January 2019. Nairobi, Kenya.
About two months ago, you got your KCPE (national primary school exams) results. You did not top the nation, but given the cards that fate dealt you inside one of the world’s largest and poorest slum, you did reasonably well. Like any other child your age, you were excited—maybe a little scared—to see what high school would bring. You’d heard fascinating stories from older friends of how life is like in high school: how you study a lot more subjects, how you do experiments, how the plots of social lives get thicker and the sports get more competitive. You could not wait for the holidays to end so you, like your mates, would experience all this for yourself. After all, you’d earned it. All your teachers had drilled it into you that the sole purpose of primary school was to work hard, pass the KCPE and get into a good high school—or else your life was doomed. Ludicrous and threatening as this message is, you had bought into it hook, line, and sinker: hoping the world would reciprocate. Your parents—their circumstances notwithstanding—had played their part too: they’d toiled to provide you with a safe environment and everything you would need to start high school.
First day at Olympics High School, your new school, was rather smooth. You had your English and Geography lessons. It’s not like you took much from these lessons beyond definitions, but you were too excited to notice it. You were also too excited to notice the curious stares your new peers threw your way, or more specifically threw at the wrapper around your crown of hair. Maybe you’d gotten used to such stares because you’d experienced them all your life. They are the price of being different—being a minority—and you’d habituated to their presence in your life. You figured that with time, you’d get to know your new classmates and they’d get to know you. To understand and respect you for who you are. With time, you’d have conversations with them about how you had grown up in the Rastafarian faith and how your hair—beautiful as it is—represents something bigger than just beauty. But those conversations were not going to happen. At least not so soon.
Instead, on the second day of school, you had a nightmarish conversation with the deputy principal. The deputy gave you one of the hardest choices you’ve ever had to make in your life—and a choice that, frankly, no child should ever have to make: drop a major aspect of your faith or drop out of school, your hair or your books. I wonder how you felt in that moment. You’d probably experienced other forms of discrimination, but this episode was taking it too far. Makeda, how did you feel when the deputy asked you to take off the wrapper from your hair? Or did he take it off himself? Did he touch your hair? I would not be surprised if he did. How did you feel when he told you that only Muslims could cover their hair—while you’d previously not heard of such a school rule (most likely because it did not exist)? At that moment, did your faith not matter? At that moment, did your dreams of education not matter just like those of other children?
You could not make such a life-changing decision by yourself. And so, the deputy kicked you out of school. I watched the video of the news report that a national TV station did of you and read articles about your story. You said that you felt bad because you were missing out on what your peers were learning. I’m happy your parents supported you. They sought audience with the school administration as well as other education administrators in the area, but the government officials all chorused the same song: rules are rules and they must be respected, shave your hair first and then come back to learn. Ignoring your constitutional right to an education, the officials fell over themselves to enforce a discriminatory rule. When I read the comments below your story and tweets about your experience—as you’d also unwittingly become fodder for the Kenyan twitterati to chew on before they quickly moved on to their next meal—most Kenyans joined that chorus. Some even went as far as to label you and your parents criminals. These people, who did not know you or your family, said that they would not want their children sitting next to you in school because your hair stunk. I wonder how big their noses are to smell this from miles away behind their computer and phone screens (maybe it’s themselves and their devices that stink; surely, isn’t that how diffusion works?) Some called your parents sick and arrogant; they argued your parents were teaching you to rebel against the system and they would suffer the consequences for raising a rebellious daughter. As if standing up to injustice against one’s child was a crime. Either way, wouldn’t our country be better off with a few more rebels against a brazenly-corrupt political elite? Some Kenyans even said that you did not belong in Kenya, that you should go to school in Jamaica. (An offer which, if they actually sponsored, I’d recommend you take—it’s a really beautiful island out there; I’d know, I spent four months there.) But I’d be remiss if I claimed they all spoke against your plight. Some saw the folly in a ‘rule’ that denies a child her rights as guaranteed in the constitution because of who they choose to pray to. They pointed out that the insults hurled at you and your parents were simply stereotypes that our society sticks to those who choose to be different.
So now your parents are looking towards the courts to deliver justice to you. And I hope they win the case. Recently, I read that the court and the Cabinet Secretary intervened and ordered the school allows you back pending the determination of the case. While I am optimistic, a part of me remains sceptical.
Let me explain. I am not a Rastafarian, but I have spent a lot of time studying the religion. There is so much that I admire and respect in it. For instance, I admire the pride that Rastafarians have in their African identity and their own black bodies. I admire their spirit of resistance to downpression and sufferation against the Babylon system. I admire their knowledge of history that is untainted by the miseducation by the neo-colonial system that, for instance, would have us believe that the ancient Egyptians who built the historic pyramids and invented so many aspects of Mathematics were white (while all material evidence shows they were black). I admire that the faith respects nature and chose veganism before it was cool to do so. I grew up a Christian, but I have struggled to reconcile my faith with my values, my history and my identity. I have become more and more suspicious of a religion that was used as a tool of oppression against my people—to rob them of their own histories, languages and religions. I am suspicious of a doctrine that condones suffering in the hands of oppressors while promising pies in the sky. The stories of sexual abuse coming from the Vatican and how the church cloaks thieves with righteousness because they can afford to donate enough of their loots in harambees do not strengthen the appeal of Christianity either. So, in many ways I admire the Rastafarians for taking a leap I am too afraid to take.
I have had dreadlocks for close to a year now. I am a little jealous of your locs though—so long, so thick, so regal. Even before I spent four months studying in Jamaica, I wanted to grow my hair long. But my stay in Jamaica bolstered that ambition. In Jamaica, I also studied about the history of Jamaicans and other people of African origins in other parts of the world. Before this, I had spent almost four years as an African student—racialized as black—in the US. In Jamaica, I learnt about the history, beliefs and practices of the Rastafari religion and even got a chance to spend half a day with a Rastafarian community in the northern part of the island. Two of my three professors that semesters had dreadlocks on. One taught me Caribbean poetry; the other, Caribbean literature. They were both compassionate and articulate teachers who inspired me so much that I still read a lot of Caribbean poetry and literature today—almost four years after I left their classrooms. I don’t know if they practiced Rastafarianism but if dreadlocks sucked away one’s ability to learn as your school seems to suggest, then how did these intelligent men and women get their PhDs—just like the one that our deputy president is busy flaunting at the moment?
But I digress.
When I read those distasteful comments about you online, I realized that even if you win the case in court, there will still be more battles to fight. If an African sees another African wearing their natural hair long and the first thing they think about is that the hair must shelter lice or stink, this is not a case that the courts can help. If a parent on Twitter feels that another parent’s child deserves to be denied an education simply because she professes to a different faith, no court of law can convince them otherwise. We are a society that “respects rules” — rules that we were not even involved in creating; we are unmindful members of cultures of conformity that devalue our own identities. And this is what needs to change—and no new technology, no new constitution, no new institution will bring us that change. Instead, as a country and as individuals, we must interrogate ourselves—ask ourselves if we can only accept others only when they are like us.
When arguing with me about my dreadlocks, an older member of my family implied that I had been influenced by white people to keep my dreadlocks because I am currently studying abroad. I found that rather puzzling—I am yet to find a Scottish man playing bag pipes on the streets of Edinburgh rocking a kilt and locs. My family member—and many of our country people—forget that the warriors of our country’s freedom, led by Field Marshall Dedan Kimathi, had dreadlocks. And what worth is the freedom they won us if you, a Kenyan child keeping hair like theirs, are not allowed into a classroom six decades into our independence?