In 2000, I was working at Shell in Bangladesh as a reservoir engineer, when I was sent abroad to Netherland for training. The training center was a microcosm of Shell’s global operations, with new employees from Scotland, Spain, France, and America, as well as countries that were just starting to hire local employees where Shell was developing oil and gas. There were geologists and engineers in training from Venezuela, Brunei, Syria, and other Arab countries.

In the Bangladesh office, I was the only Bangladeshi engineer in the explorations team, besides two local geologists. I had fought to join the explorations team, at great opposition from the explorations manager. The country manager had forcefully inserted me into that team. I forget what they, the expats, called us, the local employees, in the Bangladesh office. Perhaps we were locals, or perhaps we were called natives. The global employees sat separately at lunch, and, in general, expressed vicious frustrations about the country and the local employees working for them. They complained about the air quality – they were concerned about their children’s health, and many of the employees’ spouses wanted to leave Bangladesh. One geologist referred to Dhaka as a block of concrete. There were other, constant snide remarks, about the corruption of Bangladeshis, the laziness of Bangladeshis, and the lack of technological capacity. Once I made the mistake of asking an expat if they had traveled in Bangladesh, mentioning the Sundarbans, and the man looked at me with shocked eyes before replying that his children were too small to travel.

Most of the global employees were Dutch or British, with a few Americans. The atmosphere was toxic. In the explorations team, no one spoke to me, except for the reservoir engineer who was training me. When I did speak to someone, they were hostile, and they let me know what they thought of me. I had studied in the US for my undergraduate and master’s degrees and just returned to the country, so this level of open racism was shocking to me. It felt like I was back in colonial times. Once, I was asked to prepare a report. When I was about to send it out, the English engineer who was supervising me, a tall, bald-headed, smooth-faced guy, one of the nicest people in the office, said that he would check over my work first, as he was a native speaker of the language.

After months of facing constant prejudice and humiliation in Bangladesh, being in the Netherlands among other bright-eyed international trainees was a welcome change. Everyone was friendly, and there were no barriers among us. The training center was located between Noordwijk and Noordwijkerhout, beside the North Sea. I believe this was the Hotel NH Noordwijk Conference Center in Leeuwenhorst. At the end of the day, we went out to either town, Noordwijkerhout or Noordwijk, for shopping or dining. We hired out cycles to bike to the North Sea and walk on a beach scattered with striking blue jellyfish.

I was there to attend two courses. The first course was introductory. Expensive consultants had been hired to facilitate team building among new employees. We were split into several groups. Each group had to arrive by themselves at a retreat in Liege, in Belgium, while performing some wild tasks en route. The first challenge was that we had to hit about five or six countries on the way. We cracked the riddle ecstatically, putting our heads together. We would simply visit the embassies of these countries in Hague, and then take a train to Maastricht. On the train, we had to sing a song and get strangers to sing along with us. In Maastricht, we slept outside the train station all night in the cool fall weather, till finally making it to our cabin, where we slept on bunk beds and cooked and cleaned the cabin ourselves. By the end of the first week, we were fast friends.

When we returned to the training center, many of the trainees would show up at the Schiphol airport on the weekends to catch a flight to another European city. Others rode the super-fast trains to cities in the Netherlands, Belgium, or Paris. There were other kinds of entertainment. Some of the men went to a live sex show, or they brought women home with them to have sex and then later clean up after them. At our training center, no outside visitors were allowed. It was a big hotel, with a dining hall downstairs that served the same food for weeks. The only relief was the Indonesian sambal served on the side, an acquirement from the Dutch colonization of Indonesia. This bottled sambal added some spice to our bland food. We used to all dream of our native foods at night. Once, the young American engineer from Texas begged me to go out to a McDonald’s restaurant with her. I forget where the McDonald’s was. Amsterdam? Hague? Or in the local village? I will never forget that meal. We relished our burgers and fries, marveling that Europeans ate their fries with mayonnaise. The American engineer, whom I remember as a round-faced, blonde-haired, jolly person in T-shirts and jeans, was my favorite person there. She was charming in her innocence and earnestness, and we soon bonded over our nostalgia for America.

On a November day in 2000, as I watched the US election results from my hotel room, there was a shocking turn of events. George W. Bush had won the election. When I rode the elevator downstairs, all the international trainees at the dining table were stunned, either speaking in fast voices or sitting mutely with ashen faces. There was a heavy sense of bad things to come. Only my dear American friend from the Houston office seemed blithely unaware of the cataclysm the rest of us feared. Despite being my favorite person, she often made remarks with which the rest of us vehemently disagreed. We would round on her and educate her on the spot.

Once we had been having breakfast in the dining room, digging into fried eggs and fried tomatoes and paring grapefruit, when she had said, “America is trying to help world poverty by sending food and money to other countries, but how much can America keep giving?”

The rest of us had challenged her, saying that was not what caused poverty or famine, not a lack of food, and that America was not helping by keeping countries in debt. Through these debts, America and other Western countries controlled these countries’ government budgets by spending, siphoning off poor countries’ resources and controlling their policies by holding them hostage.

In a few weeks, we finished the introductory course of team building and bonding. I stayed on for another course with the other engineers and geologists. Downstairs in the hotel lobby, a large poster showed the price of oil in barrels. One day, an Iraqi employee arrived. We were immediately put on high security. Even before the man stepped foot on campus, all the trainees were briefed on the conduct we would have to follow. We were not to speak to him. He was not allowed in several areas. I believe he was not allowed access to the computers. I never saw him, but like others, I was disturbed by the tense atmosphere in the conference center. I couldn’t stop thinking about how he must feel, moving through this sea of hostility, restricted access, closed doors, and frightened faces turning away from him.

In 2008, when I read Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland about 9/11 and its aftereffects on a Dutchman living in New York, a novel the former President Barack Obama gave his seal of approval by telling the New York Times magazine that he was tired of briefings and was relaxing at nights with the novel Netherland, I was already familiar with the Netherlands, its colonial history and its neocolonial present. In 2000, I had sat together at meals with young people from all over the world with a dread in the pits of our stomachs that President George W. Bush was going to turn the world upside down. For O’Neill’s character in Netherland, 9/11 was a shocking, lifechanging event that struck a blow to his comfortable cosmopolitan existence in New York. His character didn’t seem too concerned about the US invasion of Iraq — a war that would result in over a million dead Iraqis, over five million orphans, the torture of Iraqi civilians, depleted uranium waste left behind that caused widespread cancer, and the rise of ISIS. But from where we were sitting in 2000, the people outside of America, we could already see the future, beyond the scope of the novel Netherland.

Gemini Wahhaj is the author of the novel The Children of This Madness (7.13 Books, Fall 2023) — a complex tale of modern Bengalis that illuminates the recent histories not only of Bangladesh, but of America and Iraq, and the short-story collection Katy Family (Jackleg Press, Spring 2025). Her fiction has been published or will be forthcoming in Granta, Third Coast, Chicago Quarterly Review, and other magazines. She has a PhD in creative writing from the University of Houston, where she received the James A. Michener award for fiction (judged by Claudia Rankine) and the Cambor/Inprint fellowship. She is Associate Professor of English at Lone Star College in Houston.

I stack up the memories of my defeat, one on top of the other, until a mountain of setbacks is facing me. Once again, I am my mother. I am the dreams she had to bid farewell for the sake of a happy marriage, a happy husband, a happy family. I would rather we were miserable — since dreams that don’t live long enough to see the light always turn into nightmares ready to hunt down our peace of mind.

I often observe my mother’s blank face. I wonder in what alternate universe her dreams would have become reality and what she would have had to sacrifice in the process. I wonder if she often imagines a child-free life as her own, if she embraces, when no one’s looking, the possibilities that she left behind, and if she would have had any regrets in the depths of her heart had she prioritized academic success over the mechanized duty of motherhood.

Now that I think about it, almost every single one of my aspirations had something to do with my mother’s miscarried dreams. She wanted to go to med school, to become a university professor, to have a career in writing, to live in the United States. And when none of those dreams came true, I dreamt of doing all those things on her behalf. I sit alone, I wonder and wonder, but I never find the courage to ask her. What if she finds it insulting that I would ever think her life didn’t go as planned? What if she wasn’t even aware of her potential when she settled for a regular job that kills creativity, a slow torturous death?

My mother wrote a whole dissertation about the evolution of Muslim societies when it comes to women’s assumption of leadership roles. She made sure I read her work before I was old enough to understand the dynamics of sexism in academia, before I could even comprehend the weight of being a woman and a scholar — the responsibility and the burdens, the times when giving up feels like the best option at hand, the state of being in the shadow of your male colleagues or in the outskirts of your professor’s vision. My mom’s dissertation made me think that I knew it all, that I’ve officially found the ultimate cheat codes, the road that leads to academic success even when your crippling sense of self feels like the biggest obstacle in your way.

 I smiled every time someone reminded me of the similarities between me and my mother. “Even your dreams and life goals are similar” they say, not knowing that it was all too deeply engraved in my conscience, that I had planned every part of this puzzling resemblance that they now praise so effortlessly with words so easy to utter when you’re not the one putting in the work.

My grandmother’s face comes to mind whenever the word resilience graces my hearing. I remember her miscarried dreams too, and when I do, I find myself trying to overcome a strong urge to cry. My grandmother was married off at fourteen, forced to let go of what her once young heart desired. Her brothers grew up to become successful in their fields of study — one is a lawyer and the other is a doctor of medicine. While they worked hard to achieve their goals, she cooked and cleaned and raised the children who came from her infantile uterus. At sixty, she learned to make bitter jokes about the childhood stolen from her, careful not to laugh too hard at what still pains her heart until this day. Her youth a ripe fruit, a blossoming flower, carelessly thrown away.

My womanhood has taught me to live for the sole purpose of embodying the dreams of my female ancestors. Despite all the stories of the unfulfilled desires of the women in my bloodline, I long to dream freely and live my life in service to every dream that got away.

Aya Anzouk is a college student from Morocco, Rabat. She‘s pursuing her higher education in Clinical Psychology and Sociology. She’s an opinion writer for Arabic Post, formerly known as HuffPost Arabi, and an Arabic fiction writer for ida2at and The New Arab. Aya enjoys reading in her free time and is interested in philosophy and history. One of her favorite books is The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord.

The Book of Mormon, questioning the representation of Uganda in the musical:

In recent years, burgeoned by efforts to decolonise education, literature and general popular culture, we’ve seen an increase in critical engagement with classics and their depiction of what is considered as the racialised “other”.

These include Shakespeare’s plays Othello (1603) and The Tempest (1611), Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (1899) and Camus’ novel The Stranger (1942). However, what is still needed is a greater scrutiny of plays which are currently running — plays which are offering up diversity and inclusion as a facade, and by doing so reinforcing racial stereotypes, rather than combatting them. 

You might have heard of The Book of Mormon, a Broadway musical first staged in 2011 and still celebrated today. When I went to watch it, I knew nothing about it other than that it was hailed as “the best musical of all time” and had won a cabinet of Tony Awards. My analysis comes from the fact that I am African myself working on colonial, postcolonial, and decolonial issues. Therefore, the musical was racist rather than humorous to me.

From the outset, Uganda is represented as an undesirable location. Upon hearing their destination, the two white missionaries who are sent to Uganda are not only shocked but also unhappy and jealous of their counterparts with missions in other countries like France, Norway, and Japan.

As soon as they arrive, their belongings are stolen by armed men who terrify them and the whole village, which goes back to what Edward Said (1978) referred to that “the East has always signified danger and threat”. People of the village also laugh when the missionaries ask for the police, which mirrors the dichotomy of order and disorder, developed and underdeveloped.

The staging highlights a gloomy yellowish and dull green landscape, mud huts, dirt , and other disturbing images (a cast member pulling a dead animal around the village, another one pulling a wheel around, and a skeleton of another dead animal kept outside in the open).

These images correlate one of the Mormons saying, “there are a lot of disturbing things in Uganda”. These images differ from the residence of the Mormons in the village with light, a colourful sofa, a board, and books with bright colours around them. This depiction accentuates a dichotomy of “civilised”, “uncivilised”, and “primitive, developed” that implicitly insinuates how the “racial Others” and “white civilisers” are seen and understood.

Other problematic aspects of the play are the stories of rape (raping babies to cure AIDS), circumcision of women, AIDS among the people, militia threatening the villagers, poverty, and violence. However, it did not seem that people were aware of the stereotypes and the racist depiction of people from Uganda while the stories of AIDS among other issues made people laugh in the room.

So how is this depiction of Africa, precisely Uganda, different from other works and depictions that postcolonial and decolonial studies have tried to deconstruct? How is it different from the negative representation of Africa and Africans in Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness that the postcolonial author Chinua Achebe criticised for its racist illustration of Africa and Africans?

The theatre plays an important role in the quest for decolonisation. The Theatre can have a positive impact by raising awareness, educating the public and bringing people together while addressing past and present inequalities.

However, it can also have the opposite effect by emphasising certain stereotypes. Some shows problematically enforce labels using comedy.   This idea  is referred  to as “Ironic racism” which has been criticised in the media for tolerating  shows’  absurd racist tropes by actors and comedians.

Jason Osamede Okundaye discussed ironic racism in comedy considering it naïve and dangerous. What is alarming is that racism often hides behind humour. Thus, there are limits to humour especially when it is racist. Moreover, the world is moving towards decolonisation, which means speaking against stereotypes and labels attached and following certain people (in the play, Africa) from the past.

White Missionaries and the colonial image of Africa in the musical:

In colonial times, missionaries were sent to colonised lands to spread their religion and educate the “uncivilised Africans,” while colonised people were seen and portrayed as “primitive”.  Frantz Fanon highlighted the role played by the missionaries in colonised lands as calling to the white man’s ways rather than to God’s ways (Fanon, 1967). In the musical, one of the missionaries taught false information to the villagers because he had not read the book himself.

The people of the village are portrayed as naïve and simple-minded in accepting the new religion even when the information communicated by one of the missionaries is an invention. For instance, one of the Mormons convinced the people of the village to have coitus with frogs to treat AIDS. Therefore, the dichotomy thinking of civilised and uncivilised, victim and saviour, white and black (one of the characters was referred to as Nicotine), East and West, order and disorder, developed and underdeveloped are strongly and directly accentuated throughout the musical.

The white missionaries are portrayed as the rescuers of the village and its people from their “primitive uncivilised” ways. One of the characters said “the Book of Mormon will do those Africans a lot of good”. The message implies that the two white missionaries and their book are bringing a positive message and way of life to Africans, and that they need it. This mirrors the past through the role played by white missionaries in colonised countries reinforcing the stereotypes that have long followed Africa and Africans.

While the show title centres around the Book of Mormon calling it a religious satire musical, the story centres around the racist depiction of Africa. It emphasises colonial legacies of a set of stereotypes attached to Africa in general, and Uganda specifically (Aids, violence, superstitious beliefs, poverty, rape, primitiveness) that the “white man” can change, and which the show reinforces. It is the image of Africa through the lens of colonialism, which Edward Said (1978) refers to as the “recurring image of the other” (p4).

The show could take place in France, Norway, or Japan. Nevertheless, there is a deliberate depiction of an African country, stressing colonial stereotypes, not challenging them. It was not France or Japan or Norway that was laughed at in the show; it was Uganda.

The arguments presented in this article serve to raise awareness about the reproduction of racial stereotypes in the theatre and decolonise these reproductions. Decolonisation is about depicting and speaking about these issues that are racist, dangerous, and provoking. It is not only the show, but also the laughs across the room and the silence around its racist messages and depiction of people in Africa which is dismissed by people saying “it is a joke”.

Decolonising the theatre means educating ourselves about the past and using it to raise awareness. It is acknowledging how the past, shaped by colonisation, still has an impact on today’s national and international landscape between “the West and the rest”. The theatre can and should be used to combat stereotypes — not reinforce them — and change the colonial narrative about locations and people outside the Western world, decentring white supremacy.

Decolonisation is not only for academics to tackle but also for everyone. Decolonization of the theatre “rests with the people, the theatre audiences”. Depicting and speaking about racism is not only for academics as well as it is for everyone, everywhere to reach a level of decolonisation.

Who is Edward Said?

Edward Said (1935-2003) is one of the pillars of postcolonial studies. He authored several books that are still the starting points for colonial, postcolonial, and decolonial theory. Some of his most celebrated books are Orientalism (1978) and Culture and Imperialism (1993).

Concepts and terms:

The dichotomy references in the article come from the representation of the East and the West, self and other, orient and occident in Edward Said (1978), orientalism, as well as the dichotomy of coloniser and colonised others in the work of Franz Fanon. This dichotomy thinking underpins the colonial system at the time as well as the colonial legacies of our time.

Decolonisation’s definition in general can be a contested concept that bridges different foci from Frantz Fanon (1967) questioning the colonial system and structure to Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1981) writing on decolonising language and the use of colonial language to Chinweizu decolonising the literature and the mind (1980/1987). However, the definition used here is thinking about decolonisation as a “way of thinking about the world which takes colonialism, empire, and racism as its empirical and discursive objects of study” Bhambra et al, 2018, p.2

  • For further readings on the subject please check:
  • Ben Luxon (2018) The Book of Mormon is as racist as Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
  • Bill Ashcroft, Gareth Griffiths, and Helen Tiffin (2002) The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literature.
  •  Chinua Achebe (1975) An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness
  • Claire G Harris (2019) “The Book of Mormon Musical Is Extremely Racist”
  • “Colonial Legacies”
  • Dane Kennedy (2004) “Decolonization: A Very Short Introduction”
  • Decolonisation inpractice The strangers case
  • Edward Said (1978) Orientalism.
  • Gurminder K. Bhambra, Dalia Gebrial and Kerem Nişancıoğlu(2018) Decolonising the University.
  • Herb Scribner (2020) “It’s Time to Talk About Race and ‘The Book of Mormon’ Musical”
  • Johnston, A. (2003) “The British Empire, Colonialism, and Missionary Activity,” in Missionary Writing and Empire, 1800–1860.
  • Udengwu, Ngozi (2018) “Decolonize or Else – Negotiating Decolonization through Popular Theatre”

Sarah Elmammeri is a final year PhD candidate at the University of Liverpool working on refugee and border policies in Europe from a postcolonial perspective. She tackles issues surrounding the othering of refugees and asylum seekers at the level of external, internal, and everyday borders in Europe. She is interested in issues surrounding migration in general and refugee and border policies, specifically colonial, postcolonial and decolonial theory, inclusion, and diversity.

I never need to open my refrigerator to know what produce it houses; I keep a mental file of what I have purchased. For instance, I know that right now nestled next to the long-lived carrots and celery are a single red pepper and a package of cremini mushrooms.

These vegetables nag at my memory because they must be used soon, or they will spoil.  Fruit is easier to track; it mounds in changing patterns, visibly, in a bowl on the counter.  I bought a bowl from a Signals and Wireless catalog warehouse sale nearly twenty years ago, and since then it has been a focal point of my kitchen.  Today I removed a large cantaloupe from it and cut it up; I peeled an orange yesterday, and as I bit each section in half, its sweet, sticky juice ran down my fingers.   I will keep eyeing the lemons this week, pondering—muffins? lemon-sauced chicken?

Somehow, I have become a person who plans meals around produce—around a deep-seated fear of wasting.  It should not be surprising to anyone that fear leads to oversight—to order. For me, this particular fear manifests as a steady anxiety as I move through each week—even before that, as I shop, agonizing over the amount of fresh goods to buy. Often, I place three apples in a bag, then return one to the display, calculating: how many days will I cut one up for lunch? I weigh a bag of hearts of Romaine in one hand and a bundle of Brussels sprouts in the other—too much for a single week? 

I used to plan meals enthusiastically for my three boys and myself, the years we were alone, especially as they reached high school, and I had to maintain a budget.  They could eat enormous amounts of food. It was my job to make sure there was enough, that it was affordable, and that it was relatively healthy. I always went to the store with a list of dinner ideas for that week—hearty meals, often pasta-based, that would feed these young men who ate like a crowd — chicken lasagna, spaghetti pie, brown rice hotdish. Buying extra ingredients, especially fresh ones, was a burden I avoided.  I could succeed only if I avoided waste.

I made up rules in those days, too, allowing myself permission to buy certain items that were stocked in abundance—say, cereal—only when they were both on sale and I had a coupon.  It was never onerous to remember the parameters I set for myself; I was proud of my frugality and practicality.

Now, things have shifted; I have shifted. I go to the store with a list and some vague ideas, but I prefer to plan as I cook. This week, I will make a pinto-bean and vegetable casserole on Monday that will use peppers, zucchini, loads of onions; chicken drumsticks and a potato kugel on Thursday that will incorporate one package of mushrooms hiding in the crisper drawer and the remnants of a carton of sour cream. As the week progresses, I will worry more and more, scour through cookbooks to find the recipe that will allow me to use what I have before it goes bad.

When I wake in the middle of the night, I wonder: What will I do with that red pepper? An egg bake? I experience a strange mixture of triumph and relief as I figure it out, plot to avoid my shame — letting food spoil.

*                *                      *                      *                      *

The kitchen of my childhood was not always a happy place. My mother stayed at home with my two sisters, my brother, and me for many years, filling our table with hearty meals she had grown up with on the farm — fried chicken, pot roast, meat loaf. She served what my father wanted, always—never scrambled eggs because he preferred them fried; bacon that was limp rather than crisp.  We begged her to make our Sunday frozen orange juice in the blender; we craved the light froth at the top of our glass and, as we kept sipping, the cold tart taste of orange that followed. Though she made it that way sometimes, she seemed annoyed that we would constantly ask.

She did some canning in those days, too. I remember standing next to her, my nose just above the cupboard’s edge, watching her pour hot paraffin onto jars of chokecherry jelly. I sensed she did not like this work; she spoke sharply to me when I asked to have a jelly sandwich for lunch.  I knew even then she was trying to be frugal, having watched her peel a sink full of the tiny apples that grew on the tree right outside the kitchen window for a measly pie or two. The thin spirals of peel mounded in the sink, as she turned each fruit in her hand, boring out the bruises, their sweet, cidery odor filling the kitchen. She did the work because she knew she ought to and because she had helped my grandmother on their farm do it as she grew up, but it didn’t seem to give her much joy.

Then, my parents divorced (my father was an alcoholic and a philanderer), and my only brother died — twin tragedies that would change the whole trajectory of our childhoods and family life. My mother had to take multiple jobs to support us, since at the time she had no marketable skills. She’d gotten married at 19, having given up a decent secretarial job and independence, as did many women in the early 1960’s. She had four children in quick succession and had to use her energy to clean and cook and keep us out of her hair. What spare energy she had was spent to defend my father against bosses made angry when he missed work or came in hung over. She had little energy left over to hold my father accountable for his dalliances; the lipstick collars (the worst clichés) slid by with little fuss, until he confessed to my mother that he had carried on an affair with the next-door neighbor couple. That was enough for her, and the Catholic faith she treasured, to permit divorce.

After the divorce, my father rarely paid child support (which we discovered only years later), and so my mother shouldered the entire burden of feeding us on a very strict budget.  I wonder if she was as proud of her efforts as I am of mine now.

The divorce changed the way we ate, of course. Dinner was whatever could be made quickly — Kraft macaroni and cheese, Dinty Moore beef stew, spaghetti with Ragu sauce, fried Spam sandwiches.  I assumed some of the responsibility for cooking—really, heating—those simple meals because I was interested and because I knew it would help my mother.  The mood in our kitchen, not surprisingly, was often lighter without my father and the tension his drinking had brought to the family. But there was still a hint of tension underneath.

We were not destitute, but we were poor.  We had enough. Mostly. Sitting around the kitchen table on Sunday mornings, we scoured the newspaper—together, all of us, my mother, my two sisters, and I—for grocery coupons and sale items. Eventually, I shouldered this task of meal planning for the entire family. Trips to the grocery store would be as purposeful and efficient as I could design them—there was no extra money for frivolous food we didn’t explicitly need for meals.  I relished the task, took pride in making sure we ate well on our skimpy budget.

Toward the end of the month, inevitably, money dwindled. No more shopping could be done.  We ate generic canned chicken noodle soup (with its salty, slightly rancid broth) or oatmeal, sometimes bread and gravy — a dish I despised. I understood that using up leftovers was our only choice, but I swallowed my mouthfuls grudgingly.

Once the beginning of the month came, my mother got paid, and the welfare check came, we’d have a full cupboard — beginning again a cycle of abundance and want that became a familiar element of the landscape of my childhood.

We were not unhappy.  Dinners were full of conversation; we cleared the kitchen table and did homework there.  A single box of Chef Boyardee pizza mix, embellished with a bit of hamburger, fostered a celebratory mood. We picked up slices speckled with small mounds of meat, bit off greasy mouthfuls, tangy with the flavor of the sauce.  A simple bowl of Dinty Moore beef stew over a toasted English muffin satisfied; its gravy scent was overlaid with the sweet, earthy smell of carrots. The glory was not that the food tasted good; it was that we were together, fighting—though we wouldn’t have said it at the time—for our place in the world, in spite of setbacks.

The older I got, the easier it got; my mother gained job experience. She moved into accounts payable and then into credit — work that was both higher paying and more satisfying.  It took less effort to make ends meet.  She eventually began cooking again, as she transitioned from multiple jobs to just one.  She cooked for pleasure now: rich manicotti, affordable sirloin steak — seasoned and broiled –, mashed potatoes, baby peas.

When we three girls were in high school, she bought a dishwasher and had my uncle install it, though that did mean no more nights when my two sisters and I stood at our separate stations—washing, rinsing, drying and putting away the dishes—with music and good-natured bickering our soundtrack for this simple work.

*                *                      *                      *                      *

The kitchen of my present is a perfect room. It is large and square, painted recently a pale gray green with one wall—the one above the windows that face the front yard (with its bird feeders, hosting cardinals and chickadees)—painted a rich lavender-blue for contrast. Cupboards line three walls, including a tall pantry cupboard.

This is the room that sold the house to me. I spend most of my time here—it’s where the music is, where guests gather.  It’s where I scan cookbooks and magazines, looking for creative ways to use the vegetables in my crisper drawer.

This morning, as I diced that red pepper I was so worried about for scrambled eggs, I smelled its sweet acidity and felt a deep satisfaction with my life; I did not know I would end up here, in such abundance. I lead a life of privilege, one that still takes me by surprise. As a child, we rarely had fresh vegetables, except for potatoes and carrots from our garden. As I chop, I feel enduringly grateful for what I have.

Out of abundance comes vigilance.  I must not waste what I am lucky to have. To have enough also enables me to give, to extend my good fortune to others.

My son Nate stopped by yesterday because he was sick and needed to borrow a thermometer.  He took his temperature in my kitchen, then pocketed the thermometer because he needs to make sure he’s fever-free for work. Before he left, I also managed to place in his hands a few bottles of non-alcoholic beer I bought for him for a recent family gathering. I offered packets of tea for his cold, and a lemon — too good in the tea — for the vitamin C.

On rare occasions, a stalk of celery browns and wilts, or a bowl of leftover gravy or spaghetti sauce (always homemade) molds in its dark corner of the refrigerator.  I throw the celery into the compost bucket—a good save since most food that goes bad in my house can be saved in some way.  If I had a dog, I’d save even more:  I’d feed him whatever I couldn’t eat, as my grandmother did on the farm. 

I have wrestled my demons and won, warded off the certain shame that comes with failure. The reward is the wrestling.  I keep my convictions in a world of ease and waste, with muscular effort.

Tracy Youngblom earned her MFA in Poetry from the Warren Wilson College Program for Writers. She has published two chapbooks of poems and two full-length collections, including her most recent, Boy, set to release in February 2023. Her work has appeared in journals such as Shenandoah, Big Muddy, Cortland Review, New York Quarterly, Potomac Review, North Dakota Quarterly, and many other places. She has twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize in Poetry, most recently in 2017.

We pronounce them “luckies,” which always made sense growing up because we felt so lucky to eat them. It was their salty richness, their fluffy potato innards, their cascade of oil soaking the paper towels ensconcing them on the dinner table.

There were other delights at Hanukah every year, from sweet gelt munched far too early in the day, to strips of corned beef I adorably termed “Hanukah bacon,” to the classic gefilte fish only the adults looked forward to. But latkes, for our ever-secularizing family, were the reason for the season.

It was my aunt, Sherri, who guarded the latke recipe. As a teenager and young adult, Sherri had been a wayward rebel, eschewing her parents’ warnings as she threw herself from one reckless adventure to the next. But in her mellow middle age, she had come to adopt a respect for tradition that even Tevya from Fiddler on the Roof would have been proud to see.

Sherri diligently grated potatoes every winter, carefully sprinkled matzo meal into the gloopy mess, and unfailingly watched for the telltale browning on the little pancakes. Her partner, Ron, stood by her side at the stove, piling the sizzling latkes on the paper-towel-laden plates. Early on, I learned that if I helped dish out the spoonfuls of batter into the boiling oil, I might be able to snag a latke or two fresh off the stove.

And as the years went by, I also gradually learned the family recipe for latkes. I learned the delicate but entirely unscientific proportions—one to two potatoes per person, two onions per ten potatoes. I learned how to identify just the right consistency of the mush—it should be gloppy, but not runny. And I learned how to navigate the all-important oil that brought the whole ceremony together, turning spoonfuls of lifeless goop into morsels no one could put down—it had to be sizzling, but not popping. That was the key.

While my three younger siblings washed their hands as soon as potato-peeling duty was over, I, like my aunt before me and who knows how many eldest daughters before us, hovered in the kitchen learning the family lessons.

But would it be enough to make latkes on my own?

I wouldn’t have a choice, moving from Pittsburgh and its rich multicultural heritage, to a Montana town with just over 20,000 people and no synagogue.

I wrung my hands as I drove from outlying town to outlying town, scouring each small grocery store for the crucial Manischewitz ingredient. I eventually thought to google matzo meal, and my kind Jewish forebears directed me to the exact aisle where a tub of the essential item could be found.

I carted my treasure back to my studio apartment, along with my eggs, onions, potatoes, salt and, of course, oil. I bought a cheese grater and sat down to work, pulling the trash can beneath me like we had always done at home. I sawed with a small knife and missed my aunt’s Rotato device.

My fingers bled, potato chunks flew, and I found myself missing the camaraderie of peeling — the familiar arguments over music and the competitions over potatoes peeled. I glanced at my new menorah, still gleaming and free of wax. It had been a gift from my mom when I moved to Montana.

I wrung my fingers out after the unending chore of grating. I mixed in all of the ingredients and, with more than a little trepidation, began to pour the oil.

My first spoonful sizzled sharply, and I winced. Hot oil splashed out of the pan at me. I reached for another dollop, and then the fire alarm started blaring.

I panicked and grabbed the entire pan, yanking it off the burner and running with it out onto the apartment lawn. I threw the hot pan into the snow and fanned at the smoky air with the door. Eventually, the alarm stopped sounding, and I gingerly picked up the pan.

With a fan blaring and the door propped open to the cold December air, I carefully ladled out the rest of my batter. I let the latkes cool in the soaked paper towels and seasoned them generously with salt before I dared try one.

They looked like my aunt’s, they smelled like my aunt’s, but after six hours of nonstop work in the kitchen, I couldn’t bear it if they didn’t taste like my aunt’s. I selected a cooling latke from the top of my pile. And there it was. The salty flavor. The flaky texture. As good as I had tasted in my grandmother’s small apartment in Pittsburgh.

Glowing, I eagerly wrapped up the rest and piled Tupperware upon Tupperware into my green VW Beetle. I careened into my office, my arms laden with latkes, ecstatic to share my triumph with my coworkers.

“Latkes,” I called out breathlessly. “I made latkes, everybody.”

The newsroom stared at me. No one made a move to get out of a chair. I remembered how my family always pronounced Yiddish and Hebrew words differently, from latke, to kebosh, to l’chaim.

“Lat-kuhs,” I deliberately enunciated. “There are lat-kuhs here.”

Still, no commotion.

I wasn’t deterred. I picked up one of the Tupperware containers and carried it to my nearest coworker. He just looked at me blankly. Then the next just stared, and the next, until I found that not a single Montanan in my forty-person newsroom had ever heard of a latke.

Bewildered, I tried to explain their potato-filled flavor without dumbing them down to simple potato pancakes. I couldn’t help but start to panic as I saw the steam on the sides of the Tupperware begin to vanish, signifying the beloved latkes were cooling at an alarming rate.

“Try one!” I insisted.

My friend Jake, a blonde-haired Idaho transplant, lumbered his way over to me and my sprawling latke collection. I babbled about applesauce and sour cream as he took his first bite.

“A little oily,” he noted as he chewed.

I grinned and grabbed one for myself. “I know.”

Bret Anne Serbin is a journalist in Montana. Her nonfiction has been featured in Deep Wild Journal and is forthcoming in Archer Magazine. She graduated from Swarthmore College with a degree in English. She’s originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

We have crossed the Big Island of Hawaii to the western Kohala shore in search of a sandy beach and surf. It is raining hard on the eastern shore, in Hilo, where we are staying for two weeks. We haven’t come this way – over seventy miles of two-lane roads – because of the rain. No, the rain is agreeable to us: the rain is warm, the air is warm, the rain comes and goes like a Top Ten Hit every twenty minutes on the AM dial. Our condo on the eastern shore is on the third floor of an old concrete building, and our generous lanai is perched over Carlsmith Park, where the flowering jungle is kept back by the pool wall. Beyond the wall, tiny, clear, blue inlets weave in among the palms and acacias, and turtles break all the state’s laws about staying ten feet away from tourists. This is what I imagine when someone says “paradise.”

We have come this way, west over the saddle road, because paradise and all its rocky cliffs, all its turquoise and white water, waves humping unyielding lava flows, are not the best place to take a dip, to boogie board, or to stroll along the sand. Hapuna Beach is one of the island’s few sandy beaches, over on the western, older shores of the island where time and water have tamed the lava. And so, we have driven over in an old, faded, dirty Honda Civic rented from a local boy named Tony who surely knows his wrecks. We are standing under a shade tree with round, shiny, dark green leaves the size of lunch plates. Stu is holding a boogie board and scanning the sea.

But there are no waves on Hapuna Beach today. Stu shrugs and tosses the boogie board on the picnic table under the tree, and we walk out across the beach. For the afternoon, we read and walk and read and swim. Stu sits at the picnic table after a swim, sees something in the sand, and wiggles loose a piece of flotsam with his toe. It’s a teaspoon, dropped by some recent picnicker. He sets it on the bench and wanders back to the sea.

The sandy teaspoon is upside down on the bench. Something about its shape is familiar to me, and as I reach to turn it over, I know what I will see: a few curlicues and a small flower stamped into the cheap stainless. The very same pattern on the flatware my parents bought with Green Stamps in California and that I used every day of my childhood. A few pieces even came with me when I left home and are still somewhere in our camping equipment in Oregon, sixty-three years after my parents handed those Green Stamps over to the gas station attendant and took home the service for eight, serving spoon and butter knife included. 

The spoon, like so much else in Hawaii, is not from around these parts. The spoon is an example of what’s thwarting me in my Don Quixote-like search for the local and the real – the people, the food – on this big, fecund island. Which, oddly enough, I’ve been thinking about a lot on this particular afternoon, sitting under the tree with the lunch plate leaves, reading MFK Fisher’s Serve it Forth. When I travel, I come full of expectations. Not that I will shop in boutiques or put on a tan. I come looking for local food and local people I can talk to about the food they eat. Just as Fisher in her book is traveling the centuries, looking to make sense of how and why we eat what we do, I want to understand the food of Hawaii, and why and how Hawaiians eat it. I want to experience it from the inside out.

When we arrived at the condo in Hilo, I opened a cupboard to find two boxes of Jell-O left by the previous renters. Not an abomination exactly, but a curious purchase in the land of papaya, passion fruit, and macadamia nuts. Why did they buy Jell-O? And why didn’t they eat it? Maybe they visited the big Hilo Farmer’s Market one morning and brought home a papaya, which made them forget entirely about the strawberry banana Jell-O in the cupboard. 

It is hard to override our baser tastes, driven by convenience and habit. Our condo Jell-O eaters, the spoon in the sand, they’re why I am tilting unsuccessfully at this windmill, searching for local food, and the old ways of eating it. All 1.5 million Hawaiians and the eight-to nine-million tourists who visit here each year are consuming mostly imported food. Only about twenty percent of what Hawaiians eat is actually produced in the islands. In 2013, food imports here were almost $7 billion of Jell-O and other pantry staples, $8 million in bread, pastry, and cakes, $16 million in beer, $19 million in frozen beef, and $23 million in tuna. The number-one fruit import? Oranges. Yet nearly every neatly trimmed yard we pass is home to a tree that groans under a canopy of oranges. So many oranges that paper bags full of oranges are often left at park entrances for our pleasure. 

 As I sit thinking about the power of local food for local people, I watch the Hapuna Beach gardeners raking up the fallen leaves and the larger-than-life, almond-like seeds that have fallen from the trees with the big green leaves. Could these be the Malabar chestnuts I’ve read about? After we return to Hilo, I read up on Hawaiian trees and discover I have spent the afternoon under a Sea Almond, and that its seeds are a prized nut in India. Here in Hawaii, where they import eighty percent of their food across thousands of miles of ocean, they are swept up and tossed away.

There are farmers’ markets here on the Big Island every day of the week. This is a positive sign, no? Farmers, coming together, selling local food. But I had been warned before we ever arrived that most of the food sold there was bought wholesale by the vendors from large produce suppliers, much of which is not even grown on this island or any of its brothers here on this chain of lonely isles, the farthest from other land masses of any islands in the world. Some vendors offer a backyard papaya or long beans from their garden, but the rest of the items on their tables come right out of Dole boxes, sitting in plain sight, and are parceled up into convenient tourist-size bags, meant to go back into that tiny fridge in the resort hotel.

Yes, there were passion fruit, lychee and rambutan. And I was happy for them, and even for the common, familiar things like eggplant and peppers. A banana grown here, or a fresh pineapple is full of the flavor we never taste on the continent, 2,500 miles away, after a long ocean voyage en route to mainland cold storage.

But I wanted more, things I had read about and longed to taste: tree tomatoes, egg fruit, ice cream beans, Malabar chestnuts, ohelo berries from atop the volcanoes. I asked about them, or about particular things I did not know or understand, and a veil came down over the seller’s eyes. They pointed out that papaya was five for $3. What else did I need to know? A busy market is not the time or place for history and cooking lessons. I left, a few somewhat familiar items in my bag, but an ache in my heart to know more, taste more, to be for a moment not a haole, a cracker, a gringo, a honky. But for just a few days, a part of the āina.

Āina. It’s what Hawaiians call the land, but it is more than that.  It is more than the Italian notion of terroir, which is merely all the physical things — land, earth, soil, sun — that impart flavor to a particular wine. To Hawaiians, the land is alive in a very human sort of way: “… it can do things, want things, and know things. [Hawaiians] are the offspring of a union between the earth and sky, making the āina a direct relative,” writes Judy Rohrer in her book, Haoles in Hawaii.

All Hawaiians needed, the āina provided, and then Captain Cook showed up in 1778. Suddenly, āina was not enough. In less than one-hundred years, ninety-five percent of native Hawaiians had disappeared, ravaged by diseases and our ways. “This powerfully demonstrates” writes Rohrer, “how colonialism can be seen as a form of genocide in Hawaii.”

Now the islands are dependent on the mainland and foreign markets (mainly Indonesia and Thailand) for mattresses, cars, the oil to fire their electric generating plants. And yes, stainless steel flatware, oranges and Jell-O.

Maybe I want what is inappropriate for a haole to desire. Or for a honky to want in New Orleans, a gringo to crave in Oaxaca. My own whiteness means I am forever shackled to the only food culture most of my kind can experience and most of it does not interest me: processed fast food and the diminution of the world’s cuisine. Think French cassoulet recreated as franks ‘n beans in a can. I can never make rabbit as a Frenchman, or gumbo as a Cajun, or poke as a Hawaiian. And yet, I want to go deep, make it part of my marrow. I, who am a symbol of another kind to Hawaiians. I am the spoon, I am the Jell-O. I am the descendant of Captain Cook.

So, I bash along against the tide. I arrive. I observe, I ask questions, and I teach myself. I paw through Hawaiian cookbooks in the Hilo bookstore, and set aside in a stack on the floor, unwanted, the books by celebrity Hawaiian chefs and the recipe collections by haoles much like myself. Where is the good stuff, the original ways? There is nothing else left on the shelf.            

I come home to the condo from the Maku’u Farmer’s Market on Sunday with taro and pumpkin blossoms. I dice the unfamiliar pale purple taro and boil it until tender. Is this the way? I don’t know, but I know tubers, and this seems right. When the taro is fork-tender, I drain it, let it cool, mix it with local goat cheese, and stuff the mixture inside the pumpkin blossoms. I dredge them in flour and egg and flour again, and fry them, and serve them up on a salsa of peppers, avocado, papaya, shallots, and cilantro. They are not Hawaiian, but they are very good, out on the lanai, near the turtles.

Kathy Watson is a chef and writer. She is the lead chef of the Chefs Collective at Ruby June Inn in Husum, WA. and was the owner and chef of Nora’s Table in Hood River, OR. She recently completed her first novel, Orphans of the Living, and is searching for an agent. Her earlier journalism career included six years as editor-in-chief of Oregon Business magazine. She lives with her husband, writer Stu Watson, and wonder dog, Satchel, in Hood River. When she is not cooking or writing, she runs the hills. She can be found on her website, Hunger Chronicles, and on twitter at @KathyisHungry1 .

I have always  known that “Black is beautiful” even before I became aware of the popular phrase that is now a cliché. Black is beautiful because Black skin is the most durable of all human skins on earth. Its pigmentation is  resistant to many skin diseases. It’s a covering that slows and belies the scourge of aging

Have you ever seen a senescent White man? Mr. Joyman is my paramount boss and owner of a flourishing bakery in Port Harcourt. He is sixty-seven, with a frame slightly bent not by sickness, but old age. A sixty-seven-year-old African is still fully erect. A sixty-seven-year-old African is still blessed with a tough, smooth skin. And some, still boyish! The African blood is a beauty that displays its soldiery in the war against virus and bacteria. Have you ever wondered why in the past the colonisers from the West were easily afflicted and sent out of the world by malaria, cholera, and dysentery? Have you ever wondered why the newest afflicter, coronavirus, has killed far more white blood than a black blood? That is the answer.

Africa also had another beauty, a greater one in the past. I am a voracious reader. Sundays free me from my bakery’s assignments. We do bake on Sundays, but as a supervisor, I have the privilege of staying off work. It is a privilege that affords me the time to read books about different facets of life. I am more a fan of literature and history. I have a bulk of these books, more so than any other kind, in my mini library at home. It is from my home library I draw out this past beauty of Africa, written in poetry:

“Rejoice and shout with laughter

Throw all your burdens down,

If God has been so gracious

As to make you Black or Brown.

For you are a great nation,

A people of great birth

For where would spring the flowers

If God took away the earth?

Rejoice and shout with Laughter,

Throw all your burdens down

Yours is a glorious heritage

If you are Black, or Brown.”


Gladys Casely Hayford, an African American woman titled her poem, written in the 1930s, “Rejoice” because she wanted Africans to be proud of a glorious heritage, a great birth, and a great nation. Casely Hayford makes me realize that Africa had an impressive past, unlike what the likes of former President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, wants me to believe. The Frenchman gave a speech on July 27, 2007 at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal in the presence of an audience of 1,300. He said: “The tragedy of Africa is that the African has not fully entered into history…They have never really launched themselves into the future. The African peasant, who for thousands of years has lived according to the seasons, whose life ideal was to be in harmony with nature, only knew the eternal renewal of time… In this imaginary world, where everything starts over and over again, there is room neither for human endeavor, nor for the idea of progress.”

Unfortunately, or rather, ironically, Sarkozy said this at a center of learning named after a great Africanist, Cheikh Anta Diop. Diop was an anthropologist and a historian. He was among the first whose works dug out the glorious history of Africa hundreds of years ago. The first Black man to point out through his findings that the ancient Egyptians were Black. Yet his findings are still debatable on the table of scholars and historians.

While some researchers and archaeologists believe the Black race entirely populated ancient Egypt, others see the ancient land as multiracial with  the Black man existing among the Hamitic and Semitic inhabitants; Black pharaohs also sat on the Egyptian throne. Other historians give a flat no to the concept of Black inhabitants in ancient Egypt. But the doubtless truth is Africa has a history of abundance. The Sarkozys of this world attempt to deny that and reduce our ancestors to peasants who were only in tune with their natural surroundings, and dead to ideas and exploits.

The Francoise-Xavier Fauvelles of this world will continue to counter the fallacy with: People like to think of Africans as more rooted in nature than culture. But history teaches a different lesson: of kings, diplomats, merchants.” And the Mutabarukas of this world will continue to educate with his reggae song, “Great Kings of Africa.”

Ironically, Anta Diop’s namesake and fellow Senegalese, poet David Diop, gave a glowing tribute to Africa of old during his short life on earth. I can still remember Diop’s most famous poem titled, “Africa:”

“Africa my Africa

Africa of proud warriors in ancestral savannahs

Africa of whom my grandmother sings

On the banks of the distant river

I have never known you

But your blood flows in my veins

Your beautiful Black blood that irrigates the fields … “


My library holds a history book called The Story Called Africa, written by Maina Maikasuwa. Maikasuwa, through extensive research and quoted works from other researchers, Europeans and Africans, unearthed an authentic African story. It is a balanced story of “gory” and glory. I heard the book won a prize a few years ago.

But my former favorite books on Africa were: Toward the Decolonization of African Literature by Chinweizu Ibekwe and How Europe Underdeveloped Africa by Walter Rodney. Now my favorite is the voluminous work by Amanga Habinomana titled The Unveiling of Timbuktu.

The Rwandan author chronicles the gradual rise of Timbuktu, a sort of city state in the ancient empire of Mali. Initially this African city was a large storage house for salts and other goods. It was a waiting area for traders to choose goods for trading at big markets. Travelers coming from Europa, Arabia and the Americas brought gold to trade for salt. Some of these traders chose to make Timbuktu their permanent residence, and before long the village became a small town and, in turn, a city.

By the early 1300s, Timbuktu had become a hub, a center of attraction, and the pride of the Malian empire. People came from across the continent. Europeans were awash with rumors of Timbuktu’s abundant wealth and resources. It was said that, in 1324, Mali’s sultan-leader, Mansa Moussa, travelled for pilgrimage to Mecca with 60,000 slaves and servants and with an abundance of gold. During his visit to Cairo in Egypt, the price of the precious metal dropped precipitously. Explorer Ibn Battuta from Arabia visited the famed city 30 years later, and his descriptions of the bustling city stoked the flames of European imagination.

During the period, Europa (as Europe was called then) was plagued by the ice age and the bubonic plague. Listening to the constant impressive tidings about a faraway African city spurred a dream they wished to achieve. They dreamt of streets lined with gold in Timbuktu. The city was a sort of African El Dorado.

Can you imagine that? White folks longing to visit an African city? Wow! Timbuktu was at that time, what London, Dubai or New York means to Africans in our present days. Many Western historians will never broadcast this African history of glory.

I also read that the peak of Timbuktu’s greatness occurred in the late 15th century. And guess what the prime commodity in the city was? I know many will shout out gold! But it wasn’t; it was books! Hundreds of scholars studied at the almost 200 maktabs (Quranic schools in Mali).  These scholars worked as scribes, which increased the number of manuscripts in the City-state. Visitors to the city, especially scholars were specially welcomed and entertained in the hope that they would share their knowledge and books.

 I read a Nigerian newspaper that has a column squarely dedicated to African Literature and history. The columnist quoted from the words of an American intellectual at California State University, Brent Singleton. Singleton graciously, or rather, factually corroborated Habinomana’s Unveiling Timbuktu, about the importance of books during the golden day of the land. He said, “The acquisition of books is mentioned more often in Timbuktu than any other display of wealth, including the building and refurbishment of mosques.

Like Timbuktu, the Nok civilization is also a reminder of Africa’s beauty.  The old-time civilization was located in the southern part of Kaduna state, Nigeria. The people of the land had perhaps the finest sets of terracotta in the world. It’s no wonder, bulks of these sculptures, stolen by thieves, are still nowhere to be found.

The Benin civilization, unlike Nok’s, has good news about her stolen artifacts. Not too long ago, French President Emmanuel Macron demanded the return of twenty-six artifacts that were stolen by the French colonial power in 1894 from the kingdom of Benin. The stolen goods have been returned and were received by Oba Ewuare II, the current Benin monarch in the modern day Edo state of Nigeria. In 2014, his predecessor had received two artifacts taken from the Benin kingdom in 1897 during an invasion by British soldiers which resulted in the monarch going into exile. But why steal from a people considered inferior and crude? Well, perhaps, that will be a discussion someday.

Africa had produced great minds in the past and has produced new great minds today. These include Soyinka, the first African man to win the Nobel prize; Wangari, the first African woman to win the Nobel prize; Okri, the first African to win the Booker prize; Evaristo, the first black woman to win the Booker prize; Adichie, for her feministic revolution and impressive mastery of writing stories; Kperogi, for his unusual mastery of the English language – an exceptional wordsmith; and Weah, the first African to be crowned world footballer of the year by FIFA in 1995 and the only African to date.

Africa has produced firsts worldwide. Ethiopian Haile Gabreselasi, was the first human being on earth to run a marathon with a world record time of 2:03:59 in 2008. African American Ben Carson became the first doctor in the world to perform the first successful neurosurgical procedure on a fetus inside the womb, the first to dissever a set of twins conjoined at their heads, and the first to develop new methods to treat brain-stem tumors.

“Africa’s history has been badly distorted,” says a friend of mine whom I visit. Like me, he is passionate about the history of our Africa. Often times, when we converse, our conversations unconsciously revert to history. I visit him on a Sunday with two loaves of bread as a gift. Bassey is a chronic consumer of Joyman Sweet Bread. I use the adjective “chronic” to describe my friend because he eats bread and drinks tea to a state of disgust; at least, that is how I see it. I have never seen anyone else eat bread and drink tea for breakfast, lunch and supper. And when he wants to add something different, it is either bread and beans, or bread and akara, or bread and moi moi, or bread and butter. But the day I met Bassey adding okra soup, I understood he badly needed redemption from his addiction. He had sliced the Joyman Sweet Bread into two halves and smeared it with two spoonfuls of a thick okra soup.

“Bassey, what on heaven and earth are you eating?”

“Okra pie,” he replied gleefully with a mouthful of the odd combination.

“Okra what?” I asked with a repulsive mien mixed with something like a smile.

“You don’t know what you are missing. This is hyper delicious and nutritious.”

It would have been a great disservice to my pal, going to his house without Joyman Special Bread. Ha ha ha! So, we sit on the only settee in the living room which also doubles as the bedroom. His bed is directly opposite his settee. We are still full-blooded bachelors. The need for living for a two-room apartment for family has not arrived. I confess I rented a room and a parlour a few months ago to free myself from the harassment of my immediate boss who kept chiding me for being a supervisor living in a single room. “Don’t you know you are the only supervisor in the world living in a single room?” He would mock.

The reason I said our history has been badly twisted,” Bassey continues, “is because of two things. First, because of the racist slur unleashed on Bernadine Evaristo last year by the BBC when she became the first Black woman to win the prestigious Booker Prize. Without this age of information technology, her achievement would have been deleted, twisted or buried forever like the achievements of some African greats in the past. No one would have known her as a Black writer of worth. She would have become hearsay, a rumour, a myth.

I listen attentively to my friend’s analysis even though I remember everything with more detail. It was in October 2019 that Evaristo’s historical feat was bruised by the racist utterance of a presenter on the world’s most popular radio station, the BBC. I still remember every word uttered as the presenter said, Now, this is a bit different from the Booker Prize earlier in the year where the judges couldn’t make up their minds, so they gave it to Margaret Atwood and another author, who shared the prize between them.”

The first Black woman to win such a coveted prize as the Booker was contemptuously reduced to a nameless “another author” while her white co-winner was named. The degrading comment instantly sparked a public outcry. Evaristo, herself, understandably provoked, tweeted to her huge fans on twitter. She said disappointedly, “BBC described me yesterday as ‘another author’. How quickly and casually they have removed my name from history – the first Black woman to win it. This is what we’ve always been up against, folks.”

The BBC apologised and stated that their presenter’s words were not intended to belittle Bernadine Evaristo. Whatever. The damage has been done.

“My second point is,” Bassey continues, “how can a race be labelled as inhabitants of the Dark Continent? Do you know what that means?” Of course, I know, but I shake my head to listen.”It means the race is full of shit and negativity. It means the race has never been blessed with exploits and adventures; therefore, it has no history. A fat, smelly lie peddled by white racists.”

Bassey puffs out carbon dioxide from his nostrils; a glum appearance dampening his visage as if the lie and mischief are newly inflicted. As if he is the new Kunta Kinte. Ha ha ha! That is Bassey, always an emotional being. I release a throaty cough to pave the way for me to speak, but Bassey speaks on. He says,”But we must, just like Chinweizu and Habinomana, continue to kill the lie and rise to speak about our truth: Our undiluted African story, a story of worth. We must rise up in spite of the heavy burden of falsehood and hatred on our heads bent to pin us down forever. Maya Angelou told us to rise above our enemies’ lies. Remember her poem, ‘Still I Rise’?” I nod. The first stanzas of the poem captured what I just said now. She says:

“You may write me down in history

With your bitter, twisted lies,

You may trod me in the very dirt

But still, like dust, I’ll rise.”


I leave Bassey that evening with a truth he agrees with. The truth is that we can only rise if we love ourselves and unite, like Bob Marley’s “Africa Unite” encourages. After all, part of the injustice of lies and slavery meted out on us were rooted in the inharmonious postures we assumed  and the lovelessness reeking out among us. We may be playing the second fiddle now, but we must have a hidden plan to become an equal economically with the West. We need a new Sankara, Lumumba, Sisulu, Biko, Che, Brutus, Gani, Bitek, Mitshali, Zik, Rodney, Mandela, Kenyatta, Sawaba, Tosh, Marley, Macaulay, Awolowo, Funmilayo Kuti, Balewa, and more; we can attain this feat.

Langston Hughes, a great African American poet, talked about this equality years ago in his poem, “I, Too”. He said:

“I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh,

And eat well,

And grow strong.



I’ll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody will dare

Say to me,

‘Eat in the kitchen,’


They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed!

I, too, am American.”


We must be proud of who we are to achieve this equality. We must be proud of Africa to beautify Africa. Stephen Adinoyi’s “My African Pride” echoes that pride when he says:

“Oh Africa, so proud to be yours

Your colour on me, my glory

And I vow not to bleach

Sweet Africa, wish every day I could make merry

For the graceful natures of your abode

Low I bow sometimes to kiss your lovely soil

Which beneath lie my ancestors

Proudly, I cherish my differences from other races

My colour is my crown

No reason to frown

Loving the way I was born

Oh Africa, with you no boredom.”


Finally, it’s necessary to say this: the West is not the eternal enemy of Africa. We have gained some things from the White man. Their advancement in science and technology is one of the sweet pies they have shared with us. If we are fortunate to become strong economically, we mustn’t rustle our feathers on their faces in their presence. But rather, stretch open arms of harmony to them. The world badly needs this.

Again, Stephen Adinoyi says it well in his poem called “Black or White,” about this harmony I desire. He says:


Open your arms

To Black or White

It’s no mistake

For that Hand to make

Black and White

Able to make

All Whites

All Blacks

But He makes Blacks and Whites

His discretion makes the difference

Yet in the difference lies sameness

Inside the White

Lies the replica of the Black

Colour is no crime

Cos the content is one

All fashion so fine

By the greatest Divine

Open your arms

To Black or White




Stephen Adinoyi is a writer of prose and poetry. His poetry and a short story have won multiple prizes. His published novella is titled “Teen of Fifteen.” He is a fellow of the Ebedi Writer Residency. His writing has been published in various newspapers including New Nigeria Newspaper and The Sun. He has been published in numerous journals and literary journals including Ebedi Review, and Ake Review. His writings have been anthologized in several publications including Fireflies, After The Curfew, and Footmark. He is the Chairman of the Association of Nigerian Authors, Kaduna Chapter.


When we come to the round table of literary discourse and are asked questions about our identity as writers of African extraction, what do we say in response to the query that questions our identify as African writers?

Who is an African writer?

Many contemporary writers from Africa, particularly those in the Diaspora have debated over this.

So that we do not peel off the cicatrix and bring back injuries from edgy debates of the past on this subject matter, you would expect that I tread with caution. You would expect that I do not dig deep or say more than should be said.

As a writer whose focus consists primarily in telling stories of the human condition, I will be writing not only through the prism from which I observe as an insider, but also from that of fellow writers of African extraction.

Writers from Africa presently in the Diaspora form the chief part of this discourse.

Going back to the cicatrix metaphor, to say that this topic isn’t ideal for contemporary discourse, or that it has become stale, would mean missing the mark.

Questions of identity are always with us. The problem has always been that we sometimes fail or refuse to acknowledge them, especially when new discourses take centre stage. They are always here but they keep changing from one form to another.

Aaron Bady, in African Writers in a new World: An Introduction, offered insight. He sought for an answer to the question posed above by conducting a series of interviews with African writers on Post45, “a collective of scholars working on American literature and culture,” (as written on the Post45 website, 

According to Bady, some of the writers interviewed on Post45 dislike the categorisation, “African writer…some were indifferent to it, and some accept it without particular enthusiasm.” In his article, he made reference to Binyavanaga Wainanina’s satirical piece, How to Write About Africa, which brings a sense of urgency to the misplaced understanding of the African continent common amongst westerners. The article also refers to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TedX talk, Danger of a Single Story, where Adichie pointed out the danger of telling a particular set of stories until it becomes a stereotype. In her popular talk, she says, “The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.”

A good example of this stereotypical craving in our stories is the set of stories in the early 2000’s in Africa that portrayed Africa as a poor continent, the practice of which unfortunately hasn’t phased off completely in the present. In fact, the term “poverty porn” was formulated to categorise such kind of stories that tend to disregard other aspects of the African continent. Binyavanga’s satirical piece, in its rib-cracking flow, illustrates this very well:“Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the ‘realAfrica’, and you want that on your dust jacket. Do not feel queasy about this: you are trying to help them to get aid from the West.”

Many African writers have lambasted this overindulgence mentality, this unnecessary dwelling on poverty-related issues in our literatures even to the point of smearing the totality of a work with it in such ways that you find it hard to know whether the perpetrators of this are approbating, excoriating, or analysing.

It is important we put things in proper context. So, I go back to the business of questioning. Who is an African writer? Is there an “African writer”? Is he or she the one who lives in Africa and writes about Africa?

Is he or she the one who lives either in Africa or the Diaspora and writes mainly about Africa and African-related themes in total exclusion of other such themes in places other than Africa? Indeed, there are numerous questions. And while the questions look simple, this assumption may be quite misleading. Let me make recourse again to Bady’s article.

Bady referred to the 1962 Conference of African Writers of English Expression which had in attendance the likes of Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Grace Ogot, Christopher Okigbo, Lewis Nkosi, Kofi Awoonor and several other reputable writers of the time.

The Conference examined the questions: “What constitutes African literature? Is it literature written by Africans, literature that depicts the African experience? Does African literature have to be written in African languages?”

This Conference was held in the 1960’s. Considering the varied phases of events in present times, we realise that the issue still lingers – the issue about who the African writer is. Should the Black writer born in Texas whose Nigerian parents migrated to the US and who has never been to Nigeria not see himself as an African writer?

I think it is one thing owning up to being an African writer; it is another choosing the dynamics of your thematic engagements over time.

Theme plays a very important role and can be an influencing factor in arriving at the issue of perceived identity. Predicated on theme is the environment where the writer finds himself.

British-Nigerian writer, Ben Okri, presently residing in the UK, explores themes relevant to Nigeria and his British environment where he has lived for more than three decades. In his 1991 Booker-Prize-winning novel, The Famished Road, he utilizes a plot that is influenced undoubtedly by African stories on spirits. Over the course of his writing career, Okri has written works informed either by his Nigerian heritage, or his British nationality.

I will proceed with few more examples, but not of a detailed nature, since this is a brief essay that seeks only to scratch the surface concerning who the African writer is. The example of Adichie, whose works have explored Nigerian and American settings as well as other places, is a well known one— a testament to the mutable nature of cosmopolitanism in a rapidly changing world.

American-based Nigerian novelist, Chigozie Obioma, explores a Nigerian and a Cyprian setting in his second novel, An Orchestra of Minorities. Beyond just exploration, these settings also serve as stimulus for writing that dives deep for true, cultural penetration of the setting referents.

The ambiguity surrounding the definition of who an African writer is still lingers. And while it does, the world keeps evolving, the language of culture and commerce amongst nations is bridging, and common grounds and divisions are taking place simultaneously.


The areas of focus on discussions of identity keep shifting from generation to generation.

Looking back at early-twentieth-century West Africa, we observe the efforts of Senghor, Cesaire, and a few other intellectuals of the time who created and popularised the Negritude movement in Africa and the Diaspora. While it was an intellectual movement that sought to popularise African values, features, and similar considerations, at their core these juxtapositions aimed at the concept of identity.

During this period, especially after the Second World War, there was a big wave of nationalism blowing across the African continent. Although, African nationalism, being more a political ideology, sought to liberate African nations from imperialist subjugation, it also served as a conduit for defining identity, whether at national or continental levels.

From the early twentieth century, when nationalist fervour began to gather momentum, to the middle of said century, when the wind of independence swept through much of Africa, writers pushed the identity debate constantly.

If we look kaleidoscopically at the concept of identity, perhaps we may be forced to consider overarching political interpretations of it. In this wise, history offers the millennials of today, me included, surprises and counter-surprises knowing that some of our Nigerian intellectuals in the 70’s and 80’s canvassed vehemently for a socialist state. Beyond that, they wore the socialist toga as part of their identity and revealed it consistently in much of their works during that period. Samuel Ikoku and Tunji Braithwaithe are two prominent intellectuals who come to mind in this regard.

The affinity shared between our findings from history on the one hand, and what Nigerian writers think about identity in contemporary times shows the protean nature of identity. There is also another set of writers who are not comfortable with the African writer descriptor because on the face of it, it appears limiting—as it connotes that they are restricted to writing about certain themes only. We keep seeing changes in the views of writers from both divides.


Many popular Nigerian authors writing today have at one time or the other been to Western nations like the USA or the UK, or were born and bred there, or born in their respective African nation but later relocated to these Western nations. The effect is that Western ideals rub off on them over time. Because some writers passed through the educational systems or publishing industries of these nations, it becomes difficult for them to separate themselves completely from such influences.

These writers embed in their work plot narratives or themes that include both their adopted Western nation and the African nation of their cultural heritage. This juxtaposition of plot or setting, involving both the Western and African nations, explains why the immigrant narrative has become a well pursued theme. This is a personal preference which I think every writer has the liberty of acting upon. I do not think it is an indulgence. It is a response to an ongoing synthesis of different worlds in the writer’s mind, or a response to the association or dissociation of various aspects of different worlds within the writer’s experience.

We see a quintessence in Abdulrazak Gurnah, the 2021 recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature, whose work consistently portray themes of displacement, exile and colonialism in settings that are predominantly along the coasts of East Africa.

For the sake of clarity, I have not in any way tilted my opinion to any side of the divide– whether it is wrong for these writers to refuse to be tagged as “African writers” or for them to readily accept it. I should add another category, the set that are “indifferent.”

Some of these writers who refuse to accept the tag “African writer” may do so because they see it as a limiting description, something that boxes them into a fixed spot with little or no alternatives. To push this argument further, I assume that they look at the whole issue from this angle: If I am called an African writer, it probably means most of my readers will think I write only about Africa and nothing else. The radical effect of such thinking portends that these writers have nothing to say about literature from other parts of the world.

It is imperative for the 21st century writer to write about events happening in the world today, not just politics, but socio-economic matters as well, not just culture, but religious matters, too. To expect the Nigerian writer to write solely about African-related themes would be a sheer display of myopic tendencies in a global setting where boundaries are perpetually making way for commonalities and hybrid thinking.

For example, if there were another September 11 (not that we wish for another),Nigerian writers irrespective of their “Africanness,” should not dodge such issues. They must air their views. I believe what comes first is who we are as humans. Humanity is the basic unifying factor amongst us all. Another example to pursue the ongoing argument is the current COVID-19 pandemic in which virtually all nations of the world have been affected, African nations not excluded.


While we know that the global economy is spreading technology across continents at an astronomical rate, we know too that this sort of diffusion is also happening in politics, culture, and other vital indices within nations. The news in California announcing the release of a new Apple iphone arrives in all parts of the world at the same time.

We have witnessed the undeniable power of social media activism. The sheer power for social engagement through a simple hashtag underscores the capacity of social media in aggregating mass views. In 2014 when over 276 girls were abducted in Chibok, the #bringbackourgirls hashtag surfaced on Twitter. Although it was started in Nigeria, more Americans shared it online than did Nigerians.

Universities in the West are now including the study of literature written by African writers, whether resident on the Mother Continent or in the Diaspora. In addition to educational institutions, there are literary institutions that allow for collaboration amongst writers from different parts of the world. This allows for a gradual whittling down of polarities across national lines and racial focal points.


Linguistics, just like culture, has no rigid rules for the interpretation of the meaning of certain words or phrases. A word or phrase might have shades of meaning in several world languages. The same can be said of the phrase, “African writer.” That a writer is called an African writer doesn’t mean he or she writes only about the African Continent or issues pertinent to it; neither does it mean he or she is thoroughly or partially precluded from cosmopolitan literary discourse. One of the interpretations that can be drawn in an attempt to “deconstruct” that phrase could be this— that the writer was born in Africa or the writer has parents who were born in Africa or are Africans, or that the writer was not born in Africa but contributes significantly to African discourse through his writings. Another possibility is that the writer at some time in his or her life lived in an African nation and wrote about Africa. The possibilities listed here do not cover the field sufficiently.

This brief piece is meant to stoke the base of this often-ignored topic. What I will not agree with is the argument that there is no such thing as an African writer or African writing based simply on the pretext that Europeans do not use the term European writer. Neither do I think it is right to argue we have no need for the descriptive tag because we live in a globalised world where the dynamics of a person’s place of origin is gradually paling.

Living in a global world does not do away with our past or our histories. Western nations, home to some of our most popular and influential African writers, all place a premium on their cultural legacies, whether in art or literature. We, too, have a past from which we have walked into the present. To deny our identity will be too grave an act despite the fading of boundaries and the flourishing of hybridized thinking.

It is left to the writers who are the subject of this piece to speak for themselves at the round table and state whether they are comfortable being called an African writer or not.

Onis Sampson is an award-winning Nigerian writer, lawyer, and singer currently recovering from a singing hiatus. He was recently longlisted for the 2021 African Human Rights Playwriting Prize. He was a finalist in the 2019 Inspire Us Short Story Contest for his short story, An Unassuming Woman. His poems, short fiction, and nonfiction have been published in Ake Review, Lunaris Review, Vinyl Poetry, Erbacce, Praxis Mag, World Reader, Tuck Magazine, Authorpedia, African Eyeball Anthology, African Writer, Kalahari Review, and elsewhere. You can find him on twitter with the handle

Decolonial Passage is honored to announce the 2021 nominations for the Best of the Net Anthology.  This list includes writing published between July 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021.  Congratulations to the nominees!



“Unmarried Men” by Linda Wanja Thotho

“Folding Time: Dear Descendant(s)” by Ibrahim Babatunde Ibrahim


“When Hakuna Matata Became a Phrase in English” by Lorna Likiza

“Crossing Borders for an Elusive Betterment: Filipina and Chinese Women in Japan” by Tommy Gough


“How Do I Abandon the City” by Kunle Okesipe

“Four Flights” by A’Ja Lyons

“A Song for Grandmother: Daughters of Hoodoo” by Rava Chapman

“Dealing with the unnatural heat” by Osahon Oka

“I Didn’t Know” by Sharon Hurley Hall

“commonwealth primer for the children of empire” by Lynnda Wardle

Image Description: painting of an amorphous, colorful figure that sits in and seems to be part of a wheelchair — two black wheels are present, but otherwise it is unclear exactly what part is the figure and what part is the chair. The figure seems vaguely humanoid in that it “sits” in/on/around the wheelchair, but has no discernable limbs, head, or other physical features. Instead, the figure’s multicolored form twists and branches out from its trunk.

Too often, disability and mobility aids are often regarded as separable from disabled people, or worse, something that exists outside of, or in opposition to nature and goodness. This painting rejects that ableist premise and instead frames a wheelchair as essential to and integrated with the divine and good.

I think that the way many disabled people (including myself) personify their mobility aids is fascinating, and I took inspiration from that phenomenon while creating this piece.

The colors and style of my work are guided in part by my disability; I don’t have the motor skills for precise work and need higher-contrast colors for vision reasons. This has shaped my art to emphasize bright, varied colors as I embrace big, blobby shapes. Watercolors are well-suited to this approach. In this painting, I also did some strategic water dripping to make the colors of the divine’s “body” flow up and out and into the ether.

I was deliberate in titling the piece The Divine rather than A Divine, not because I think that there is only one or because I claim to possess such a singular truth, but because I want this portrayal to sit solidly in opposition to the white, male, cis/straight, nondisabled god that is so often elevated and granted the “the” when others are simply an “a”– much in the same way that writing about a normative/privileged god is considered “theology” while other areas of study are “queer theology,” “Black theology,” “disability theology,” etc. This god in/of a wheelchair is not a novelty or token, but an equally valid and plausible understanding of divinity as any other.

Wheelchairs provide freedom — however individual and/or limited by inaccessibility — to many disabled people.  And insofar as divine beings represent or create freedom for some people, it felt appropriate to me to portray a god in/as a wheelchair.

Samir Knego is Editorial Assistant at Decolonial Passage and has published essays, poems, and visual art in various journals and zines. He lives in North Carolina with a bright green wheelchair and a little black dog. Find him at,, and

Women have an advantage when it comes to marriage migration. Do you agree?

This essay will take an intersectional approach, and examine the layers of difference present when terms such as women and advantage are used. The lived experience of migration confers different female bodies with different advantages, and advantage should be broadened to not simply mean ‘winning’, as marriage migration in the East Asian context is largely underpinned by normative traditions that encourage economic hypergamy. Within these processes, although it is important to recognise that the mobility of women is often predetermined by cultural pressure, and whether or not they have agency is unclear, an advantage is all the same present through the fact that men rarely are afforded the chance to marry up.

I will use the movements between Filipina women migrating to Japan for marriage as an example to present how narratives of abroad are constructed, the ways migration infrastructure benefits Filipina women, and the ways that life in Japan affords them the chance to accrue capital and engage in a cosmopolitan life. However, the importance of marriage brokers, and fees, as well as the visa and migration laws dictated by the receiving country contribute to the erosion of a belief in feminine agency or personal self-development for women who out-migrate, and in this strand, I argue against the idea that women have an advantage in this context. I will also look at how this process differs for Chinese women, and how on the grounds of shared cultural heritage, history and even language, they can ‘pass’ in Japan, and the ways in which the power of patriarchal norms and institutionalised forms of male supremacy dictate much of the migratory process, furthermore eroding a sense of advantage through the predefined asymmetry of conjugal power relations.

Firstly, I will discuss the need for an intersectional lens when examining the migratory patterns of women in East Asia. The process of marriage migration in East Asia channels Clark’s (2001) reinterpretation of Massey’s (1993) concept of “power geometry”. This idea supposes the relational aspect of migration processes and offers an analysis that bifurcates into senders, and receivers of migratory processes. Essential to this is the idea that men easily cross transnational borders, while (Chinese) women, are “more on the receiving end of mobility” (61). Considering this, one might quickly come to the assumption that men withhold much of the power that determines migration and mobility, but this approach seems to obfuscate the feminine agency in these processes.

Furthermore, the concepts of advantage, and also that of women in this question are quite expansive, and are highly multidimensional; advantages are ascribed differentially across regions and cultures, and women cannot be applied to East and Southeast Asia in the context of this question because it elides the added depth of classifiers such as class and ethnic identity. Different women experience differential levels of advantage in marriage migration, and Clark (2001) attests that the regional is of equal importance as the global when discussing marriage migration.

For Chinese women, marriage remains an unequivocal emblem of adulthood, and the pressure to marry is enshrined in the normative traditions of Chinese familism, which enforces a double standard of age where marriage concerned, as women become ‘unmarriageable’ much faster than men. Geographic proximity and a shared cultural heritage with Japan facilitate a certain kind of advantage which is absent in the case of Filipina women: Recognition of Kanji, intimate historicity, and fair skin all bestow upon Chinese women an innate capacity to ‘pass’ in Japanese society.

Filipina women on the other hand are conspicuous by their skin, and perhaps more likely to feel alienated. Yamaura (2015) tellingly notes of her interlocutors that they considered marriage to “Blacks” (kokujin), Puerto Ricans, Filipinas, or Vietnamese women simply unimaginable (1039), and Appadurai (1996) also notes the political power of ethnicity as a global force to navigate certain borders (306). Therefore, considering this question with an intersectional approach can unearth added layers of depth to these migration patterns. In the context of East Asia, many women who cross transnational borders for marriage are confronted with various intersections that either impede or enhance their mobility, in some cases, this affords them advantages not possible for certain bodies.

Nonetheless, it can still be considered advantageous because marriage hypergamy for men from low socioeconomic backgrounds is very rare. This of course is not to say that the vertices of institutional power that regulate the reproduction of such marriage patterns are not wholly patriarchal, but there is space to suggest that women have substantial agency to navigate the male-dominated terrain.

I will now draw attention to the interplay between Appadurai’s (1996) hypothesis on the deterritorialization of boundaries, which contributes to the construction of dynamic narratives of ‘abroad’ and ‘imagined worlds’, and how the entertainment visas (generally reserved for females) that Filipina women use to enter Japan can create safe, legal channels to marriage migration and settlement.

In her work on Filipina migrants in rural Japan, Faier (2008) discusses how the concept of love was applied and how women originally on entertainment visas in Japan sublimated the love required of them for their profession into allegedly genuine love. It’s difficult to say whether most of the women in her ethnography had previously planned to marry in Japan and this seems omitted from her work. Nevertheless, Piper (2008) also discusses the interconnectedness between marriage migration and economic migration, suggesting that “many women are originally economic migrants and partly because of the temporary contract nature of their visa and work permits, they seek marriage to a local man as a strategy to enable them to remain in the destination country in a legally secure manner” (1293). This seems to be somewhat in conflict with Faier’s (2008) work, which suggests that despite the possibility of special marriage visas, the Filipinas were truly in love and wanted to remain for that reason. In this context, Filipina women have a certain advantage because of the existing infrastructure that facilitates regular flows of entertainers between Japan and the Philippines, who are ordinarily female. Related to this, is the ways in which Filipinas construct an idealistic narrative about an imagined life in Japan based on our understanding of Appadurai’s (1996) mediascapes and ideoscapes.

Life in Japan is assumed to be a gateway to modernity, and many of Faier’s (2008) interlocutors also discuss the ways in which they perceived life in Japan would somehow make them seem more beautiful. Even though they begin as labour migrants, the work they engage in encourages them to regularly perform affective labour, which eventually seems to induce genuine feelings and emotional attachment to their clients, and in some special cases, this furnishes a path to marriage and settlement, which appears unavailable to the aforementioned Chinese marriage migrants. Therefore, the intersectionality of ethnicity confers differential advantages on marriage migrants.

Moreover, in this context, there are certain social stigmas and racial prejudices involved though, and Faier (2008) discusses the stigma associated with so-called ‘Japayuki’, which is a disparaging term for Filipina hostess workers, and mislabels them as sex workers. Considering ‘advantage’ once more, if we specifically examine the case of Filipinas and Japanese men, Faier (2008) suggests that through the act of professing love, Filipinas were able to “claim both globally translatable senses of modern personhood and a sense of humanity” (157), and moreover, this implies that this profession of love is perhaps a natural human response to the social stigma directed at these women.

In light of this, we can argue that in this case, marriage migration afforded these women certain socioeconomic advantages unknown to them beforehand. For example, the accumulation of social and cultural capital abroad, learning to navigate a new and challenging social atmosphere of a highly homogenous country, and furthermore, to construct a modern identity amidst this setting. Faier (2008) seems to corroborate this by suggesting that their work as hostesses allowed room to articulate identities as successful, desirable, and cosmopolitan women (154).

Here, I will discuss Suzuki Nobue’s (2005) ethnography on marriage migration between Japan and the Philippines, insofar as it displays the ways in which women possess a gendered advantage through hypergamy that is seldom experienced by men. It is clear that the remittance income women send home after marrying abroad can improve the socioeconomic conditions of one’s family. This is not only positive for the family unit as a whole, but also has the impact of reshuffling normative gender roles. Suzuki (2005) researched one such family, and found that after a Filipina girl had married a wealthy Japanese man, the girl latterly became the head of the family, as it was money remitted thanks to her husband that had transformed her family’s life. This is an unequivocal indication of the economic benefit that migration can bring to developing regions, but not only that, it can also prompt people to challenge social norms and institutionalised forms of patriarchy. Despite this, women’s advantages seem to be hemmed in by power inequalities, and sometimes women even ironically reproduce these inequalities themselves by becoming a dependent again.

Suzuki (2005) glosses over the implied breakdown of gender norms through this process, and instead focuses on the stark differentials of wealth between the Philippines and Japan. This once more seems to echo Piper’s (2008) suggestion that marriage migration and economic migration are inextricably linked, and perhaps even share a causal relationship. Women at times can find greater accessibility to economic status and resources through ‘up-marrying’, which can afford them much greater respect in sending communities. Despite this, Suzuki (2005) reveals that although the interviewee’s family life was much changed in the Philippines, her life in Japan was far from luxurious, and her personal income depended on her husband and what she earned as a cleaner. This echoes Sherry Ortner’s argument, that people exist within multiple social structures (local, regional, global etc.), and may have agency in one, but not in another. She did not feel that the exotic life her family envisaged her leading was a true representation of the reality of what she experienced in Japan. Although there are clear advantages and positives to draw on from this experience, this character constitutes a minority of women who marry someone willing to remit regularly.

This seems to allude to the definitive power of patriarchal institutions over women, in spite of their agency. This woman was able to make significant changes and improvements in her sending community, yet her own life seemed to plateau and ultimately depended on her husband. Piper (2008) synthesises this succinctly, arguing that migration is rarely a first choice for women, but rather a reflection of dynamic labour markets that continue to change across regions. Furthermore, such marriage migration processes are difficult to divorce from the idea that women migrants’ opportunities for personal socioeconomic empowerment are few and far between (1300).

There is also much to be said for the asymmetrical nature of power in the conjugal relations of those who participate in marriage migration. This idea that the male party approaches the arrangement from a position of privilege tends to skew the balance of power in their favour, and this suggests that men in fact are much more in control of this process. This is emblematic of the commoditisation of feminine bodies, and marriage its final price. The at times convoluted mechanisms that govern marriage migration seem to relegate feminine agency to sexualised markets, reducing women’s capacity to be independent and construct modern identities to masculinist body politics that equate women with economic transactions. Chia-Wen Lu (2005) points out that “commercially arranged marriages turn women and marriages into commodities, placing women in vulnerable and exploitative situations” (276). Her argument underlines this patriarchal nature of marriage migration, and asserts the deflation of feminine agency in the process of migration in Taiwan.

Furthermore, Wilson (1982) also discusses the marketisation of feminine bodies, especially Filipina bodies, that are essentially sold to American men as exotic, oriental beauties. In Wilson’s (1982) argument, the asymmetrical nature of power is again evoked, in the sense that Asians must communicate their identity and personality with Americans in fractured English, and play on obsolete stereotyped roles and notions of womanhood to ultimately be chosen by Americans abroad. Clark (2001) also seems to agree with this, suggesting that in marriage introduction processes, “women are positioned passively, as it is men overseas who initiate courtship through their positionality of privilege and movement” (121).

Yamaura (2015) additionally points out the preferential treatment of males in marriage migration brokering between Japan and Liaoning Province in China, mentioning that Chinese women were not allowed to freely choose the men they wished to meet, or access the men’s profiles (1034). In this context however, the idea of ‘passing’ served to placate Japanese men’s fears about brides who were not Japanese enough. She argues that “Japaneseness was a norm to which the brides were expected to aspire, enabled by the precondition of visual passability” (1043). In this sense, this is perhaps an advantage that Chinese women have over other Asian women, owing to their shared history and culture with Japan, and similar phenotypes. Such advantages could not easily be applied to other Asian women considering brokering a marriage with a Japanese man and this invokes the aforementioned idea of Clark’s (2001) that regional is equally significant to global.

Despite this, it is difficult to say what advantage this truly constitutes on a macro scale, as it seems to hark back to body politics and the sexualisation of markets. It is interesting to also consider the concept of ‘passing’ as it also relates to transgender bodies who attempt to ‘pass’ in daily life too. Considering this, there is also a sense that Chinese women in Japan trying to ‘pass’ experienced a similar need to conceal a former identity in order to fully realise the new one, except in this scenario, the concept of ‘passing’ was imposed upon them by Japanese men. This evokes the inescapable power of patriarchal desires over feminine needs, in spite of this, Clark (2001) maintains that for Chinese women, foreign marriage remains a secure means of social and economic mobility worth having to reinvent oneself for (121).

In conclusion, it appears clear that this question implies a need for far-reaching and extensive research to fully be understood, as the multitude of angles from which it can be tackled unveil layer upon layer of difference. Underlying marriage migration is this idea of the geographics of power, and the differentials in mobility and agency between sending and receiving communities. In many of these processes, women fall beneath the male vertex of institutional power and remain on the receiving end of migratory decisions. I have proposed that channelling Kimberlé Crenshaw’s notion of intersectionality is beneficial to unearthing and grasping the layers of depth implicit in this question, and that primarily ethnicity should be considered important when evaluating the differentials of advantage conveyed upon various women. Chinese women and Filipina women both experience a different version of marriage migration when crossing the border into Japan, and both are impelled there by distinct factors.

In the case of Chinese women, I have shown that a shared cultural heritage with Japan, as well as their similar phenotype, they are more able to pass in Japan, yet the fact remains that the catalysts pushing them to Japan are entwined in patriarchal Chinese culture. For Filipina women, their darker skin and unfamiliarity with Kanji are factors that make them more conspicuous in Japanese society, making Japanese men hesitant about marrying them. However, existing infrastructure provides channels for them to successfully up-marry and resettle in Japan, and furthermore, provides fertile soil for the acquisition of various forms of capital through navigating foreign territories, learning to deal with social stigma, and attempting to construct cosmopolitan identities.

Others, though perhaps minorities, also have shown that some women can inspire huge socioeconomic improvements in their home communities, and even find themselves situated at the head of the family through the economic power marriage hypergamy affords them. Despite all of this, the patriarchal presence encountered in much of these migratory patterns is difficult to ignore, and at times it seems that men are ultimately in control of much of women’s agency and decision-making.


Piper, Nicola (2008), “Feminisation of Migration and the Social Dimensions of Development: the Asian case.”, Third World Quarterly29, No. 7: 1287-1303

Wilson, Ara (1982), ‘American catalogues of Asian brides.” In Anthropology for the Nineties: Introductory Readings. Johnnetta B. Cole, ed. The Free Press

Chia-Wen Lu, Melody (2005), “Commercially Arranged Marriage Migration: Case Studies of Cross-border Marriages in Taiwan”, Indian Journal of Gender Studies, 12: 275

Clark, Constance D. (2001), “‘‘Tradition,’’ and the Politics of Border Crossings”, China Urban: Ethnographies of Contemporary Culture: 104-122

Yamaura, Chigusa (2015), “Marrying Transnational, Desiring Local: Making” Marriageable Others” in Japanese–Chinese Cross-border Matchmaking”, Anthropological Quarterly: 1029-1058

Suzuki, Nobue (2005), “Tripartite Desires: Filipina-Japanese Marriages and Fantasies of Transnational Traversal”, In Cross-Border Marriages: 124-144

Faier, Libra (2008), “Filipina migrants in rural Japan and their professions of love”, American Ethnologist, Vol. 34. No. 1: 148-162

Tommy Gough is a recent Oxford graduate with an MSc in Contemporary Chinese Studies. In the past, he has worked in editorial and publishing roles both in China and the UK. Since graduating, his gaze has shifted towards the completion of his debut novel — a fantasy epic replete with spells, monsters, and eccentric wizards that also explores the complexities of a mixed-race identity and growing up queer in a religious family. In addition to this, Tommy writes regularly on Medium for a variety of publications, with a focus on racial and LGBTQ+ topics and develops his plant-based Instagram food account.

In sixth grade, I wrote a poem for a school assignment mourning the violence of the Iraq War, simply entitled “War.” My teacher gave me a low score, one of the few grades I remember from elementary school. He said, “it doesn’t speak to your life.” From his perspective, what could a child in America have understood about war?

To many, war exists only in striking images — explosions, dismembered children in hospitals, bombed-out towns. And in numbers — a running count of the thousands killed and displaced flicking across the bottom of the television screen or bolded in the headlines of the morning paper. There’s a raw physicality and gore that is captivating and instantaneous, but it remains contained and far away.

What you may not know is that war is also a state of mind. It’s not as gruesome or as bloody as the physical reality. It’s an omnipresent feeling that you can sense like a mood in a room. It’s an overwhelming subtleness. It’s an emotional repertoire. It’s the tinted lens through which some of us view the world. War still lives in my dad, whose country of Eritrea, in the Horn of Africa, was locked in a thirty-year struggle for independence from its older sibling nation of Ethiopia. Five of my aunts and uncles fought in that war.  Another fled. One of my uncles was swallowed by it years before I was born. While I’ll never understand the firsthand experience of war, I am a first-generation child of war; and I know something about what I call the war mindset.

Growing up, my dad liked to ask a question to tell a humorless joke. “What is the difference between us and a homeless person? One paycheck.” From him, I learned a single interruption could decimate our middle-class American dreams, the bootstraps that we pulled ourselves up by, the ones we hang onto for our lives. Everything in life is precarious is the first lesson of the war mindset. A thin membrane separates the quotidian from calamity, and even as a child, I had a lurking awareness this could be ruptured. I feared the car accident on a parent’s commute, the riptide sweeping my sister away, and the ordinary tragedy of a friend moving away. The loss was always of others — it’s less painful to be the one lost than to lose. That’s the second lesson of the war mindset.

My dad was born of two farmers, who later became metal workers, in Eritrea’s charmed colonial capital, Asmara. With its modernist architecture, sputtering VW bugs, and proclaimed cosmopolitanism, Asmara has long been a symbol of the Eritrean nation. A guardian angel offered my dad a one-year graduate scholarship to study in Chicago in the 1970s. While he was abroad, the fissure between Eritrea and Ethiopia began to widen — the start of the rupture that led to Eritrea’s bloody breakaway. What was supposed to be a yearlong trip had left him stranded across an ocean. He couldn’t return to his country of birth then, and in a real way he never has. War makes him an outsider to the mottled remains of a country no longer recognizable as home. The road you choose to walk down may have no way back. That’s the third lesson of the war mindset.

The force of the violence that fractured the Horn of Africa, propelled my dad to a PhD in the US and to a professorship. Decades later, he travelled to Washington DC, commonly claimed by the Eritrean diaspora as their capital city. In one-room restaurants tucked away off the main streets, at the entrances of parking garages, and behind the wheels of taxis—you can find all the keepers of the Eritrean nation. One day, my dad reencountered an old classmate from his old Ethiopian university as his taxi driver. They didn’t acknowledge their lost connection — the Taxi Driver and the Professor. I imagine how they must have locked eyes for a second in the rearview mirror, a silent mourning for their divergent paths. War creates randomness, sometimes opportunity. There is no equality of fates. That’s another tenet of the war mindset.

A second university acquaintance of my dad’s fared much worse. During the 70’s, there were socialist student movements and protests across universities in Ethiopia. One semester, all the students dropped out and went on strike. My dad, then in his 20’s, followed suit. His friend, a devoted scholar, stayed enrolled. A slender, spectacled, young man, is how I imagine the scholar, with an awkward, bookish nature. Well, a sufficient number of students dropped out, forcing classes to be eventually suspended. By that time, this bookish friend had become a pariah—regarded by the other students as a traitor to the cause. The next time there was a strike, my dad’s friend was the first to drop out. The protest didn’t gather momentum, and classes continued as usual. Out of school and unemployed in wartime, he was called to the front. He died there.

“How can I believe life is fair,” my dad has lamented, “when all of the brightest people I grew up with ended up below ground?”

The view that life is indifferent to how hard you work, to your potential,  and to your desires is the lynchpin of the war mindset. There is no logic. The whole world could be turned upside down and make as much sense and be as fair, if not more fair, than it is right now.

The collective tragedy Eritrea wears as a badge of honor touched my family, too. My dad’s older brother was imprisoned. His younger brother was killed in battle. His youngest brother joined the front as a child, at age 16. He was shot in the head, and he survived. The bullet remains lodged in his skull. Employed in the government now, with a wife and six children, he defiantly crowned our crumbling family property, Villa Asmara, in the run-down capital. Doctors have examined his injury many times and concluded that as risky as it is now, it could be fatal to extract. Sometimes it’s better to let the pain and wound of the bullet buried in your flesh stay there, that’s another lesson I learned from the war mindset.

I don’t want to make it sound like the war mindset is a depressing one. It’s not all fatalism. Since life is random and uncontrollable, all achievements feel like gifts. Success is blissfully unearned. War children, like me, never received allowances—we were not taught the values of predictability and planning. Instead, my dad released a flutter of bills from over our second-floor balcony, a parody of the Eritrean dictator’s famed stunts.

The things in life I feel proud of — my prestigious education, published articles, professional promotions — are like the evening primroses in my neighbor’s garden, blooming privately in the darkness. I am grateful for the good. That feels rare in the land of meritocracy I’ve grown up in, where our life outcomes are thought of as a reflection of our efforts. When some of my friends and colleagues confront failure, their voices belie deprivation of something earned more than a loss of something almost gained. The war mindset is the antithesis of entitlement. It’s hard to feel ownership of all the offerings my privileged life has given me. I see the mirror image of myself in my family, trapped today in the repressive regime in Eritrea. By what standards do we measure achievement when I have everything, and they have only aspirations facing a closed border and a closed world?

These are things I’ve learned, intuited, and inherited. War is both intense and bounded at the same time. It creeps into the places you would never expect it, into decades, into children, and into the homes of middle-class people in wealthy countries. Unlike physical damage, the war mindset is passed on, its trauma written into our genetic code. The war mindset leaves wounds that never fully heal. They fester, with conflict that oozes from one next generation to the next. 

Thinking back to my elementary school teacher, I can understand how a poem about war with lines like “bombs and devastation slaying pure hearts” may not have conformed to his idea of writing produced by a child. That’s why I silently accepted his remark. What I know now is that war is part of who I am.

Waverly Woldemichael (she/her) is an aspiring writer of Eritrean-American heritage based in California. She is a student of Migration and Diasporas, and she often writes on migration and cross-cultural topics based on her lived experiences and that of her family members. She’s currently working on a longer fiction project related to migrant crossings in the Mediterranean.

“Governments aren’t supposed to do this.” That’s what my granny said. She’s long gone now. Caked and cemented into the earth, rotting, and disintegrating like our economy and the other people who died poor trying to survive it. I’m thinking of leaving too. Not dying, but going somewhere that isn’t here and never coming back. I’d miss my mother, but she understands. Rather she knows. She doesn’t want life to stress me the way it stresses her. She knows, and I know she wishes she didn’t have to stay, but she must because my father is afraid of airplanes and change and US capitalism and she loves him. All her sisters are gone. She’s the only one still walking around this place with her dead mother’s face hoping it won’t kill her like it did my grandmother at fifty. She’s almost that age now. 

The minimum wage in this godforsaken country is seven thousand dollars a week. Sure, that seems like a lot but things like this call for perspective and an understanding of exchange rates. Seven thousand dollars here is equivalent to forty-six bucks in the U.S. or eighty-seven US cents an hour for every mother or sister or daughter who isn’t qualified enough to earn more than minimum wage.

Governments aren’t supposed to do this but this isn’t a problem that concerns the people in Parliament who make the rules and pay their housekeepers and gardeners in little white envelopes at the end of the week after the workers have washed all their laundry and cooked all their meals and cleaned the floors the members of Parliament then tread dirt on with their classy name-brand shoes because to them, once you’re poor and uneducated in this country, you might as well be grateful for anything. So you work and when you get your $7000, you best not take your children to the beach; yes, this is an island but not even the beaches are free. Just do what you have to, never what you want to. Pay your bills, feed your children, figure out how you’ll afford to get to work on time or at all when that money is done so they don’t cut your pay for being late or absent. 


“Governments aren’t supposed to do this,” my granny had said. Still, she was a die-hard party supporter. Blowing vuvuzelas and laughing it up with politicians who promised to help her out when election time came around. My mother used to be the same. Wearing green all the time. Pledging allegiance to corrupt politicians. Inking her fingers for the cause. Telling eight-year-old me, “This? This blue finger? This is freedom.” Watching our 10-year-old chunky-backed colour TV fizzle in and out as we awaited election results. Watching as the map turned green. Watching as my mother clinked pot covers together and screamed. Watching my mother anticipate change. Watching her watch and wait and wait and suffer and watching her catch her suffering in her hands when the bills came. Still, there was no politician in sight. No one to be held accountable. Just the phantom ink resting heavily on my mother’s finger and the sound of celebratory pot covers taunting her, telling her she should have known better than to expect change. The last time an election came, my mother stayed in. She said it didn’t feel right. That was my first time voting and even as I stood in line, hoodie over my head, hat pulled far below my eyes to shield me from anyone questioning my political preferences with their own, I could tell, this was not a vuvuzela-blowing, handshaking, revelry-keeping moment. I felt no pride in being able to exercise this long-awaited democratic right. Just sadness and shame because I knew nothing would change. Wipe the ink from your fingers. Don’t let anyone know you voted for any of these two evils. 


“Governments aren’t supposed to do this,” my mother said one night as we watched the news. They aren’t supposed to exploit their lands and peoples the way this government does. They call it the ultimate tropical paradise in those ads you see but ain’t nothing sweet about it when all you do is work and still after all that work, there is nothing to show. No house to call your own, no savings for a rainy day, no health insurance. Only work; in sickness and in death, for worse and for poorer and poorer and death. We know governments aren’t supposed to do this. They sell us for money we don’t even know we are worth. They sell us, sand, sun and sundry to whichever white man wants to develop a twenty-story paradise for lovers to escape to on eroding beaches so they can watch our one-of-a-kind sunset and take pictures to show the folks back home what a good time this country is. You should go there sometime. They sell us and when they do, it almost always makes the news and every time the headline reads, White Man Creates Boundless Opportunities for Unemployed Citizens or White Man Says 10,000 Jobs Will Come with New Hotel Development. We see this and suck our teeth good and dry because we know the government just sold us, but because we are hungry, our mothers and sisters and daughters will clamour in their good skirts and button-downs with resumes and high school diplomas gripped in sweaty palms and manila envelopes hoping they will be hired to do something, anything because time too hard not to at least try.

And soon, when the hotel opens and everyone is stuffed into freshly starched uniforms, they, too, will hear that, “The people in the hotel don’t always tip and whatever you earn in a fortnight couldn’t even pay for a night in that hotel and if you break it or don’t do it right, they take it right from your pay. Still, you have to ensure the rooms are spotless, the food is done well, the guests are happy and your No problem mon, we gatchu is authentic but understandable to the guest’s ear.” This is what my cousin told me. 


I feel like our government knows that they aren’t supposed to do this. That the people are hungry and tired and the cost of living is too high and food is too expensive and then there is rent and water and electricity and bills, bills, bills. Still, nothing ever changes. There’s something everyone here learns at a young age.  Our country’s economy is fuelled mainly by two things: tourism and money our relatives send from foreign. You learn that Western Union lines are always long, and white people are always looking to get away. Get away from what, we don’t know, because why would you want to get away from money when so many of us wish we could leave here and go towards it. Towards good hourly wages and the all-fulfilling gains that make you love capitalism: Towards cheap clothes, and food and other nice affordable things.

I feel like our government knows that we don’t want to stay here, that we realize there are no opportunities for us to become much of anything. That the opportunities that exist are already signed, sealed, and delivered to family names that feel like Listerine retribution being swished around on your tongue. They complain a lot about brain drain, about us not using our skills to develop the country but what should we do with our brains if there are no opportunities here to use them or if the jobs here require ten years of experience and a Master’s degree that we do not have and cannot afford to get. I don’t think this government knows nor do they care that I have been unemployed for over a year. That I gave them all the money I had for 3 ½ years for a piece of paper that is doing me no good. That this is not only happening to me. That my friends also struggled and still struggle to find jobs. That if it weren’t for my mother, I’d be homeless and hungry. That it isn’t a coincidence that over 80% of its tertiary-educated people, leave because there is nothing here for us to do. 


One of my aunts called from the U.S. the other day. She’s a citizen there now. Right there in the land of the free and low-cost living. She left in 2015. From what I hear in whispered conversations with my mother, it hasn’t been easy; easy being an understatement. She complains about the cold and how it makes her knees ache and her skin cracked. She doesn’t like the food either. There’s no fresh ackee where she is and she’s tired of fast food and imitation jerked chicken. My mother asked her if she’d move back here to sit with her in this place that killed their mother, if the food and warmth were enough to make her come back. She said no. She said she’d rather suffer there than in this country with this government and her mother’s spirit uneasy and in pain for her. Another aunt sends us postcards and pictures of her two-story cottage. She shows us the remodelling and tells us how much it costs, and I think about how in this country some people don’t make that in a year. How my father has been saving everything to build the ground floor of our home for twenty years. Another aunt complains all the time about the things she had to go through when she first got there. Even then, she lets us know, she is never coming back to work in another hotel.

Governments aren’t supposed to do this, but I suppose the damage is already done and my grandmother is already dead. And no, this isn’t a white flag or a complete loss of hope in what this government may eventually do for its people; I love this place, but I cannot wait until first, my mother, then I, am tired from pot-cover licking and vuvuzela whizzing and eighty-seven cents an hour. And I cannot wait until we are caked into the deep, dark brown earth, dead and disintegrating wishing we had done more. I will miss my mother, but she understands that this is what I will have to do to survive.

Devonae J. Manderson (she/her) is an aspiring Jamaican writer whose work explores themes at, and within, the intersections of black womanhood, queer sexuality, spirituality, religion, and Jamaican culture and society. She uses fiction and poetry writing as tools to share the stories of and to meet herself as the many different women she is, has been, and hopes to become. Her work is forthcoming in Lucky Jefferson and (ang)st magazine, among others, and you can find her on Twitter at and on Instagram at

Ness was too pretty to be a field nigger. That’s what Tom Allan said to her the day he’d taken her back to his plantation. He’d bought her on good faith from a friend of his in Jackson, Mississippi, who said she was one of the best field hands he’d ever seen.”

“’No such a thing as a free nigger.’ He walked slowly up to H, held the sharpened knife against his neck so that H could feel the cold, ridged edge of it, begging to break skin…[a] thin line of blood appeared, neat and straight as if to undermine the pit boss’s words, ‘He may be big but he’ll bleed like the rest of them.’”

It was on the occasion of the University of South Africa’s annual Decoloniality Summer School, a few years ago, when I listened to Professor Pumla Dineo Gqola presenting a lecture about the meaning of decoloniality and decolonisation as it relates to resisting against patriarchal systems, norms and institutions. She paused mid-lecture and began loosely paraphrasing Jacques Derrida; “He (Derrida) teaches us that reason and logic are absolute…in this discussion, I seek to interest you to the same type of thinking, but as regards freedom/liberation.” The essence of this particular aspect of Prof Gqola’s lecture was the absoluteness of freedom – that is to assert that there is no such a thing as half freedom or half liberation.

The meaning of freedom/liberation as absolute is a theme that I think a lot about as I read through Yaa Gyasi’s, Homegoing. In this offering, Gyasi tells a story about the 400/500-year episode of African people’s negotiation with settler-colonialism, slavery, migration, racism and the dehumanization of black people at the grandest scale possible.

Of course, freedom has meanings beyond absoluteness, as Joel Modiri (from his PhD thesis) explains: “I take this to mean that when freedom is achieved through or defined by the law, as when the Master declares to the Slave, “From now on you are free”, this cannot lead to genuine liberation since it signifies the abolition of neither the Master-Slave relation nor the slavish consciousness of Blacks that accompanies it. To be true to its name, freedom must have inscribed into its memory the cost of freedom, of struggle and – these are Fanon’s words – blood.”

In this brief exposition, I focus on linking Yaa Gyasi’s articulation of freedom as absolute with Pumla Gqola’s reading of Jacques Derrida.

In this historical fiction, Gyasi tells a story about two half-sisters, Effia and Essi. These two lead separate lifestyles, and are separated by life’s events.   Effia, marries James Collins, the British governor who is at the helm of Cape Coast Castle, where Black people were enslaved, and shipped off to lands beyond the Atlantic.  Her half-sister Esi is held captive in the dungeons below the Castle and resides with enslaved Black people, trapped underneath the castle, ready to be shipped off at any time. Subsequent chapters tell a story about Effia’s and Essi’s children, as well as the generations that come after them.

Gyasi’s storytelling is gripping, and laden with a strong critique of present-day society, particularly, its verbose racialized ordering, and the forgotten business of re-membering dismembered Black people. As you read about the sufferings of the Black enslaved in Homegoing, you cannot help but take a moment to reflect on the present sufferings of all Black people around the world – the women and children in Africa, who are subjected to varied forms of violence and incisions on their bodies, the Black men in the Caribbean, France, Belgium and elsewhere, who continue to be racially abused and othered by the societies they live in. The absoluteness of freedom, as teased out by Gyasi, is indeed in the same tune as the Frantz Fanon and Steve Biko dictums which says that regardless of where a Black man (person) goes, they remain Black. By this, Gyasi, Fanon, and Biko reveal to us that blackness is a marker that binds all Black people in the world and steeps them into the same pit of oppression.

The setting in Homegoing is instructive for a discussion about the absoluteness of freedom – the scene begins in the Gold Coast, Black people living peacefully (not without struggles though) in Ghanaian villages.  The scene then shifts to the people’s first interaction with colonial contact, then to settler slavery, then to British influences (abolishment of slavery), and finally, to migration into cotton fields in the United States of America.   In these scenes, that span over a period of 300 to 400 years, there are shades of differences that exist among Black people – the nuances in the spaces that they inhabit, the social status that they carry, their class position, and even their proximity to whiteness. All these differences among them seek to suggest that some are more free than others, but in the final analysis, and upon closer inspection, the truth is that all of them continue to be oppressed, regardless of these subtle shades of difference.

In the process of colonisation, slavery, and its related racist machinations, Yaa Gyasi presents three differences that created a cleavage amongst Black people, (1) At the instance of first colonial contact, she demonstrates a difference between the Asante and the Fante people of the Gold Coast. The difference was in respect to their respective collaboration/resistance to settler colonialism, (2) At the setting out to the cotton fields, she demonstrates differences between the field Negro and the house Negro, and (3) Towards the official abolishment of slavery in the United States of America, she demonstrates the differences between the “free man”, the slave, and the runaway slave.

The Fante people enjoyed rapport with white settlers because they collaborated with the colonial slave trade, whereas the Asante people were brutalized and incessantly killed by settlers because of their unrelenting resistance. As a result, the Asantes were kept in dark, inhumane and filthy dungeons in the Gold Coast Castle, whilst the Fantes worked as servants and servicemen – you’d imagine that this shade of difference makes the latter more free than the former, until you learn that even in their position of relative freedom, Fante women were still subjected to habitual rape and sexual objectifying by settlers – the men suffering similar atrocities as well.

The differences between the field Negro and the house Negro have been sufficiently theorised about. Perhaps less carefully discerned, are the purported differences between the enslaved, runaways, and the so-called “free man”. The latter are enslaved who attained “freedom” from slavery either through buying such freedom from their slave master, or migrating to those states where slavery had been abolished by legislation. With respect to the latter, Gyasi demonstrates that the “free man” is only free until he realizes that his escape from the plantation does not help him escape systemic racism.

Decoloniality helps us to understand that freedom is not freedom unless it is absolute. Specifically, decolonial theory calls for the re-membering of dismembered peoples, this means an action to re-humanize dehumanized peoples of the world, because decolonial theory appreciates that all forms of oppression thrive precisely because grand-dehumanization is their operative agent. Insisting on decolonisation is to radically seek for the return to humanity/botho/Ubuntu.

Decolonial theory provides a helpful lens for us to break and discern artificial/facile differences between Black people. Prevailing coloniality uses the same neo-colonial differences/markers among the colonised (such as the proverbial “emerging Black middle class”), thus sowing divisions and blurring the battle lines. To marry Gqola’s reading of Jacques Derrida with Yaa Gyasi’s sterling social critique allows us to appreciate decoloniality as a call to revolution and a call for the attainment of absolute freedom, in their truest sense. Such a freedom is a freedom for ALL oppressed people of the world – women, children, Black people, queers, the working class, and other forgotten and marginalised peoples.

Ntando Sindane, Assistant Nonfiction Editor at Decolonial Passage, teaches private law at the University of the Free State, South Africa. He is an activist for social justice, as well as economic and epistemic freedom. He writes for various popular South African media outlets and is Editor at Red Pen. His research interests include decolonisation, particularly in relation to the pedagogical framework of the intellectual property law curriculum in South African universities. His research critically analyses various decolonial and socialist methodologies when juxtaposed with human rights, the Constitution of South Africa as well as normative teaching methods. He holds the LLB and LLM degrees from the University of South Africa and is currently making preparations towards a PhD degree in Intellectual Property Law.  His LLM dissertation is titled,“The Call to Decolonise Higher Education: Copyright Law Through an African Lens.” He can be found on twitter at

     I visited Tanzania and Zanzibar in my last year of primary school on an organized school trip. It was in Zanzibar, touring the baths of the Sultan, his wives and concubines, that I decided I wanted to pursue a travel related course in university. I was 13 years old at the time.  Eight years later, I enrolled at the University of Nairobi for my studies.

     As a Kenyan, I had grown up being aware of the Kenyan tourism sector and its significance to our economy. I knew that the rest of the world also knew about our big game and the Maasai tribe. As a matter of fact, I reveled in the fact that my country of origin was considered an attraction elsewhere in Africa and overseas. But only a handful of Kenyans ended up in the tourism sector because it took passion to pursue something as a career choice.

     Ironically, while the tourism sector brings in billions of shillings in revenue, the course itself is not considered a top choice among many. This quickly dawned on me as a bright-eyed, first year student. Still, I was undeterred because mine was a combination of passion and a strong desire to see the world.

     In my first semester’s “Introduction to Tourism” Unit, I learnt of Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt’s voyage to Kenya. In March 1909, the 26th President of the United States had departed Washington for East Africa, just weeks after finishing his second term. He arrived in Kenya with a 250-member entourage that included his son, Kermit, and renowned British hunter and conservationist, Frederick Selous. Thus began what would be a yearlong safari on a big game hunting adventure.

     Our lecturer for the unit was an elderly, well-travelled professor who spoke in the lowest of tones. As a result, it was always a struggle to catch anything he said. Imagine our collective, pleasant surprise when we discovered that everything he “whispered” in class was arranged in the exact same manner in a book he recommended for further reading.

     But like all books written and published by foreigners that tackled subjects involving the African continent, you only got what was positive about retired President Theodore Roosevelt’s trip. Nobody spoke of his perception of the inhabitants he encountered, but rather the emphasis was on his agenda which was big game hunting. If you wanted to learn additional aspects about his voyage, then you had to dig deeper and certainly not in your recommended tourism related campus reads.

     In a March 27, 2010 article on the East African paper titled “Teddy Roosevelt Came To Kenya Guns Blazing,” what could arguably be touted as one of the earliest hunting voyages to Kenya, is described in further detail. After wrapping up his safari and returning back home, Roosevelt wrote the African Game Trails which went on to become a bestseller in the US. Of course, everyone at the time loved a read that spoke extensively of what was known to them as the “dark continent,” and especially if it was delivered through the eyes of a white man.

    Roosevelt, in his book, constantly refers to the Africans he encountered in Kenya as “savages.” In addition, he seemed particularly in support of the European colonization of East Africa and the Congo.

     “Africans had not advanced beyond the cave-man stage,” he pointed out at some point.

     Then, he proceeds to be impressed by what he perceives as courage when he got a chance to witness some Nandi hunters encircle and kill a lion. From the African Game Trails, one gets the impression that while the African landscape was more of a curiosity to foreigners in Roosevelt’s time, it was also an easy target for plunder and destruction as evidenced by the motivations that brought visitors to it. Their perception of the locals was equally that of disregard unless their actions fascinated.

     At the end of Roosevelt’s trip, his entourage had bagged over 500 big game animals that included 11 elephants, 17 lions and 20 rhinos in what would have been criminal in present day Kenya. Indeed, his safari which had been partly financed by the Smithsonian Museum, an institution that oversaw the running of a couple of US museums, had thoroughly “accomplished’ its mission — that of hunting wildlife. And upon his return to the US, he donated a huge percentage of his specimens to the natural history museums in Washington and New York.

     The African Game Trails is additionally credited for inspiring yet another American adventure — Ernest Hemingway’s Kenyan safari 25 years later.  Interestingly, Roosevelt’s adventures in the country were hardly enough to influence anything to be named after him, or perhaps, he was not that intent on leaving his name behind. Not so for Ernest Hemingway.

     In 1935 the American writer embarked on his own first African safari accompanied by his second wife Pauline and a friend, Charles Thompson. From a Marseilles port, the three boarded a ship and over two weeks later, arrived in Mombasa, Kenya. Hemingway explored the areas around Mombasa and Malindi before venturing inland. He spent some time in Watamu and must have made such an impact that a resort in the area ended up being named after him — Hemingway’s Watamu. The hotel exists to date with favorable reviews to boot.

     After his coastal adventures, Hemingway travelled to the home of Philip Percival, a white settler that had previously turned safari guide to many renowned foreign visitors including Theodore Roosevelt, who lived in Machakos. He was able to convince Percival to do the same for him, and they subsequently headed into neighboring Tanzania, again on a hunting expedition.

     It was in Tanzania that Hemingway fell ill with amoebic dysentery and had to be evacuated to Nairobi, Kenya, for treatment. He eventually cut his trip short and returned to Europe. The next time Hemingway would again consider Africa as a travel destination was in 1954. He came accompanied by his fourth and last wife, Mary, with the intention to explore Belgian Congo, Uganda, and Kenya. But it seems his African voyages were somehow jinxed.

     Two plane accidents happening consecutively ended his trip before he had accomplished much in terms of sightseeing. And like Roosevelt, Hemingway wrote not one, but a couple of books detailing his adventures in Africa. It was through the eyes of these early visitors that perhaps the rest of the world began to catch a glimpse of the touristic side of Africa, albeit shrouded by white perception of the continent.

     As a Travel and Tourism Management student, I found myself spending a lot of time reading recommended and non-recommended books in the library, and it always struck me as odd that few writers of African origin wrote tourism-related course books. Many of us students were aware of the earliest Europeans to explore and visit Africa, but none of us had any idea who the first Kenyan or African to embark on a tourism related tour was. We knew of Queen Elizabeth II learning of her father’s death while on a trip to Kenya in 1952 with her husband and her subsequent ascension to the throne.

     The hotel in question was Treetops Hotel in the Aberdares National Park in Kenya, and a common description has always been, “She went up a Princess and came down a Queen,” in reference to the storied building among trees.  In fact, she was at Sagana Lodge when she learnt of her father’s passing, due to her having departed from Treetops earlier.

     I don’t remember much mention of Kisoi Munyao, the 25-year-old Kenyan who hoisted the Kenyan flag on Mt. Kenya’s Lenana Point on the eve of December 12, 1963. Described as someone who was an outdoors type, Munyao is probably the first mountaineer from Kenya to undertake an activity now associated with adventure tourism. Worth mentioning is the fact that Kenya attained self-rule on December 12, 1963, and Munyao’s act needed to be celebrated coming on the eve of it. However, he lived quietly and modestly most of his life until his death when the nation seemed to remember him again.

     My own education journey seemed to be just as jinxed as Hemingway’s trips to Africa were. After a five-year struggle, I was forced to drop out of campus in my third year. Later that year, I got a job in the hotel industry. On my first day at work, I remember my supervisor taking me around the large hotel favored by foreigners and the well-to-do and declaring proudly to me how Prince William and his girlfriend, Kate Middleton, had once spent the night in the suite. I would later learn that it was probably on this trip to Kenya that the Prince proposed to his longtime girlfriend.

     My time working at the hotel was indeed enjoyable but short-lived. And while I gained some level of exposure, I also got to experience firsthand the colonial mentalities that refused to go away in the travel and hospitality industry. One time, long after I had stopped working at the hotel, I decided to take a walk to the game park in my hometown which is quite near where I live. I intended to visit a shop that sold amazing art and souvenirs which fascinated me.  

     However, I never quite understood why each time I visited said shop, I always got a hostile reception. This day was no different. When I got in, a shop attendant quickly came up to me. I touched an African necklace and asked him how much it was. “15,000kshs!” he mouthed, unsmiling. I proceeded to walk further inside, but he stopped me.  And with the straightest of faces, he told me in Swahili, “We are waiting for visitors, Wazungu!” That meant I had to leave because of the white visitors – Wazungu- they were expecting. I was livid.

     Never had I ever felt that disrespected in my own country, past experiences in this very shop notwithstanding. I left vowing never to come back, but my anger made me create a thread on it on Twitter which attracted quite some attention from travel and hospitality industry stakeholders. Suddenly, everyone seemed to be in agreement with me that the colonial mentality in the Kenyan tourism sector needed to change.

     The decolonization of African tourism sectors is indeed a crucial subject that is very rarely tackled. Decades after the very first foreign explorer set foot in Africa, tourism has thoroughly evolved on the continent, but African disregard still persists. The first picture that often comes to mind for many Africans is that of a white man in Safari wear, arriving in game parks in a tour van. The driver is always an African employed by a tour company who is just doing his job. Any other African who arrives in a tourism establishment is almost always automatically assumed to be an employee or up to no good, and the treatment quickly changes from warm to cold and stern.

     The establishments, which happen to treat all visitors alike, will tend to dismiss the Africans whom they deem as not “properly” dressed or spoken. The unspoken pressure is for an African travel enthusiast to carry themselves and dress in a certain way in order to be accepted in the travel and tourism class. I have experienced waiters and waitresses scramble to offer service when I once showed up at a restaurant in the company of a white man who had stopped me to ask for directions and then insisted we have coffee together at the said establishment.

     Then, the waiters and waitresses stood at a distance after serving us, and I could literally feel their curious eyes wondering where I had got myself a white man. I never shared this with him as he was basically a stranger to me, but it is experiences such as this that have stuck with me for a long time making me question when we got to this point as a country. Perhaps, we have always been there as a country, and this was just a continuation of it. I was sure that had I shown up at the establishment unaccompanied or in the company of a fellow African, the service would have been slightly slower since we are automatically expected to already be used to treatment that’s not too special.

     In recent times, domestic tourism has been heavily marketed by the Kenya Tourism Board (dubbed Magical Kenya), in a bid to encourage the locals to travel and explore the country more. Nowadays, it is common to keep stumbling on young Kenyan travel enthusiasts posting photos of the heavenly and exciting places they have been to in Kenya. Indeed, it is such a refreshing shift.  But has it taken too long to come?

     For the longest time, the only travel that a majority of Kenyans did affordably was going upcountry over Christmas to catch up with the rest of the family. The working class occasionally got the seminar outings that saw them booked into hotels at the coast where they proceeded to spend two or three days cooped up in conference rooms. In the evenings, perhaps they would venture out a little to the beach or pool area. And if your job was more lucrative than the average Kenyan’s, then occasional travels abroad on work or study assignments were also guaranteed.

     Our family album has always contained photos of a relative on my mother’s side who got the opportunity to study and work abroad long before my sister and I were born. Dull, in typical old, colored photographs, he was pictured walking along a bridge, with white, serious faces dotting the background.  He was probably en route to work, and there he was again at a parking lot dressed in a suit with his wife. The photos gave us a sense of pride that we had someone in our family who had gone overseas quite early. Few Africans, at the time, set out on travel missions, so work and school abroad was akin to travel as well.

     And while we now have a generation that is travelling more, we cannot overlook the generation that never got encouraged to travel or simply could not afford it.  As a result, they still perceive travel as a white man’s affair. They are a generation that long got convinced that the work of an African is only to entertain and serve the foreign visitors, and in truth, it’s no fault of their own.

     This same generation also got to witness Them Mushrooms, a Kenyan musical band from the coast, release the song “Jambo Bwana” in 1982 which contained the “Hakuna Matata” (No worries/problem) Swahili phrase in it. The song welcomed visitors to Kenya and was such a hit that the following year after its release, the German group, Boney-M released an English version of it titled “Jambo-Hakuna Matata.”

     Years later, in 1994, the animated Walt Disney’s Lion King movie popularized the phrase “Hakuna Matata” worldwide by featuring it in the plot and movie. Thus began what could easily be summed up as the cultural appropriation of the phrase culminating in Disney’s application to trademark it the same year the movie was released. Understandably, in 2018, fierce debate erupted among East Africans when for the first time, many of us learnt of the particular trademark.

     In a visionary move, Them Mushrooms shaped the Kenyan tourism industry’s entertainment circuit with a tune welcoming visitors to the country. But their efforts were seemingly trashed, when a bigger entity in the West decided to trademark a pretty normal phrase in the Swahili language spoken by millions in East and Central Africa. And although Disney clarified that they were not preventing anyone from using the phrase, it is common knowledge that the trademark gives them the right to sue anyone counterfeiting Lion King merchandise.

     Wouldn’t it have made more sense if Them Mushrooms themselves or the Kenya Tourism Board had trademarked the phrase instead? For Africans in general, the move by Disney was all too familiar, having been colonized in the past, and the uproar, indeed justified. But perhaps the first step in reclaiming what is ours is by embarking on a renaming of some of our tourist attraction sites still bearing foreign names given by explorers who first stumbled on them.

     Maybe then, we will collectively start feeling a sense of belonging and stop associating travel with one particular racial group. We need more tourism-related course books and reading material written by African travel enthusiasts and experts. We need to go back to our roots and revisit how we welcomed and entertained visitors and include that in our course work alongside foreign hospitality norms. Our culture, a great attraction to foreigners, should be at the forefront of travel and tourism learning. We can only thoroughly decolonize when we begin reversing what has long been instilled in us, while appreciating what has always been our cultural heritage.

Lorna Likiza is a Kenyan writer and tutor of French. Her fiction and nonfiction pieces have been featured in Arts and Africa, Ile Alo, Barren Magazine, Agbowo, and Down River Road. Her children’s book draft, Oi Gets Lost, was longlisted in the 2018 Golden Baobab Prize for African Children Book Writers and Illustrators. She is the founder of Heroe Book Fair, an upcoming literary event that inaugurates March 22-26, 2021. She can be found at