzania Academy of Sciences, and in 1968, a prominent member of the United States African Revolutionary Front (USARF). After speaking to scholars of Tanzanian cultural history, I was told to go speak to this man, to hear a first hand account of Tanzanian life after independence.

As a young man, Hirji was mostly supportive of upholding Julius Nyerere’s philosophy of African socialism during Tanzania’s early-Uhuru period (Nyerere was the first president of independent Tanzania from 1964-1985). However, in his memoir, Hirji discusses the increasing difficulty of mobilizing Nyerere’s pillars of “equality, communal solidarity, self-reliance, and rural development” (104). When he realized that this vision of a congruent politics of nationalism and leftist ideals was too eclectic, he began addressing the problems of Nyerere’s policies as the chief editor of the prominent newspaper, Cheche, a platform for political and literary critique. In 1970, the newspaper was banned by the TANU (Tanganyika African National Union), an organization originally founded by Nyerere, and dear Hirji had to take his dissent elsewhere.

What I’m trying to lay out here is this is a man who has seen some shit.

Despite the fact that my mother is third generation Tanzanian and that this is the country where both my parents were born, I have little expertise with Tanzania, culturally or politically. When I visited Tanzania with my parents, we barely spent any time at all in urban East Africa. Instead, we visited their coastal hometown of Tanga and saw my cousins in Zanzibar. My all too brief time in Tanzania consisted of being shepherded around in the back of my uncle’s bright blue pick up truck. As a local childless mechanic, he knew everybody in town and would introduce his nieces with distinct pleasure. We visited my parents elementary school, my father’s childhood home, and in Zanzibar, ate the starfruit and lime pickle that my aunt provided for all the fancy hotels on the island.

Needless to say, when I went back to Tanzania without my parents but instead with my academic partner who is white, I wasn’t really sure what to expect from Dar Es Salaam. But what I was not expecting was to be in the midst of a heated conversation about Obama with this 66-year-old Ismaili intellectual in Dar’s neighborhood of Upanga.

“Your president is a war criminal. And he dare come to East Africa with his civilizing project of ‘empowering young women?’ We don’t have a problem here with women. We don’t have a problem here of gay rights. These problems do not exist in Tanzania.”

Here’s the thing about East Africa that I have come to understand through some informal conversation: Tanzania has a little bit of an inferiority complex when it comes to Kenya, playing into a little brother-big brother rivalry. Kenya has advantages in terms of national budget, infrastructure, and international economic and cultural partnerships. For Tanzanians, there is also a frustration that Kenyan workers are thought to be “better suited” for the tourist industry jobs in Tanzania’s illustrious game parks and archeological wonders, blocking Tanzania from fully developing as its own economic powerhouse. In fact, a common mistake that angers Tanzanians is foreigners mistaking Mt. Kilimanjaro as being in Kenya instead of Tanzania, a misconception exploited by the Kenyan tourist industry. What I have said here is such an oversimplification of passing observations. But it is an observation nonetheless.

This rivalry feels relevant in my current conversation with Karim, who is furious about Obama’s presence in Kenya and his seemingly condescending message about “elevating” young East African women. For Karim, this is a clever distraction technique of the western world. If Obama goes on TV condemning female genital mutilation and other “bad traditions,” he is painting the whole country as barbaric and painting himself and the west as the great colonial civilizers. Obama keeps referring to women as being treated as “second class citizens” in Kenya while Karim asks me, “Are women not also second class citizens in your country?”

I know which country he means, but the accusation still stings. Are my parents not also from Tanzania? Is their language not also Swahili? As the conversation unfolds, it is truly a room of shifting loyalties in terms of nationality and skin color, gender, educational privilege, generational cross-fire, and that unrelenting, prickly binary of east versus west. Somewhere in that mess is the sensation that my interracial marriage is being surveilled, second only to my American accent, my gender politics, how I am looking at him (Karim) and his wife, the category of South Asian American intellectual I belong to, etc. I feel protective of my partner when Karim starts excitedly arguing with him about post socialist theory in China, telling my partner, a scholar of contemporary Chinese political society and media, that what he is saying is “utter rubbish.” When my partner raises his voice in protest, I feel immediately protective of Karim who reminds me of my own father, sitting on his bed in the living room, his pajamas draped over his too thin brown body. When Karim tells me there is no problem with women’s or gay rights in Tanzania, I feel protective of his wife, Farida, who has been mostly silent except for her pleas for my partner and I to eat, for us to keep the conversation civil and calm because of her husband’s failing health, this woman who is basically keeping her husband alive as we later learn about his illness.

Of course, Karim is right. This global emergent feminism is grossly problematic in nonwestern contexts. I think of Spivak’s most quotable saying, to beware language that feels like “white men are saving brown women from brown men.” I think about how even in the United States, feminism feels so limited, so white, so Wellesley, so posh. The smartest and simplest thing I’ve ever heard about contemporary feminist debates in the US was a Facebook post, one line, by the writer Tanwi Nandini Islam. All she said was “Feminism is hard, isn’t it?” To be a feminist is to be accountable to a difficult history, to have to align yourself with failures and dissent, to understand that to argue for the political agency of a group, you must homogenize said group, and what happens when you do that? You essentialize an identity. You say there is only one way to be a woman, and we know, of course, there is not. How do we operate in a politics of reform and empowerment when we only mean reform and empowerment for one narrow definition of an identity? It is all a mess. I am here in this mess of transnational feminism. I am here in this mess of a long history of colonization. When I read: “Feminism is hard, isn’t it?,” it was that cheeky, goading question that rang true. It was that push to admit that when two women stand up and say: “We are feminists,” they do not have anything in common except the notion that they are committed to the critical inquiry of a difficult history, a messy politics, an imperfect movement. They are committed to the idea that things are not yet fair, will never be fair. Is this enough? It must be.

Karim is also wrong. Here, he is upholding an old school limited view of Marxist politics that sees itself as the homogenizing trump card of all other politics. When he says something to the effect of, “If you pay a man well enough, the entire household is happier. He does not feel emasculated, and he will not hit his wife,” I cringe.

Karim sees me cringe. And then Karim is looking at me like I am a white woman.

But I am not a white woman.

And yet, I possess whiteness here. I can feel it creeping over me in this very living room. I feel my body hot not with anger, but with illegibility.

You are Indian, but you must explain your Portuguese last name, your parents’ British accents, your parents’ Swahili tongue and Hindi ignorance, your white as fuck first name given to you by your parents who liked a character in the TV show, the Thornbirds.

You are Indian, but your mother is third generation Tanzanian, your father grew up in Tanga and never visited India until he was in his 40s.

You are Indian, but no, you are really Goan.

You are Goan, but someone once told you that this means you are white Indian, but black Portuguese.

You are not Portuguese, but your grandmother only spoke Portuguese and Konkani. She refused to speak English or Swahili.

You are not Portuguese, but your aunts and uncles are all named Zelia, Maria, Luis, Teresa, Evaristo, Aloysius, Zerina, Basila.

You are not. You are not. You are. You are.

In this room, you are white because your partner is white.

You are white because you were educated in the west.

Because your parents are the wrong kinds of South Asians.

Because your parents left and did not come back.

Because you came to a house to talk a man who stayed.

You are white because you had to consult at least three different books published by Duke University Press to help you articulate this inscrutability. You are white because you needed institutional western knowledge to unpack what occurs outside institutional western knowledge, in fact, what is belittled by that knowledge.

You are always a woman.

At home, you are another brown body on the number 7 train to Queens.

You do not look at his wife. You do not interpret her actions for fear you might project a false solidarity or worse, condescension.

You look at him.

You look at him and shrug like an American.

No, not like an American. Like a fucking millennial.

December 2010
Goa, India

Here is the scene where my feminism actually felt like it killed a man.

A man walks into my grandparents living room. He is an old friend of my father’s from Tanga. He sits down with my mother and starts talking about the 2008 presidential primary between Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton. He says: “A woman can’t be president, because you know, women, they don’t have the brain power.” To him, this is a matter of fact.

I am at the kitchen table, and I turn around slowly. I say things. I say things that come spilling out of my mouth because I am 25, because I am a graduate student, because I just read Butler and Lorde and Kristeva, and because I am angry. I say things because theory has never felt pretentious or adrift to me. It has always been deeply bodily. I say things and the man looks puzzled.

I am mean. With Karim, I was trying to explain. With this man, I am trying to humiliate. I am trying so hard to humiliate him that he doesn’t even know what to do. Perhaps a woman has never tried to humiliate him before. Not this way. Not with words.

The man looks furiously at my mother.

“I have three daughters. They are good girls. None of them speak to me like this.”

My mother is mortified. She is trying to explain that I am young, in fact, that I am her youngest. She is trying to explain in a way that only mothers can, that beautiful reckoning with the fact that what was once inside you has now bloomed into an even bigger mystery of pride and shame. The man stiffens and there is an uneasy silence. A few minutes later, my father enters. He’s not great at reading a room and seems to miss entirely the palatable awkwardness. My mother is speechless, but her expression to me is clear.

After the friend leaves, my mother recounts what has transpired in my father’s absence. My father looks at me. I feel bad that I have insulted his friend. He doesn’t say anything, but he seems to be smiling. My mother, on the other hand, is not.

“You have NO RIGHT to speak to him like that” she cried. I am annoyed at her for saying this. But what I am really mad about is what this man said to my mother’s face—that he commented on a women’s brain power right to her face, and I think to the centuries of privilege that allowed him to come into my grandparents house and in front of her own daughter to comment on the incompatibility of intelligence, presidential material, and the female body. Fuck you, I thought, and then, as if a small child, the next thought burrowed at the tip of my tongue was, my mother could have been president.

My mother goes on. “He is from a different world! A different generation!”

“I don’t give a shit,” I say to her.

A few months later, my mom calls me to tell me that the man has died of a heart attack.

I think of his three daughters and feel badly.

I think of him and feel just fine.

July 2016
Lisbon, Portugal

I am working at an outdoor restaurant called Esplanada, situated in a greenhouse with chairs and tables spilling outside under the impressive and shady magnolia trees in the Principe Real park. The park sits just off Dom Pedro Avenue and is only a few minutes walk from both the Botanical Gardens and the breathtaking Miradoura de São Pedro de Alcântara. I have come to Lisbon every summer for the past four years and always stay at an apartment close to this park for this reason, to be caught between these green spaces and aerial views.

The miradoura used to be called the balcony of the Lusophone world with its expansive view of the river and of the sailors returning home from their imperial conquests. There is a large fountain in the middle of the miradoura that spits water onto the white cobblestone and the area is always wet, gleaming. The whole scene at twilight, with the ethereal blue light against the limestone and the calm river mouth meeting the city down below, feels like a spell—and not always a welcome one.

With a scene like this, you could justify any invasion.

Not too far away, the botanical gardens are sandy, jurassic, and labyrinthine. Inside, they host a small butterfly garden and a variety of plants brought over from Africa, replanted as a living tribute to Portuguese exploration, a museum of colonial leaves.

Even though both the miradoura and the botanical gardens are paralyzing in their beauty, I feel a sense of disgust looking at them. And I want to interrogate that feeling of paralysis and gaze, awe and disgust. A scholar of affects and emotions, Sianne Ngai suggests that disgust occurs when a subject blocks empathetic identification with the object of disgust, yet at the same time, it still allures you. Noting the asymmetrical links between disgust and desire through Kant, Ngai writes: “The disgusting seems to say. ‘You want me,” imposing itself on the subject and something to be mingled with and perhaps even enjoyed.” And this is what is particularly cruel about the beauty of so many Western cities; that their very aesthetics taunt you with the invisible labor of bodies they transformed into resources. I think to Michelle Obama’s haunting, radical observation: “I wake up everyday in a house that was built by slaves,” or Ta-Nehisi Coates’ plea to his son: “You cannot forget how much they took from us and how they transfigured our very bodies into sugar, tobacco, cotton, and gold.”

Recently, my partner told me to read the introduction of this book called The Graves of Tarim: Genealogy and Mobility across the Indian Ocean by Engseng Ho. The book is mostly about the Hadrami community, originally from Yemen, but over the past 500 years scattered across Asia, Africa, and the Arab world—stuff I don’t know anything about really, but he says there is something in here that will hit home for me. Certainly, a theorization of Indian ocean diaspora, some conversation dedicated to the coasts of East Africa (the sawáâil), and meditations on burial, pilgrimage, or returning to a homeland one has never seen. The first chapter in particular dwells on what it means to bury someone. The author writes, “Burial is the act of combining a place, a person, a text, and a name at the gravestone. This simple act carries great creative, communicative potential. It gets things moving.”

As I read the chapter, I am reworking my feelings about the personal experience of diaspora as not quite just the end of the modern nation-state with its hard borders, but rather, a problematic theorization that links mobility and Western globalization too easily. Ho’s idea is a simple one in many ways. Globalization is fast, instantaneous. Diaspora is slow, takes generations to work itself out. Diaspora expands instead of compresses distance, and what happens when it is not mobility that diaspora represents, but pilgrimage? Or as Ho puts it, “not movement, but a moral direction”? How can I think of diaspora not as the movement of my aunts, uncles, and grandparents striving towards resources, wealth, education, so that their granddaughter and niece has ended up here, in 2017, writing this essay, making sense of this map of graves and ashes across the globe? When we bury someone, cremate them, mark their grave, thousands of miles from their place of birth, we are in some ways promising that we will return to them and that we will return them.

“Malaika” is a song about a poor man who does not think he has enough money to woo the woman he loves. We sing this famous folk song in a small room outside of London as a white British family waits outside to be shuffled in to partake in their own farewell. Why does this feel so brazen to me? This whole juxtaposition of our family with the family outside feels like a political act with “act” being the operative word here.

The argument in the living room with Karim? The feeling of disgust with the glamour of the imperial “balcony” of the Lusophone world? The awkward parent teacher meetings of my bi-racial cousins? These are all consequences of something slow and painful that preceded me. I am, as Judith Butler puts in her essay on mourning, nothing but “enigmatic traces of others.” To me, diaspora means cousins. Cousins everywhere. In England. In Zanzibar. In mainland Tanzania. In Uganda. In New Zealand. In Australia. In Canada. In India. In the Cayman Islands. You are all spread out, endlessly receding away from each other, increasingly decentralized as you bury the old world in new world, suburban tombs.